How Art Heists Play Out: Stolen Picasso One Year Later

Dec 3, 2015

Among the elaborate parties and gallery exhibits that come to South Florida every year for Miami Art Week, last year an usual heist became it’s own cause célèbre.

Art crimes make up a $6 billion industry worldwide and, in general, if stolen art doesn’t turn up within the first few months, it could be be a long time before it does. 

THE THEFT

Art Miami 2014 was David Smith’s fifth time at the art fair with his Amsterdam-based Gallery, Leslie Smith. 

Friday morning he walked into the fair about 45 minutes before the doors opened to the public. Lines were already forming outside. (Art Miami would draw more people than Art Basel that year.) But when he walked into his booth at the back of the tent, he did a double take. 

  A silver plate called “Visage aux Mains” with an etching of a face and hands by Pablo Picasso worth $85,000 was missing. 

“The realization hits you… it feels  like a minute but  probably was like three seconds,” recalled Smith. “But it was gone.”

 The police came, employees were questioned, insurance was notified, but nothing unusual turned up. A theft from an art fair in Miami, though, is unusual,  and the oddity of it all became one of the big stories of Art Week. 

POSSIBILITIES

So, where could the Picasso piece be now?

“It really would be fun to talk with the thieves, finding what the hell they were thinking,” said Stephen Urice, a  professor at the University of Miami School of Law. He specializes in art and museum law, a relatively new specialty.

Urice said one of the first possibilities that comes to mind is that the silver could have been melted down.

“When silver was at a very high price per ounce a few years ago, that fear was real. Silver is no longer at those record prices,” explained Urice, so if you were going to take the risk of stealing a work of art right under the noses of everyone here for art week, a cash out of a few hundred bucks doesn’t make all that much sense.

Another possibility: The theft was itself a piece of performance art.

“If they did it in order to make a statement about the commodification of art,” said Urice, “then one would have anticipated… some kind of announcement about it,  and then the piece would have been left somewhere for law enforcement to retrieve it.”

And so far that hasn’t happened.

One theory that developed in the early 1960s that may appeal to our dramatic sensibilities is that there’s some rich guy who commissions thefts so he can line his cave with beautiful art.

James Bond (Sean Connery) spots stolen Duke of Wellington painting in 'Dr. No.'

“There was a famous movie called 'Dr. No,' a James Bond movie,” said Robert Wittman, former head of the FBI’s Art Crimes unit. “And in that movie, James Bond goes into Dr. No’s caverns and he sees a painting there that was stolen literally the year before from a museum in London.”

Francisco Goya’s 1812 painting “The Duke of Wellington” was stolen from the National Gallery in London in 1961. Four years later,  it was returned voluntarily by the thief, but the tongue in cheek placement of the painting in the Bond movie planted this commonly held notion that there are figures like Dr. No out in the world who commission art heists for their personal gain.

The Duke of Wellington by Francisco de Goya was stolen from the National Gallery in London and returned four years later, but featured in a James Bond movie.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

“That’s not what happening,” said Wittman, a 30-year FBI veteran.

But that doesn’t mean heists aren’t the things out of movies. “You can have a snatch and grab to Oceans 11 and everything in between,” said  Anthony Roman, president of Roman & Associates, which investigates stolen art among other things.

And in the case of the Picasso, the heist could fall anywhere in that spectrum. There were no security cameras at Art Miami trained on the Leslie Smith Gallery booth, which is not uncommon in these art fairs. There is 24-hour security, though.

CONSEQUENCES

Like most art held by dealers these days, the "Visage aux Mains" was insured, so the gallery didn’t have to swallow the $85,000 loss. But Roman said this is still a loss for the larger public.

“If a piece of art turns up in 20 years, that’s a wonderful thing,” Roman said, “but it was lost for the generation that didn’t get to see it and it suffered great risk of it being damaged” while it was gone.

Art and other objects are part of our “living history,” he said, so even if there is no significant financial loss on the whole, it's a cultural crime.

CRIME IN MIAMI

As is to be expected, art crimes tick up around this time of year. While thefts are always a concern, fakes or forgeries are more common.

FBI Special Agent Rob Giczy works in the Art Crimes unit out of the Miami field office and cautions people to do their due diligence when buying a piece of art.

“Trust your gut instincts about what you’re doing,” says Giczy. “It should be a very fun process,  but it’s rife with being exploited where people want to do that.”

“Take your time with the purchase, use the Internet. Query the art work, know the artists, try and determine what fakes have been offered, what they look like, see how yours falls among that scheme.”

GETTING IT BACK

So right now, someone’s probably just sitting on the Picasso piece because selling stolen art is really hard.

Any reputable person is going to be searching the stolen art databases like the Art Loss Register or the National Stolen Art File, because who's going to fork out thousands or millions of dollars for an illegal purchase?

“They’re good criminals,  but they’re terrible businessmen,” said Robert Wittman. “I always say the true art in an art theft is not the stealing, it’s the selling, because we always recover these pieces when they come back to market. Whether the criminals try to sell them or they finally pass away… that’s when we get them back.”

This self portrait of Rembrandt was recovered in an undercover operation Robert Wittman was a part of.
Credit Rembrandt (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

  He says anyone trying to unload a stolen work of art has to start talking about it in order to secure a broker or buyer. And that’s when the FBI and other law enforcement agencies catch wind of it, through informants and undercover agents. Wittman went undercover for operations that turned up major masterpieces including ones by Rembrandt and Normal Rockwell . He wrote about that time in his book, "Priceless."

But gallerist David Smith isn’t waiting around for the Picasso to turn up. Smith is back at Art Miami this year and isn’t the least bit worried about a repeat of last year. In fact, he’s excited about showing a bit of his own subversiveness.

“We have two large Banksys,” said Smith, “so I’m really happy to show them and wondering what the reactions are going to be.”

As long as this time the person who wants it  pays for it.