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Munch works join already huge ranks of AWOL art

'The Scream' and 'Madonna,' stolen in Oslo, are among 150,000 items that may never be tracked down.

August 27, 2004|Mort Rosenblum | Associated Press

PARIS — Edvard Munch's stolen "The Scream," spirited away by bandits who stormed a Norwegian museum, joins more than 150,000 works of art that specialists say may never be found.

Then again, they add, it may turn up overnight. When a version of Munch's famous painting was stolen in Oslo during the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, it reappeared in three months. The culprits tried to collect a $1-million ransom from the government but ended up in handcuffs.

"These thieves are usually very naive, and they seldom think through their robberies," said Karl-Heinz Kind, Interpol's special officer for art theft. "It's rather easy for them to make the first step, overcoming security people and stealing the item," he said. "But finding someone willing and able to buy it is a long, difficult process."

Most likely, he said, the thieves would be in contact with museum authorities in hopes of negotiating a ransom.

"The Scream" would be worth perhaps $70 million if auctioned legitimately. The thieves also took Munch's "Madonna." The works were painted in 1893 and 1894 as part of the artist's "Frieze of Life."

A high-profile piece such as "The Scream" is hardly likely to be sold unless a private collector buys it to be hidden, as in the film "The Thomas Crown Affair."

Kind dismisses that as unlikely fiction. "It is contrary to human psychology," he said. "People would be too tempted to show it off."

But Bryan Roberts, a gallery owner in Columbus, Ohio, who keeps track of missing art, cited past cases of rich art fanatics who were content to keep rare works under wraps.

"Absolutely, people hide things for themselves," he said. "Especially pre-Columbian art. Some of these pieces disappear from the face of the earth, found only when someone dies, if then."

Huge amounts of stolen art simply vanish.

According to a recently published estimate by London writer Edward Dolnick, "The Museum of the Missing" would include 551 Picassos, 43 Van Goghs, 174 Rembrandts and 209 Renoirs. Interpol's running database lists 20,000 missing works of art, half of them paintings, but the Art Loss Register in Britain tallies about 150,000. And Italian authorities list many more.

Roberts said he expects "The Scream" to resurface soon. "But," he added in a telephone interview, "you always have to worry about these things. You can never know what might happen."

In 2002, for instance, the mother of a French art thief destroyed art worth more than $1.4 billion, including canvases by Antoine Watteau and Peter Bruegel.

After her son, Stephane, was arrested for stealing an antique bugle from a Swiss museum, police said, Mireille Breitwieser cut hidden paintings into tiny pieces and dumped artifacts into a canal.

Jonathan Sazonoff, a privately funded art sleuth in Chicago, agrees with Kind at Interpol that well-known paintings are stolen mostly for ransom even though few thieves manage to collect.

"There are a lot of stupid criminals in the world," he said by phone. "There is no Mr. Big or Dr. No, just a lot of people who think they can make an easy killing."

Even against these amateurs, he said, "international police efforts are ridiculously inadequate."

Although Interpol issues bulletins of thefts, it does no investigation. Often it is not told when art is recovered so that it might be removed from the database.

Sazonoff said that in the United States, he knows of only one art specialist at the FBI and another at the Los Angeles Police Department.

James Beck, a Columbia University expert who runs Artwatch, a voluntary organization to protect paintings, agrees that priceless paintings are often at high risk.

Sometimes canvases are snatched on guided tours of old castles and homes, with unarmed guards watching in helpless frustration.

"A lot of these guys are crazies who work alone, and they just do it for the notoriety," Beck said. "But since at least two took 'The Scream,' this was likely a theft for ransom."

In some cases, ransoms are paid and paintings are returned, he said. That encourages more theft.

Beck said he was not surprised at the lax security in Oslo.

"Most of these museums are run on small budgets, and they just can't afford it," he said. "Even the Uffizi [in Florence] has to close down rooms for lack of funds to protect the paintings."

In some cases, paintings are believed to be stolen to order.

While crowds in Oxford, England, celebrated on Dec. 31, 1999, thieves spirited away Paul Cezanne's "Auvers-sur-Oise," worth $5 million. It has yet to be found.

Insurance only rarely comes into the picture, Kind said. Private collectors might be covered, but adequate protection can be extremely expensive.

"Very often, paintings are not insured at all," Kind said. "Look at all that is displayed and stored at the Louvre. It would be impossible to pay the premiums. All they can do is keep watch."

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