Who steals art?

Twenty years after the Gardner heist, detective Charles Hill says art thieves aren’t so clever

(Richard Ansett)
By Geoff Edgers
March 14, 2010

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Twenty years ago this week, two men dressed as police officers duped the guards at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and took off with three Rembrandts, a Vermeer, and a handful of other works. It remains the largest theft in the history of the art world, and the daring midnight heist still captures our imagination: Who stole them? Was it for money, or to trade for an IRA prisoner? What kind of black market netherworld did the stolen paintings vanish into?

Charles Hill, a former Scotland Yard detective who has followed the world of art theft closely for decades, says that world doesn’t deserve the air of glamour and mystery that books or movies give it. To steal great works like the Gardner paintings, he says, is less a daring act than a sign of an unimaginative thief, since it’s nearly impossible to sell a stolen iconic work for anywhere near its true value. A far bigger problem for the art world is the peddling of fakes, or the outright destruction of art.

Hill, who has helped recover a museum’s worth of stolen art over the years — including paintings by Vermeer, Goya, and the iconic “The Scream” by Munch — says he expects the Gardner paintings to turn up again someday. But he’s skeptical about the newfangled, CSI-inspired techniques that are being pitched as the ultimate art crime solver. When art vanishes, it doesn’t leave helpful hairs or bloodstains. And to track it down, he said, there’s no match for the old-style work of the traditional gumshoe.

“What I do is I talk to people,” says Hill. “I seek out criminals in a one-to-one manner. Just talk to them straight.”

Hill spoke to Ideas by phone from his home office in southwest London.

IDEAS: How is the psychological makeup of an art thief different from, say, that of a bank robber?

HILL: You’ve got to distinguish what I think are three categories of art thief. The first is the one who makes the money. That’s the thief who steals by deception, frauds, and fake forgeries. The people who do that, and there are a lot of them, make money. They’re also reasonably highly sophisticated and exceptionally bright.

Then there’s the trophy-hunting art thieves. They don’t make much money at all and cause themselves endless aggravation. But they enjoy doing it. It gives them a buzz.

There’s a third category now. These are thieves with purpose. Roughly six months before 9/11, in Afghanistan, Mullah Omar ordered the destruction of the Bamyan statues. A few years ago, his chief acolyte in Pakistan destroyed others. Again, he just destroyed it for the sake of destroying it. They’re prepared to steal by destroying art. The problem with this war on terror we’re fighting is that people look at the fighting. They don’t realize that underneath it is destructiveness of anybody else’ s way of thinking. That theft by destruction is a serious problem and will grow.

IDEAS: Is there a greater meaning behind stolen art?

HILL: It goes back to pre-recorded time when our ancestors looted the graves of those who had died. I think that kind of grave robbing, which continues today, is in fact an older crime than prostitution. Prostitution is not the world’s oldest profession — grave robbing is. That theme that runs through thousands of years is what we see today in art crime.

IDEAS: How has the world of art theft changed since the Gardner heist?

HILL: Well, back then there was a whole spate of very similar robberies. In England, they were committed by and large by Irish Traveler gangs or gangs similar to the big gangs in Dublin. The kind of trophy-hunting art crime hasn’t stopped, but it’s not as bad as it was.

IDEAS: Why so?

HILL: The gangsters who were doing it and thinking it was a great idea have either gone dead or grown up and grown old. As a consequence, the younger generation can make easier money doing easier crimes.

IDEAS: If I’m a thief, why not take something that’s really valuable?

HILL: Right, and so what you end up doing is taking something that’s priceless. What they don’t realize is that these priceless pieces are impossible to sell on any legitimate market. So they’re stuck with them.

IDEAS: Isn’t there a Thomas Crown, some rich guy willing to put art in storage or to wait until he finds the proper wall space in his mansion?

HILL: There’s no Doctor No, there’s no Mr. Big. It’s great fun to think about a painting going to some guy’s subterranean cavern. I’ve only met one fellow who could remotely fit that bill, and he was a collector of antiquities and lives outside Switzerland. And to get back to the Gardner, the Gardner’s really an exception. Because I believe personally they were stolen for a purpose.

IDEAS: What purpose?

HILL: Barter.

IDEAS: To barter for what?

HILL: I don’t even think they were absolutely clear what they were bartering for.

IDEAS: You believe those Gardner pictures are out there still.

HILL: And I believe they can be recovered and will be recovered one day.

IDEAS: You said you have old-fashioned ways of investigating?

HILL: The way to do it is the old shoe-leather thing. However, we have a craving for information in our society now as far as data, and so we need all the refinements of DNA — and we also need to think it will help us in all the crimes we look at. In the Gardner’s case, the pictures are gone. They can get some DNA, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the DNA matches that of a couple of dead guys. Great. Where does that take you?

Geoff Edgers writes about the arts for the Globe.