Why do art thieves steal paintings they can’t sell?

On Tuesday, the art world reeled after the theft of seven valuable paintings from the Kunsthal gallery in Rotterdam. Before dawn, thieves broke into the museum and, in five minutes, made off with famous works by the likes of Picasso, Monet and Matisse.

While the museum now has a major problem, the thieves have one, too. A multimillion-dollar painting isn’t worth much if no one will buy it. But for some would-be criminals, the bragging rights alone may be a priceless haul — as I was reminded once when I met a man who wanted credit for a heist.

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Gallery

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.”

“There is no black market for million-dollar paintings,” says Robert Wittman, a former FBI investigator who has recovered hundreds of high-end artworks in sting operations in the United States and Europe. “It’s not like a stolen car that you can chop up and resell. When you try to sell it, that’s when you get caught.”

That’s because the only buyers for famous artwork might be undercover cops. One case, a 2007armed heist at the Museum of Fine Arts in Nice, France, led Wittman to a ring of thieves. “They met me in Barcelona and negotiated a $4 million price, thinking I was a Russian mob boss,” he said.

It turned out that the group had a hoard of 75 paintings from museum thefts all over Europe. Wittman was their first buyer.

Aside from stupidity, what motivates art thieves? Consider one brazen example. In 2002, two thieves broke into Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum and stole two paintings. The heist took place around 8 a.m.; neighbors watched as the culprits hoisted a large ladder to a second-story window and smashed the glass.

“The district attorney told the thieves at trial, ‘Your only motivation was to show off,’ ” Cremers said. “I think he was right. They wanted to impress other criminals.”

Such showmanship is rare, Wittman says. “They don’t want to be known, they want to get richer,” he says. “These are people who successfully stole lesser items and want to move up to something bigger. They’re talented criminals. They’re just terrible businessmen.”

In a culture where the most untalented people can become rich and famous, the values that great art represents — originality, authenticity and the individuality required to challenge conventions — have become rarer and more potent than ever. The awe inspired by a famous painting comes not only from its aesthetic power, but from our awareness that talented people can distinguish themselves from the crowd. It’s something all of us dream of doing.

With its blundering thieves on a hopeless hunt for fortune, art crime offers a funhouse-mirror image of art, with a bold theft its own warped form of accomplishment. As Picasso, the most frequently pilfered artist, once claimed, “Good artists copy; great artists steal.”

Real criminals may be in it for the money. But the man who approached me in Westhampton badly wanted me to think that he was the Chagall thief, even though it is hard to imagine how he would have benefited from my believing this. I know he saw it differently. “I’m the one,” he said as he handed me his story.

At that moment, he was an original.

dara@darahorn.com

Dara Horn is the author of three novels. Her fourth, “A Guide for the Perplexed,” will be published in 2013.

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