Ransoms and Stolen Art

Posted: 28 Feb 2009 10:44 AM PST

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On Friday, the Telegraph ran an article reporting on Lord Myners’ role in the ransom payments made in 1999 and 2002 for two Turner masterpieces stolen from the Tate. Currently, Myners is embroiled in another controversy over a former chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland and his excessive pension fund.

This started my thinking about museums paying ransoms for the safe return of stolen art. Geoffrey Clarfield, former curator of ethnography at the National Museums of Kenya, has written against cultural institutions “appeasing” art and antiquities thieves by paying ransoms. He, like many others who have written on the subject, argues that paying ransoms essentially further fuels art crime.

Simon Mackenzie and others have discussed ransoms and how they can lead to repeat victimization. Often museums will keep a ransom payment quiet in order to avoid the “flag effect.” The “flag effect” argues that certain types of properties that have been stolen from in the past stand out as more attractive targets to thieves. In “Criminal and Victim Profiles in Art Theft: Motive, Opportunity and Repeat Victimisation,” in Art Antiquity and Law 2005, Mackenzie cites for an example of the “flag effect” the rash of thefts across Canada inspired by the prospect of a reward after a ransom was paid for the return of six painting stolen from the Toronto Art Gallery in 1959 (10). After the Toronto art theft, “flags” were placed on galleries and museum by virtue of their poor security.

Mackenzie believes that although insurers and cultural institutions might believe that by keeping ransom payments quiet they are avoiding a “flag effect” on art crime, they cannot avoid a “boost effect” in relation to the particular criminals who are rewarded. The “boost effect” involves a particular target whose attractiveness to theft “was boosted in the eyes of the original thieves or persons to whom they passed information (10).” For an example of the “boost effect” he highlights the case of twenty-eight paintings stolen from Milan’s Gallery of Modern Art in 1975 after which a ransom was paid for their return. “Three months later, thieves stole thirty-eight pictures from the same gallery, including half the ones taken in the first theft (10).” It should be acknowledged that the significant difference between the “boost effect” and the “flag effect” is that the “boost effect” involves the original thieves or those whom information is passed. For another example of the flag effect see the publicity surrounding the 1975 art theft at Russborough House which “flagged” the Beit Collection housed there and led to the following three thefts in 1986, 2001, and 2002.

In the case of the Tate and its Turners, at the time the museum claimed to have kept quiet on the amounts paid for the stolen Turners “in order not to jeopardise the operation.” Also, Lord Myners maintains that the payments were made to informants, and were not ransoms. However, Friday’s article reiterates that the payments, according to the director of the Tate, were made to a German lawyer acting as middleman for the thieves.

Considering Mackenzie’s research done on the “boost effect” and “flag effect”, it seems only appropriate that the Tate would call the payment made a reward for insider information rather than a ransom. Art Hostage has spent many a posts detailing the need for greater rewards and better treatment for informants.

I find it intriguing that Italy, which has a disproportionate number of thefts/looting claims listed on INTERPOL’s database compared to other nations, does not pay ransoms for the return of stolen art and antiquities. Clearly, they need to allocate their funds differently in order to maintain nearly three hundred full-time art crime investigators.

Additionally, their non-negotiable approach seems to fly in the face of art thieves who often threaten to destroy art if their demands are not met. Over the 20th century, thieves have been most interested in building bonfires fueled by stolen art if their demands are not met. This was the threat in the following cases: two Rembrant’s stolen from the Taft Museum in 1973; art stolen from Russborough House in 1974; and Goya’s portrait of Wellington stolen from the National Gallery in 1961. The ’61 art thief refers to the painting in a letter to police as “threepennyworthy of old Spanish firewood.” If only that creative energy had been applied to a more acceptable enterprise.


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