Art Theft in Connecticut: Gone Baby, Gone


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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.  

Art Theft in Connecticut: Gone Baby, Gone

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