So You Want to Pull an Art Heist?

So you want to pull an art heist. Not the most noble of goals, is it? Or the simplest. I mean, if somebody could waltz into a major museum–I assume after hours is the plan–and pluck a masterpiece off the wall, then lots of somebodies would be waltzing and plucking masterpieces by the vanload.

Oh, sure, there are real-life crews who try the waltzing route, a less-delicate kind where they bring Uzis for dance partners. Norway, 2004: a team smashes and grabs Munch’s The Scream and The Madonna from an Oslo museum. Norway, 2006: police smash and nab the crew and find The Scream and The Madonna tucked inside an Oslo mattress.

Still hot to try? Okay. I’ve done some research here–for authorial purposes only, mind you–and here’s a feel for what you’re up against.

Cameras. Guards. Metal detectors. Docents trained to spot bad actors. Motion detectors. Glass break sensors. More cameras. More guards. Heat sensors. Security doors. Silent alarms. Yet more cameras. Yet more guards. The tech they don’t tell you about. And that’s just to get at the painting. If it’s sculpture you’re after, bring a crane and winch.

That’s what you can rule in. Here’s what you can rule out: convenient skylights or air shafts, Batman-style tech-disabling gear, an acrobat with half a brain (or would you train to reach the pinnacle of agility just for the chance at uncertain paydays and associating with Uzi-toting gangsters?). Stay realistic.

Let’s say you hatch a brilliant scheme, maybe blackmail an insider or stumble on that one-in-a-billion unscrupulous acrobat. Boom. You’re in. There you are, and all that stands between you and your masterpiece of choice is a hundred-pound frame secured by maze and/or one-way screws. We’ll assume no bullet-proof glass casing. Hell, you think, it’s canvas. Just cut it free.

Well, that’s an idea. And admittedly a crime of a century-grade idea. Boston, 1990: thieves posing as cops talk their way into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and made off with $500m in Rembrandts, among other pieces.  Boston, 2014: the FBI is still looking for robbers and the paintings they cut from the frames.  See, slicing a masterpiece isn’t ideal for preserving its value. Nor is rolling it up in an art tube, in case that was next in the master plan. What do you think happens to long-set oil and canvas when you start folding?

Okay, so you’re standing there in a major museum foyer, 80% of fresh-sliced masterpiece creaking at the rough treatment, any number of silent alarms bringing any number of squad cars swarming your way. And you get out, past the guards and cameras and security doors, past the traffic and private cameras out on the street, past random witnesses wondering who were those guys with ski masks and a canvas carrier.  You pile in the getaway van, and off you go, hell-bent for big money.

Next you discover you’re not the only one with a taste for art crime. Interpol, for example, thinks old-fashioned heists have a certain je ne sais quoi. Thanks to them every police force everywhere has your video footage and M.O. The Art Loss Register has your masterpiece of choice on file, where any reputable dealer not already wondering how you came into a Pollack will find out said Pollack is as hot as the breath of the FBI on the back of your neck. You may have read right past that cautionary fact a few paragraphs up. The FBI is still working a 1990 case in 2014.

That $500m payday from the Gardner heist? No evidence the crew ever got a penny. See, you don’t sell stolen masterpieces. Who would buy it? That’s not a rhetorical question. Think long and hard about the number and sort of buyer interested in one-of-a kind, immediately recognizable treasures that the whole world knows is stolen. Then think how many cents on the dollar this war lord or “legitimate businessman” will offer and how receptive they are to negotiation.

You could trade the haul for guns or similarly dicey contraband. It happens, but then I worry for the thief bringing a Cassatt to a potential gun fight.

Small wonder stolen paintings wind up at garage sales and flea markets.

What you do, you ransom masterpieces back to the museum or collector. Except you’re not dealing with some committee of white-haired oldsters anymore. Nope. Now it’s the insurance company and the tiger sharks they call their recovery teams. Oh, and the freelance bounty hunters less than gentle in their pursuit. Heck, even the ALR is on the recovery action. Best I can tell, the only real money seems in tracking art theft, chasing down art thieves, or paying near-zip for thieved art.

So. Want some good advice?

The best way in and out of a museum is to buy a ticket.


Reprinted in January 2015 Sisters in Crime Middle Tennessee newsletter.


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