ROGUES IN THE GALLERY
( Original Version as First Published )
The fine art of stealing pictures has a long history, from the theft of tribal totems and graven images through to their modern counterpart of art robbery for ransom, reward for political ends, or as a terrorist move.
Cleopatra was a heartless grave robber and her lover, Julius Caesar looted every form of ancient Egyptian treasure.
Scottish aristocrat, Lord Elgin boldly lifted two hundred feet of magnificent ancient Greek frieze from the Parthenon at the end of the eighteenth century, making the excuse he was saving them from extinction. The Elgin Marbles gambit became the stock plea by light-fingered art-lovers caught in the act.
Napoleon made an empirical science of art-theft, even having his chief curator follow his armies with a brief to appropriate every form of valuable object for the Louvre and other museums.. Hitler and his gang ruthlessly plundered the museums and galleries of every country they occupied and meant to transform the Austrian city of Linz into a Teutonic pantheon of the arts.
But it is in our time that these exploits multiply drastically. The theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911, first of a series of clever and not-so-clever larcenies and which even involved Pablo Picasso, set the scene for the modern epidemic of art theft. We can even date and time the event which triggered criminal interest in art as a means of making money, ‘laundering’ dirty money and applying pressure on individuals and governments.
It was the evening of October 15, 1958 when the Goldschmidt collection of two Cézannes, three Manets, a van Gogh and a Renoir fetched £781,000 ($1.72 million) at Sotheby’s. This inspired crime syndicates and small-time crooks to think of picture-stealing as an easy, no-risks way of making millions. And as auction prices soared to the point where a single picture might earn £50,000,000 at auction so the criminal and terrorist interest increased and provoke a plague of art thefts through the world.
From paintings to religious icons, from George Washington’s family bible to Queen Victoria’s lewd Leonardo drawings – nothing was sacred and everything that might be converted into cash became pickings for the casual and the professional thief.
As art had become a big-money game with paintings changing hands at vast sums between individuals, institutional investors, museums and galleries like stocks and shares or gambling chips do the thieves devised more ingenious ways of stealing art but of extorting their dues.
So we find an eccentric like Salvador Dali harkening to the smooth-talking thief who had stolen one of his pictures and being duped into buying it back from the man. Then there are the naive collectors, often American, who are taken to a château, sold a story of the impoverished nobleman selling up; they buy his paintings – without realizing the manor-house has been hired by thieves who act as major-domos, butlers and other staff for the occasion. These swindlers will even arrange to have his Vermeer overpainted to get it through customs; but it is his loss when he has the masterpiece stripped and finds a portrait of General de Gaulle underneath.
ROGUES IN THE GALLERY exposes it all: the cozy insurance ransom racket, the professional gangs of art thieves, the specialists, the connections with the international drug racket and the Mafia. Hugh McLeave has researched the whys and wherefores of the question for years, drawing on resources available to him through agencies such as Interpol, the FBI, the French Sûreté, and Scotland Yard.
ROGUES IN THE GALLERY is a lively and informed account of the causes-- and limited cures --of this epidemic. It charts the classic outbreaks, portrays the rich gallery of protagonists, and defines what means there are to combat the disease.
But even with sophisticated computers and Interpol, the total elimination of art theft is unlikely. As long as auction prices continue to rise and inflation devalues savings, the theft of precious objects will flourish. The lure of easy money is at the root. This is a serious book on an urgent problem, especially for those who collect art.