If any of these pictures appear on your friends wall, he's better off than he is letting on.
February 11, 2008 7:46 AM   Subscribe

A trio of thieves have made off with over $150 Million in art from E.G. Buehrle Museum in Zurich, Switzerland. The four stolen paintings are Cézanne's The Boy in Red Waistcoat, Degas's Viscount Ludovic Lepic and His Daughter, Monet's Poppy Field Near Vetheuil and Van Gogh's Blooming Chestnut Branches. This comes only two weeks after 2 Picasso pieces were stolen in Pfaeffikon, Switzerland. No one has been caught in either thefts.

Experts guesstimate that over 170,000 pieces of art are missing including 167 Renoirs, 166 Rembrandts, 175 Warhols and more than 200 works by Dali.

Somewhat unrelated, Russia has recently created a database of all art that is missing because of looting during World War 2. Unfortunately, It can only be viewed in Russian
posted by dogbusonline (30 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
needs "thomascrowne" tag
posted by DU at 7:57 AM on February 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


What I want to know is who buys stolen art? I mean, don't people know it's stolen? You can't exactly show it off - can you?
posted by GuyZero at 8:04 AM on February 11, 2008


With rich people getting richer and richer, this kind of thing will happen more and more
posted by zouhair at 8:11 AM on February 11, 2008


Yeah, I don't understand stolen art at all. You can't display it so what the fuck? What could be more selfish?

That said, I ever get rich I'll be buying Patterson Ewen's Northern Lights. Or paying someone to steal it for me.
posted by dobbs at 8:22 AM on February 11, 2008


I guess they could find whose IP was creating the 404 errors at www.buehrle.ch/floorplans.
posted by crapmatic at 8:26 AM on February 11, 2008


On a totally unrelated note, I found a bunch of painted canvases the other night. I think they might have fallen of of the back of a truck. Some of them seem pretty good, so if you know anyone who wants to buy them, just give me a call.
posted by quin at 8:38 AM on February 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


At least the thieves have great taste. I wonder if the thief, like Thomas Crowne, has a secret basement full of beautiful art? That appeals to me more than some black market among serious art collectors.
posted by misha at 8:51 AM on February 11, 2008


I was startled to learn, a few years ago, that international art theft is something like the #1 or #2 crime that Interpol deals with.
posted by Miko at 9:04 AM on February 11, 2008


I still burn with hatred for the guys who stole - and the guys who bought - paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in 1990. It's a small museum, and when I lived in Boston I went there often enough that I knew the collection pretty well. The theft felt very personal to me, as if the thieves had broken into my house and taken my Rembrandts (including his only seascape) and Vermeers. I think it remains the largest art theft in history.

I hope there's an especially hot place in hell for the motherfuckers who stole this stuff. I also hope I get to kick them and spit on them before they go there.
posted by rtha at 9:12 AM on February 11, 2008


It's my understanding art thieves don't make a heist and then go looking for buyers. Maybe there's a few crimes of opportunity, but for the most part the "finding a buyer" part comes first. Looking for a buyer when you're sitting on a hundred million worth of insured product is a really bad idea. Anyone with any info who's not directly implicated in the crime would have millions of reasons to turn you in. So really, at least imo, the punishment for being caught with stolen art should be significantly higher than the punishment for actually stealing the stuff.
posted by Crash at 10:08 AM on February 11, 2008


What I want to know is who buys stolen art? I mean, don't people know it's stolen? You can't exactly show it off - can you?

Yeah, I don't understand stolen art at all. You can't display it so what the fuck? What could be more selfish?


Well, yeah, duh, it's selfish—that's pretty much the basis of all collecting. Do you think people collect stamps or rare books so they can share them with the public at large? The same goes for art, only more so. What these people want is to have a Monet or Van Gogh hanging on their wall, where they can look at it as much as they like. They don't give a rat's ass about the public. And frankly, I can understand that; obviously I'd never act on it, but I've seen paintings that I loved so much I wished I could have them at my home, haven't you? Well, these people are rich and amoral enough to act on it.

I actually saw part of the Bührle collection back in 1990 at the National Gallery and was impressed enough to spring for the catalog; I'm looking at the reproduction of Van Gogh's Blossoming Chestnut Branches right now. I hope the paintings reappear. God knows how much great art is stashed away in rich people's houses, whether acquired legally or illegally.
posted by languagehat at 10:53 AM on February 11, 2008


Well, these people are rich and amoral enough to act on it.

But don't they want to show it to their rich friends?

Then again, perhaps I am wasting my time speculating on why rich peoples' moral senses are underdeveloped.
posted by GuyZero at 11:07 AM on February 11, 2008


I would guess they know which of their rich friends will appreciate their acquisition and which they have to tell it's a copy. (Amusingly, lots of rich people have works of art they think are originals but actually are copies.) But you're right, there's not much point speculating.
posted by languagehat at 11:43 AM on February 11, 2008


That’s the weird part - if you truly love the artwork, why not just have a copy made? Why do you need the original? Anyone who loves the art and wants it at home would likely settle for a copy, an excellent copy if they can afford it, and be happy with that. Or buy it legitimately.

This is vanity and fetishism. Some rich SOB is so rich he can hire thieves to pluck the work and to hell with everyone else, so he can pretend he’s richer than he is, that’s the thrill. The art, I’m sure, is secondary at best.
And there seems to be this wink and nod in the art world where, if it’s many years later the legitimate ownership doesn’t matter.

What really sucks is that this museum, and museums in general, brought masterwork art for public viewing.
So in a very real sense it is “your” house, it’s a violation of the public trust. It is very much a crime and worse than the just the swiping some stuff to make a few bucks sort of crime.
posted by HVAC Guerilla at 3:30 PM on February 11, 2008


why not just have a copy made? Why do you need the original?

If you can get to 29,000 feet in an airplane, why climb Everest?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:50 PM on February 11, 2008


if you truly love the artwork, why not just have a copy made? Why do you need the original?

Are you serious? You don't think there's any meaningful difference between a copy and the original? To a true art lover, that's like asking "if you love your wife, why not love a woman who looks sort of like her?" A work of art is as individual as a person; anyone who truly cares will accept no substitutes.
posted by languagehat at 5:50 PM on February 11, 2008


Well, yeah, duh, it's selfish—that's pretty much the basis of all collecting. Do you think people collect stamps or rare books so they can share them with the public at large? The same goes for art, only more so.

I don't really follow. I have original art on my walls. I collect it because I like it, it was available for sale, and there simply isn't enough room in museums for every creation. If people didn't buy art, the vast majority of it (even the great stuff) would be in the artists's basements.

Buying art is the opposite of selfish. It funds the artist to create more for other people.
posted by dobbs at 6:37 PM on February 11, 2008


Why do you need the original?

How about I do you the favour of taking that original off your hands?

I could swap you for a nice copy and possibly a packet of mints. If I was feeling generous I might throw in a link to Walter Benjamin's essay explaining why we're all emancipated from that auratic stuff by this wonderful mechanical era of mass production.
posted by Wolof at 11:29 PM on February 11, 2008


“If you can get to 29,000 feet in an airplane, why climb Everest?”

That argument seems more suited to the act of creation. Not to collection. It is no great personal achievement to buy a stolen painting.

“To a true art lover, that's like asking "if you love your wife, why not love a woman who looks sort of like her?" A work of art is as individual as a person; anyone who truly cares will accept no substitutes.”

So artwork is not about the message or what’s represented, it’s about the actual paint and canvas? Must I then have the original manuscript from every book I read or the orignal sheet music to appreciate Mozart?

I think the meaningful difference is between collection and appreciation. If one truly appreciates a work of art, I would think one would want to share it with the world.
I don’t see how covetousness can be made virtuous in any way.
People can look at my wife. She interacts with others. Keeping her in isolation is not an act of love, nor is it true appreciation for her beauty. Nor is keeping a representation of her a flawed act.
Do you keep a picture of your wife? Why? She’s a living breathing human, anyone who loves their wife would accept no substitutes.
Foolishness.

One can enjoy a representation of a work of art without demanding the original be deprived of everyone else. Certainly a representation is not the original.
But then, there are some magnificent forgeries and given modern technology these can be meticulous representations. And, as noted above, the owners of such works themselves may be fooled.
The difference then in that kind of appreciation is only in the viewers mind that “this is the original.”

So what then is a memory of a work of art? If one isn’t constantly gazing at the original artwork does it cease to exist? Is the message and emotional impact not conveyed in a representation? Guernica has affected me. Is my emotional response and affection for the work invalid because I haven’t seen the original?
Am I less appreciative of it than someone who can afford to have it stolen?

I understand the passion, what I’m attempting to clarify and delineate is where passion for art crosses the line into unhealthy obsession and overemphasis on emblematic value.
If one appreciates a work of art and has the money, one should buy it or travel to see it or, if one can’t afford it, have a copy made, perhaps a meticulous and brilliant copy made, as a reminder of the original.
Collection does not seem equivalent to appreciation to me.
posted by HVAC Guerilla at 1:31 PM on February 12, 2008


So artwork is not about the message or what’s represented, it’s about the actual paint and canvas?

Yes, exactly. Have you never read a single word of art theory? Failing that, have you never noticed the difference between an original artwork and a copy? A painting is, indeed, about the actual paint and canvas. What non-artists think of as the "subject" is, for the artist, basically an excuse to do something interesting with paint and canvas.

Must I then have the original manuscript from every book I read or the original sheet music to appreciate Mozart?

That's a ridiculous analogy. A better analogy would be "must I read the actual book, or will the Cliff Notes do?" or "must I listen to an actual Mozart symphony or can I just listen to someone whistle the themes?"

I think the meaningful difference is between collection and appreciation. If one truly appreciates a work of art, I would think one would want to share it with the world.

You're mixing up two separate things. Whether or not in some ideal world "true appreciation" would involve "wanting to share it with the world," the world we live in involves lots of people who appreciate things in other ways, and it is those people who are under discussion here. That's like responding to a story about someone who kills his lover with a bewildered comment about how true love means wanting your loved one to be alive. Uh, maybe, but in this context, what's your point?
posted by languagehat at 2:09 PM on February 12, 2008


“Have you never read a single word of art theory?”

Need I have to make a moral argument?

“Failing that, have you never noticed the difference between an original artwork and a copy.”

Perhaps we’re thinking of “replica” in different terms. I’m thinking of an exact reproduction down to the smallest detail. I believe I’ve clarified I do think there’s a meaningful difference between a copy and the original. If I haven’t then this is to restate more clearly.

“You're mixing up two separate things.”

Yes, I am. Perhaps then my argument is not a refutation of your position but an inquiry into why some people think owning an original piece of art justifies theft rather than using the same effort and money to create a perfect, or nearly so, replica. Or better still sponsoring a museum and having the work there.
You stated yourself the amorality of such individuals.
There are no set of conditions under which it would be ok to settle for less than ownership of the original and be able to still appreciate the art?

“A better analogy would be "must I read the actual book, or will the Cliff Notes do?"”

So the story then is, for the artist, basically an excuse to do something interesting with ink and paper?
I think you’re missing my meaning here. If we use your analogy: I’m questioning what is wrong with reading a softcover version of the book rather than hoarding the original manuscript which ultimately prevents the work from being published?
Or better, need I collect all possible versions of the book to enjoy it?

I grant the presence/aura of the art itself, the value of the original and so forth, I merely question: in lieu of the possibility of having that and in lieu of doing something illegal and depriving others of the artwork, is it not possible to enjoy it having seen it, visiting it in a museum, perhaps having a replica made, and so forth?
Are there no other means by which one can enjoy art but having the original to oneself?

A replica, even a perfect one, is not an equivalent, but it seems to me that asserting there are no conditions under which one should settle in some measure justifies the theft: “I just can’t stand not having this in my basement all to myself, so I’m going to have it stolen from the public museum. Those fools don’t appreciate it the way that I do anyway.”

I’m not saying this is being asserted here, but I’m sure this one of the methods the illegal collectors, the people under discussion here, seek to assuage their consciences.
And clearly they do act in such ways, that they do is not what I’m questioning.
How is it, and by that I mean what is the mechanism by which, they cannot appreciate theft of art as a theft like any other kind?
Why can they not be satisfied with any experience less than ownership of an original work?

“Well, yeah, duh, it's selfish—that's pretty much the basis of all collecting.”

I don’t know much about art theory, but I suspect it has little to do with the selfish hoarding of the objects themselves. That’s what I’m attempting to get at. Clearly there’s a difference between appreciation of art and collecting. Or is there, in your opinion?
posted by HVAC Guerilla at 3:00 PM on February 12, 2008


Perhaps we’re thinking of “replica” in different terms. I’m thinking of an exact reproduction down to the smallest detail.

So you're not talking about the real world, which strengthens the impression I get from your other comments. If you want to have a philosophical discussion about ideals, I'm afraid I'm not your guy. In the world I live in, there is no such thing as "an exact reproduction down to the smallest detail," so I see no point in discussing it. A painting, unlike a poem, book, or piece of music, is a unique object; without that particular object, you cannot experience it, though you can get an idea of it.

You stated yourself the amorality of such individuals.

Yeah, so? Almost by definition, people who don't care about other people are amoral; without such people, the world would be a better place but literature would be infinitely poorer. I'm not sure why you bring it up as if it had anything to do with the point at issue. You say "justifies the theft" as if that were an interesting point, but it's not. Most of us will think nothing justifies the theft, others will think their own pleasure is important enough to trump legal and moral factors; again, so? How can we have an interesting discussion about it?

Why can they not be satisfied with any experience less than ownership of an original work?


I'm sorry, but this sounds like an incredibly naive question to me, right up there with "How can people be so cruel?" This is the world we live in, like it or not.

Clearly there’s a difference between appreciation of art and collecting. Or is there, in your opinion?


Technically, yes, of course, one is an attitude and the other an action. Psychologically, not so much. People who appreciate art and have the money and opportunity to collect it often do so. It's like saying there’s a difference between being a baseball fan and watching baseball. Yes and no.
posted by languagehat at 3:22 PM on February 12, 2008


/That’s not sarcasm or rhetoric, I’m legitimately asking for delineation since it should resolve our apparent miscommunication.
posted by HVAC Guerilla at 3:23 PM on February 12, 2008


“So you're not talking about the real world, which strengthens the impression I get from your other comments.”

Having conceded my ignorance generally, I see no need for acrimony.

“Most of us will think nothing justifies the theft, others will think their own pleasure is important enough to trump legal and moral factors; again, so? How can we have an interesting discussion about it?”

You asked me if I thought there was any meaningful difference between a copy and the original. I attempted to clarify. It wasn’t meant to prompt discussion. It was a primarily rhetorical question meant to express my puzzlement and dismay. The rest was more or less misunderstanding and sorting out our respective positions.

“ I'm sorry, but this sounds like an incredibly naive question to me, right up there with "How can people be so cruel?" This is the world we live in, like it or not.”

To clear this up: I’m curious about the mechanism. I know people can be cruel. I’m sure obsessive collectors cannot be satisfied with anything less. I’m curious if an obsessed individual can actually appreciate art. Thus the question.
It may appear from a cursory glance to be naive, but it is not a naive question, hypersexuals engage in obsessive sex without deriving much real pleasure from it.
Do then obsessive collectors actually enjoy the art itself? Is it the art, some property of the original which matters to them? Is the subject matter relevant at all?
It doesn’t seem at all so. Which is what I’m arguing.
If it were, one would think, they would be satisfied with less. To be more plain, I suspect it is a kind of mental disorder and the art work itself is irrelevent.
If a madman, Ed Gein let us say, wears his victims faces, one doesn’t simply write him off as “crazy” but inquires into why his madness takes such a form. Why faces? Why not teeth or some other body part? In the same spirit I ask: Why this piece or that? Is it money? Is some property of the work itself?
I really don’t know. But that’s for sake of illustration. I know your thoughts on the matter and I’m not asking here for further discussion.

“Psychologically, not so much. People who appreciate art and have the money and opportunity to collect it often do so.”

This is what I’m driving at. There is then a difference between someone who collects it often and someone who is obsessive in an unhealthy way that, I think, has nothing to do with the art itself or appreciation of it. Your assertion that “A work of art is as individual as a person; anyone who truly cares will accept no substitutes” seems to imply otherwise. That obsession is indicative of truly caring about art. And you didn’t refute dobbs’s statement. This, however, clarifies more where you’re coming from.
It seems you think of it as a gradation rather than a sharp contrast. I believe it to be more of a sharp contrast. That is where I believe we disagree. I doubt I’m qualified to argue you on the other particulars.

But perhaps it was a merely a poor choice on my part to express an uninformed opinion in any case. I don’t have any background in art history or in the art world. I’m familiar with some of the more famous works but not versed in what exactly replicas are, I’d think, given the capability of technology to reproduce media in minute detail, one could make pretty good copies. Apparently I’m incorrect. But I don’t think that invalidates my reasoning that one can enjoy art without absolutely needing to own the original and depriving others of it. It was not meant to be an exploration of a fatuous point, but I see a need to clarify if responses insinuate a meaning I don’t have. I don’t want to seem like a crank or an idiot and my apologies if it’s derailed the thread or taken up too much space. But by the same token I think it’s worthwhile to come to some mutual understanding whether we’re in agreement or not.
posted by HVAC Guerilla at 4:10 PM on February 12, 2008


OK, fair enough, and I'm sorry I got so testy. But it would have helped if you'd started out by saying "I don’t have any background in art history or in the art world" (though that became fairly apparent). I confess I'm not sure why you wanted to discuss a subject about which you knew so little, but I assure you that it does in fact invalidate your "reasoning that one can enjoy art without absolutely needing to own the original and depriving others of it." How can you presume to judge with so little knowledge of art or the people who collect it? It would be as if someone discovered the existence of MetaFilter and, without actually visiting it or interacting with anyone who was part of it, started pronouncing on what such a site must be like.

Look, you seem like a philosophical guy, and that's great, even if it's not my cup of tea. But it seems to me pointless to philosophize about a real-world phenomenon you don't begin to understand. Until you can forget all that crap about replicas and wrap your mind around the concept that there is only one Boy in Red Waistcoat, only one Blooming Chestnut Branches, and that people are capable of loving those particular paintings so much they don't want to just visit the museum from time to time, they want to live with them, just as one wants to live with the person one loves, well, there's not much point your trying to discuss it. I don't mean to be harsh or dismissive, but it just seems to me obvious that one can only have a meaningful discussion about things one has a basic grasp of.

To be clear: I am no art expert and haven't read a lot of art theory, but I have known artists and art historians and I can understand what would drive someone to steal a great painting.
posted by languagehat at 5:15 PM on February 12, 2008


“that people are capable of loving those particular paintings so much they don't want to just visit the museum from time to time, they want to live with them, just as one wants to live with the person one loves,”

That seems to be a healthy, albeit extreme, expression of art appreciation.
What drives someone to steal a great painting seems unhealthy. If that is at all clear. One seems more of an appreciation, the other is more obsessive.
As dobbs pointed out: “Buying art is the opposite of selfish.”
Stealing art then is?
You’re right, I’m out of my depth when it comes to art. But I am interested in the human equation. This human equation happens to have an art component. Your, and the general perspective is centered more on the art. But I tend to be interested in subjects with which I have little familiarity. It’s how one learns, grows, etc.
However, I take your caution as this being inappropriate here. And I’ll bow out before I do more damage.
posted by HVAC Guerilla at 5:38 PM on February 12, 2008


But I am interested in the human equation. This human equation happens to have an art component. Your, and the general perspective is centered more on the art.

I don't think that's really fair. I'm as interested in the human equation as I am in the art. But you seem to want to discuss the human equation in the abstract, with reference to ideas of morality and what's "unhealthy." That doesn't seem to me a very useful way to talk about humans unless you're a philosopher or a therapist. You're medicalizing what is a basic human impulse, to possess what one loves. If you think there is a clear line between appreciation and obsession, between "healthy" willingness to share with others and "unhealthy" desire to own, I'm afraid I don't think you understand people very well.

As dobbs pointed out: “Buying art is the opposite of selfish.”


He can "point it out" all he wants, it's still wrong. I know dobbs is a smart guy with great taste in movies, but that statement makes no sense. Buying art incidentally helps the artist, if some of the money finds its way to the artist, but it's primarily about wanting to own art. For oneself, not humanity at large.
posted by languagehat at 5:49 PM on February 12, 2008


I've ceded the discussion and stated so. It was not my intention to imply you were not as interested in the human equation as you are in the art, merely that this was my focus and the general tone of the thread, as you said, and to my own fault.

I do like discussing the human equation in the abstract, but as you've also stated I erred in bringing such a discussion here. I don't believe I said possessing what one loves is a misguided impulse, merely that the exclusivity and preventing others doesn¹t seem the proper expression of such an impulse. Perhaps unhealthy is a poor choice of words: "medicalizing" the issue is not what I intended.

I think I do understand people quite well, probably far, far better than you suspect, but I see how you can come to such a conclusion here given the poverty of my clear meaning. I'm sorry for that. I agree with dobbs generally speaking, but more specifically it would seem buying art would certainly help an artist more than stealing it. Perhaps not. Perhaps there could be some deal with the thieves. It's certainly possible. But that is all well beyond the scope of what I intended and included only for the sake of reasonableness.

In any case I am not interested in arguing with you, whether you have vast experience in the art world or the small exposure you've detailed, you certainly have more knowledge than I have. I'm not being facetious there, merely apologizing, again, for as you said raising a useless discussion.

Nor am I interested in further defending a point you have asserted, and I have readily ceded as, belabored. But neither am I interested in continuing to be magnanimous when you refuse to accept my apologies or displayed intent of good will and seem intent on taking offense where there is none tendered.

We disagree on some minor particulars tangentially related to this issue in general. I no longer find those relevant nor worthy of discussion, drawing from your advice, and I readily concede my initiation of the entire subject was ill advised and that your perspective must be, must assuredly must be given my absence of knowledge on the matter, more correct than mine. That is neither sarcasm nor rancor but an unconditional surrender of the issue.

However, whether I understand people well or not I understand enough to know when anger is clouding someone's judgment. You attack a position that offers you no resistance, against someone who is not your enemy for a point that you have already, and easily, won. I don't know what it is you seek to gain. I question your aggression towards me and whether it would be as heated were I not new here.

But as you say, perhaps I should not discuss a subject about which I know so little. Still, I don't know what I've said to earn your emnity. I cannot make my hand any more open or state my intention of not giving offense more clearly. I merely wish to end this process with some modicum of dignity for both of us if possible and part as friends or at least not foes despite being ill-met. Which, again, I take as an error on my part. I can say only I'm sorry which you can take or leave at your discretion.
posted by HVAC Guerilla at 7:19 PM on February 12, 2008


Still, I don't know what I've said to earn your enmity. I cannot make my hand any more open or state my intention of not giving offense more clearly.

I have no idea where this is coming from; you've completely misread me. We obviously have different communication styles. I bear you no ill will and you certainly have said nothing you need apologize for. I wasn't trying to blast you out of the water or stop you from talking, just expressing my surprise and trying to indicate why I thought your line of approach was unhelpful. Sorry if it came across as an attack.
posted by languagehat at 7:39 PM on February 12, 2008


Ok.
posted by HVAC Guerilla at 10:30 AM on February 13, 2008


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