Art Thieves Just Thugs, Not Thomas Crowns Thieves broke into the Musee d'Art Moderne in Paris and made off with five paintings, including works by Matisse, Picasso and Modigliani. Ulrich Boser says Hollywood perpetuates romantic notions of elegant art heists, but this theft comes down to thugs taking advantage of poor security.

Art Thieves Just Thugs, Not Thomas Crowns

Art Thieves Just Thugs, Not Thomas Crowns

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Police officers search for clues as they pack up the frames of the stolen paintings outside the Paris Museum of Modern Art. Jacques Brinon/AP hide caption

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Jacques Brinon/AP

Police officers search for clues as they pack up the frames of the stolen paintings outside the Paris Museum of Modern Art.

Jacques Brinon/AP

Thieves broke into the Musee d'Art Moderne in Paris and made off with five paintings, including works by Matisse, Picasso and Modigliani.

Ulrich Boser says Hollywood perpetuates romantic notions of elegant art heists, but this theft, like many in the art world, comes down to thugs taking advantage of poor security.

In the Paris case, thieves struck while the museum was waiting on parts for its broken security system. Inattentive -- or possibly napping -- guards failed to notice they'd gotten in. Boser, who wrote The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft , says inadequate security is endemic in the art world.

"Far too many museums do not do enough to protect their collections," Boser says. "Over the years, art crime has exploded. We now see it to be as much as a $6 billion business, with as many as 50,000 heists occurring each year."

On the flip side, Boser says the high value of famous paintings makes them an attractive target for thieves. "The incredible amounts of money paid for canvases, matched with the lax security at many museums around the world, makes art theft, really, a given."


Last week, a lone masked thief broke into the Musee d'Art Moderne in Paris and made off with works by Picasso, Modigliani and Matisse, worth something north of $120 million.

Hollywood, of course, has told us how this all happened. A gentleman thief dressed all in black, high tech wizardry to foil elaborate security systems and reinstallation in an underground vault where the master criminal sips wine and admires great art in secret.

In an op-ed this week in the Wall Street Journal, Ulrich Boser explains that this was not The Thomas Crown Affair. Hes the author of The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the Worlds Largest Unsolved Art Theft, which tells the story of the 1990 robbery from the Gardner Museum in Boston.

Wed like to hear from those of you who work in the art business about your experience with the frequency, purpose and ease of art heists, especially if you work in a museum. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ulrich Boser joins us from the Center for American Progress where hes a senior fellow. Thank you for taking the time today.

Mr. ULRICH BOSER (Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress; Author, The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the Worlds Largest Unsolved Art Theft): Thank you.

CONAN: And so, not the Thomas Crown Affair, no high-tech wizardry involved here.

Mr. BOSER: No high-tech wizardry at all. While newspapers did hail this as the art crime of the century, no criminal mastermind was needed here. It turned out that the museums security system was not working for weeks before the heist. The museum had ordered replacement parts but they had not yet arrived. It also appeared that the guards were sleeping or at least remarkably inattentive. The thief broke open a padlock, smashed through a window. It was caught on a variety of cameras, but it took until the next morning at around 7 A.M. until a guard actually found that the theft had occurred.

CONAN: And indeed you find that light security, maybe not the security system itself not working, but lax security is endemic in the art world.

Mr. BOSER: Yes, far too many museums do not do enough to protect their collections. Over the years, art crime has exploded. And we now see it to be as much as a $6 billion business with as many 50,000 heists occurring each year.

And the problem on one side is the incredible amounts of money that are paid for paintings. Just a few weeks ago, we saw a Picasso sell for more than $100 million. And to put that figure in context, a buyer could have used that amount of money to purchase a computer tech company, 4Square was just recently valued at $100 million, and had $6 million then leftover to purchase a sprawling beach house.

So that fact, the incredible amounts of money paid for canvasses matched with the lax security at many museums around the world makes art theft really a given.

CONAN: Well, the security is expensive too. A lot of museums are on hard times.

Mr. BOSER: Exactly. Arts funding has been decimated. And as you said, security is expensive. A full roster of guards can, you know, eat up as much as a half of a museums budget. We see small museums spending as much as a million dollars a year on security. And even a museum like the Smithsonian will spend as much $70 million a year on security. And that might not be enough.

A 2007 GAO report found that museum did not have enough guards to protect its entrances, did not have enough guards to respond to alarms. And people had vandalized exhibits. People had made away with some mammalian fossils.

CONAN: But the question about these art pieces, like the Picasso, stolen at this Paris art museum last week. Yes, its worth a whole lot of money, but are there secret auctions where dangerous men with oiled mustaches bet on these?

Ms. BOSER: No, the problem with art theft is trying to make money off of these paintings. So the Picasso that was stolen is a cubist masterpiece, "Dove with Green Peas." And it would be impossible - or nearly impossible - to sell that on the open market. It's far too well known, far too recognizable.

And what we know is that there is no Dr. No. There is no Mr. Big. People have this idea, that has been fostered by Hollywood, of a man who lives in the Caribbean, and late at night, he puts on a tuxedo and goes down into his basement to look at a stolen Van Gogh. And law enforcement has never found any evidence of such a person existing. Now...

CONAN: Of course they haven't, hes in secret.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOSER: Right. Right. You know, it sort of becomes an argument about sort of, you know, are there aliens? We've never seen evidence, but that's not to say that we know for sure that such a person does not exist. And, of course, you know, it's a matter of definitions. We do know collectors will purchase items of (unintelligible) on occasion. And we have seen evidence of a thug perhaps putting a stolen Hopper or a stolen Picasso just on his walls for his - to share with his buddies. But this Hollywood idea, this Thomas Crown, this real world Pierce Brosnan, this real world Cary Grant, we've never found evidence of that.

I think it also changes the way we talk about art theft, because when we think about these criminals, I think people think of them wearing black turtlenecks and dancing through red lasers. But for the most part, the people who steal art are second-rate thugs. They're out-of-work bank robbers. They're aging drug dealers, and they steal art because it's valuable and often because it's quite easy.

CONAN: Thugs. But then what do they use it for if they can't sell it?

Mr. BOSER: Sure. If you're a particularly enterprising criminal, you could try and collateralize it. And by that, I mean that you would trade a stolen canvass for drugs or guns. Sometimes we've also seen thieves use the items as political bargaining chips. So we have one thief who steals a Rembrandt out of a museum and then returns that item to negotiate down his jail sentence in another art crime. And also what's quite common as ransoming the work back. Many museums offer very large rewards for stolen paintings. The Gardner Museum, which you mentioned at the top, has a $5 million reward for its stolen paintings. That's a Vermeer and three Rembrandts and five Degas that were stolen in 1990. And $5 million, that's a huge amount of money. That's the largest reward ever offered by a private institution. And the only reward that's bigger than that is the one for the head of Osama bin Laden.

CONAN: Here's an email from Jason(ph) in Minneapolis that backs you up, I've worked in museum security, know quite a bit about art theft. Two points. One: high-end art theft is usually about holding the art hostage and demanding ransom, which could be that same as a payment. And two: nearly all art theft is an inside job. Is he suggesting that maybe somebody knew that security system was not working at the Musee d'Art Moderne?

Mr. BOSER: We have seen a study that was done by the FBI, which suggests that most art crimes do have the help of an insider. That might not be a guard, it could be a disgruntled curator, it could have been a contractor who was helping to, you know, build a new wing in the museum and gave some information to the thieves. But we often do see some sort of inside connection and it does - one could surmise that this happened and in this case, I think, we don't know exactly what happened, who stole the paintings. But because they knew or appear to have known that the security was down, it suggests that someone tipped them off, but we don't know for sure.

CONAN: 800-989-8255. Email: Our guest is Ulrich Boser who - a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of "The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft."

And Leslie(ph) is on the line. Leslie calling us from Charlotte.

LESLIE (Caller): Hi. I wanted to find out what - why aren't security systems better in these museums now? For example, cameras and things like that. And can't we review who came in and out 24 - you know, 24/7 and find out what's going on.

CONAN: And those lasers. They're devilishly difficult to overcome in the movies.

Mr. BOSER: Sure. So on one side, it is a problem of funding, that even in the best of economic times, museums don't have the funds that they need. Another issue is this Catch 22 that museums are in, because to make it easy for the public to view art, they also make it easy for thieves to steal art. And visitors do want an intimate experience with art. That's what - why we go to museums.

And so, as an example, we see a thief had stolen - or a group of thieves had stolen Munch's "The Scream" out of the Munch Museum in Oslo. And afterwards, they left behind a note that said thanks for the poor security. The museum then revamped its security. They put in metal detectors, they put in bulletproof glass. But then people complained. They said that the glass prevented them from really appreciating the masterworks, that they couldn't see the brush strokes because of the thick protective glass.

And so museums are in this hard spot in trying to make art easy to see and to appreciate and then making sure that it's protected.

CONAN: Leslie, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

LESLIE: Thank you.

CONAN: How did they get "The Scream" back? Was that one of those ransom things?

Mr. BOSER: "The Scream" has been stolen three times and it's always come back in a variety of ways. What's surprising about when works - high-profile works like this - come back, is that they often come back in the most prosaic of ways. Sometimes they do come back in stings. But often, they come back in a way that's just simply surprising.

A law enforcement will do a raid on a drug dealer's house and will find the artwork stashed behind a dishwasher. Sometimes thieves don't realize that auction houses and major art dealers do check their works through international databases before they sell them to make sure that they are legitimate, that they aren't stolen works. So we have seen instances of oblivious thieves just walking into an auction house and saying what's this work valued at? Will you sell it for me? And it turns out to be a stolen work of art.

CONAN: And then, of course, when they come back to get the estimate, theyre picked up and slapped in the pokey.

Mr. BOSER: Exactly.

CONAN: Were talking with Ulrich Boser who is the senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft.

And youre listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Lets go next to Matt(ph). Matt, with us from Janesville in Wisconsin.

MATT (Caller): Good afternoon, gentlemen. Im wondering if isnt there a good possibility that a lot of these robberies are of contract type of agreement, you know, somebody who says, I want this X paint, and theyd go out and contract a thief to pull the heist?

Mr. BOSER: What we have seen is increasingly organized crime and terrorist groups have gotten involved in art crime because of the huge sums of money associated with it. So Mohamed Atta, as an example, one of the individuals who flew a plane into the World Trade Center, before he while he lived in Hamburg, Germany, was hawking some Afghani artifact to help fund his terrorism training.

But what we havent seen is the sort of Dr. No or Mr. Big, this art lover who snatches up these stolen paintings or contracts paintings. Because the people who have the sums of money to purchase high valuable art, tend not to be the people who want to risk their reputation, risk their wealth to contract with a thief to steal these types of artworks.

CONAN: Now wait, wait, wait. Weve seen a lot of smart people do an awful lot of really dumb stuff.

Mr. BOSER: Sure, and, you know, theres nothing stopping smart people from doing dumb stuff, but when we look at the people who purchase these works of art, these Picassos or Van Goghs at auctions, they arent the type of people who would then contract with these second-rate thugs to commission a heist. Its we just hadnt seen any evidence of it.

CONAN: Okay.

MATT: Do you think that these robbers are more for a form of possession for power bartering rather than personal possession?

Mr. BOSER: I dont know why the thieves stole the works from the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, but it seems to me that a Picasso sold for more than $100 million just a few weeks ago and that they knew that this museum was poorly secured. And so they know that an item is incredibly valuable, that its poorly secured. What they will do with it later? Theyre not sure. These are thieves. These are not people who might think five, 10 steps down the road, but they know that there is something very valuable and then they know that its easy to steal and then, why not?

CONAN: Thanks, Matt. Appreciate it.

MATT: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Ulrich Boser, as they look at to the example of the Gardner theft, those pictures have never reemerged, at least as far as I know. Ive not have the chance to read your book yet. But doesnt Im not sure that thieves art thieves will read your book either, but, you know, I'm not sure if deterrence will work. But the fact that theyve never been recovered and never been ransomed - that, you know, maybe theyre just sitting behind somebodys washing machine and they took an awful lot of risk for very little payout?

Mr. BOSER: I think thats certainly possible. I think theres good reason to hope that the Gardner paintings will come back. In art thefts, it often takes years, decades, centuries for artworks to come back. In one example, we see the Bill of Rights - one of the copies of the Bill of Rights beings stolen out of the Capitol in North Carolina during the Civil War, during the 1860s. And it took 140 years for that item to come back. It wielded it went through the art underworld, popped up a few times until the FBI recovered it in a sting.

Whats important to keep in mind in terms of the Paris heist as well as the Gardner heist is that while most stolen art tends not to be returned, works that are high profile, works that are well known are more likely to come back because they have such a high profile, because theyre so hard to sell that we see a much greater likelihood of those works eventually coming back. And I think we have good hope in the Paris theft, and I think we have a good hope in the Gardner heist, that these masterpieces will eventually come back.

Dan(ph) is on the line with us from Berwyn in Pennsylvania.

DAN (Caller): Oh, hi. A great show has always topics like this one. I have two quick questions. One was the statute of limitations. If the people who steal the artwork dont get caught for a certain number of years, are they not subject to prosecution? And...

CONAN: I will say less than 140 years, but go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAN: And my other question was is there some time period where the artwork isnt recovered then eventually it sort of, you know, whoever ends up holding it owns it free and clear? Then Ill take my comments off the air.

CONAN: Thanks, Dan.

Mr. BOSER: Both great questions. I cant speak to art law in France, but I can speak to it - into the in the U.S. So in the Gardner heist, which happened in 1990, two men breaking into the museum, stealing one Vermeer, three Rembrandts, five Degas worth as much as $500 million, the statute of limitations for the breaking and entering for that crime have expired. But after the Gardner heist occurred, Congress passed a law called the Art Theft Law that makes it a federal offense to steal or traffic in any artwork thats worth more than $100,000.

So conceivably, you could be prosecuted for holding the Gardner heist Gardner paintings today. The law enforcement in Boston has made it very clear that they are, at this point, just looking for these artworks to come back. Theyre not looking for a prosecution. And that would cover if youre stealing items from the Smithsonian that are, you know, valuable, or even from a local art gallery.

CONAN: Ulrich Boser, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. BOSER: Thank you.

CONAN: Ulrich Boser, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. As we mentioned, he is author of The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft. You can find a link to his Wall Street Journal piece on our website, Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION:SCIENCE FRIDAY, a look at how you can garden on the cheap, plus a talk with naturalist Bernd Heinrich. Ill be back on Monday. Have a great weekend everybody. Its the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

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