What can you do with a stolen Picasso?

Last night a lone thief broke into the Paris Museum of Modern Art, stealing five paintings by Pablo Picass, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Amedeo Modigliani and Fernand Léger. When paintings of this value, the public frequently wonders, just how could anyone steal and then sell something so famous without getting caught? Two years ago, after ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images
BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images
BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images

Last night a lone thief broke into the Paris Museum of Modern Art, stealing five paintings by Pablo Picass, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Amedeo Modigliani and Fernand Léger. When paintings of this value, the public frequently wonders, just how could anyone steal and then sell something so famous without getting caught?

Two years ago, after another rash of high-profile art theft, I interviewed the reformed stolen art dealer known to the blogosphere as "Art Hostage" and put the question to him. I can't vouch for all of AH's claims, but I have confirmed that he's worked as a consultant for several major museums and law enforcement agencies:  

FP: What typically happens to famous or iconic works of art after they are stolen?

Last night a lone thief broke into the Paris Museum of Modern Art, stealing five paintings by Pablo Picass, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Amedeo Modigliani and Fernand Léger. When paintings of this value, the public frequently wonders, just how could anyone steal and then sell something so famous without getting caught?

Two years ago, after another rash of high-profile art theft, I interviewed the reformed stolen art dealer known to the blogosphere as "Art Hostage" and put the question to him. I can’t vouch for all of AH’s claims, but I have confirmed that he’s worked as a consultant for several major museums and law enforcement agencies:  

FP: What typically happens to famous or iconic works of art after they are stolen?

AH: When they get them, they can be exchanged for an amount of drugs which can then be sold. They can be sold to what’s called a criminal venture capitalist who might, lets say, give $1 million for the painting, and then theres a $5 million reward for them. Even if it takes five years [to sell], that’s a 500 percent return on investment. Say I’m a drug importer and you come to me with those pictures and I give you $1 million worth of Class A drugs to sell. I would then pass them on to a criminal venture capitalist or to someone else to settle a debt, and that’s how they change hands. Sometimes, they’ll put it away as a bargaining chip and then later on they might offer it back to get a lesser sentence for something else.

FP: So stolen art is like a form of currency?

AH: Yes, it is. I mean, the mainstream media whores always run out the same line that, Oh, theyll never be able to sell it. Theres no market. I understand why they do that, but it’s a bit disingenuous. Sure, they won’t sell famous art for market value. But if you’ve got four men who steal four pictures in a half-hour heist, plus planning, and sell it for a million, that’s $250,000 for a very small amount of work. Robbers that used to go into a bank or hold up an armored truck found it very difficult to escape and found that they would get very big sentences. But if an armed robber goes into a museum and makes off with art, he can get a similar type of return for a lot less risk, and if he gets caught, the actual penalties are a slap on the wrist. Those guys who took The Scream in Norway? One guy got six years, and one got four years. That’s not really a deterrent, is it?

FP: Back when you were in the business, were you ever approached about buying art of that value?

AH: Well, there was one painting that was stolen that was valued at 5 million. I paid $20,000 for it and sold it for $100,000 within two days. I made $80,000 in two days, and I didn’t care that it was worth 5 million. To be honest with you, the kind of stuff were talking about now, Vermeer and all that, I would put that in a class I call headache stuff. Id much rather deal with a $100,000 piece of silver or $20,000 bits and pieces, but lots of it.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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