A black baseball cap lands softly on the ground outside the Van Gogh Museum along with two pairs of feet and a crushed frame. The feet pound the ground, abandoning the lone hat and the paint chips that flutter into the night. The two burglars run towards their getaway car, passing police officers as their vehicle hugs a corner, unassuming. The pair slip away and shed their ski masks, wiping away with them any expressions of panic or adrenaline.
Octave Durham and Henk Bieslijn escape the scene of the crime with two of Vincent van Gogh’s earliest paintings stowed in their bags: “View of the Sea at Scheveningen” (1882) and “Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen” (1884-85). After the pair climb a security fence, they use a ladder to breach the museum’s walls, a sledgehammer to break through a window, and a rope to scale back down.
A ladder, a hammer, and a rope: that’s all it took to pull off a four minute heist worth tens of millions. The stolen paintings were estimated at about 30 million dollars collectively, but they were not the thieves’ initial targets. Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” (1888) and “The Potato Eaters” (1885), presented their own challenges. “Sunflowers” was more protected that the thieves predicted and “The Potato Eaters” was simply too large to fit through the hole they smashed in the museum window. Durham and Bieslijn chose the two pieces in question because they were the smallest ones they could reach near the break-in point. When asked why he stole the paintings, Durham responded that it had nothing to do with an interest in art, but simply because he could.
There are a number of task forces charged with recovering stolen art, including the FBI’s art theft department, Interpol, and fraud squads on larger police forces like the NYPD or London’s Metropolitan police. But the truth is art is nearly impossible to track. Chips are not attached to the back of masterpieces; only thick panes of glass stand in front of them, guarding them from onlookers, accidental damage, and thieves. According to the FBI, over 6 billion dollars’ worth of artwork is stolen annually, and the agency has a less than 10 percent recovery rate on the stolen pieces.
Durham, however, was found and charged in 2004, two years after the crime took place. How was he found? That lonesome cap. Investigators were able to test DNA in the hat and later confirmed suspicions when Durham began spending excessive amounts of money. Without these pieces of the puzzle, he likely would have driven off into Amsterdam’s starry night towards the black market and never looked back. Even so, Durham only served about 25 months in jail for his crime, and was charged a 350,000€ fine—of which he has only paid 60,000€ to date.
Punishment for art theft is considerably relaxed as it is a nonviolent crime. In the United States, 18 U.S. Code § 668 states that the theft of a major artwork over 100 years old or worth over $100,000 is punishable by fine and a maximum prison stay of 10 years. And in the UK, the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act states that art theft of a certain caliber is punishable by fine and a maximum prison stay of just 7 years. Given the likelihood of successful escape from the clutches of law enforcement and the lack of lengthy prison stays if caught, it’s easy to assume that art theft is a go-to for some professional criminals.
Despite these perhaps—for some—inspiring numbers, art thievery is not without its complications, starting with the immediate and massive depreciation in value the moment a piece becomes an illicit item. According to Anthony Amore, director of security at the Gardner Museum and author of The Art of the Con and Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists, artwork typically goes for less than 10% of its estimated value when sold on the black market. Thieves might argue that 10% of something worth tens of millions of dollars that is easily concealable and portable is still well worth the effort. The problem then becomes: who is going to buy it? When the Van Gogh Museum was robbed, the press plastered images of the two pieces in question across television screens and newspaper pages. This made it nearly impossible to find a buyer willing to purchase the pieces and potentially implicate themselves by default. This conundrum doesn’t create much motivation to spend even 10% of the art’s worth. As former leader of the FBI Art Crime Team, Robert Wittman, said “The true art in art theft is not in the stealing, it’s in the selling.”
Durham, however, was lucky, and found a buyer in notorious Dutch crime boss Cor van Hout (famous for the 1983 kidnapping of beer magnate Alfred H. Heineken). Durham’s plan was soon foiled when Hout was coincidentally murdered the same day the exchange was supposed to take place (his death was actually mourned quite extensively by his countrymen and women, demonstrating the extent of the criminal’s reach and power). But, luckily for Durham, another buyer appeared in Italian mafia boss Raffaele Imperiale, who purchased the paintings for $380,000– barely over 1% of their estimated value.
It wasn’t until September of 2016, 14 years later, that the paintings were finally recovered. They were found in a Naples farmhouse covered in cotton wrappings and tucked away behind a bathroom wall. Police seized 20 million euros’ worth of assets in the same day from Imperiale and a fellow Camorra druglord. Once the paintings were recovered, Durham still claimed his innocence. It wasn’t until filmmaker Vincent Verweij approached him with an idea for a documentary telling his story that Durham was finally convinced to confess (this had no legal ramifications as Durham had already been found guilty). The documentary, released in the Netherlands on March 21, 2017—the same day the Van Gogh paintings were returned to their proper home—tells the story of art theft from the perspective of the thief himself and features a detailed confession from Durham.
Although Verweij may have turned over a unique stone by eliciting such a perspective—exploring things like planning, execution, and the emotions throughout—a surprising number of modern art thieves act without of any kind of plan other than grab-and-go. For example, Radu Dogaru and Eugen Darie, two hustlers residing in Amsterdam, simply decided that stealing art would be their next lucrative endeavor (quite a step up from the watches they were peddling prior). Their preparation involved jogging past the target museum, the Kunsthal, to check out security, and visiting the museum to find targets. Their only requirements? That the pieces be by a “well-known” artist and that they be small enough to fit into a backpack.
Dogaru, Darie, and a few accomplices simply pried open an emergency door on an overcast, October night. The group cut the wires holding the paintings in place and left; no alarm sounded when the paintings were cut down and no security guard wandered the halls at night. The job itself took roughly two minutes. It wasn’t until the thieves got in their car that they tackled the question of what to do with their haul and who they would sell it to. Altogether, they stole seven paintings, estimated to be worth 15 million euros in total, and Dogaru and Darie were trying to sell them for tens of millions each. When they became desperate, they lowered their price to 100,000 euros each, and the group traveled to no fewer than five countries across Europe in an attempt to sell. They stuffed the pieces into pillowcases and reportedly didn’t even know how to spell some of the artists’ names. Finally, the pieces were identified by an expert from the Romanian National Art Museum, who contacted authorities. Shortly before this, Dogaru and Darie almost sold the paintings to a wine producer, who was part of a sting operation to implicate them. In this case, the thieves involved learned that an opportunistic art heist—meaning identifying a prize and simply taking it without extensive premeditation—does not return much profit without having the right connections beforehand.
Security expert Anthony Roman says that reputable art dealers never touch stolen art, and even black market dealers hesitate before picking high-profile pieces off of the market, aware of the risk involved. The truth is: the more well-known the stolen piece is, the less likely it is to sell. According to Roman, “art thieves often see this as a crime of opportunity,” and without an “established network for getting rid of the art,” odds of return remain low, even if the thief is never caught.
If a painting is bought on the black market, a buyer is paying millions for a piece that they cannot display in any way. So for Dogaru and Darie, two unconnected hustlers, the chances of pulling off a successful heist may be high, but completing the actual sell is a more challenging hurdle.
The mild punishments set forth are enough to put criminals behind bars and potentially put them into debt, but they are not enough to stop them from a life of thievery, if that’s what they choose. And if a thief does have a predetermined buyer—as Durham did—or is well-connected on the black market, he or she is in a good position to walk away with hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. Relying on the perceived value, rather than the actual value, of the art is still a lucrative endeavor if done right.
A century ago, the motives for stealing art were thought to be much more meaningful. In 1911, a thief swiped “The Mona Lisa” (1503) from the Louvre. Law enforcement officials labeled two “modernist enemies” of the traditional piece as suspects. Avant-garde poet and playwright Guillaume Apollinaire was the first, and after his release, officials targeted none other than disrupting artist, Pablo Picasso. As two main representatives of the modernist movement, investigators believed that both Apollinaire and Picasso had substantial motive to steal the masterpiece in an effort to free artists from antiquated art thought and strategy. In reality, a lowly Italian thief took the painting during his stint working at the Louvre.
Now, the most practical reason to steal a piece of art is not to make a statement. And clearly the most practical motive is not even to sell. Rather, modern criminals steal artwork to obtain collateral for future nefarious activities. According to Interpol, Italy and France are most susceptible to art theft given their concentration of high-profile museums. Consequently, European law enforcement are likely to lessen a criminal’s sentence if the criminal offers up a piece of stolen art as a bargaining chip. Essentially, career criminals are motivated to steal or obtain art in order to secure a safety net for if and when they are captured for another crime; they can use art to cut a deal in the same way you could for offering inside information for a similar result in the U.S.
Thieves can also utilize art as collateral during drug or weapons deals. For example, Irish gangser Martin Cahil stole 18 paintings from the Beit Collection at Russborough House in 1986. Four of the 18 served as collateral during a diamond exchange in Gainsborough and another served in part as payment during a heroin deal in Istanbul. Paintings, when unframed, can act as easy blank checks that cross borders much easier than cash.
Despite these practices, it is still rare for stolen art to be retuned. The two Van Gogh pieces were discovered after 14 years of investigation, and the recovery was only possible through a series of unique tips (along with Durham offering to help find the pieces). The public is lucky to have this victory when so many other pieces are likely never to be seen by the masses again. Law enforcement continues its attempt to crack down art criminals, and many museums are upping security, but the crime remains a relatively easy one to complete and the incentive to gain collateral for professional criminals will always exist. Our hope for recovery comes down to a truth described by FBI Art Crime Team Director Wittman: “criminals are better thieves than businessmen.”