An Element of Consolation When Fine Art Is Stolen

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>The big news in an art heist is usually the technique of the thieves, not the art that was stolen—except when highlighting its monetary value. Movie-watchers all, we've been trained by Thomas Crown and his ilk to view art heists as feats, not assaults on our human heritage. Among what seems like an increasingly small number of visual art lovers in the world, of course, heists are an assault—a loss. Gore Vidal once called "the creation of a work of art ... our one small 'yes' at the center of a vast 'no'"; art thieves remove the record of that yes from the public eye.

There is, though, a third way of looking at these robberies: as an affirmation of the art's value. Reading of the five paintings stolen from Paris's Museum of Modern Art earlier this week, I couldn't help but have flashbacks to college economics classes. If thieves are stealing something, it's because it has market value. Those of us who care deeply about any form of art are all too conscious of the market's ability to undervalue what to us is as sacred as a piece of the True Cross. The free market each year has orchestras across the country cutting Brahms performances and replacing them with a half-show of cheesy Christmas tunes—if they offer any replacement at all. In such an environment, I admit to a perverse sense of comfort that someone, somewhere, risked incarceration to steal some Cubist paintings. If paintings are valuable enough to steal then society must be putting a pretty high market value on them. If that's the case, society's doing something right.

Of course, there are a number of problems with this view. Art's high market value has a lot to do with the wacky market visual art inhabits. Paintings are bought largely by people with more income than they know what to do with, and they may well be seen as status symbols rather than as Gore Vidal's "yeses". Nor may criminals even be stealing the art for its high market value (and let's remember: thieves often damage the pieces in the course of stealing them). Art can be a matter of status for criminals, too—in the unsolved mystery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum heist, the thieves bizarrely took a small eagle from the top of a Napoleonic banner, which investigators speculate may have been a trophy steal. Reporters providing art heist background for the most recent robbery confirm that pride, not profit, can be a big motive.

These objections are worth noting, but they don't tip the scale for me. The proud criminal's objection comes nearest, but I find it difficult to believe art heists are largely carried out by fools looking for a thrill. That brings us to the other objection—the one involving buyers. Unless the buyers of stolen art are all crime bosses or secret billionaires in lawless countries, this art isn't being bought as a status symbol: it's too famous to be displayed. In fact, art of this prominence is often too famous even to sell. That's why an art expert at a London insurance company, quoted back by The Guardian back in 2007, said, "we have seen some evidence of stealing to order in various European countries." If someone's paying a criminal to steal a painting that he or she can't display, it certainly sounds like there's an art lover somewhere beneath the felon.

But even if we grant that all market value for art is based on its use as a status marker, and that art heists are a product of this same twisted phenomenon, I'll stand by my strange sense of comfort. Why? Practically, I suppose heists help egomaniacal status-seekers confirm that the art is desirable. Here's the thing: when reading of an art robbery, I'm slightly reassured by the idea that there are still people out there still willing to pay money for a painting. It means patrons aren't dying out. Is it a plus when the patrons are patronizing the arts for the right reasons? Sure: it's great to know that Prince Leopold kept Bach at court because he was on fire for music—that he was a violinist himself, and truly knew the composer's value. But ultimately we—the art lovers and the human race in general—just need the rich folks' money. We need that extra support in a free market that moves so fast it all too often forgets the real value of art—one of the crowning achievements of humanity. And if the extralegal billionaire with a Picasso in his basement even looks at it occasionally, it's a plus. He may have bought it on a lark, but art has a funny way, given enough time and exposure, of pleading for itself.

So: is it a shame that these pieces won't get to plead for themselves on a larger scale, with thousands of visitors to the Museum of Modern Art? Of course. And I'm not encouraging thievery and the black market in the slightest. But I'll hang onto my small, idiosyncratic scrap of comfort—and after all, if we have to choose between stealing art for power and destroying it, as the Taliban did in Afghanistan, I'll take stealing any day.

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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