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Art for ransom

These two books make mutually illuminating and surprisingly contrasting companions, given the similarity of their subjects.

27 August 2011

10:00 AM

27 August 2011

10:00 AM

Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Story of Notorious Art Heists Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg

Palgrave Macmillan, pp.272, 15.99

Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners Sandy Nairne

Reaktion Books, pp.224, 20

These two books make mutually illuminating and surprisingly contrasting companions, given the similarity of their subjects. Both are written by those with hands-on experience in the field of art preservation and security. Sandy Nairne was Director of Programmes at the Tate Gallery in 1994 when two important paintings by J.M.W. Turner were stolen while on loan to an exhibition in Frankfurt, and was a key player in their eventual recovery. When Anthony Amore became Security Director at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 2005, he immediately picked up the threads of the investigation into the theft of three Rembrandts and other works which had been stolen from the museum 15 years previously. Despite energetically re-evaluating existing information and gathering new data, the case remains unresolved and the paintings are still missing.

Amore has enlisted Tom Mashberg, an investigative journalist intimate with the details of the Rembrandt heist, as co-author, and this inevitably makes for a racier read than Nairne’s stolid account of the Turner story. Whereas Nairne gives an account in forensic detail of every step of the Tate enquiry, Amore and Mashberg dive into the archives to reassess several other high-profile thefts of Rembrandts, and what can be learned from them which might usefully be applied to investigating the Boston heist.

Where Nairne quotes extensively from interviews, published accounts and personal memos by those investigating art theft, Amore and Mashberg interview (presumably ‘retired’) art thieves themselves. Amore and Mashberg also intersperse their account of Rembrandt thefts with an appreciation of the artist’s life, noting that criminals and underclass figures feature in his work — but to what end, other than ironic, is unclear. Nairne’s book pays much less attention to the artist himself and is divided pretty evenly between an account of the Turner/Tate enquiry and recovery and a meditation on the process of ascribing value to prominent artworks and the ethics involved in their recovery.

It is here that we realise why he has included every dot and comma in his account of the process of recovering the Tate Turners, for this book is, to a great degree, an explanation and defence of the fact that museums often recover stolen works by parting (often via insurers) with significant sums of money, some of which must surely find their way back to the perpetrators of the crime. By contrast, Amore and Mashberg don’t turn a hair at stating in less opaque terms that though this may be dressed up as a ‘reward for information leading to the recovery’ this is essentially a cash-for-stolen-goods transaction. It is indeed this aspect of both accounts which is most morally challenging for the reader.

Why do thieves take the risk of stealing works of art so well-known as to make their resale impossible? Both books immediately discount what they see as the popular misconception of the existence of the ‘Dr No’ figure — the private collector who commissions thefts of masterpieces for his own private enjoyment. World famous well-documented works of art are stolen because the museums (or private owners) will want them back, and are extremely likely to engage in negotiations to achieve reconciliation. Nairne is careful to discredit the notion that such paintings are held for a ‘ransom’, as in the case of a kidnap, arguing that the equivalent of threatening to kill the person kidnapped if the criminals don’t get the ransom would involve destroying the painting/s, in which case the thieves have destroyed the only thing/s of value they have as leverage. (He doesn’t note that the same is the case with human kidnapping, which eliminates any grounds to reject this parallel.) Amore and Mashberg unblushingly confirm that it is just like a kidnapping, and a ransom is exactly what the criminals are holding out for.

Nairne’s book is fascinating in its account of the astonishingly British way in which extraordinary legal precedents were set, and special permissions were sought, to legitimise the return of the Turners, and is worth reading if only to observe (not an observation he makes, in fact one he carefully circumvents) that when the Establishment wants something it will move heaven and earth to make it all above board on paper to get it. Interestingly, about one tenth of a masterpiece’s insurable value is the figure which may be up for negotiation for its return. This amount, which will still be hundreds of thousands and even millions, will make its way through lawyers ‘representing’ those acting on ‘information’, but however it’s all worded, we can be sure that those who stole the painting will not have come away empty-handed.

Stolen old masters also have an interim value between theft and recovery which can be traded. While Amore and Mashberg largely discount the link between drug-trafficking and art crime, Nairne makes an extremely plausible case for high-value stolen works of art being traded or held as security in other criminal transactions.

Both books raise a number of questions about the nature of valuing art, on many levels, not least on the balance between conserving and securing treasures and allowing you and me to get physically close enough to stand and stare at them. When faced with the morally repugnant idea of making a payment which will ultimately reward a criminal act, in order to restore something of incalculable aesthetic and historical value, I’m not sure what I would do. I’m just glad it’s not my job.

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