Art theft, from the ‘Mona Lisa’ to today

One hundred years ago Sunday, an Italian handyman named Vincenzo Peruggia stole the world’s most famous painting from the world’s most famous museum. Peruggia slipped out of a closet inside the Louvre in which he had hidden overnight, removed the “Mona Lisa” from the wall and retreated to a service staircase. There he removed Leonardo da Vinci’s renowned painting from its frame, wrapped it in a white sheet and descended the stairs. But when he reached the bottom of the stairs, he found the exit locked. He unscrewed the doorknob, but the door still would not open. Peruggia had to wait for a passing plumber to let him out. Peruggia left the Louvre and disappeared into the streets of early morning Paris.

Fifty years to the day after the “Mona Lisa” heist, a brazen thief stole Goya’s “Portrait of the Duke of Wellington” from London’s National Gallery. Someone had wormed his way into the gallery through an unlocked lavatory window 14 feet above the ground. The thief made off with a painting that had just been purchased by the British government, to prevent its loss to an American buyer, for the princely sum of £140,000. When it was stolen, police assumed that they were dealing with a highly skilled professional group of criminals until they got the first of many ransom notes.

The 100th and 50th anniversaries of these thefts, which share more than an anniversary, offer a good opportunity to consider how art crime has evolved in the last century.

When the firm for which Peruggia worked in Paris was hired by the Louvre to build protective cases for some of its prominent masterpieces, Peruggia hatched the plan to steal the world’s most famous painting in order to return it to Italy.

The investigation was a marvel of ineptitude: The crime was solved only when the thief turned himself in. Nearly two years after the theft, Peruggia showed up in Florence with the stolen Leonardo, smuggled in the false bottom of a shipping trunk. He had hoped to give the “Mona Lisa” to the Uffizi museum. He did not specifically request any money, but he implied that he was a poor man and that some compensation would be welcome. After handing the painting over to the Uffizi, Peruggia was surprised to find himself under arrest.

Peruggia claimed throughout his trial that his only intention was to repatriate the “Mona Lisa,” which he believed had been looted from Italy during the Napoleonic era (unlike much of the Louvre’s Italian collection, it had not). Peruggia was given a short sentence, and the “Mona Lisa” was displayed in Italy to sellout crowds before it was returned to Paris.

Like the “Mona Lisa” theft, the Goya “Duke of Wellington” theft seems to have been ideologically motivated. London police received a series of bizarre ransom notes that promised the safe return of the painting in exchange for free television licenses for retired British citizens, who normally pay a tax per television set. The ransomer was outraged that the British government spent a fortune to retain some old painting, when its citizens had to pay to watch TV. The Goya would be returned, wrote the ransomer, if a charitable fund of equivalent value to the painting, £140,000, were established to pay for the television licenses. This was not a crime of profit but a crime about making a point.

The government made it clear that no ransom would be paid and no TV fund would be established. The theft seized the public imagination: In the 1962 James Bond film “Dr. No,” Sean Connery does a double-take when he sees the stolen Goya hanging in Dr. No’s lair. The thief corresponded with the police over the next three years, but the authorities still had no suspects. Then in 1965, a note arrived at the offices of the Daily Mirror newspaper with a luggage-check ticket for the Birmingham rail station. The ticket yielded a surprising package: the stolen Goya. As a note from the thief made clear, the painting had been returned as a sign of goodwill by the thief, who realized that his demands would not be met. He expressed remorse for what he described as a misguided action with noble intentions.

On July 19, 1965, a portly, disabled, retired cab driver walked into a police station to turn himself in. Kempton Bunton, a cuddly 252-pound grandfather, did not match the profile of a canny, professional art thief or a Goya-besotted art fan. Though it was never in doubt that Bunton wrote the ransom notes, many believe that he took the fall for someone else — someone who could more feasibly shimmy through a small lavatory window.

In court, Bunton was found not guilty of having stolen the painting, thanks to an antiquated legal clause that stated that if the jury believed that Bunton always intended to return the painting if his ransom negotiations failed (a belief that could be bolstered by the fact that he did return the painting), then he must be acquitted. The jury found Bunton guilty only of having stolen the painting’s frame, which was never returned. He was gently scolded by the judge, who said, “Motives, even if they are good, cannot justify theft, and creeping into public galleries in order to extract pictures of value so that you can use them for your own purposes has got to be discouraged.”

In 1968, as part of Britain’s new Theft Act, Parliament made it expressly illegal to “remove without authority any object displayed or kept for display to the public in a building to which the public have access,” thereby making Bunton’s “borrowing” of the Goya a criminal offense. Ironically, television licenses were eventually revoked for old-age pensioners — satisfying, long after the fact, the unusual ransom demands of Kempton Bunton.

These two famous art thefts, the date of the latter chosen by the colorful Bunton for the theatricality of falling on the anniversary of the former, helped to mold the public perception of art theft as a crime of oddball characters who did not really harm anyone. It is true that some of the many famous art thefts of the period preceding World War II were of this ilk, involving quirky nonviolent thieves with gentlemanly aspirations.

But popular opinion on art theft has not caught up with reality. Since WWII, the majority of art thefts involve organized crime. The U.S. Department of Justice ranks art crime third, behind only the trade in illicit drugs and arms, in terms of the value of the contraband, and emphasize the link between stolen art, organized crime and even terrorists. Mohamed Atta, for example, tried to sell looted Afghan antiquities in Germany to fund the Sept. 11 attacks.

As it turns out, the lessons learned from two famous, and relatively harmless, art heists whose anniversaries fall tomorrow are still relevant today. The thief or thieves responsible for stealing the Rembrandt drawing from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Laguna Niguel last weekend, and then depositing it days later on the doorstep of a church in Encino, probably came to the same conclusion as did Vincenzo Peruggia and Kempton Bunton. While it may not be too difficult to steal art, it can be very hard to cash in on the theft, especially with the eyes of the world watching.

Noah Charney, a founding director of the Italy-based Assn. for Research into Crimes Against Art. His latest book is The Thefts of the Mona Lisa: On Stealing the World’s Most Famous Painting, profits from which go to charity.

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