To Catch a Thief…

The thief, as will become apparent, was a special type of thief. This thief was an artist of theft. Other thieves merely stole everything that was not nailed down, but this thief stole the nails as well.

– Terry Pratchett, Sourcery

Thefts from major galleries and museums are highly risky and only the most brazen thieves would dare attempt stealing priceless works of arts from well guarded public spaces.

Think again.

In October last year to the shock and dismay of the art world a bold brash dash was made on the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam. The theft took place in broad daylight in under two minutes and it has been described as the heist of the century.

The thieves took paintings that belonged to the Triton Foundation art collection, an important private foundation that belongs to the family of the late Willem Cordia, a Dutch investor and collector.

This collection had never been shown before and was on loan to the Museum for a special exhibition as part of the museum’s 20th anniversary celebrations that included 150 artworks.

The robbers made away with the following works of art –

Woman with Eyes Closed (2002) by Lucian Freud; Girl in front of Open Window (1898) by Paul Gauguin, Harlequin Head by Pablo Picasso (1971), Charing Cross Bridge London (1901) by Claude Monet,  Waterloo Bridge London (1901) by Claude Monet, Reading Girl in White and Yellow by Henri Matisse and Meyer de Haan’s Self-Portrait.

This was the biggest art heist in 20 years. A booty some experts estimated at the time could be worth as much as a 100 million Euros, however reports now state it is only 18 million Euros. The value will become significant for all of the ensuing trials.

A question that has puzzled many is – how could any thief consider such a stunt?

The answer can only be in knowing precisely the set up of the museum’s security operation and timing is everything.

According to Bruno Waterfield’s report in the Telegraph last year, the Kunsthal museum admitted that the robbers had deliberately triggered its security systems.

The thieves knew exactly how the security of the museum operated, from understanding that a trigger of the alarm system would cause an automatic lockdown of all locks in the museum. From knowing that there were no guards to protect the museum and that following lockdown, the system would then deactivate within minutes for fire safety reasons in the building, thus all locks would then be released.

The thieves then knew exactly where to break in, breaking a physical lock on an emergency door and managed to escape with 7 major paintings and be in and out of the building within 96 seconds.

The police arrived at the scene within three minutes.

The sheer speed and efficiency of this operation has led to the inevitable conclusion that the robbers must have had some inside help.

The police were left bewildered in the aftermath of this heist as they had very little to go on. On CCTV footage there were images of two men entering the back door, then coming back into view leaving the way they had entered with bulky items; the police recovered some old bags the robbers used to carry the art in and could on the CCTV see that one of the men was larger than the other. That was all they had to go on.

Chris Marinello of the Art Loss Register, as reported in the Telegraph article, said that time was of the essence and said “We either see artwork recovered very quickly after the theft or decades later, very little in-between.”

The case of the stolen Turners is a case in point. Two of Tate Britain’s Turner paintings Shade and Darkness and Light and Colour were stolen whilst on loan for an exhibition in Frankfurt in 1994.

It took seven years to recover both of these paintings that had been stolen to order for the Serbian underworld. Sandy Nairne, then director of programmes at the Tate and now director of the National Portrait Gallery has written a book on the recovery of these paintings called Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners.

The race therefore begins to try to recover these paintings as quickly as possible.

Timing is everything.

Watch this space for part 2 of the Kunsthal Museum Theft