In 2001, New York’s Jewish Museum reported the theft of a small Chagall painting worth $1 million that had gone missing during a cocktail party. Intrigued by the idea of someone walking out of a singles’ mixer with million-dollar artwork rather than a phone number, I used this as the premise of my second novel, “The World to Come,” a tale of a man who decides to steal back a painting that once hung in his parents’ living room.
Truth was even stranger than my fiction — the Jewish Museum received a ransom note announcing that the painting was being held hostage by the “International Committee for Art and Peace.” The note’s author vowed that the Chagall would be returned only when there was peace in the Middle East. But the thieves proved uncommitted to their cause, or at least impatient. The painting turned up almost eight months later in a mailroom in Kansas.
After my book was published, a reader who said he knew the real story of the Chagall heist contacted me. Online, I learned that my potential informant was the defendant in a long string of fraud-related lawsuits, and I decided not to reply. A few months later, at a book-tour stop in Westhampton, N.Y., a man handed me a stack of papers. “Here, take this,” he said before abruptly leaving. “This” was a confessional essay about the Chagall theft, which my mysterious visitor claimed to have planned.
Was it true? Probably not. There was nothing in the essay that hadn’t been in the news, and literary events often attract people who are, to put it kindly, imaginative. But my reader’s story felt plausible in one respect: its goofiness. He said he’d taken the painting off the wall on a whim because it was easy — and then he had no idea what to do with it. Hoping to wrest good from evil, he’d attempted to broker a Mideast peace deal. When that failed, he mailed the painting to Topeka.
Such bumbling is more typical in art theft than you might think. While criminals who steal antiquities and lower-value artworks can often profit from them, those who take famous paintings can only hope to ransom them with insurers, a risky gambit likely to fail. Many thieves don’t even think that far ahead.
“In films, art thieves are handsome and sophisticated,” Ton Cremers, a museum security consultant who directed security at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum for 14 years, told me. “If you met them in real life, you would laugh. These are career criminals involved in drug deals and car thefts. They read in the newspaper that these paintings are worth millions, and they plan their burglaries like professionals. But they don’t plan what they’ll do afterward.”