This past June, cosmetics tycoon Ronald Lauder paid $135 million US for Gustav Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer I, setting a new record for the most expensive piece of art sold at auction. Astronomical selling prices of fine art have made headlines over the last few decades – and criminals have taken notice. For a growing number, a multimillion dollar canvas in a relatively low-security setting is too tempting to pass up.
In his book Museum of the Missing: The High Stakes of Art Crime (Key Porter Books, 2006), set for an October release, Simon Houpt (BA 1991 UC) chronicles the evolution of art theft from a specialty of conquering armies into the world’s third largest criminal activity behind drugs and arms trading. Houpt, a Globe and Mail arts correspondent based in New York, says society and media have an increasing fixation on the economics of art. “Very little of the conversations about what I think it should be about, which is culture,” he says.
It is estimated that up to 100,000 works of art – from Raphaels to Monets to Warhols – are currently missing. These masterpieces represent billions of dollars, yet they also represent a lost piece of humanity’s common heritage, says Houpt. “It’s a cliché, but I think people do really hunger for these greater truths. When any piece of art goes missing, we all lose something.”
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1972
In the largest theft in Canadian history, three thieves descended from a skylight in the night, tied up guards on duty and made off with 18 paintings, including Rembrandt’s Landscape with Cottages.
Chácara do Céu Museum, Rio de Janeiro, 2006
Taking advantage of the celebrations in the streets during Carnival, thieves disappeared into the crowd with Henri Matisse’s Luxembourg Gardens, as well as a Picasso, a Dali and a Monet.
Henry Moore Foundation, Much Hadham, Hertfordshire, England, 2005
Using a crane and a stolen flatbed truck, thieves managed to lift – quite literally – a 2.1-tonne bronze Henry Moore sculpture valued at approximately $5.2 million. Authorities worry that the piece may have been melted down for scrap metal.
Iraq National Museum, Baghdad, 2003
A priceless ivory relief of a lion attacking a Nubian was one of about 14,000 objects looted following the U.S. invasion of Baghdad.