Two arrested in east Bohemian art heist

Two arrested in east Bohemian art heist
Police recover rare paintings among 4 million Kč loot

Posted: March 19, 2009

By Wency Leung, Staff Writer

Courtesy Photo

In a rare coup against art crime, police in Hradec Králové have arrested two men in connection with a Nov. 10 museum heist, and recovered two paintings by famous Czech modern artists Jan Zrzavý and Václav Špála that were snatched during the brazen daytime robbery.

Police said they have charged a 42-year-old man from the Ústí nad Orlicí area with organizing the crime and a 40-year-old man from the Nymburk area suspected of carrying out the stick-up. Both face five to 12 years in prison.

On Nov. 10, a man entered the Nový Bydžov museum, identifying himself as a guide for a pre-scheduled group visit, said Iva Marková, spokeswoman for the East Bohemian police headquarters.

As he was handed his entrance ticket, the man pulled out a gas gun with which he threatened the lone museum cashier. He then tied him up and dragged him into a separate room, making off with a 1934 Zrzavý painting titled Domek na Ile de Sein, and a 1936 Špála still life, Zátiší s ovocem. The man also stole six historical books, and an unspecified amount of coins and jewelry.

Police estimate the total value of the haul was around 4 million Kč ($189,215).

Marková said police believe the suspected robber, who was in financial difficulty, had been hired by a mastermind to carry out the actual stick-up. The stolen goods were intended to be sold with the help of traffickers, and were likely destined for some undisclosed foreign countries.

“We found most of the objects in the actual possession of the traffickers. In that way, we saved the priceless and historical paintings, all the books and most of the coins and jewelry,” Marková said, adding that the items would be returned to the museum.

When police found them, “most of the objects were already ready to be sold to their final owners,” she said.

Museum officials declined to discuss the robbery, referring media questions to the police.

Marková said police could not reveal the details of their investigation leading up to the March 4 arrest of the two men, but noted that the arrests were the result of nearly three months of “diligent police work.”

Three months is considered an exceptionally short time when it comes to art theft cases, which can take years or even decades to crack. According to Pavla Kopecká, spokeswoman for the Criminal Police and Investigation Service, the majority of art thefts are never resolved at all, as stolen artwork often winds up in people’s private collections. “It’s really impossible to get it [back],” she said.

Around 19,000 art pieces and cultural artifacts are registered in the national police database as stolen or missing from the Czech Republic. The majority of these were reported within the past decade, Kopecká said. The actual number of stolen items may boost that count much higher, as the database doesn’t include thefts that owners do not wish to make public and stolen items for which owners do not have photographs.

The total value of all those items in the police database, which range from paintings and religious artifacts to antique toys, is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of crowns, Kopecká said.

Black market

Armed robberies, like the Nový Bydžov museum heist, are extremely rare, since they are much riskier than overnight break-ins, but even those incidents have declined in recent years due to improved security measures, Kopecká said.

By contrast, however, Kopecká said robberies of private homes are on the rise as the country’s increasingly affluent population accumulates more art for private collections.

As more Czechs become interested in collecting art, there is also a greater market for stolen artwork within the country, she added. Almost all cultural items stolen in the Czech Republic were previously destined for other countries, but police estimate that around half now remain within the country.

Still, art theft in the Czech Republic pales in comparison with France, Poland, Russia, Germany and Italy, which are considered “favorite countries for thieves,” according to the General Secretariat of Interpol.

Famous capers

Perhaps one of the most sensational art heists this decade occurred in Norway in August 2004, when armed thieves burst into an Oslo museum and ripped Edvard Munch’s masterpieces The Scream and Madonna off the wall in full view of visitors. The two paintings were recovered two years later.

Contrary to popular myth, art thefts are not orchestrated by private collectors, willing to go to any lengths for a coveted object, said Maja Bernard of the Art Loss Register, the world’s largest private database of lost and stolen artwork, based in London.

Rather, she said, “there are extremely few cases where the initial motive was not money.”

Art thefts are usually driven by the level of security of a private home, gallery or church, and the knowlege that they house “worthwhile” items to steal, Bernard said.

Where stolen artwork ends up varies dramatically, she explained. A painting by an unknown artist, for example, might find its way to a local art fair, where it is immediately resold to an unsuspecting buyer. Meanwhile, other items, especially paintings by well-known artists, might circulate the black market, where they can be used as currency in the criminal world, before reappearing on the legal market many years later.

Bernard noted that some articles are simply hidden away and only turn up by chance, such as when the person hiding it dies and his property is searched, or when police conduct raids for completely different reasons, such as drug offenses.

– Nina Makelberge and Lucie Rozmánková contributed to this report.

Wency Leung can be reached at © The Prague Post 2009

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