Art Theft: Glamour, Temptation and Mystery

Art Theft Glamour, Temptation and Mystery
Netflix's 'This is a Robbery: World's Biggest Art Heist'. Credit: Netflix | Image source: iol.co.za

More than two years have passed since an 18-carat gold toilet valued at $6 million was stolen from an art exhibition at Blenheim Palace in England. And to date, no one has been charged with the theft, nor has anyone come forward to provide any leads – despite a hefty reward offered by the insurance firm Fine Art Specie Adjusters (FASA) that would be worth a little over $135,000 today.

The multi-million-dollar toilet made of gold at the center of the heist was by Italian conceptual artist Maurizio Cattelan boldly titled America (2016). At a little before 5 am on September 14th, 2019, thieves had made their getaway after removing the golden toilet from the stately home. The burglars not only stole the work of art but also caused a significant amount of flooding and damage to surrounding wood panelling, since the fully functioning toilet was plumbed into a water closet.

The authorities made seven arrests following the incident, including a 68-year-old man and 38-year-old woman, on suspicion of conspiring to commit a burglary. However, none of the arrests led to any charges. Experts and art detectives believe the toilet has most likely been broken up, melted down, taken on new shapes, and sold off.

Following the incident, Police and Crime Commissioner for the Thames Valley, Matthew Barber, gave the BBC a statement, expressing his worry that the toilet may likely no longer be in its original shape. Barber said, “If you have that large amount of gold, I think it seems likely that someone has already managed to dispose of it one way or another. It would be great if we can recover it and return it, but personally, I’m not convinced it’s still in quite the same form it was.”

The golden toilet, titled America, was plumbed in and visitors were invited to use it; the thieves left a hole and flooded the room. Credit: Tom Lindboe/Blenheim Art Foundation/PA | Image source: thetimes.co.uk

Most Curious Art Theft Cases of the Recent Time

Some people in the art world reckon that the burglary was a feat of performance art. After all, its value aside, there’s humor behind the theft of a toilet that an estimated 100,000 people had already sat on and willingly cued for two hours to use. Locals also found the incident amusing, and many in nearby establishments painted their toilets gold.

Indeed, the theft of America (2016) was quite serious, considering its exorbitant worth, locals could not help but be amused. The New York Times interviewed Cattelan the day following the burglary and expressed his thoughts that the robbery was a “kind of Robin Hood-inspired action” and hoped it was a “prank.” But just two months later, perhaps riding the wave of the crime’s notoriety, Cattelan appeared in a commercial for the Italian insurance company, Generali. In the ad, Cattelan pranced across the screen nude with only cut-outs, including an image of a gold toilet covering his private areas. Curiously, the campaign carried the slogan, “Great Artists Steal.”

Vincent van Gogh, The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring (1884). © Groninger Museum. | Image source: news.artnet.com

While the theft of Cattelan’s golden toilet made headlines, it’s hardly the most shocking or mysterious art heist to rock the art world. One of the most curious art thefts happened recently in March 2020 when Van Gogh’s The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring (1884) was stolen from the Singer Laren Museum. The suspect was a 59-year-old Dutch man who was also found guilty of stealing the Frans Hals Two Laughing Boys with a Mug of Beer (1626) from the Museum Hofjie van Mevrouw van Aerdan. The thief brazenly smashed through glass doors with a sledgehammer and fled with an accomplice on a scooter. The Van Gogh was insured for $2.9 million, while the Hals was valued at $18.7 million. Interestingly, the 2020 theft of the Hals piece is not the first time it’s been stolen; it was stolen before in 2011 and before that, in 1988. Despite the arrest, neither of the artworks have been recovered.

Another notable art heist from recent years includes the theft of valuable paintings by Francis Bacon from the artist’s heir’s home in 2015. The five stolen paintings had a combined worth of $33 million, making it one of the biggest contemporary art thefts to go down in Spain’s history. In 2012, artwork stolen from the Kunsthal Rotterdam museum included Henri Matisse’s Reading Girl in White and Yellow (1919), Claude Monet’s Waterloo Bridge in London (1901), and Pablo Picasso’s Harlequin Head (1971). Unfortunately, there’s little hope these pieces, valued at between $130 million and $260 million, will ever be recovered as they are believed to have been incinerated in an oven in an attempt to destroy evidence. And all that remains of them are the copper and steel nails used for their canvases.

In 2010, Vincent Van Gogh’s Poppy Flowers(1887), valued at between $50 million and $55 million, became the target of thieves who took advantage of Cairo’s Mohamed Khalil Museum’s weak security. The thieves cut the valuable painting out of its frame and left the museum in broad daylight. None of the museum’s security alarms had been activated during that time, and only seven of its 43 security cameras were functioning. It’s worth mentioning that the museum had lost the painting once before in 1977. 

Also in May of 2010, Paris’s Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville lost its Henri Matisse’s Pastorale (1905). Burglar Vjeran Tomic repeatedly sprayed acid on the museum’s window frame until the screws had loosened. And when the time was right, he used his acrobatic skills to scale the structure and evade security cameras. By the time the museum opened at 7 am on the morning of May 20th, all that remained of the artwork were empty frames.

A floral masterpiece by Vincent van Gogh, Still Life, Vase with Daisies, and Poppies, sold in New York for $61.8m in 2014. | Image source: bbc.com

The Dedication to Recover Stolen and Lost Art

In 2004, the Federal Bureau of Investigation established a dedicated Art Crime Team to coordinate with its Art Theft Program. The team of 20 specialized agents from the division receive extensive and continuous training to recover stolen art, including classes in art history, art vocabulary, and the business of art. When art or cultural property is stolen, it gets logged into the National Stolen Art File (NSAF) – making it a crucial component of the FBI’s Art Theft Program. Local and foreign law enforcement agencies can submit entries of stolen art objects to the database. And while the team has recovered over $800 million worth of stolen artwork, it has yet to unravel the mysteries of some of the most impressive art heists of all time.

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