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A empty spot on the wall marks the place where the stolen Henri Matisse
painting was in Rotterdam's Kunsthal art gallery in the Netherlands last
Photo by Robin van Lonkhuijsen/Reuters
Investigators announced this week that they may have recovered the ashes of
seven stolen artworks at the bottom of a stove in Romania. The art, which
included works by Monet, Matisse, and Gauguin, was stolen from Rotterdam’s
Kunsthal museum last October in a highly publicized heist and three suspects were arrested in
Romania in January. One thief’s mother now claims to have burned the works, which were valued between
$130 million and $260 million, when she learned police were searching for them.
How often do art thieves destroy their loot?
Almost never. The vast majority of art thieves use their plunder as
collateral instead, using the works as leverage to bargain down criminal
charges. And some art thieves steal art specifically to use it as bargaining
chip at some later date. Throughout Europe, prosecutors are generally willing to
lessen a criminal’s sentence if he can offer a valuable piece of stolen art in
exchange. (Such deals are rare in the U.S.) In Spain, gangs have even taken to
stealing art as insurance, using the purloined pieces to reduce criminal
sentences for unrelated charges like drug possession and car theft.
When an art thief does destroy his stolen works, however, he tends to draw a
disproportionate amount of media attention. In the 1990s, Stéphane Breitweiser
attracted international notoriety for stealing over 100 works of art,
about half of which he destroyed. (His mother helped, cutting up the canvases and shredding them in the
garbage disposal or disposing of them in a nearby river.) In 2011, a thief stole $150 million worth of paintings—including a Matisse, a
Picasso, and a Modigliani—from the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, only to throw
them into a garbage bin, where they were then compacted.
But art-theft experts agree that these instances are rare. Because most
stolen art is so famous as to be unsellable many thieves become curators of
their own illicit collections, keeping them safe (and secret) until they can use
them as collateral. Consequently, the field of art recovery has an extremely
high return rate: About 90 percent of stolen works will eventually resurface, either
in private collections or offered back to law enforcement by
Had the mother of the Rotterdam thief simply held onto the paintings, she
might well have helped her son bargain down to a fairly light sentence. With the
works destroyed, however, the thief has no remaining bargaining chip. Both he
and his mother will likely face charges for stealing and hiding the art—and,
now, for destroying it.
Explainer thanks Robert Wittman, founder of the FBI’s National Art Crime
Team, and Anthony Amore, art theft expert and author of Stealing Rembrandts. Slate.com