The Murky World of International Art Crime

Burglars last week stole valuable works by Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall from a Tel Aviv apartment, in a heist which may have been carried out to order on behalf of collectors overseas, the mass-circulation daily Maariv reported yesterday .

While art thefts are carried out largely for monetary gain, it is hard to dispose of artworks - particularly high-profile pieces - for a good price. This has become even more so in the age of advanced communications.

A person who invests a great deal of money in the purchase of a work by a famous artist will not do so without the appropriate documentation and a comprehensive examination of the piece. For this he can use international databases of stolen works maintained by Interpol and organizations.

Despite such drawbacks - and setting aside the acquisitive mania behind some thefts - the stolen art market, like any other, is governed by supply and demand. Experts estimate that it has a global turnover of billions of dollars a year.

Picasso's etching "Le Repas Frugal," worth an estimated $300,000, was stolen from a Florida gallery in 2008. It was found when the thief, Marcus Patmon, began negotiating with an FBI agent posing as a potential buyer.

More Picassos have been stolen than works by any other artist, because of his huge output, the clear signature on every one of his works and of course their high value. Of the approximately 700 works by Picasso that have been stolen, the biggest heist was in 1976 when 118 of the artist's works were seized from a museum in Avignon, France. One of the most recent thefts of works by Picasso was from a villa on the French Riviera, while its owners were on vacation last December. About 30 works, worth a total of about $1 million, were taken, among then a Picasso painting.

The most costly art theft in recent history was in Boston in May 1990, when thieves stole 13 pieces worth a total of $500 million from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Among them were Vermeer's "The Concert," the most costly painting ever stolen, two Rembrandts, a Manet and a Degas. A reward of $5 million is still on offer for their return.

Stefan Breitweiser, the Frenchman dubbed the world's most prolific known art thief by The Guardian, confessed in 2005 that he had stolen 239 works worth an estimated $1.4 billion from 172 museums. As he moved through Europe working as a waiter he stole, on average, one item every 15 days. Breitweiser is rare in the field because he was apparently not motivated by profit but by a love of art.

To this day not everything he stole has been found and some of pieces were destroyed by his mother in an attempt to eradicate evidence. His "collection" consisted mostly of works from the 16th and 17th centuries and included paintings by Breughel, Watteau and Boucher.

The infamous Israeli thief Naaman Diller, known as "the kibbutznik burglar" apparently did not operate out of monetary motives either and was mentally ill. In 2006, after his death, it was discovered that he had been responsible for a massive theft of rare timepieces from a Jerusalem museum in 1983. Among the stolen items, which were located after a two-year investigation, were a pocket watch made by Louis Breguet for French queen Marie Antoinette.

Diller did not try to sell any of the objects he stole and most were returned undamaged.

In that same theft a painting from the school of Breughel and a painting by Fantin-Latour were also stolen. These were kept in a closed box until the police found them in the apartment of Diller's girlfriend in the United States. In 1971 Diller broke into the home of painter Reuben Rubin and stole 15 paintings and other property. After Hiller's death the artist's son David Rubin told Haaretz that his father was greatly shaken by the incident and was never the same again. In 2005 two of Rubin's paintings valued at a total of $600,000 were stolen from the Beit Rubin museum in Tel Aviv. These have not yet been found. According to Carmella Rubin, the artist's daughter-in-law and director of the museum, security precautions there have been considerably bolstered since the raid.

She believes that the thieves will be unable to sell their loot: "No one is going to put down sums like that without a document or a certificate."

Also in 2005, six paintings worth a total of more than $200,000 by Issacher Ber Ryback were stolen from the Ryback museum in Bat Yam. The thieves were caught a short time later when they tried to switch the paintings from one car to another.

"It was perfectly clear that this was a commissioned theft with clear knowledge of which paintings to take," says Hili Govrin, who was the director of the museum at the time."They took the six best paintings in the museum." Arguably the most scandalous art theft in Israel was in Safed. In 2008 deputy mayor Reuven Sadeh was indicted for having received 22 valuable artworks that had been stolen from the municipality and for having stolen another work of art while he was a public servant.

According to the indictment, Sadeh tried to sell some of the works, among them paintings by Mane Katz, Delacroix, El Greco, Gericault, Cezanne, Manet, Courbet and Tintoretto, offering prospective buyers fake stories as to their provenance. The break that lead to charges being brought came when Noa Tarshish, director of the Mane Katz Museum in Haifa, was asked to identify Katz's painting "The Circus," which was being offered for sale. She contacted the police. Now the painting is in the Haifa Museum for safekeeping and will not undergo restoration until it is used as evidence at Sadeh's trial. Tarshish said the painting and another two works that had been to the Safed municipality were in very bad condition.

All these cases are just a small portion of art crime in Israel and abroad. The Art Loss Register database lists more than 250,000 works reported stolen worldwide, of which less than 10,000 have been found. According to the register, after Picasso the most purloined painters are Salvador Dali, Joan Miro and Marc Chagall.

It says that more than half the thefts are from private owners and only about 20 percent are from museums and galleries.

Presumably, as long as art is valuable there will be many criminals who lust for it and the subject of the art underworld will continue to engage the minds of writers of thrillers and film screenwriter.