There is usually little romance in art theftBy John Ashlock
In Dr No, the first James Bond film made in 1962, the normally imperturbable agent does a double take as he is shown around the home of the evil and reclusive Dr Julius No.
What attracted 007’s attention was Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington, stolen from the National Gallery in London a year previously, apparently hanging on the wall.
It was a neat cinematic joke but the truth was more mundane.
In 1965 the painting was found by police in a railway baggage office in London. The thief, an unemployed bus driver named Kempton Bunton, gave himself up shortly afterwards. He had not stolen the Goya on the orders of a reclusive millionaire but had planned to ransom it and use the money to buy television licences for the poor.
Every time there is a major art heist – and the theft of four paintings worth £85 million from the E.G. Buehrle Collection in Zurich on Sunday is one of the biggest – there is speculation that the crime has been carried out to order.
But most specialist art theft investigators are sceptical that such criminal masterminds exist.
Expensive, high profile paintings such as the works taken in Zurich, are impossible to sell in the legitimate art market and difficult to dispose of even via more dubious channels where the thieves find that they have lost much of their value.
Some thieves have simply not thought this through and panic.
In 1991 two armed men took 20 paintings worth at least £5 million each from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. They were found in the getaway car soon afterwards.
Others steal art hoping to get a ransom but this is a high risk strategy because there is a strong possibility that negotiations will lead police to the thieves.
But stolen artworks do have uses in the underworld. They become collateral in drugs deals or are passed on to pay off debts or return favours.
Titian’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt was stolen from the Marquess of Bath’s Wiltshire home in 1995 by thieves who sold it for a fraction for its £5 million market value to a London gangland family.
The latter got into a dispute with a leading sporting figure and eventually let him have the Titian as a peace offering. He passed it on to a crime gang on the south coast and it was eventually found in a carrier bag at a London bus stop.
There is usually little romance in art theft.