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#MuseumWeek2015: The Art of the Heist

March 26, 2015

After watching CNN’s special on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s $500m art heist, that still remains unsolved (anything art-related hitting prime-time TV airwaves gets my full and undivided attention!), got me thinking about some other notable art thefts that have occurred in Canada’s own backyard. Although Randi Kaye’s “special investigation” led me wanting more, I was disappointed the documentary didn’t detail what happens to the art once it went missing; the implication of making the theft public, why even in the unlawful underworld, burglars are hard pressed to find buyers on the black market and does art become a criminal currency for drugs and weapons?

 

The biggest art heist in Canadian history (which is also sadly, remains unsolved), is the Musée des beaux-arts in Montréal theft from 1972. The armed thieves ran off with a myriad of works, including 18 paintings by French masters, the likes of Daumier, Delacroix, Millet and Corot as well as Evening Landscape of Cottages by Rembrandt (worth $1m at the time and now worth $20m today). The three thieves with the use of a ladder, entered through the skylight, which was only partially armed due to repairs (note: this was equally a problem at the Gardner where individual pieces were not hooked up to an alarm system, apart from Rembrandt ‘s The Storm on the Sea of Galliee to caution viewers they were too close – what about protecting against theft?!). Quebec is the only province in Canada with a specialized art-theft task force.

Artist Sophie Calle (winner of the coveted Turner Prize), in 1991 inspired by the Gardner Museum theft, created Last Seen - a mixture of text vignettes and photographic works compiled from interviews of the Museum’s curators, security guards and conservators of what they remember of the missing pieces. In response to Calle’s series, the Gardner reinstalled the empty frames that once housed the stolen artwork. In 2012, Calle was invited by the Gardner to revisit Last Seen with a new project What Do You See? a compilation of reactions to those void, vacant frames, evoking a sense of emptiness and loss, yet in a way serves to repurpose each missing painting’s memory. Interested in seeing Calle’s work? From February 5th until May 10th, Sophie Calle’s For the Last and First Time will be on display at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal, a project that consists of both photographs and films focusing on cognitive images of blind people.

 

Not all museum thefts are lost causes with unfortunate story endings, where the art disappears forever (shy of the romanticism and Hollywood-esque aura of the Thomas Crown Affair). Interpol estimates that one in five stolen artworks are recovered. In 1994, two JMW Turner paintings were stolen from the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, Germany while on loan from the Tate. Eight years later, the paintings were recovered in a series of events that involved the then Director of Programmes at the Tate, Sandy Nairne and nothing shy of a John le Carré novel - listen to this exceptional podcast, where Nairne shares every twist and turn in recovering Britain’s beloved Turner paintings.

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