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The empty space left behind by art theft

Last week, on Thursday, May 20th, 6 paintings (including works by Matisse and Picasso) valued at $124 million were stolen from the Paris Museum of Modern Art. When paintings are stolen and we get past the obvious questions about how the theft was orchestrated and what was the dollar value, we’re left with the enormity of the real loss: the fact that we, as a society, no longer have access to specific artistic works crucial to the art world and our history. These works are representations of techniques that became whole artistic movements illustrating cultural trends from hundreds of years ago. This isn’t just stealing a diamond necklace or an expensive car.  These paintings, although valued in the millions of dollars, really are priceless in terms of our shared global culture. I remember the first time I saw Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night”. I’d seen photos of it over the years since it’s such a popular piece -  but to stand where Van Gogh stood, with my face inches from the canvas, to see, up close, the lines of the bristles from the paintbrush, the texture of the swirling starlight, and think of Van Gogh moving the brush through the thick paths of paint, the year 1889 folded into 1996 and back again like a shockwave and then stood still. Everything went silent. I was overwhelmed by weight of the decades between his brush on the painting and me standing there looking at it.

Vincent Van Gogh “The Starry Night” -1889

Museums are stately shrines beautifully decorated and cared for, built for the sheer purpose of displaying these works of art for anyone and everyone to appreciate.  The Paris Museum of Modern Art happens to be a esteemed institution that is a part of the fabric of the city of Paris.  And yet someone just broke a padlock and a window, and without any respect to the time or talent it took to create these paintings, without any impression of the generations of people who have viewed it, the years that have passed, the hours of painstaking care by museum staff, just cut the canvas out of the frame, stuffed it in a bag and walked out. On one hand one would think the person(s) knew the value, otherwise, why try? But by knowing the monetary enough to want to steal it, why not value the intrinsic value?? Could you have brought a nice case maybe? Or better yet, take a photo and leave the painting on the wall. And then go get a job.

2 of the paintings taken from the Paris Museum of Modern Art May 20, 2010: Henri Matisse “Pastoral” -1905; Pablo Picasso “Dove with Green Peas” -1912.

It’s common knowledge that due to the high profile of these paintings and the ensuing publicity of the theft, that these paintings can’t be easily re-sold.  Not to an art lover of course, which one would hope at least that they would go to.  But they are sold – usually as collateral for weapons or drug deals.  So these paintings are now out there being manhandled and thrown into the back of a van, merely pawns in a drug or weapons war for territory.  No one can legitimately buy these because that may implicate them in the crime just by sheer possession. However, maybe a drug lord decides he likes one of them and he puts it up on the wall of his sprawling estate.  HE can. Because, who’s really going to report that he has them? He’s a drug lord. I’ve seen Miami Vice. I know what happens to a narc.

The art world does list the thefts in the Art Loss Register but most often, sadly the works are never recovered, often destroyed or left to languish, abandoned, unlabeled in basements or buried. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark anyone? In 1990, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston suffered one of the most expensive and embarrassing thefts of paintings that, to this day, have never been recovered. With new DNA testing advances investigators may be able to find some evidence to pursue these thieves, but the statute of limitations ran out 5 years after the crime.  THAT is a crime in itself.  That theft, as expensive in dollars as it was, also dealt a sizable blow to our art collection as a whole.  One of the paintings stolen was Rembrandt’s only seascape, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” painted 377 years ago. Another was Vermeer’s “The Concert” painted in 1664. This was one of only 35 works attributed to Vermeer and, yet despite that small portfolio, he is considered to be one of the finest painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Perhaps that is why ‘The Concert’ is now worth an estimated $200 million. Now it’s gone. The worst part was that the theft highlights the easily avoidable and embarrassing mistakes of the museum’s security who fell for the oldest trick in the book: “It’s the police. Open up!”  Seriously, we protect our banks with 4 feet of solid lead, but the museum has a buzzer on the door?  The museum still displays the empty frames where they were left on the wall because Gardner’s will expressed that the collection should remain unchanged. It did – kind of.

Matisse said: “Expression, for me, does not reside in passions glowing in a human face or manifested by violent movement. The entire arrangement of my picture is expressive; the place occupied by the figures, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, everything has its share.”

What do you think he would say about what these ‘empty spaces’ art theft creates? Does art theft inadvertently play a role in increasing the value of the paintings that are left behind? Are the ‘empty spaces’ left by art theft necessary to our understanding and appreciation of the art world as a whole?  Does the price of a painting change the effect it has on us?  Regardless, if we value these works simply for the sheer talent and vision in their creation it took to create them, and the emotional message they relate to each viewer from the artist, the holes left behind by art theft are truly priceless AND ‘empty.’

“I do not literally paint that table, but the emotion it produces upon me. I am unable to make any distinction between the feeling I get from life and the way I translate that feeling into painting.” -Henri Matisse

2 of the paintings taken from the Gardner Museum in 1990: Rembrandt van Rijn  ”The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.” -1633; Johannes Vermeer “The Concert” -1664

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