When Thieves Don't Appreciate The Art They Steal

Wednesday, Romanian officials said a pile of ashes had been discovered in the home of an art thief's mother. They are believed to be all that remains of seven masterpieces by Picasso, Matisse and others, stolen from a Rotterdam gallery last fall. Host Jacki Lyden talks with Robert Wittman, former director of the FBI Art Crimes Unit, about this theft and the profitability of art heists in the Internet age.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

You might remember that last fall, thieves broke into the Kunsthal museum in the Netherlands and made off with masterpieces by Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Gauguin. It was the largest art heist in over a decade.

The story's taken a dramatic turn. According to the Associated Press, the thief's mother was nervous that investigators were closing in on her son and burned the paintings in an oven. Experts are testing the ashes to confirm authenticity.

It's a sad tale but one Robert Wittman is familiar with. He's the former head of the FBI Art Crimes Team, and he joins me from WHYY in Philadelphia. Robert Wittman, welcome to the program.

ROBERT WITTMAN: Oh, thank you, Jacki. It's great to be here.

LYDEN: You know, what's so shocking about this story is just the image of somebody putting them into an oven. How much do you know about this? Did the details surprise you?

WITTMAN: They're not surprising. And the reason that is is because, usually, the gangs that are involved in these things are not art thieves. They're just basically common criminals. They're good thieves, but they're terrible businessmen. And so they don't know what to do with the material after they steal it.

LYDEN: I understand that you had a case where art was destroyed back in the 1990s.

WITTMAN: Right. Yeah. We had a theft in Philadelphia from the Pennsbury Manor, which was the summer home of William Penn. About 40 items were taken. Thieves, again in this case, they got scared when we started to close in on them. And they took all the material, and they threw it into the Delaware River.

LYDEN: Wow.

WITTMAN: We did recover about 30 pieces by sending in the Philadelphia police dive team, but maybe 10 to 12 pieces that were made out of wood floated down the river, were gone forever. Some of those very, very valuable and from the period.

LYDEN: Have you ever heard about anything being burned in an oven before?

WITTMAN: No, but I've heard about pieces being thrown into canals and rivers. There was a case - a very famous case back in the mid '90s where Stephane Breitwieser, he stole about 200 pieces from the museums. As the French police closed in, his mother became upset, took all the material and threw it into a canal.

LYDEN: Another mother element. That's surprising.

WITTMAN: Indeed.

LYDEN: So, Robert Wittman, compared to other black market commodities, how does art compare in terms of profitability for the thief?

WITTMAN: Well, that's just the issue. The true value of an artwork is going to be the authenticity that is dictated by provenance, and it's also dictated by good title. Many collectors today are buying pieces. And if these pieces don't have good title with them, have been stolen sometime in the past, then these collectors will be stuck.

LYDEN: You know, now that we have so much surveillance and with the advent of social media and the Internet, one would think that art heists would be decreasing.

WITTMAN: Well, the criminals follow the market. They read the papers too. They see the magazines. And what they're thinking is, look, if they can steal a Picasso that's - that could be worth in tens of million of dollars, all they want to do is get a small percentage of that. And if they can get a 10 percent value of that, then they've made a big score.

LYDEN: I don't want to sound too naive, but the idea of somebody illegally holding on to a masterpiece by Picasso, it sounds cinematic. Tell me about somebody who did exactly that, who was so unscrupulous that they're willing to have a painting at their castle in Switzerland that no one ever sees.

WITTMAN: (Chuckling) Yeah, that's a very, very famous scenario from a movie called "Dr. No" back in 1962.

LYDEN: You outed me. (Laughing)

WITTMAN: Yeah, about James Bond. And, yeah, Dr. No had that wonderful painting in his lair, in the caves.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DR. NO")

JOSEPH WISEMAN: (as Dr. No) $1 million, Mr. Bond. You were wondering what it cost.

SEAN CONNERY: (as James Bond) Matter of fact, I was.

WITTMAN: Ever since then, people have thought that that's a possibility. But from my experience, the art world actually is a business world as well. And to buy a stolen painting, really, is a good way to throw money away. And when people have that kind of money to buy, you know, they'll buy good paintings that they don't need to worry about. The last thing you want to do is buy a painting and go to jail for it.

LYDEN: That's Robert Wittman, former head of the FBI art crimes unit and also the author of "Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures." It's been a great pleasure speaking with you.

WITTMAN: Thank you, Jacki. It's been great to be here.

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