A Sneak Peek into the Underworld of Art Crimes

Art Crimes - Guernica MoMA

The United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) founded in 2004 a rapid deployment Art Crime Team (ACT). The 16 special agents are in charge of addressing art and cultural property crimes in a specific geographical area. According to FBI, Art Theft Program Manager Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, following the events of the 2003 Baghdad Iraq Museum looting, where thieves stole an estimate of around 15,000 items from the collection the United States government decided to form a special division with specialized training in understanding the art market, and art historical knowledge. However, art crimes and other art-related thefts such as forgeries and vandalism are not unprecedented to our contemporary age. A small overview of some of the art world’s most notorious thefts, scandals, forgeries, and vandalism demonstrates that art history’s timeless treasures have, are and will continue to be the target of criminal activity.

Art Crimes - Museum of Iraq
Art Crimes – Mushin Hasan, deputy director of the National Museum of Iraq lamenting on the looting and destruction of Ancient Mesopotamian artifacts; looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad, 2003 Courtesy of ©Minneapolis Institute of Art

August 21st, 1911 – Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” (1533)
Vincenzo Peruggia’s Disappearing act

The iconic masterwork by the Italian Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most known Art Crimes. The painting features the portrait of Lisa Gherardini. She was the wife of the prominent merchant Francesco del Giocondo, known as La Gioconda, or the Mona Lisa painted in 1503. Although the Mona Lisa’s unclear background, lack of eyebrows, her mysterious gaze and enigmatic smile have resulted in the work being considered both a mysterious yet timeless masterpiece, this is not the only reason why it became the world’s most popular artwork.

In 1908 an Italian workman named Vincenzo Peruggia moved to Paris. He was told by a workmate while working as a carpenter at the Louvre that the Leonardo’s Mona Lisa was one of the most valued works in the museum’s collection. According to Peruggia’s interrogation following his arrest, on August 21st, 1911 he disguised himself as one of the museum’s employees. After that, he went into the empty museum room where the masterpiece was located and he unhung the painting. Then, he removed the protective case and frame, wrapped it around the smock he was wearing and exited the museum through the same door he came in.

Mona Lisa - Peruggia - Art Crimes
Vincenzo Peruggia’s Front mugshot following his arrest for the 1911 theft of Leonardo da Vinci’s Art Crimes: Mona Lisa (1533) from the Louvre. Courtesy of © The Telegraph

This is how the theft brought the attention of the world press to the missing Renaissance masterpiece. The Mona Lisa painting, prior to the event, was not as popular to the general public as it is today. Following the event of Peruggia’s theft of the Mona Lisa, the Director of paintings of the Louvre resigned, and many began to mock to empty space at the museum wall where the masterpiece once hung. For the two years that the Mona Lisa was missing it received massive exposure in the media through postcards, cartoons, and even songs mocking the museum’s security. In 1913, once the uproar of the theft calmed down, Vincenzo Peruggia, who kept the Mona Lisa in a box in his room, motivated by nationalism traveled to Florence with the purpose of selling it to art dealer Alfredo Geri. After Geri contacted Giovanni Poggi, Director of the Uffizi Gallery to authenticate the work, and immediately reported Peruggia to the authorities. Despite the nationalistic pressures to keep the work in Italy, Poggi and Geri both decided to return the Mona Lisa to Paris after exhibiting it in Florence and Rome. While the theft provided mass exposure to the work, and made of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa a popular culture icon, its stature as a timeless masterpiece and subsequent reworking by artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Legér, Andy Warhol, and in our contemporary age Fernando Botero among many more, made it the stable element of our collective memory it is today.

1947 – Han van Meegeren’s Supper at Emmaus, (1937)
Vermeer’s Master Forger

Art Crimes are also committed by art forgers. If Leonardo da Vinci represented the pinnacle of the Italian Renaissance and Johannes Vermeer that of the Dutch Golden Age, their shadowy counterpart in the world of forgeries was none other than history’s most notorious art forger and artist, Han van Meegeren.

After receiving strong negative criticism by art critics during his time, unwelcoming to new talents and quick to praise the work of established artists, Van Meegeren decided to prove that it was the name and not the work itself that sold by forging works by important Dutch painters like Frans Hals, Terboch, de Hoogh, van Baburen, among others.

Around 1932 Van Meegeren began to consider the idea of forging a “Vermeer” work so well that it would be regarded as genuine, led by his disdain for art critics. In a four-year period, Van Meegeren began to secretly experiment with different methods of using pigments and materials available in Vermeer’s time such as his use of lapis lazuli to imitate the lavish use of ultramarine blue characteristic of the Dutch golden age painters. After perfecting his technique, in 1937 Van Meegeren produced in a period of six months the greatest forgery of all, Christ at Emmaus, meant to be a “lost recovered” painting of Vermeer belonging to the intermediate period between his early religious works and later secular works in his career.

Art crimes - Van Meegeren’s Supper at Emmaus, 1937
Art Crimes – Van Meegeren’s Supper at Emmaus, 1937 sold by the artist as a lost Johannes Vermeer work. Collection of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands. Courtesy of © The Telegraph

After providing a false story, Van Meegeren sold the forged work to an inexpert intermediary, which later reached a famous art expert who evaluated the work as an original Vermeer and resulted in a major Dutch museum purchasing the work for the equivalent of $1937 US Dollars. Aside from the medium similarities Van Meegeren ingeniously produced the work in the early style of Vermeer, resembling the strong influence of the Italian Baroque master Caravaggio and similarities with his work Supper at Emmaus in both composition and subject matter. Because experts at the time considered the lack of provenance and annoyance rather than a lack of proof, along with the various scholarship uncertainties and missing works in Vermeer’s oeuvre van Meegeren’s forged Christ at Emmaus was mistakenly evaluated as a genuine recovered masterwork of the Dutch golden age painter.

Van Meegeren’s forgery as an original “Vermeee- ArtCrimes
Art Crimes: Photo taken in 1938 showing Dirk Hannema (right) Director of the former Museum Boymans in the Netherlands, and restorer Hendrik Luitwiele (left) evaluating van Meegeren’s forgery as an original “Vermeer”. Courtesy of © Courtesy Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen; Photo by Frequin, Amherst College.

After being discovered, Van Meegeren was taken to trial in 1947  for Art Crimes. He admitted then to the criminal court his crime of forgery and was sentenced to a year in prison but died the same year prior to serving his term. As proof of his confession, Van Meegeren even agreed to paint another “Vermeer” in front of incredulous witnesses and explain the methods he used to masterfully fool the most respected art experts in the world.

May 21, 1972 – Michelangelo’s “Pietà” (1498–1499)
Lazlo Toth, Unpitying attack on the Pietà.

On May 21, 1972, an unemployed Hungarian-born Australian geologist named Laszlo Toth attacked the Renaissance master Michelangelo’s Pietà sculpture at the Vatican Museum, depicting the Virgin Mary holding the dead Christ after he is brought down from the cross. Toth’s attack lasted a total of two minutes before he was stopped by staff members, resulting in breaking off with a hammer the Virgin’s left arm and arm followed by breaking her nose and chipping off part of the veil on the Virgin’s head. As he attacked Michelangelo’s masterpiece with twelve blows, witnesses recall Toth screaming “I am Jesus Christ – risen from the dead” and although no criminal offense charges were pressed, Toth was sent to a mental hospital for two years and later deported back to Australia as an undesirable alien.

Art Crimes- Michelangelo-Laszlo_Toth_1972
Art crimes: Michelangelo’s Pietá after Laszlo Toth’s 1972 attack, statue shows damages on head veil, face and nose.

Six months after Toth’s attack, the team of restorers at the Vatican gathered to repair the damage made to Michelangelo’s masterwork reported the discovery of an unknown monogram “M” signature of Michelangelo on the palm of the Virgin’s left hand. Commissioned by the French cardinal Jean de Billheres as a memorial for his tomb, Michelangelo was in charge of producing “the most beautiful work of marble in Rome, one that no living artist could better.” According to the 16th century art historian Giorgio Vasari tells of the signature reading on the virgin’s belt that, “One day Michelagnolo [sic], entering the place where it was set up, found there a great number of strangers from Lombardy, who were praising it highly, and one of them asked one of the others who had done it, and he answered, ‘Our Gobbo from Milan.’ Michelagnolo stood silent, but thought it something strange that his labors should be attributed to another; and one night he shut himself in there, and, having brought a little light and his chisels, carved his name upon it.” Regarding his act of signing the sculpture as one of vanity, according to Vasari, Michelangelo resolved to never sign any of his works again.

Art Crimes - Michelangelo’s Madonna
Art Crimes: Damaged open left hand of Michelangelo’s Madonna, evidencing the newly discovered “M” monogram signature by the artist. Courtesy of © Reuters

Prior to its reparation, restorers debated on whether they should leave the work damaged, considering the attack an integral part of the sculpture’s meaning, or repairing the Pietà leaving seams to remind of the severed pieces. Ultimately, the team of restorers agreed on a seamless reparation where the Pietà would appear as though Michelangelo’s hands were the only ones who ever touched the sculpture and as if Toth’s attack had never happened. Despite its seamless restoration, Laszlo Toth’s attack is undeniably now forever part of the history of Michelangelo’s timeless masterpiece.

February 28th, 1974 – Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937)
Tony Shafrazi: From Art Vandal to Art Gallerist.

On February 28th, 1974, the artist and prominent art gallerist Tony Shafrazi is responsible for vandalizing one of the most important works of the 20th century, the Spanish cubist painter Pablo Picasso’s iconic work Guernica (1937) while on loan at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. According to a publication by the New York Times reporting the events, Shafrazi went up to Picasso’s masterpiece and spray painted in red letters over the work the words “Kill lies all” after one of the guards grabbed Shafrazi, witnesses report he screamed, “call the curator, I’m an artist.” After Shafrazi was taken to the police station and asked for the motivation behind vandalizing Picasso’s Guernica he commented: “I’m an artist, and I wanted to tell the truth.” According to Jean Volkmer, the museum’s curator at the time explained that the team of restorers used an organic solvent, xylene, to erase the spray paint.

Art Crimes - Guernica MoMA
Art Crimes: Photograph of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937) showing member of the Art Workers’ Coalition Group Tony Shafrazi’s red-acrylic spray-painted words “Kill Lies All” on its surface. Courtesy of © Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.

Fortunately, William Rubin the Museum’s director at the time of the events commented that the work received no damage, and the coat of varnish applied on the painting acted as an invisible shield protecting the work. Picasso’s Guernica was held at the MoMA (which has one of the largest Picasso collections in the world) on loan by the artist himself, with the promise that one day the work will be returned to his motherland, Spain.

After the artist’s death on April 8th 1973, his estate extended the loan to the MoMA and later requested the work to be sent back to Spain, where it is currently on display at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. In a December 1980 interview for Art in America Shafrazi comments on his 1974 vandalism that “I wanted to bring the art absolutely up to date, to retrieve it from art history and give it life. Maybe that’s why the Guernica action remains so difficult to deal with. I tried to trespass beyond that invisible barrier that no one is allowed to cross; I wanted to dwell within the act of the painting’s creation, get involved with the making of the work, put my hand within it and by that act encourage the individual viewer to challenge it, deal with it and thus see it in its dynamic raw state as it was being made, not as a piece of history.” Shafrazi was given five years’ probation without a trial, and when asked by the judge to promise not to do it again, Shafrazi recalls answering “I said it would be crazy to repeat an act like that…because it had been done.”

Tony Shafrazi and Jean-Michel Basquiat
Art Gallerist Tony Shafrazi and Jean-Michel Basquiat Courtesy of © Tony Shafrazi Gallery

Today Tony Shafrazi is one of the world’s most well-known art gallerists, including in its collection works by artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Donald Judd, Frank Stella, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Francis Bacon and ironically of Pablo Picasso. In 1984 Shafrazi tells People magazine for an article that a few months prior to the interview someone threw a hand-painted brick to the front window of one of his galleries reading “Remember Guernica”, so as to remind the now-prominent gallerist that he once perpetrated an equally destructive vandalistic action on a timeless masterwork upheld as sacred in the art world.

December 7th, 2002 – Van Gogh Museum: Octave Durham and Henk Bieslijn
Vanishing Van Goghs

On December 7th, 2002 Octave Durham and a partner Henk Bieslijn stole from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam Van Gogh’s “View of the Sea at Scheveningen” painted in 1882, one of only two seascapes painted by the artist during his time in the Netherlands; and “Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen” (1882-84) made as a gift to the artist’s mother where his father was a pastor.

In 2004 Durham and his partner were convicted to only two years in prison for the Art Crimes. However, after years of denying his involvement with the crime, Durham agrees to tell the documentary filmmaker Vincent Verweijl the details of the heist for a 45minute documentary on the theft. Both works stolen by Durham and his partner were of inestimable value because they have never been placed on the market. However, Van Gogh’s landscape paintings usually auction between $10 million to $70 million dollars.

Art Crimes - Octave Durham Van Gogh
Art Crimes Octave Durham, responsible for 2002 Van Gogh Museum Theft in Amsterdam interviewed by New York Times 14 years after the events. Courtesy of © The New York Times

To the disappointment of art lovers, Durham and his partner were unaware of the value or historical background of the works, Durham comments that the works were simply the closest to where he and his partner were located and they were also the smallest ones in the gallery. Durham tells that he and his partner thought of stealing one of Van Gogh’s sunflowers and his potato eaters, but there was much more security protecting these works. Both Durham and his partner broke one of the windows with a sledgehammer and lifted the canvas off the wall, they slid down the building with a rope they had set in place and stuffed the paintings in a bag. When coming down the building, Durham accidentally hit the seascape painting and paint chipped off in the left corner of the canvas and left behind his baseball cap, which later assisted authorities with relating him to the crime scene through DNA testing. Durham and his partner sold the paintings through the underground market for 350,000 euros to the Italian mobster Raffaele Imperiale who wrote a letter on August 29th, 2016 to the Italian prosecutor in Naples Vincenza Marra informing him of his possession of the Van Gogh paintings. In September 2016, Italian authorities raided Imperiale’s mother’s home and seized over 20 million euros in other assets including farmland, villas and apartments and most important they found the Van Gogh paintings wrapped around a cloth in a hidden wall space near the kitchen.

After the works were inspected to certify their authenticity and scanned for damages, they were finally returned to the Van Gogh Museum in 2017 after their traumatic odyssey through the underground roads of organized crime and surviving one of the world’s most scandalous Art Crimes.

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