The management of Dresden’s Green Vault, where the biggest museum heist in post-World War II German history took place on Monday, has declined to estimate the market value of the stolen jewelry “because it is impossible to sell.” That, sadly, is not true. Stealing art and antique artifacts pays, and even seemingly well-secured museums like the Green Vault will be robbed from time to time.
The Green Vault, one of the world’s oldest museums, first opened to the public in the early 18th century. Unlike the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the scene of a $500 million art heist in 1990, it had a proper alarm system, but the thieves apparently disabled it by setting fire to a nearby electrical distribution hub (which should teach museum managers everywhere never to depend on a single power source). Then they acted fast, cutting through a fence, breaking a window and making off with a number of small but immensely valuable diamond-studded items that could be worth up to $1 billion. The jewels were not insured (which should teach museum managers everywhere not to skimp on insurance — at least the thieves could be tempted to blackmail the insurance company, as they sometimes do, making it easier to catch them).
In an interview with the weekly Der Spiegel, Dutch art detective Arthur Brand suggested that the thieves, if they were professionals, would probably break down the items and sell the diamonds separately. In March 2017, a similarly bold heist occurred in Berlin’s Bode Museum: After breaking through a window, the thieves grabbed a 220-pound gold coin worth more than $4 million. Four men, three of them members of a well-known Berlin crime family, went on trial for the theft early this year, but there’s still no verdict and the coin hasn’t been found, probably because it’s long since been melted down.
But then, Brand’s own professional history shows that this is far from the only possible scenario. This year, he recovered a gold ring that used to belong to Oscar Wilde, stolen in 2002 from an Oxford University college by a former cleaning-company employee. The thief had long maintained he’d sold it to a gold-scrap dealer, but Brand didn’t believe him and continued investigating with the help of a man with connections to the London underworld. The college is getting the ring back next month.
The market in stolen art and antiquities has been estimated at up to $6 billion annually. Around 50,000 thefts occur every year, and only a small fraction of the stolen artifacts are ever recovered. Some are lost forever, some resurface after many years like the Wilde ring or the two stolen Van Goghs that were put back on display in Amsterdam in April after a 17-year absence. The art and antique market has a dark underbelly that swallows up the stolen artifacts.
The market has a tradition of secrecy. As cultural-heritage law expert Gregory Day wrote in 2014, “These norms make it taboo for buyers to ask sellers questions about a work’s purchase history, prior owners and place of origin. Acceptable buyers must abide by this code, understanding that even million-dollar sales frequently occur informally, structured as an ‘as is’ transaction.”
This means many of those who buy art and antiques in good faith are getting stolen goods. But good faith is a nebulous notion in this market, where some dealers, known to researchers as “Janus figures,” provide an interface between legal and illegal layers of the trade. It’s hard to know when a collector is knowingly buying a stolen item or simply following the tradition of not asking enough questions. Even a stolen Vermeer or Rembrandt is relatively easy to hide: Museums only show slivers of their collections, and private collectors routinely keep their art troves in bank vaults and free ports, where hardly anyone ever sees them.
With jewelry, even involving pieces as notable as the ones stolen from the Green Vault, it’s even easier. It would take an expert to determine that this pearl necklace around a woman’s neck at a party or that diamond-encrusted brooch on an evening dress comes from the Dresden heist, and the expert probably wouldn’t summon the courage to ask — in the unlikely event that he was invited to that particular ball at all.
Apart from boosting security, which isn’t easy for museums since they need to remain accessible to the public, there’s not much that can be done about the prevalence of art theft. The optimal solution, perhaps, is a limited amnesty for collectors who end up with stolen items on their hands, coupled with a limited reward for returning them. After all, stolen artifacts usually sell for less than 10% of their full value on the black market, and a reward of up to 5% could be an attractive alternative to sitting on stolen goods for years or trying to sell them.
Photograph: This undated photo provide by the State Art Collection in Dresden on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, shows the Jewellery Room of the Green Vault with the display cases, left, showing the part of the collection that was affected by the robbery early Monday, Nov. 25, 2019 morning in Dresden. Photo by David Brandt via AP)
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