The Art of Taking (And Giving) Art

This morning a crime was committed in Greece. It was a theft, which by Canadian standards is not a shocking crime. Nonetheless, the incident made international headlines. Why the notoriety? The theft was no run of the mill affair, but a sophisticated art theft from the National Art Gallery in Athens. Three paintings, of immense historical and intrinsic value, were taken: Female Head painted by Pablo Picasso and donated by him in commemoration of Greece’s role in World War II, Piet Mondrian’s Mill, and a 16th century sketch by Caccia.

The theft was reminiscent of many such art heists, such as the 1911 taking of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre and the infamous September 4, 1972 theft of 18 paintings and other artifacts from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Although the recovery of such stolen art is low, the Mona Lisa was returned two years after the fact. Sadly, only one of the 128 paintings taken from the Montreal museum has been recovered to date. It seems that at least in the Art world, crime does pay.

Theft for profit is one matter but objects taken during wartime is another matter of concern. The recovery of art works plundered by the Nazis is still ongoing. George Clooney is presently working on a dramatization of the Monuments Men, a group of art experts who assisted in locating and identifying stolen artwork found by the Allied operation after the end of the war.

Such recoveries can be complicated by the difficulty in tracing the art back to the original owners. Even if the artwork is traceable, many of the new owners dispute the return on the basis they purchased the art in good faith without knowledge the item was stolen. The result is lengthy litigation oftentimes involving numerous parties in an array of international courts. 

In 1998, The Unites States government together with the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum sponsored an international conference on Holocaust-era assets. The conference heard from a number of scholars working in the area of stolen artifacts and art resulting in the creation of guidelines to assist in the return of the objects. The United States created a searchable database to assist museums in detecting the stolen items. However, a recent follow-up study has shown slow progress in identifying the suspect objects.

There are times, however, when art can be “legally” taken as in the case of an Australian hotelier who, as part of a grand marketing scheme, is counting on their guests to commit, well, grand larceny. This “contest” allows any registered guest, who can successfully steal the Banksy art piece from the hotel wall, can keep it.

Bansky, of course, turns the question of art theft on its head when in 2004, he went into the Louvre and hung his version of the Mona Lisa. Which leaves us to ponder this question: is it illegal to bring your own art into an art museum or is it just another form of philanthropy?