Art Theft in Connecticut: Gone Baby, Gone

 

The thieves know how to pick their targets, and they’re not the well-protected galleries and museums—they’re much more likely to be private homes or public spaces.

The thin man moves through a gallery on the second floor of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale. He passes a line of semi-abstract paintings, some including stylized Hebrew letters painted by a father and son: David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, and his son Daniel, a Yale student. The man knows he has free run of the gallery, having noted that the regular front desk attendant at the center left at 4:30 p.m., and the student who would take over has yet to arrive. The man chooses two paintings that hang at the end of the second- floor gallery, as well as one from the landing leading up to the third floor. He slips out of the center without being seen.

The next morning a janitor enters the Slifka Center to sweep and mop the floors. When he reaches the second-floor gallery, he does a double take. There are two blank spaces interrupting the rhythm of paintings hung on the wall. His first thought is that the paintings were removed for some official reason—perhaps one of the artists took them down. But he informs the desk attendant all the same. The desk attendant also thinks that Daniel Gelernter must have taken them down—he’d removed them in the past, touched them up and returned them to display. It was only the following day, March 5, 2009, that the Gelernter family was contacted, after a third painting, the one from the landing, was also noted missing.

The three paintings in question were “Sh’ma” and “Naria,” by David Gelernter, and “Drawing III,” by Daniel. Those by David were of considerable value, having been sold as a pair for $40,000.

Now they were gone.
 

Through the grainy CCTV camera, we watch as the same thin man moves surreptitiously through an exhibition space, this one on the lower floor of the New Haven Public Library. He moves quickly down a corridor, a painting in his hand. He then slips the painting into a plastic shopping bag, covers it with his overcoat and moves to the library exit.

It was not until a volunteer curator came to dismantle the library’s municipal art exhibition, that a number of thefts were noted. Five works had disappeared. They must have been taken sometime during the last two weeks of February, but no one had noticed. It was only in March, after hearing about the Slifka Center thefts, that someone made the connection: Someone was stealing art, and on an impressive scale.  

The library haul included two paintings by Chris Ferguson: “Beware of Dog,” a humorous composition in which a cute stuffed dog sits slumped on the stoop of a whitewashed house, and “Energy,” in which a little girl walks unsteadily as her mother looks on. Also missing was a painting by Brian Wendler of Grand Avenue Bridge in New Haven, a painting of East Rock by Constance LaPalombara, and an etching of City Hall in New Haven by Tony Falcone. The works were valued at around $6,000 total. Not exactly “The Scream,” but stolen art nonetheless.
 

 

Art is, unfortunately, surprisingly easy to steal. While thefts are rare from major museums, which boast expensive alarm systems and full-time security staff, far more common are instances such as the New Haven thefts, in which locations are targeted by thieves because they have little or no security. In Europe, the majority of stolen art comes from undersecured churches or private homes. In the U.S., private homes and small galleries are hit far more often than large museums. But while art may not be so difficult to steal, it is very difficult indeed to sell for any semblance of its actual value.

Things were different in the pre-Internet era, but today, the moment an artwork is noted as missing, its image and description can be emailed around the world. Unlike looted antiquities—many of which are stolen directly from the earth or the sea and will therefore never appear on a stolen-art database—art taken from collections is instantly recognizable, and usually too hot to handle. There is little to no market for art known to have been stolen; the idea of a Dr. No-style collector who knowingly buys stolen paintings that he can never show anyone is largely the stuff of fiction. Thieves who turn their attention to art must have another plan in mind.

Artworks are often stolen in order to be ransomed back to the victim or their insurance company, like the paintings stolen from the Emil Bührle Collection in Zürich or the Munch Museum in Oslo. Some little-known works, like those taken in New Haven in 2009, might be shopped around by the thief to unsuspecting buyers—but anyone with an Internet connection or an eye to various news sources will have learned, within days, that the paintings in question were stolen.

Another option remains for thieves with a link to organized-crime groups, from small local gangs to large international mafias: Some stolen art is used as a tool for barter or as collateral in deals between gangs that trade hot art for other illicit goods. A famous example took place in 1986. Martin Cahill, a notorious Irish gangster, organized the burglary of Russborough House, a mansion-turned-museum outside of Dublin that has the dubious distinction of having been burgled of its art on four different occasions. Eighteen works were taken, including a Goya and a Vermeer.

But Cahill did not have a good plan in place as to what he would do with the art. He, like so many people, assumed that he could find a collector who’d buy these multimillion-dollar paintings for something approaching their full value. When he could find no such person or none who did not appear to be a policeman in disguise, he hatched another plan.
He smuggled the Vermeer to Antwerp, where a crooked diamond merchant took it as collateral on a loan for a million pounds. The idea was that Cahill would take the million pounds, invest it in another criminal enterprise and then repay the loan, with the Vermeer once more returning to him, to be used as collateral in future deals. The Vermeer, worth tens of millions on the open market, was thus given the value of one million pounds on the black market.

That was the plan, at least, until the Antwerp diamond merchant grew antsy and decided to move the Vermeer before Cahill had a chance to repay the loan. The merchant wound up selling it to Charlie Hill, an American undercover agent working for Scotland Yard, who was posing as a criminal art dealer. The Gabriel Metsu painting, also stolen from Russborough House, was recovered by police in Turkey, as it was being traded by one criminal gang to another for a shipment of heroin. In the Cahill case, we see art stolen from a single venue used both as collateral, and in a barter system for other illicit goods.

However, high-profile instances like the Cahill case, involving world-famous paintings and millions of dollars, are rare. What happens far more often, and flies beneath the radar of the media and police, are cases like the Connecticut thefts of February and March 2009.  
 

 

The Slifka Center and New Haven Public Library thefts did not prove difficult to solve. Police found no clues at the Slifka Center, but the CCTV footage at the library turned up the thief, who was immediately recognized by a library security guard.

He was Dennis Maluk, a 53-year-old resident of 70 Fairmont Avenue, New Haven, and a heroin addict. The police detained him in no time, and he was not reticent about disclosing the whereabouts of the paintings he had stolen. The big surprise was just how many he had lifted—a man who did not identify himself as a professional criminal, and who stole in order to feed his drug habit. Maluk had stockpiled at least 39 artworks, mostly paintings, from the greater New Haven area, in a matter of months. He had no idea of their worth, and it did not matter to him. Some of the paintings he had taken, like those by David Gelernter, were worth tens of thousands of dollars. But Maluk told police that he would swap stolen art for a few days’ worth of heroin, with a street value of perhaps $30 or $40 a pop.

Maluk quickly directed police to the home of his dealer, a member of a local criminal gang, Bruno Nestir. The 47-year-old New Haven resident was arrested on March 14, 2009, when police raided his home. What they found there was a microcosm of the venomous cross-trade in art, drugs and weapons. The illicit contents of Nestir’s home included 39 artworks, two shotguns, two rifles, two revolvers, quantities of heroin and marijuana packaged for street sale, and $947 in cash.

Only one of the artworks hung on Nestir’s wall, the rest were stacked on the floor, removed from their frames. Nestir, like Maluk, had no idea of the value of the art in his possession: objects that had been swiped from the Slifka Center, the library, the New Haven Legal Assistance Association and Yale-New Haven Hospital, among others. Nestir had simply understood that art has some value, surely greater than the $40 hits of heroin for which Maluk was willing to trade his stolen goods. Nestir told investigating detective Scott Branfurh that he was interested mostly in the frames—which would have find a market far more easily than the art itself. He had no idea what to do with the paintings.

Maluk had transformed himself into a thoughtful, professional art thief—although a very far cry from suave Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief. Maluk would “case” buildings, choosing places that were not primarily art centers, but which displayed works of art. These would rarely have art-specific security, and a missing work might be overlooked for some time. He would familiarize himself with the layouts and the habits of the staff, then wait until the building was about to close before taking a work of art, masking his exit by leaving en masse with other patrons. He chose works that were displayed near an exit, staircase or doorway, so that he would not have to walk far with the loot.
 

Maluk could be considered a professional art thief, but he stole for goods, not cash. Outside of the romanticized walls of film and fiction, there are very few criminals who might be considered dedicated art thieves. Most who steal art do so only once, and often on orders. The number of thieves who have stolen art more than once is very small: examples include Miles Connor, a Massachusetts thief who published a memoir about his exploits; Stephane Breitweiser, the Swiss waiter who stole, and kept, over a hundred paintings; Farhad Hakimzadeh, a wealthy Iranian who plumped his collection of rare maps and manuscripts with artifacts from the British Library; and Edward Forbes Smiley III, an antiquities dealer who was arrested for having taken over 100 rare maps from New England university libraries, including the Yale Beinecke Rare Books Library.

Hakimzadeh and Smiley may fit the Thomas Crown stereotype, but the vast majority of criminals involved in stolen art are more like Dennis Maluk, about whom there is nothing glamorous. The world is full of hundreds, if not thousands, of variations on Maluk who, cumulatively, rob the world of thousands of artworks every year.
 

 

It’s impossible to assess the true extent of art theft in any state. The Connecticut State Police (like their counterparts elsewhere) do not distinguish stolen art from other stolen goods. Art theft is an act of larceny and is treated as such—only stolen automobiles are filed in their own separate category, so there are no available numbers on art theft in the state. Throughout the U.S., there are fewer than 1,000 reported art thefts per year, less than 5 percent of what is reported in Italy. The U.S. tends to be a destination for stolen art and looted antiquities, which are smuggled to major markets like New York, while the majority of cultural goods are taken from source countries with a far longer history of creating art. There are only a few thousand entries in the National Stolen Art Database maintained by the FBI (as opposed to over 3 million in Italy’s database), so the problem is not as widespread as it is in Europe. However, what is dismissed so often as an unimportant crime category is darker and more complex than most realize, as the links between various illicit products, from art to drugs to animal parts to firearms demonstrates.

Last May was a busy month for art theft with Connecticut ties, and one that briefly brought into focus many of the far-flung aspects of the crime. Federal wildlife agents arrested a couple in Alaska whose stash of illicit goods included illegal animal parts, machine guns and five paintings that had been stolen from a Bloomfield home in 2005. In total, the paintings were worth around $400,000. Later that month, a rash of thefts of silver and bronze objects, many of them fine artworks, took place in the Old Lyme/Deep River/Westbrook area. A theft from a Lyme home included Chinese carvings, a 19th-century mahogany box, a nine-piece Tiffany silver set, sets of English Derbyshire flatware and a narwhal tusk. In Deep River, a family lost a large bronze sculpture, weighing 250 pounds and standing 5 feet tall, worth several thousand dollars. And, still in May, Robert Gentile’s Manchester home was searched by FBI agents, who suspected he was involved in the largest art theft in history, when $500 million worth of art treasures were stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The crime has never been solved, and a $5 million reward is still outstanding. Gentile, 75, is a former member of a Boston-based mafia group led by Robert Luisi. While the police found no stolen art, they did dig up a pistol and silencer buried in the back yard.

These May episodes all bear the markings of organized crime—the silver and bronze thefts in the lower Connecticut River Valley took place over an extended area, with many locations targeted. The Alaskan couple who were found with the five paintings stolen from Connecticut were part of a larger organization trafficking in the variety of illicit goods.They pleaded guilty to selling hundreds of pounds of illegal walrus-tusk ivory, two polar bear hides and two unlicensed machine guns. And Gentile had been a well-known member of a major New England mafia family.  

Whether or not you are an art lover, there is good reason to protect art. While the preservation of cultural heritage may not be reason enough for everyone to take art crime seriously, impeding the trade in drugs and arms, and even terrorist activity, certainly is. Next time you read about stolen art, don’t think Thomas Crown. It is far more likely that the art will go toward funding drug deals than decorating some collector’s bedroom wall.
 

Art Theft in Connecticut: Gone Baby, Gone

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