DASH OF ART – The Black market of art theft: a $6 Billion industry

The Black Market of Art Theft: 6 Billion Dollar Industry 

On November 19 of last year, three robbers entered into the museum of Castelvecchio in Verona (Italy) and stole 17 paintings. Of course, these were not “daubs”, but priceless masterpieces. The Museum of the city of “Romeo and Juliet”, wisely restored by Carlo Scarpa, one of the most brilliant Italian architects, is located inside the fortress built by the powerful Della Scala family that governed the city for over a century and built the castle around the middle of the 1300’s.  


Until a few days ago, in the 29 exhibition halls there were 622 Medieval and Renaissance masterpieces. Today, there are only 605 because the Holy Family with a saint by Andrea Mantegna, 6 works of Jacopo Tintoretto and his school, of which Judgement of Solomon, The Madonna of the Quail by Pisanello, St. Jerome doing penitence by Jacopo Bellini, The Lady of licnidi by Peter Paul Rubens….disappeared. Unfortunately, the history is full of thefts and trafficking in art works. Jean-Jacques Neuer, business lawyer and member of the board of the Guimet Museum in Paris, wrote some time ago in the Huffington Post, that the estimated turnover of the ‘black art market’ was between 2 and 6 billion dollars a year. Among the historical big thefts, a prominent place belongs to that of the Gioconda that was stolen in August 1911 and was found two years later, under Vincenzo Peruggia’s bed, the former Louvre house painter. For a long time, people (especially Italians) talked of a “patriotic theft” (return to Italy Leonardo’s masterpiece!!), until the thief was caught “red-handed” attempting to sell the Mona Lisa to a private collector. 

Fifty years later, the same fate befell the National Gallery in London, where the robbers fled with the portrait of the Duke of Wellington by Francisco Goya, just purchased by the London Museum.  

In 1969, it was the turn of Italy and this time it was not a museum, but the oratory of the church of San Lorenzo in Palermo from which the thieves robbed the Nativity of Caravaggio. Many people believe that the theft was committed pursuant to Mafia orders. The large canvas (298×197 cm) has never been recovered. Even the robbery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (1990) caused a sensation. There, they stole masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet and Degas.  

No less dramatic was the robbery at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the following year, where as much as twenty paintings of the author of The sunflowers were stolen, but in this case the loot was recovered a few hours later. With the new century (2000), it was the turn of the National Museum in Stockholm, where two Renoir and one Rembrandt disappeared. The paintings were recovered five years later. In 2006, the Chácara does Céu Museum in Rio de Janeiro experienced the same fate, when the canvases of Monet, Dali, Matisse and Picasso vanished. Four years later, thieves struck again at the Foundation E.G. Bührle Collection in Zurich and stole a Van Gogh, a Monet, a Degas and Cezanne. 

The_ScreamAmong the curiosities, it is interesting that The Scream
by Munch was stolen twice, first in 1994 and a second time ten years later. In the latter case, the thieves were not satisfied and decided to also take the Madonna with them. Today, fortunately, they are both where they belong in Munch’s Museet in Oslo.  

Besides Munch, criminals seem to fancy Van Gogh. By the way, Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen and View of the Sea at Scheveningen, stolen in Amsterdam in 2002, were never found. 

But the thieves’ favorite painter is, with no doubt, Rembrandt. Tom Mashberg, Boston Herald’ journalist, and Anthony M. Amore, art security expert and former security chief of Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, wrote a book Stealing Rembrandts: the Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists to explain why the masterpieces of Rembrandt were some of the most frequently targeted. 

Rembrandt. If the greatness of a painter were linked to the number of thefts of his works, Rembrandt would probably rise to the top, undisputedly first on the podium. Just to mention a few: in 1971, “The Rabbi” disappeared from the French museum of Bayonne and was found by the FBI in Buffalo in the United States only six years later; in 1975, it was the turn of Portrait of Elizabeth Van Rijin, sister of the painter, which was removed from the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston; in 1980, The brother of Rembrandt suffered the same fate, it was stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo, but found a week later in Paris; Jacob de Gueyn III  was stolen for the fourth time in 1983, earlier in 1966, 1973 and 1981. In the aforementioned theft, in Boston, in 1990, actually eleven paintings disappeared, including: A Lady and Gentleman in Black, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee and The self-portrait; four years later The man with beard was stolen from Rembrandt’s House-Museum in Amsterdam. 


‘The most wanted painter by thieves’ was one of the greatest worldwide.  

Fortunately, many stolen paintings are retrieved and find their rightful place in museums. We remember, above all, the discovery in 2013 of 1,500 works stolen from museums and Jewish collections during the II World War by the Nazis. At the time, there was talk of a value estimated at one billion Euros. The paintings of Picasso, Kokoschka, Chagall, Klee were in Cornelius Nikolaus Gulitt’ house, son of Hildebrand, an art dealer who was part of the group of experts appointed by Goebbels to collect the “degenerated art” in possession of Jewish citizens.  

Unfortunately, even today, many of the stolen works around the world are on the walls of unscrupulous collectors’ houses 

It is undeniable stolen art has always had a vicious charisma, what do You believe? 

Museo Castelvecchio: https://museodicastelvecchio.comune.verona.it

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