Was 1961 the year of art theft? Thomas B. Hess wondered just this in an op-ed published in the September 1961 issue of ARTnews. Hess’s essay, in which he terms the craze “the art-theft fad,” follows in full below.
“The art-theft fad”
By Thomas B. Hess
September 1961 Stealing art used to be the sporadic activity of psychopaths whose personalities had become romantically lost in an object. Watteau’s L’Indifférent was sneaked out from the Louvre by a mad connoisseur who wanted to protect his beloved object from the hands of museum conservators. He wanted to clean it himself. The Mona Lisa was stolen in a fit of opéra-bouffe patriotism by an Italian who decided his country’s honor was traduced by the French government’s flagrant possession of Leonardo’s masterpiece. These were gentle maniacs, art lovers, passionately devoted to works of the human spirit. Like artists, they were concerned with things above money, beyond common-sense, outside the petty understanding of guards, curators and policemen. Their thefts were a kind of hostile reverence.(When art became glamorous, paranoiacs, from time to time, would attempt to get into its aura by acts of vandalism or thefts. When art became associated with colorplates, students, from time to time, would attempt to hang superior “facsimile reproductions” on their walls by stealing the originals. Neither of these manifestations need concern us here beyond noting their curious existences.)Now we have changed all this. Real thiefs seem to have taken over. In the past few months [see listing below], accompanied by hectic newspaper publicity and a torrent of misspelled names, important works of art have been stolen at a tempo that suggests a new fad, and with a regularity that has made some otherwise knowledgeable newspaper people believe that there is indeed a black market for hot paintings — or that there is a system of getting paid for them, by ransom or insurance settlements. The risky enterprise looks suddenly profitable, with satisfactions in cash.
This development is not surprising when one considers how the public’s new interest in art has been shaped by vulgarizing books, magazines and films, by gossip-columnist’s items about starlets’ Renoirs, by newspapers which, in their cynical naïveté, will accept the fact that Michelangelos turn up every summer in Chicago pawnshops. Art has been turned into a Big Story, and the content of each story is the dollar sign.
“So-and-so buys, sells, shows, collects, despises, knows something or anything about such-and-such a painting which is worth a price said to be in the six, four, five, eight or whatever figures … only five years ago it was discovered at a blind Syrian antiquarie’s who bought in in the effects of the Lusignan heirs during the Smyrna events for six millions or six hundred…” Money is the only subject that the art popularizers ever really talk about, the only spiritual denominator in their conversations with History. Every facet in a Cézanne tablecloth, every blond tress in a Watteau, each impasto from Goya’s spatula, comes to the public through the entrepreneurs with “$” stamped on it. A newspaper writer can no more think of “the Barnes Collection” without the phrase “five-hundred-million-dollars” than a sportswriter can of a left-handed athlete without the designation “southpaw.”Everybody has helped create the impression that art is a commodity, and that the justification of art is its cash value. Museums, in their staid little press releases, guess at how much a traveling exhibition might fetch at auction. “International currency experts” (e.g. one Franz Pick, quoted by the columnist Sylvia Porter) talk about things like, “since 1945 the ‘blue chips’ among the Impressionists and Post-Impressionist paintings have soared 2,000 per cent and more … nothing beats this stuff, nothing.”Is it any wonder, then, that thieves finally have been convinced, against their better judgements, that art is something that can be stolen and sold? Their newspapers, magazines, pocket-books and jumbo-museums have been trying to make them aware of art for years by just such an argument. What thief can be so cynical as to disbelieve them all? How would it be possible to convince an honest burglar that “2,000 per cent and more” of everything he hears and reads in the mass mediums about painting and sculpture is meretricious rot.Actually there is no underground market for stolen art, there are no fences, ransoms are practically impossible to procure. In most countries (including the U.S.A.), the buyer of a stolen work never gets title to it; in a few places (including Switzerland), twenty years’ possession plus proof of bona fidespurchase establishes ownership.
Even if a few suckers in Kuwait or Venezuela, Japan or Goa, could be found to pay for a picture they cannot claim to own or exhibit, they would have to be especially naïve and larcenous. It would be far easier to sell them genuine fakes purporting to be hot paintings than run the dangers of breaking and entering and smuggling. (The notion, evidently conceived by an organ called The Insiders Newsletter, that stolen pictures are going to “wealthy Communist leaders who prefer art to liquid assets …” was perhaps the silliest bit of ignorant speculation of the summer; typically enough, it was given credence by such otherwise hard-headed opinion-makers as The New York Times and Sylvia Porter. This is a piece of daydreaming in the pure Izvestia tradition: when anything goes wrong, blame the hyena-capitalists, or the evil-men-in-the-Kremlin, depending on which camp is in trouble.)
The idea of a thieves market for paintings is only a little less ridiculous than that of the Hollywood Mad Scientist’s cousin, the Crazy Billionaire, who has a secret paneled room, and when he is alone, the panels slide down noiselessly to reveal … The Goya Wellington stolen from the National Gallery, the Louvre’s Cézanne Card Players; and perhaps the Uffizi’s missing Pollaiuolo. The next suggestion probably will be that all the stolen paintings are in Havana!One can only hope that the thieves soon will realize that they are caught up in a fad as useless to them as airplane hijacking or hula-hoops. As to the owners of paintings that have been stolen, our sympathies go with them. Perhaps from their examples, more stringent, safer and methodical custodial and security measures will be initiated. And, perhaps, this ludicrous business of thefts of valuable objects which turn valueless in the hands of the thieves, may tend to change the direction of international public gossip about art, from its value in currency towards some of its other values. Not that we hope collectors will start talking about esthetics or museum trustees about radiance or dealers about sublimity. Heaven forbid! But the self-evident facts remain, for the owner as well as for the thief: A work of art is a unique object produced by an individual. It can never be duplicated. It contains a fragment of one man’s own aspirations and accomplishments; it reflects a fragment of one man’s awareness of his humanity in the universe. Thus it is as precious to all men as the stars. And like the stars, it is priceless.Art Stolen, 1961Feb. 3 Rome: Berbini Palace, Derain Self-Portrait, taken from the exhibition.Feb. 6 Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, Picasso Figure, 1918, 13 ⅞ by 10 ⅝ inches, lent by Guggenheim Museum, New York.April 28 San Antonio: McNay Art Institute, 16-century Flemish (Master of the St. Sang) panels: St. Catherine, St. Barbara, each 13 ¼ by 9 inches.May 16 New York: Graham Gallery, Ulysses, Polyxene and Hecuba by Girodent le Trioson, 12 by 16 inches.June 6 New York: Museum of Primitive Arts, Senufo wood container, 13 inches high.June 9 Lincoln, Neb: Univ. of Nebraska Art Gallery, Affected Equilibrium, 1928, by Paul Klee, watercolor and ink, 8 ⅞ inches by 5 ⅞ inches.July 16 St. Tropez: Annonciade museum, Bonnard, The Port of St. Tropez, The Port of Cannes, Nude at the Fireplace, View of Cannes; Camoin, St. Tropez: Place des Lices, and an untitled work; Cross, Nude in the Wood and The Beach at Sainte-Claire; Derain, Westminster, Bridge on the Thames, The Forest at Fontainebleau, Portrait of a Woman; van Dongen, Woman at the Railing, The Gypsy; Dufresne, two studies for The School of Pharmacy; Dufy, Avenue du Bois, and The Jetty, Honfleur; de la Fresnaye, The Oarsman; Friesz, The Port of Antwerp, The Cap Brun Gardens; Lebasque, Landscape; Lhote, study forThe School of Arts and Crafts; Luce, The Citadel of St. Tropez; Manguin, Bather, Two Bathers; Marquet,The Sea at Boulogne, The Port of St. Tropez; Matisse, The Gypsy, Woman at the Window, Corsican Countryside, Interior at Nice; Puy, The Market at Sanary; Roussel, The Rape of Europa; van Rysselberghe,Bormes Countryside; Segonzac, a watercolor; Signac, The Port of St. Tropez, three other oils and six watercolors; Utrillo, Pinson Hill, and Montagnier; Valtat, L’Esterel; Vlaminck, Still-life, The Chateau Bridge; Vuillard, Interior with Two Chairs and The Soup; and one painting each by Cousturier, Gerbaud, Person and Selmersheim-Desgrandes.July 28-29 Pittsburgh: G. David Thompson collection, Picasso, Bathers, 1920, 21 ½ by 32 inches,Head, 1929, 29 by 23 inches, Seated Woman in Blue, 1939, 29 by 23 ½ inches; Still-life with Guitar, 1942, 39 ⅜ by 31 ⅞ inches, Still-life with Cherries, 1942, 39 ⅜ by 15 ⅞ inches, Girl with Flower,1932, Léger, Two Women (Yellow), 1930; Miró, Portrait, 4, 1938; Dufy, Landscape, 1924. Mutilated by thieves and abandoned: Picasso, Portrait of a Lady with Hat, 1917 and a collage; Matisse, Woman at the Fountain, 1917.Aug. 13 Aix-en-Provence: Vendôme Pavilion, Cézanne: The Card Players, 1890-92 (The Louvre), The Artist’s Sister, 1867-69 (St. Louis Museum), Still Life with Teapot (Cardiff Museum, Wales), Seated Peasant, 1892-94 (Sidney Simon, New City N.Y.; ex-coll Sam Lewisohn), Water Reflections (Milan, private collector), The Skulls (Mme. Marianne Feilchenfeldt, Zurich), a landscape near Aix showing Caesar’s tower (private collector).Aug. 21 London: National Gallery, Goya, Portrait of the Duke of Wellington, 1812, 25 ¼ by 20 ½ inches.A version of the story originally appeared in the September 1961 issue on page 23 under the title “The art-theft fad.”