To Rob a Museum

Born in 1912 in Oakland, California, SIDNEY PETERSON has had an unorthodox career. Among other things, he has been a draftsman for a naval architect, founder of a film company in Seattle, a television director, and a writer of cartoon scenarios for United Productions of America.


WHEN the Boston Museum of Fine Arts lost its priceless fourth century B.C. golden-winged Greek Nike (Victory) for single pierced ear last year, there was more than the usual spate of heightened speculation.

Some thought it mounted to the Lunar sphere,
Since all things lost on earth are treasur’d there. . .

as in the case of an earlier and no less celebrated rape. Others recalled the lines written by Louis Shreve Osborne in the Harvard Advocate for November 10, 1871.

Maiden’s hair is tumbled,
And then and there appeared
Cunning little ear-ring
Caught in student’s beard.

Did the affair of the tumbled maiden illuminate the disposition of the pendant goddess? Who knew what the beard of some larcenous art lover might have contained? Shakespeare had spoken of beards stuffing,

to stuff a botcher’s cushion . . . but not of stuffing beards. Lear lovers will recall the Two Owls and a Hen,

Four Larks and a Wren

who built their nests in a beard, and students of history did not forget that Gaspard de Coligny, the Huguenot admiral, once employed his as a pincushion in which to park toothpicks.

Such crimes, says Life magazine of what it calls the “rising tide” of art thefts, are committed “more often for love of kicks than for money and are consequently the most difficult to trace.” Is it going too far to see in the art criminal’s “love of kicks” something corresponding to the desire for panache of a more flamboyant age, a psychological hunger for acts not so much of protest as of defiance, a kind of intermittent running amuck in museums?

Museum News prefers to describe the “rising tide” as a “rash.” The Legion of Honor in San Francisco recently lost a small Delacroix drawing. A thousand people were in the adjoining rooms when the thief lifted the protecting glass and absconded. The Jamestown Foundation has offered a $500 reward for the return of a seal of that tasteless monarch James I. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Collection in Williamsburg is missing a small water-color portrait of Miss Rebecca Freese of Cairo Forge, New York. A ten-inch bronze by Picasso disappeared from the Galerie Chalette in New York last summer. At the same time, the World House Galleries lost a Renoir sketch valued at $9000. In 1962 two paintings were taken from the University of Nebraska. One of them was a Golden Age by Benjamin West. It was valued at $6500 and turned up in Baltimore when a fence tried to sell it to a dealer. Abroad, the “rash” included some petty pilfering in the Vatican and the extraordinary lifting (through a skylight) of Rubens’ Heads of Negroes from the Brussels Museum of Ancient Art. With the exception of the theft of the original of the picture on the Belgian 500 franc note, all of these crimes have been mere peccadilloes compared with the theft of the Nike, an object as precious in its way as the Cellini salière or the Mona Lisa.

With or without beards (and it should be recalled that the mustache painted by Duchamp on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa transformed it, in the eyes of many, into a work of art), it is impossible to consider the subject of museum thefts without reconsidering the stealing of Leonardo’s masterpiece by an Italian patriot in 1911 —usually described as one of the three greatest individual thefts in the history of art, the other two being the snatching of Gainsborough’s questionable Duchess of Devonshire and the pillaging of Van Eyck’s Polyptych of the Mystic Lamb.

A thirty-two-year-old house painter (like Hitler) named Vincenzo Perugia had worked for a while in the cleaning and restoration department of the Louvre. Early one morning, wearing his workman’s blouse, he went into the Salle Carré, removed the Mona Lisa from its frame, and carried it off without being challenged. Two years later, a Florentine dealer named Geri received a letter from Paris saying, “the work of Leonardo da Vinci is in my possession. It is my dream to restore the masterpiece to the land whence it came and the spot which inspired it.” Subsequently, the thief turned up in Florence. He was arrested, and the painting recovered. Because he had a record of previous conviction, having been sentenced for robbery with violence, and because the police found a list of names of collectors and dealers in his room, including those of Rockefeller, Morgan, and Carnegie, it was supposed that his motives were something less than unmercenary. The patriot, however, stuck to his story of restoration and revenge for the looting of Italy by Napoleon. He received a nominal sentence at the hands of the Italian authorities.

Obviously Perugia’s resemblance to Hitler was purely occupational and coincidental. The two men were not in the same league. In the thirty-nine volumes of photographs of objects stolen by Reichsleiter Rosenberg and his staff, submitted as evidence at the trial of the major war criminals, 21,903 works were represented. The total number of objects confiscated in “the interest of national-socialistic ideological and educational research” for the enrichment of the Third Reich and the systematic cultural impoverishment of the occupied countries was much greater. Miss Ardelia Hall, the Arts and Monuments Officer in the U.S. Department of State, has estimated that more than a million works of art were recovered, identified, and restored after the war in the American zone alone. Innumerable objects were not recovered.

The proportion is contrary to the general rule, which has it that most stolen works of art are recovered, either through police action or the intervention of conscience. The odds against success in the field of art thievery are, in fact, so great that they would be considered prohibitive in almost any other field of criminal endeavor. The same odds do not, of course, prevail in cases of fraud, forgery, and the like, although there, too, the risks tend to be high. According to Commissioner Jean Belin of the Sûreté, there is only one really foolproof racket in the art world, and that is the one of selling and reselling the same picture in a country in which the exporting of important works is prohibited. The work is sold to a foreign dealer, and arrangements are made to paint over it and deliver it abroad. When the paint is removed, a substituted daub is revealed. The original remains where it was. The dealer has no recourse. Comfortable livings are being made in the practice of this dodge.

With the statistical orgy of Nazi looting, pillage, confiscation, and destruction barely behind us, it is difficult to take seriously the idea that the disappearance of, at most, a few dozen objects over a period of some months and in almost as many places constitutes a “rising tide.” A “rash”? Perhaps. The trouble with rashes is that they can mean anything and often do. What we need is not so much a metaphor as a sense of proportion which will enable us to change scales at will and view the single isolated (relatively speaking) event as having more than a statistical importance. We must master the art of looking through both ends of the telescope at once, as it were, not in order to see a crime wave where one does not exist or to deny its existence if it does, but to grasp the elementary truth that the significance of the theft of a work of art may be as difficult to comprehend as the work itself.

PSYCHOANALYSTS who have concerned themselves with the study of thieves and thievery tend to agree that it is important to note from whom objects are taken; whether, for example, a father substitute is involved, as in plundering from an employer or the like. They have no hesitation in stating that such thefts are symbolic of active castration wishes rooted in a form of envy based on what, in women and girls, has been rhetorically described as “the cosmic injustice of their [feminine] bodily configuration.” Marie Bonaparte plunges a little more deeply into the mystique of Tiefenpsychologie by proclaiming apodictically that the taste for collecting things (presumably regardless of how they are collected) always has an origine anale.

The case of William Randolph Hcarst and the silver object reserved for another customer illustrates how difficult it is to make a firm distinction between the compulsive collector and the more kleptic maniac. The great man simply pocketed the object and refused to part with it until threatened with the police. No crime was committed, but the intent was unmistakable. Many have been jailed for less. The dealer, in this case, was Duparcq, then head of the well-known firm of Crichton Brothers. Since the anonymity of the other customer has been preserved, it remains, I suppose, possible that her name was Rosebud.

If it is important to note from whom objects are taken or stolen, it is perhaps equally so to note what they are, or even, occasionally, what they are not. Thieves do not necessarily lack taste or, for that matter, distaste. The art student apprehended in Philadelphia who was accused of stealing a Renoir after he had admitted making off with works from museums in Nice, Perigueux, Montreal, and Pittsburgh denied the charge indignantly, and declared that he did not like Renoir. In this case, the criminal did not lack money. He stole impulsively to satisfy an irresistible need. Courts in most states have held that an irresistible need is not a legal defense unless there is also an inability to distinguish between right and wrong. The same courts have yet to determine whether a dislike of Renoir is a legitimate form of insanity.

THAT mere disapproval may account for some thefts from museums is suggested by the common practice of stealing library books to prevent their circulation. It is easier, of course, to destroy or deface than it is to make off with something, and thus vandalism is more common than thievery. Probably the ideal situation for the really disturbed kleptovandal is one that combines the possibility of gratifying both impulses, as in the case of Lord Elgin and his marbles. Half of the works “stolen" by that celebrated diplomat from the Parthenon and other structures on the Acropolis were sunk at sea, and the damage indicted on the buildings (already sadly damaged) by the removal was considerable. The French have coined the word Elginisme to characterize all similar acts. The theft of the Mona Lisa by Perugia was an act of anti-Elginisme, inspired, at least somewhat, by patriotic sentiment and disapproval of Napoleon. Lord Elgin’s excuse involved disapproval of both Greeks and Turks as custodians of works on which they set no value at the time. The plea has been disallowed by no less an authority than Charles De Visscher, professor of law at the University of Louvain and a judge of the International Court of Justice.

Another celebrated case of anti-Elginisme resulted from Sir Hugh Lane’s failure to have his signature witnessed when he attached it to a codicil in his will. Sir Hugh was the director of the National Gallery of Ireland, and as a result of a misunderstanding with the city of Dublin about how his collection of pictures would be housed, he left it to the National Gallery in London. He changed his mind in the unwitnessed codicil, but the law is clear about such lapses, and the paintings went to London.

There was a great deal of agitation, but the British government decided to keep them there. Forty years later, Berthe Morisot’s Four d’Eté, one of the thirty-nine works in the Lane collection, was stolen from the Tate Gallery. The Irish Student’s Council at once announced its full responsibility. The actual thief was an Irish sympathizer who had a permit to copy and carry canvases in and out of the gallery. Four days after he had accomplished his mission, the painting was delivered to the Irish Embassy. Barnett Hollander, in his exhaustive The International Law of Art, writes the whole thing off as a “stunt for publicity.”

Greeks are at least as patriotic as Italians and Irishmen and, retrospectively, there were those who hailed the theft of the Boston Museum’s Nike as a possible act of anti-Elginisme. The return of the world’s most precious earring to “the land whence it came and the spot which inspired it” might easily have resulted in a nominal sentence at the hands of the local authorities. The law is not entirely uncapricious in making the punishment fit the crime of stealing works of art. Rosenberg was hung, but the half-wit who smashed the Duke of Portland’s precious Barberini vase in its showcase in the British Museum back in 1845 received the alternative sentence of a fine of three pounds or two months at hard labor. Hollander simply comments that in this case “the statute failed to cover the outrage.” In many states, a similar act would still be regarded as a mere misdemeanor.

Undoubtedly it is easier to destroy a vase than to remove a statue from a pediment, just as it is simpler to make a getaway with a small object than with a large one. Also, some media are more vulnerable to either destruction or theft than others. Marble and plaster are particularly stimulating to vandals. Both thieves and defacers seem to have a special feeling for photography. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has suffered more in defense of its sixth-floor tearoom than from depredators in the galleries below, but they turned out in large numbers for the enormously successful Family of Man show some years ago.

It is no secret that the same human family has an affinity for gold. “L’homme ne resiste pas a la magie de l’or,” says Maurice Rheims in his entrancing La Vie Etrange des Objets, which was, at least partly, why, we may assume, Egyptian clergymen used to bury their glittering imperial mummies at night, and even resorted to the device of building false tombs. Fake paintings abound and gilded imitations of precious ornaments are not unknown, but no one has proposed a false museum as a security measure.

The concealment of works in limestone caves, subway tunnels, and such unlikely places is as far as we have gone. It should be remembered, however, that the situation is not yet as desperate as it will be when, as Gerald Reitlinger anticipates in his The Economics of Taste, “everything down to the least glass paperweight is in a cultural institution of one kind or another.” When that brave day comes, as there is every indication that it will, museums will be forced to take the most extreme precautions against mobs of frustrated collectors refusing to fall, as Reitlinger says, “below the level of magpies and marmots.”

The strength of the impulse to collect is beyond dispute. Not only does the whole of human history proclaim it, but likewise the behavior of our poor relations in the rest of the animal kingdom. Birds do it, rats do it, and dogs do it. Rheims calls a terrier who collected golf balls under the impression that they were eggs, a “spécialiste du stockage alimentaire.” He was the canine prototype of the amateur who assembled the world’s greatest collection of croissants, seeking them from every pastrycook and baker in the entire world. Let anyone who doubts the variety of expression of which this impulse is capable visit the Lightner Museum in Saint Augustine and stand convinced. There is nothing, but nothing, that someone, somewhere and sometime, has not collected to assuage an itch that is common to worms, mice, and most people.

According to the author of La Vie Étrange, doctors prefer ceramics, books, stamps, and old coins. Dentists and pharmacists are attracted by contemporary paintings. Lawyers adore the sixteenth century and books. Bankers prefer the eighteenth century and Impressionist pictures. Naturally there are individual differences, and one must always distinguish between the collectionnaire, the amateur, and the curieux, whose special passion has been compared to the sophisticated disorder, the désordre savant, of an English bouquet, whereas nothing is more characteristic of the collectionnaire than his desire for pairs, things of a kind, and sets.

If terriers collect golf balls, men collect bones, and who is to say that the innocence that mistakes balls for eggs is greater than that which deludes itself that it possesses bits of the skeletons of the Cid, of Héloïse and Abelard, of Molière and La Fontaine, as in the case of Vivant-Denon and his assemblage of historic splinters? The impulse thrives on delusion and illusion, but it remains steadfastly true to its prehistoric principle: the right of the individual margot to clutter its own nest. Anything that threatens that right will automatically be viewed with alarm and with the hostility reserved by collectors for their competitors.

The average art museum is not merely a public, as opposed to a private, repository. It poses still another problem as a monument to the increasing burden of organized history. In a very real sense, we have been swallowed by it, just as Metis was swallowed by Zeus, who then gave birth to Athena, one of whose aspects was Nike. Never before in human experience, not even among the Egyptians, has the sense of the past been so much a part of the present, such a weight upon the future. It is almost a religion, and the museum is not only the église descollectionnaires, but also the church of all those who believe in the myths we evoke by our orderly arrangements of artistic relics to accord with the way we happen to be rewriting history. Under the circumstances, it is only natural that we should speak in hushed tones in the chapels of the masterpieces, that we should extend this hush to the temples of the dealers, that we should cultivate certain spoken rituals and employ in our approaches to works of art the languages of love and of theology.

But it is also natural for some to rebel, and the rebellion has been going on for some time. It goes back at least as far as the futurist manifesto of 1910, in which Marinetti, Russolo, Boccioni, Balia, and Severini, among others, called bluntly for the destruction of museums, libraries, and every kind of academy. Perugia’s magniloquent gesture occurred in the following year, and within a decade Duchamp had thumbed his nose at the sterility of the academic religion by providing the Mona Lisa with a mustache. In between, the attacks of the dadaists on the rabbit fanciers of the art world (to recoin a phrase of Hueisenbeck’s) had repercussions that were felt in police courts no less than in the chapels and temples. The rebellion has continued, almost without abatement. Neither the artist, in his way, nor the thief, in his, has stopped his not always unambiguous protest against the invasion of his interests by, on the one hand, the ordering of the past against the present (as though it were possible to stop change by fixing forever values that as recently as the middle twenties were so unfixed that you could buy a very good Stubbs for one fiftieth of what it would cost today) and, on the other, by the scattering of thousands of little Fort Knoxes of art across the landscape of the civilized world, in insolent defiance, as it were, of the rights of private collectors, including those for whom a knowledge of the difference between right and wrong is a matter of taste.

At bottom, this struggle between individuals and institutions manipulated by other individuals may be a conflict between a whole series of objects. The thief, if we are to believe Sartre, who is so persuasive about his Saint Genet, is an object. Like Simone de Beauvoir’s woman, his objectness is multiple. He is one to others and another to himself, before being anything else. A female kleptomaniac is even more multiplicious. Without going further into Sartre’s study of the criminal actor and martyr, it is easy to see that such object-building, so to say, may be continued to embrace not only the objet d’art but the building that houses it. From this point of view every museum theft that is not committed for strictly business reasons is an object-object-object-object lesson, at least. And by the same token, the thief stands revealed not as a collectionnaire or a curieux but an amateur, “fascinated,” as Rheims says, “not by the similarity of objects but by their diversity . . . enchanted by their correspondence to the multiplicity of his spirit.

Those who tend to reject such complexities will naturally turn to the simpler views of the less compounded past, and if they go back far enough they will find themselves in that fabled world in which works of art were so little differentiated from the men who created them that they were regarded as having lives of their own. In that world, painters could wander off into landscapes of their own devising, carved dogs ran, women had children with the help of clay models of their impotent husbands, and dragons soared from the walls on which they had been delineated without the intervention of any merely human agency. According to Pausanias, the ancient Athenians believed that their wingless Nikes would remain with them because, being wingless, they would be unable to fly away. And according to Jane Harrison — whose bird-leaving-thenest theory of Nike wing development sounds completely reasonable to modern ears preoccupied with theories of personality growth — the goddess grew wings when she began to develop a personality of her own and stopped being a mere form of Athena. The Boston Museum’s Nike was not wingless, and she did not remain. And for a while, so long as she was gone, it was possible to imagine that somewhere in a shrunken and implacably divided-againstitself world in which old fables survive largely, if they survive at all, as philosophic fictions, a golden, fugitive, two-inch Victory might actually be fluttering about looking for a place to light. Her recovery from the mud beside the river behind the Museum, where she had been wrapped in a piece of egg carton, placed in a tin can, and buried five inches deep, has, of course, laid that particular figment of fancy to rest, along with recollections of the beard of Louis Shreve Osborne and the lunar flight of Miss Belle Fermor’s stolen lock. In a way, it seems almost a pity.