Why do people steal art?

Like something out of another bad "Ocean's Eleven" sequel, thieves broke into the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam on Tuesday and walked off with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of paintings by Picasso, Monet, Gauguin and Matisse.

Waterloo Bridge, London by Claude Monet is one of seven paintings stolen during a break-in at Rotterdam's Kunsthal. (AP)

“Those thieves got one hell of a haul,” Chris Marinello, who directs the Art Loss Register, told the Associated Press.

Museum officials declined to reveal any details about how the thieves were able to get through the security system, other than describing it as “state of the art” and “functional," the AP reported.

Art heists are a staple of action movies, but how often do burglaries this big happen in real life?

The AP has a list of five major incidents involving the thefts of world-renowned paintings, and three of them occurred in the past decade. Several happened at gunpoint in broad daylight, much like someone might rob a bank:

In May 2010, a masked intruder took advantage of a broken alarm system at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. The burglar clipped a padlock, smashed a window and stole a Picasso, a Matisse and three other masterpieces worth $123 million. In February 2008, three men in ski masks and dark clothing entered the Buehrle museum in Zurich and used a pistol to force personnel to the floor before taking four paintings by Cezanne, Degas, van Gogh and Monet worth $163 million.

And Edvard Munch's masterpieces “The Scream” and “Madonna” were stolen during daylight in 2004 from the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway.

Motives for art thieves can be different from those of bank robbers because not all art thieves are in it for the money. In an interview with the Boston Globe, Charles Hill, a former Scotland Yard detective who has followed the world of art theft closely for decades, says there are three categories of art thief:

The first is the one who makes the money. That’s the thief who steals by deception, frauds, and fake forgeries. The people who do that, and there are a lot of them, make money. They’re also reasonably highly sophisticated and exceptionally bright.

Then there’s the trophy-hunting art thieves. They don’t make much money at all and cause themselves endless aggravation. But they enjoy doing it. It gives them a buzz.

There’s a third category now. These are thieves with purpose. Roughly six months before 9/11, in Afghanistan, Mullah Omar ordered the destruction of the Bamyan statues. A few years ago, his chief acolyte in Pakistan destroyed others. Again, he just destroyed it for the sake of destroying it. They’re prepared to steal by destroying art. 

And sometimes it's just a crazed art fan. An unemployed construction worker was jailed in 2010 for stealing Poland's only Monet and stashing it in his parents' wardrobe. The AFP reported:

The 41-year-old man pleaded guilty to the charges, saying he stole the 1882 Monet canvas titled "Plage de Pourville" from a museum in Poznan, eastern Poland, in 2000 after spending hours admiring it.

Whatever the motive of the Kunsthal museum thieves, they may not get rich off of their loot. Famous works of art are quite hard to sell. Major paintings get their value from authenticity, history and legal title, according to an Atlantic interview with Robert Wittman, founder of the FBI's art crime team.

"If you steal it, you obviously don't have legal title," he said. "So unless you're stealing it just to admire, the attempts they're to sell it are going to meet in failure."




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Max Fisher · October 16, 2012

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