Friday, August 6, 2010

Art Theft

Below is an article I wrote a few years back about the fascinating world of Art Theft:

The year was 1911, the setting – Paris. A man walks out of The Louvre with a woman hidden under his overcoat. A very famous woman, in fact, The Mona Lisa herself. Over the next two years she would remain missing, and doubts of her recovery mounted every day. Many people would fall under the eye of suspicion, including Pablo Picasso who was brought in for questioning and later released (I would love to read a transcript of that one, wouldn’t you?). During her absence, she became more famous than ever. In fact, it was her theft that catapulted her to her current place as the most famous painting in the world.

Did the man who smuggled her away under his overcoat know that his act would lead to her rise in fame? Probably not. His intentions were purely patriotic. See, he was an employee of the museum, Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian, who believed that The Mona Lisa belonged back in Italy, not in France. He was captured when he tried to sell her to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. His punishment? Only a few months in jail. As a matter of fact he was hailed as a patriot in Italy. As a result of her temporary absence and resulting rise to fame, the Mona Lisa now resides under bullet proof glass in her permanent home, The Louvre, appreciated by thousands of art lovers who gaze upon her haunting smile each year.

Not every story of art theft has a happy ending, and many pieces will never be seen again. Art theft is big business, big enough that the FBI has a special task force assigned to manage it, the Art Crime Team. Their website lists current art theft news, as well as tips on how to secure your own collection. They maintain a National Stolen Art File, which tracks and catalogues art and artifacts reported missing in the United States. The agency also works closely with Interpol in the recovery of international art and artifacts. Most recently the agency has been working to recover items that were looted form the Iraq Museum at the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and a good amount of pieces have been successfully located and returned.

Why is there a problem with art theft? There are many different reasons. Art is sometimes used as collateral for drugs and weapons by more unsavory individuals and groups. Art is stolen as a political statement, such as the case with Mona Lisa. Art is also stolen as a statement towards the art itself, or about it, as was the case with the Iraq Museum. Art thieves can be brilliant masterminds, deadly criminals, or acivists for a cause. Each case is as individual and diverse as the piece that was stolen.

There is no question that art theft will continue as long as there is art in the world.