FBI names most-wanted stolen works of art

In August last year, two masked robbers armed with submachine guns shouldered through the Sunday-afternoon crowd at an Oslo museum and coolly tore Edvard Munch’s The Scream off the wall, making their escape in a waiting black Audi.

The Scream is the most iconic of the images on a newly published FBI list of top 10 art crimes, a catalogue of missing masterpieces worth $600-million that includes works by Rembrandt, Da Vinci, Degas, Cezanne and Van Gogh, as well as thousands of artefacts looted from the Iraqi museum in Baghdad.

The FBI issued its list in the hope of enlisting public help in solving some of the world’s most notorious art thefts, and curtailing a black-market trade worth an estimated $6-billion a year.

The agency posted photos of the stolen art work on its website, along with descriptions of the theft, hoping it will prompt the public to come forward with information on the stolen treasures.

Two paintings were stolen from the Munch museum in the 2004 burglary: The Scream and another work by the Norwegian master, The Madonna. As with some of the other thefts highlighted by the FBI, it was executed with brute force and not the urbane sophistication of the popular image of the cat burglar.

“It is not as creative or sophisticated in the way they steal the art,” said Eric Ives, director of the FBI’s major-theft division. “It’s actually the way they sell the art.
It is much more difficult to sell the art than to steal it.”

Three of the paintings on the FBI list have already been recovered—a Rembrandt self-portrait and two Renoirs stolen from the Swedish national museum in 2000. One of the missing Renoirs turned up in Los Angeles; the Rembrandt was recovered in Copenhagen after a joint investigation by the FBI and the Danish authorities.

But such successes are rare, and the FBI only recently established a dedicated unit for art theft following the looting of the Baghdad museum. Ives put the recovery rate for art work stolen in the United States at 5%. The international recovery rate is believed to be about 10%. Most of those works, in Europe especially, where museums depend on public funding, were uninsured because of the prohibitive costs of premiums for theft.

Other art works from the agency’s top 10 list still at large include: 10 000 figurines, seals and other artefacts looted from the Iraqi museum after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, a dozen paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, which were worth about $300-million, and Da Vinci’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder, worth $65-million, which was stolen from Drumlanrig Castle in Scotland by two thieves posing as tourists.

They join about 160 000 stolen works of art on the art-loss register, a London-based list established in 1991 to help trace missing items and make it more difficult for the thieves to cash in on the real value of their stolen goods.

About 150 works are recovered every year, said Katharine Dugdale, operations manager in the New York office.

“It has made it harder to sell stolen art works at the top tiers of the marketplace. Items registered on the top 10 list are very much exceptional. Presumably, they could not be sold through any of the top-tier auction houses or into a museum collection, so it will make it very hard to get proper value for these items ever.”—Guardian Unlimited Â

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