Gone, Baby, Gone

Gone, Baby, Gone

The ways in which cons nick works of art are vibrant many, and they’ve been getting more dramatic

Charles Bonnet, a popular art collector of France, is an expert at creating fakes of original paintings, but his luck almost runs out when he lends a statuette of Venus to Kleber-Lafayette Museum in Paris for an exhibition, claiming it to be an authentic sculpture by the renowned Benvenuto Cellini. David Leland, an American tycoon who visits the museum, instantly falls in love with the statuette and is keen on acquiring it, but Bonnet’s daughter Nicole insists it is not for sale, fearing her father would be exposed. But Leland manages to convince the museum which sends the relevant papers to Bonnet for his signature. That is when the drama unfolds.

Desperate to save her father, Nicole hatches a plan to steal the statuette from the museum with her friend Simon Dermott. The two hide in a utility closet and after the museum shuts for the day, Simon sets off the burglar alarm. Police rush to the spot and find that nothing is missing. Simon once again activates the alarm and this time too when the police find everything intact, they suspect a glitch in the system and switch it off. Nicole and Simon then make good with the statuette.

Real vs reel

This is a plot from the 1966 Hollywood comedy film How to Steal a Million starring Audrey Hepburn, Peter O’Toole, Eli Wallach, and Hugh Griffith. But there is not much of a difference between reel and real-life heists, though the modus operandi and the motive for stealing could vary. In India, breaking into a museum is a relatively easy job as most of them are not even equipped with basic security apparatus like a burglar alarm system.

A case in point is the recent theft at the Nizam’s Museum, Hyderabad, where burglars managed to walk in and out unnoticed, decamping with gold tiffin box, a diamond-studded teacup, a saucer, and a spoon, worth over Rs 40 crore in the antique market. The duo, Mohammed Ghouse Pasha and Mohammed Mubeen, had conducted a thorough recce of the museum, marked the location of security cameras, and identified a ventilator through which they would enter.

Unluckily for them, on the D-day, the ventilator failed to open and they broke in through a window called Mata-ki-kidki, only to be captured by cameras. One of them also made the mistake of using his mobile phone. The museum houses over 1,000 expensive gifts received by the last Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan. After picking up the three prized articles, the burglars tried to lay hands on a Quran with a golden cover, but the call for morning prayer from a neighbouring mosque rattled them and they made a hasty exit.

Though Pasha and Mubeen intended to sell their loot, they first wanted to experience the luxury of the Nizam. During the next seven days, they ate from the golden tiffin box with the golden spoon, and drank water from the diamond-studded teacup. In the meanwhile, police identified the thieves through the camera footage and the mobile phone location, and they were soon caught. But Pasha and Mubeen experienced the life of the Nizam if only for a week.

One of the most well-known heists, which perhaps inspired How to Steal a Million,was the theft of Leonardo da Vinci’s 16th-century masterpiece ‘Mona Lisa’ in 1911 from The Louvre in Paris. A worker, Vincenzo Peruggia, who was hired to install protective glass over the paintings, hid in the closet at night and walked away the next morning with the Mona Lisa hidden under his smock. The painting, which until then was not very well known, became notoriously famous after it was stolen, making it difficult for Peruggia to get rid of it. Though he remained the prime suspect, the police, who quizzed him two times in the course of the investigation, drew a blank. After hiding the painting in the false bottom of a truck for about two years, he was finally caught in 1913 while trying to sell it to a Florentine art dealer. The ‘Mona Lisa’ is now the most famous piece of art at The Louvre which is visited by over 15,000 people from across the world every day.

In India, museum thefts have not been less dramatic. When Vinay Parmar walked into Delhi’s National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum last year and presented himself as a researcher specialising in Kashmiri shawls, nobody suspected him. Over the next few days, he continued his ‘research’ into the shawls and silently gauged their cost. One evening, he hid in the museum after it closed for the day and started raising an alarm a little later, following which he was let out by the staff. Paramar later told the police that he was signalling through the cameras focused on the shawls and when nobody came to his rescue, he realised that the museum was not under live surveillance. Rather, the cameras were not working.

With a perfect plan in place, Parmar returned to the museum on a Saturday evening with his cousin Tarun Harvodiya. While Parmar left the museum with other visitors, the cousin hid in the basement. The operation did not take much time as Parmar had given detailed specifications of the colour of the shawls and their display boards. Harvodiya picked up 16 expensive shawls which were procured by the museum between 1959 and 1967, broke down a window and escaped.

The security was so lax that since the museum was closed on Sunday and Monday, the theft was detected only on Tuesday. Unfortunately for the cousins, police scanned all the mobile phones used in the area at the time of the theft and succeeded in apprehending them with the shawls in a matter of days.

Tight security, though, need not be a deterrent. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts was burgled twice within a span of two months in 2011. This was the third incident after 1972 when three armed robbers rappelled down the walls, overpowered the security guards and escaped on foot with 50 artworks and paintings worth over $2 million.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston continues to hold the record for the single largest and perhaps the most dramatic burglary when art lifters decamped with several works of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas, and Manet. On the fateful day of March 18, 1990, two men dressed as police officers, one with an artificial moustache, knocked on the doors of the museum in the wee hours of the morning claiming to be responding to an emergency call. Once inside, they handcuffed the security guards and spent nearly one-and-a-half hours collecting their loot and even making two trips to the car. The crime remains unsolved even 28 years hence, and the museum continues to display empty frames with the hope that the paintings will one day return home.

The Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo has the distinction of the same painting being stolen twice. A painting of poppy flowers by Vincent van Gogh was first stolen in 1978 and was recovered two years later from Kuwait. In 2010, the painting was cut from its frame and went missing, never to be found again. Investigations revealed that most cameras and burglar alarms were malfunctioning at the time of the theft.

In 2000, burglars staged two car explosions near the Stockholm Museum in Sweden to distract the police. In the confusion that followed, an armed man walked into the museum with his accomplices and disappeared with Rembrandt and Renoir paintings worth $30 million.

What motivates thieves to burgle museums? One of the biggest incentives is that small pieces of art are worth several millions, and are easy to transport without being detected. The usual motive for theft is resale, but there are several instances where demands have been made for ransom to return the stolen articles. Renowned paintings and artefacts are also a money laundering front for terrorist or organised crime groups. They are sometimes used as collaterals to secure loans.

There are also instances of steal-to-order, where only pre-identified articles are nicked. Such a case was recently reported in a Bath museum where masked men broke in through a window and picked specific jade and other expensive objects. Since the burglars knew in advance what they wanted to steal, the entire operation was over in a jiffy. Though the police arrived within five minutes of being alerted, the burglars were gone. Often, museums themselves unintentionally facilitate such targeted thefts, by publicly listing catalogues of their collections. This serves as an open invitation to criminals looking for particular pieces of art.

Unfortunately for robbers, their efforts may not bear much fruit as selling the stolen booty is usually an impossible task. A connoisseur of art would definitely be aware that the work is stolen and would not venture to purchase it as the very purpose of owning the piece is lost since it cannot be displayed. Where ransom is the motive, thieves have often returned the articles without collecting any payment, for the fear of being caught.

Nobel Prize medals also have for long been a favourite among thieves. While the medals fetch a small fortune in auctions, stolen ones have no takers and are usually melted for their gold or kept as souvenirs. But here too there could be some disappointment in store. Until 1980, the medals weighing approximately 200 gm were made of 23-carat gold. Now, they are of 18-carat recycled gold with a coating of 24-carat gold and weigh about 185 gm. Thus, stolen medals are of little value.

Given this background, only five to 10% of stolen artwork is recovered. While a small percentage may appear a few centuries later in some auction house, a large amount remains untraceable either because they are hidden or even destroyed after realising they cannot be sold.

Mom knows best?

In 2012, a Romanian gang stole paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Gaugin and Manet worth over $24 million from the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Though the thieves were apprehended, the paintings could never be found. It later came to light that the mother of one of the burglars had first buried the works in different locations and then burned them so that police would not find any evidence against her son.

Not surprisingly, high-priced stolen items have been found at the unlikeliest of places. When retired couple Jerry and Rita who lived in rural New Mexico died last year, the home’s furnishings were sold to a local antique shop for $2,000. Among them was a painting Woman-ochre, worth $100 million, which was stolen 32 years ago from the University of Arizona Museum in Tucson. A Marc Chagall painting that went missing 30 years ago in 1988, was recovered from the attic of a man connected with an organised crime gang. A stolen Edgar Degas Pastel painting valued at $1 million was found in the luggage compartment of a bus outside Paris, without any claimants. A $1 million 2,500-year-old sandstone carving lifted from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts was seized from the house of an unsuspecting yoga teacher who had bought it for a mere $1000. In 2011, stolen masterpieces worth over $1 billion, suspected to have been looted by the Nazi regime from 1933 to the end of World War II to shift them to museums in Third Reich were discovered in a house in Munich, Germany.

While many consider museums uninteresting, stories of heists have universal appeal because of the filmi-style with which they are executed. While poor safety measures usually serve as an encouragement, burglars manage to find a way around even when the security is extremely tight. Either way, museums are sitting ducks. But what is intriguing is why do burglars go to such great lengths risking their lives to burgle museums when they are fully aware that it is almost impossible to dispose of the stolen articles. Some questions have no answers.

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox