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World View : Picture This: Art Thievery Is Thriving : In Europe, only drug smuggling and illegal arms trade earn more for criminals.

August 16, 1994|WILLIAM TUOHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — In late July, two thieves hid in Frankfurt's Schirn Kunsthalle until the gallery's closing time, then overpowered the sole security guard before he could activate the night alarm system. They handcuffed and gagged him, stuck him in an anteroom and patiently removed three paintings from the walls. Then they carried their booty out the back door to a waiting car.

The haul: two magnificent oils by English Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner and a landscape by the German master Caspar David Friedrich. The three paintings were insured for $45 million. There has been no word from the thieves.

A few hours after the Frankfurt theft, someone broke through the main door of the Rembrandt House Museum outside Amsterdam and made off with two paintings by Rembrandt's tutor, Pieter Lastman. Again, no word from the culprits.

In February, Norway's most famous painting, "The Scream" by Edvard Munch, was stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo. This time the thieves made contact, asking for more than $1 million in ransom for the painting, which was valued at $10.5 million. Police cracked the case, recovering the painting before the money was paid. Two men were arrested.

Last fall, in November, paintings by Picasso and Braque, valued at $60 million, were taken from Stockholm's Modern Museum. The paintings have been recovered and two men arrested.

In the last five years, 38 works by master painters have been stolen from French museums. Last month, a pastel portrait by the 17th-Century painter Robert Nanteuil was stolen from the Louvre, between rounds of the guards. In Budapest last December, about 200 art objects worth $85 million were stolen from the main synagogue, repository of the largest Jewish collection in Europe.

Art theft, always an intriguing crime because of the familiarity and history of many of the pieces, is becoming rampant. Police in Europe now list art and antique thefts as the third most profitable criminal activity--after drug smuggling and the illegal arms trade.

"There's no question, art thefts are very much on the increase, involving millions and millions of dollars," said Detective Inspector Jill McTigue of Scotland Yard's crack art and antiques squad. "Staggering," agreed London insurance adjuster Mark Dalrymple.

The Turners stolen in Frankfurt--"Shade and Darkness" and "Light and Color"--were painted in 1843 and, said Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Gallery in London, which had loaned them to the Schirn, "are masterpieces of European Romanticism. Their theft represents a major loss for the Tate Gallery and for European painting." The Friedrich, "Wafting Mist," was on loan to the Schirn from a museum in Hamburg.

Between 1991 and early 1994 in Italy alone, an estimated $500 million in artworks were stolen, with thefts doubling to reach about 2,000 instances. Said Jean-Michel Mimerand, director of the Office for Repression of Art Thefts in Paris: "France and Italy, closely followed by Spain, are the most pillaged countries. The criminal networks are well organized to get the merchandise out to transit countries very quickly."

In St. Petersburg, sitting in his office in the Federal Counterintelligence Service, Nikolai Musinsky spread photos of stolen objects on his desk and said: "These are almost all Faberge works. Weapons and drugs smuggling are dangerous, but in a way the theft and shipping abroad of cultural treasures is far worse. Who can say what loss the government takes if, say, someone steals a Titian from our Hermitage Museum?"

The Russian National Library is still trying to figure out what's left of one of the world's greatest collections of ancient Jewish documents. At last count, 38 were missing. Librarians believe they were stolen over a period of years and have been offered at private auctions in Jerusalem and New York.

Russia is an art thief's dream. Museums are packed with works--some commissioned by the czars, others confiscated by the Communist regimes--and then there are the Russian Orthodox Church's riches, most of which are unprotected by sophisticated security systems.

One effect of the crime spree is a growing reluctance among museum directors to let treasures leave the building. "I hope thefts won't mean a major clampdown on lending paintings," said David Brown, curator of the Turner collection at the Tate. "We're borrowers as well as lenders."

Sometimes thefts show ingenious planning and inside knowledge, as in the Frankfurt heist; sometimes, as in a case at the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery in Britain last December, a theft is a simple rip-off. The Birmingham thief lifted off the wall a small painting by 15th-Century Flemish painter Petrus Christus, "The Man of Sorrows," and stuck it in his pocket. Five months later, London detectives recovered it from an art dealer in Zurich.

Why the upsurge in art thefts?

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