Artnapping: Should Museums Pay The Ransom Or Lose The Art?

In 2013 Van Buuren Museum, Brussels, suffered a robbery in which several works of art were stolen from its collection; including ‘The Thinker’ (1907) by Dutch painter Kees van Dongen, estimated at a replacement value of €1.2 million, or over £861,000. Other works stolen in this audacious and swift art heist included a painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, and James Ensor’s Shrimps and Shells (1894). The thieves also snatched a drawing titled Peasant Woman Pealing Potatoes that, although labelled as a Vincent van Gogh, is believed to be a fake.

But what’s more audacious is the next phase of the criminals plan. Two years after the theft, the Van Buuren Museum is currently negotiating with the thieves to get its works of art back. It has been reported by TV Brussels that the museum is planning to pay a ransom for the lost works of art.

Yes, an art ransom, and this new form of art crime already has a name: ‘Artnapping’. This is the act of stealing art for the express purpose of holding it for ransom until the gallery, museum, or private owner stumps up the cash to retrieve their precious work. This activity has reportedly gained popularity in the criminal underworld, and with good reason. It would seem that the old days of scaling the walls of the museum in the dead of night, skipping over the roof, lowering yourself between laser beams and disabling the alarms – only to have to then find a buyer without getting caught – are over! It would seem that Hollywood’s gentleman cat burglar is dead. If he was ever alive that is.

A prime example being the 31st December 1999, during the fireworks that accompanied the celebration of the millennium, thieves used scaffolding on an adjoining building to climb onto the roof of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, stealing Cézanne’s landscape painting ‘View of Auvers-sur-Oise’. The work was valued at £3 million, the thieves ignored other works in the same room – but the painting has never been offered for sale.

It’s often been speculated that this was a case of an artwork stolen to order, a highly dubious suggestion; it being far more likely that the thieves only realised later how difficult it actually is to sell a famous work of art without getting caught. In reality the work is either hidden or destroyed – and not behind a secret sliding panel in a millionaire’s mansion, for the enjoyment of private viewing. If only the thieves had invented ‘Artnapping’ in 1999? All their selling troubles would have been over.

But if the reported negotiation is in fact true, then this decision by the Van Buuren Museum sets a very dangerous precedent for the future.

“It’s a choice we have to make between two evils,” said art expert Jacques Lust in an interview with TV Brussels. “Not negotiating would mean […] having little chance to see the artworks again one day. Having contact with the robbers can lead to a solution – if we can come up with the money to pay them,” he added “It happens more and more,” Lust explained. “Not all details make it to the media, of course. If a case is solved there’s no mention of the amounts paid, nor of the works having been stolen. But there’s been an increase in such cases.”

But surely to give in to such demands rewards criminality and will encourage future ‘Artnappings’? If the criminals succeed in their activities then the flood gates may soon open. It’s possible that in the future museums and galleries may not publicly admit to paying ransoms, but behind closed doors they may be willing to do so if other options to retrieve their art seems unlikely to succeed. Sadly the only way to combat this new threat to our global cultural heritage – to prevent its spread as potentially the next fashion in art crime – is to lose the art.

Words: Paul Black © Artlyst 2015 all rights reserved


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