Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Stolen Painting?

In the wake of last night's epic theft from a Dutch museum, the founder of the FBI's art crimes team explains why stealing masterpieces is a terrible business plan.

Serbian special police guard a recovered Cezannne taken in an armed robbery. (Reuters)

Dutch police are reporting that seven paintings, including works by Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, and Henri Matisse, were stolen today in a 3 a.m. burglary at the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam. The details are still sketchy, but the Associated Press says the masterworks are potentially worth hundreds of millions of Euros.

To the museum, anyway. For the crooks themselves, the loot might well turn out to be worthless. According to Robert Wittman, founder of the FBI's art crime team and author of the memoir Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures, it's nearly impossible for thieves to sell famous pieces of art, even on the black market. Today I talked to Wittman, who now runs a private art security firm, about why yanking a Picasso is such a bad business plan, his investigations into art capers around the world, and why cheap paintings might be more valuable for a crook. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You're a thief who's stolen a fabulously valuable masterpiece. How do you sell it?

I can't make a blanket statement. But what I can say is, after 20 years of doing these investigations for the FBI, there is a general pattern. And the general pattern is that the criminals who do these jobs, these heists, are good thieves, but they're terrible businessmen. That's what it comes down to.

They read in the newspaper about about the growing value of paintings and the new records that are set every year by Cézannes and Picassos, and then they think that they can get a payday by going out and doing a heist. What they don't understand is that the value of art is dependent on three things: authenticity, provenance -- the history of the art -- and legal title. Those are the things that really do create the value. I mean, let's face it, an artwork is basically a piece of canvass with some paint on it. So whenever you talk about these paintings, it's a matter of authenticity and provenance and legal title. And if you don't have one of those three things, you don't have value.

So it's tough to sell a painting when you can't prove where it came from.

And also legal title. If you steal it, you obviously don't have legal title. So unless a criminal is stealing the painting because he loves it, to put it on his wall -- which in this case I sincerely doubt. You're not going to steal a Matisse and a Picasso and a couple of Monets. They don't go together. So unless you're stealing it just to admire, their attempts to sell it are going to end in failure.

But these are extremely difficult heists, right? How could they go into this kind of thing without a plan for selling it?

You say these are extremely difficult heists. Yes, there have been some. I mean I did one investigation of a $35 million heist in Stockholm, Sweden. The thieves went in with machine guns. They put everybody on the floor in broad daylight. They stole three paintings. Two by Renoir, and a Rembrandt self-portrait. Then they set off two car bombs to stop the police and made their getaway on a high-speed boat. Now, that's well thought out. That specific crime is well thought out. They did a "good" job when it came to stealing the items and getting away. But within the next five years, we recovered all three paintings. The Rembrandt, which was worth $35 million, we got back in an undercover operation in Copenhagen, Denmark, where I went in as a dealer for the "Russian mob," and did a sting on it to buy the piece back. Again, in that situation, they really thought out the crime. But in the end, they had nobody to sell it to.

That's just amazing to me. We're talking about the most important part of the crime!

Absolutely. Another operation I was involved in, it was the largest heist in Spanish history, involving 17 paintings worth $65 million. They were stolen in Madrid. It was a private person's apartment. They went into the apartment, knocked out the alarm systems as well as the guards, took the paintings, and for the next year tried to sell them. Again, we did an undercover operation in Madrid where we met with the thieves and were able to do a sting operation and recovered the 17 paintings. They had no place to sell them.

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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