The book I’m working on has an art theft as one of its subplots, and as part of my research, I’ve read several books and had google alerts on the subject. It happens far more often than one might expect, but yet isn’t as glamorous as movies and television (and sometimes books) like to imagine.
The first art theft I remember clearly was in 2004, when thieves broke into the Munch museum in Oslo, Norway and stole Edvard Munch’s famous paintings The Scream and Madonna. The paintings weren’t recovered until 2006 and both had sustained damage. I especially remember this theft as I had been to Oslo several times and had seen versions of the paintings at the Nasjonalgalleriet, but not at the Munch museum. (A version of The Scream displayed at the Nasjonalgalleriet had been stolen in 1994 around the time of the Olympics in Lille. Its theft and recovery are detailed in the book ‘The Rescue Artist’ by Edward Dolnick.)
Rarely are stolen artworks as famous as The Scream. If my regular google news alert bulletin is any indication, paintings, sculptures and various other forms of art are regularly stolen from galleries, education institutions and public areas.
Sculptures made of metal are often targeted, as they are a quick source of a few hundred dollars when sold for scrap. Paintings are stolen for any number of reasons: famous works can be targeted for activist/political reasons, or are often used as currency by drug dealers and gangs. It is unlikely, though romantic, to think that a lot of art is stolen to order, on the whim of someone rich. There’s too much at stake when a famous work of art goes missing.
My recommended reads:
- The Rescue Artist (Edward Dolnick)
- The Art of the Steal (Christopher Mason)
- Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures (Robert K. Wittman)