Corktown Caper: Art theft generally isn't glamorous or lucrative
One might be tempted, in a twisted way, to think about this week’s Corktown art heist as an almost glamorous respite from the litany of smash-and-grab car thefts and murdered octogenarian church security guards that fill police blotters and news reports.
However, real life art thieves rarely live up to the stylish hype created by films like The Thomas Crown Affair says Ulrich Boser, author of The Garnder Heist. It is the definitive work about the 1990 robbery at Boston’s Gardner Museum.
More than 20 years later, Gardner is still unsolved, the art unrecovered, and it remains the most expensive robbery in American history. The stolen art, Boser says, could be worth as much as $500 million dollars.
While researching his book, Boser received a crash course on the less-glamorous-than-advertised world of art theft.
Most art thefts aren’t the work of gentleman thieves snagging priceless works for some eccentric collector. That’s likely true even in a case as historic as Gardner.
“There’s this notion that art thieves are guys in black turtlenecks dancing through red lasers,” Boser said. “That’s not the case.”
In reality, most are thieves are common criminals desperate for a quick score because, while art is valuable, it’s not often well secured. At Gardner, for example, the thieves had to subdue just two guards and one admitted that he was smoking pot on shift prior to the robbery.
The FBI announced this week that it was looking for 19 pricey works of art -- including a silkscreen by the late pop artist Andy Warhol -- that was stolen from a storage area of a business in Corktown in Detroit.
While a stack of priceless paintings sounds like a lucrative score, Boser says, it’s difficult to make money from stolen art. The works are often too unique and recognizable to fetch much on the black market. Anyone with the means and sophistication to purchase an original Van Gogh painting or even an Andy Warhol silkscreen would instantly recognize them as stolen.
Hot art doesn’t usually find its way to secret basement galleries for the benefit of tuxedoed, sherry-swilling Bond villains—that’s pure Hollywood myth.
“Paintings end up stowed behind dishwashers or buried in the backyard,” Boser says.
The real value of stolen art to criminals is often as a kind of underworld currency. A million dollar painting, for instance, might be used as down payment on a drug deal. Other times, they’ve been used as political bargaining chips.
“The IRA once used a Vermeer to get political prisoners out of prison,” he says.
Occasionally, a particularly dumb art thief will try to fence stolen works at legitimate auction houses like Sotherby’s. As you may imagine, those situations rarely end well for the crooks.
So what does this all mean for the art taken from Corktown? Well, if past art crimes provide any clues to what happened here, then the Warhol silkscreen and other works probably aren’t that far away.
“The idea that artworks have been shipped aboard is very unlikely,” Boser says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve gone to Milwaukee, but I would be very surprised if they went to Venezuela.”
“I’d search local pawn shops before I fly to Paris,” he added.
As for the $500 million in art lifted from the Gardner Museum? Boser now dismisses the theory that notorious Boston mobster Whitey Bulger was behind the crime. He suspects a couple of local hoodlums, the presently incarnated (for other crimes) David Turner and the presently dead George Reissfelder, were responsible. However, he also thinks the paintings were sold off as part of an underworld transaction. It’s unlikely even Turner knows where they are now.