Examining The Economy Of Art Thieves

This week, thieves stole hundreds of millions of dollars worth of paintings by Picasso, Monet and Matisse from a museum in Rotterdam. Weekend Edition host Scott Simon talks about the changing economic interests of major art theft with Robert Wittman, the former senior investigator and founder of the FBI's National Art Crime Team.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There was a huge art heist this week. Paintings by Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso, Monet and other artists were stolen from an exhibition hall in Rotterdam. Picasso's "Harlequin Head" and Monet's "Waterloo Bridge" were among the purloined works. And their loss is estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars.

But why would a gang of thieves take paintings that are so well-known, they must be impossible to fence for money - aren't they? Robert Wittman joins us now. He's a former FBI special agent who wound up specializing in the investigation of stolen art and cultural artifacts. He's helped recover stolen works of art and history including a copy of the Bill of Rights; the body armor of a pre-Columbian king, which was stolen from a tomb; and paintings by Francisco Goya and Norman Rockwell.

He joins us from WHYY, in Philadelphia.Thanks so much for being with us.

ROBERT WITTMAN: Thanks, Scott. It's great to be here.

SIMON: So what do you do with a bunch of hot, well-known paintings?

WITTMAN: The problem is - and what I've seen in 25 years of investigating these types of crimes, and recovering $300 million worth of these paintings - is that these criminals are very good at what they do; they're good thieves. But they're terrible businessmen. So what happens is, they go out; they plan these heists; they discover how to get into the place, and in and out very quickly - in this case, under five minutes. Yet they don't have a plan for exiting the paint - or monetizing the artworks.

SIMON: And does that, then, make the big danger- not that they'll be sold, but that they'll be destroyed because they can't be sold?

WITTMAN: Well, you know, I've never actually seen that happen, either. I've seen cases where it took us five years. I remember one case involving $42 million worth of paintings that were stolen from a museum in Stockholm, Sweden - the national museum; two Renoirs, and a $35 million Rembrandt. That occurred in the year 2000. In 2005, we did an undercover operation - actually, in Copenhagen, Denmark - where we recovered the Rembrandt,which was worth - again - $35 million. But it sat in a closet, wrapped up in a velvet cloth, for five years while they tried to find a buyer. And in the end, of course, the only buyer were the police.

So they don't destroy them because they know there's a lot of value. But again, they have a hard time trying to sell them.

SIMON: Of course, I think at this point, we've all read that there were no physical guards on duty in the predawn hours, when this crime occurred at the exhibition hall. And the exhibitors relied on technology to detect if anyone was entering. If you have paintings on display that are worth - I'll make up a number now - $50 million, why not pay a little overtime to half a dozen guards, to have each of them sit in front of a painting?

WITTMAN: I do work with museums and institutions around the country, beefing up their security. And what I say to them is that security is three things. The first is electronics and surveillance; which is your cameras, your motion detectors and alarms. The second is human resources, and that's exactly what you're talking about there. It's the guards; and having them trained, having their patrol routes, you know, laid out for them, having protocols set up. And the third thing is procedures, and that is making sure that the alarms are on before you leave at night; making sure that the cameras are working correctly. And if you have all three of these things, OK, you have a fairly good security system.

SIMON: Mr. Wittman, is there, in real life, a character of the kind we've seen in the movies; some rich, vain billionaire who says, "I love that Goya - I must have it," and pays a team of accomplished thieves to steal the masterpiece he wants; and then just puts it in his bathroom, and looks at it while he takes a shower?

WITTMAN: That's a great scenario. That first came about in 1962. There was a movie - James Bond's movie, of course, "Dr. No." And in the movie, 007 - he's walking through the caverns of Dr. No's hideout. And he looks over; and he sees a portrait by Goya, of the Duke of Wellington. And that had just been stolen, a year before, in London. And tongue-in-cheek, James Bond looks at it and says, I wondered where that ended up.

And I have to tell, Scott, in 25 years of investigations, the people I ran into were not Dr. Nos. They were people who wanted to monetize the theft. What they didn't realize was that the true art, in an art theft, is not the stealing. It's the selling.

SIMON: Robert Wittman, former FBI special agent who now runs Robert Wittman Inc., an art security film in Philadelphia. Thanks so much for being with us.

WITTMAN: Scott, it was great to be here. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "JAMES BOND THEME SONG")

SIMON: You didn't think we were going to pass up a chance to play that, did you? You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News.

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