Thefts of Art from Collections Have New York on the Lookout

New York is often the destination for art that is silently whisked from museums and personal collections, but as the center of the art world, the city has more than its share of cautious eyes watching for suspicious sales, missing links, and unusually rare offerings for relatively inexpensive prices.

With the disclosures in the past week that hundreds of pieces of art have been stolen from two prominent Russian museums, New Yorkers in the art business and the law enforcement officials who investigate art crime have been watching to see if any of the pieces make their way through this major throughway for the multibillion-dollar art industry.

The FBI's top 10 list of stolen art includes many works that were highly publicized after their theft but still haven't been recovered. Paintings like Edvard Munch's "The Scream," which was stolen two years ago this month in a daytime armed robbery, and Leonardo Da Vinci's "Madonna of the Yarnwinder," stolen from a castle in Scotland in 2003, are so well-known that any attempts to sell them would get back to law enforcement fairly quickly, officials said.

The international police organization Interpol does not have statistics on worldwide art crime, but based on reports from member countries, the top four places for art thefts are France, Italy, Russia, and Germany.

In 2004, some 1,855 items were stolen from 55 museums and 236 places of worship in Russia, the data shows. France reported 5,543 items lost in 2004.

The consensus in the art world is that only about 2% of the artwork a museum owns is shown on its walls. The rest often sits in climate-controlled, reinforced steel vaults at places like "Fortress"in Long Island City, a national corporation that specializes in securing and preserving artwork and antiques. In countries with less vibrant cultures of arts philanthropy, the stored artwork is often much less secure. Reports from Russia on the hundreds of thefts from St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum and Moscow's State Literature and Art Archive highlight a weakness that is prevalent across the world, even among some of the finest American institutions, observers said.

The special agent who investigates art crime at the FBI's Major Thefts Squad, James Wynne, said inside-job art thefts are common in every country.

"By and large, thefts from museums and institutions are more insider problems than as Hollywood would portray: a dramatic burglary coming in through the roof," he said.

When a work of art goes missing, it is likely to go abroad, observers said. Most often there isn't the kind of deeppocketed demand for art in countries like Russia as there is in London and New York.

James Jackson, the president and CEO of Jackson International, a gallery that deals in smaller Russian art pieces, said there would be a strong financial impetus for those pieces stolen from Russia to leave the country.

"You can put one of those in a galleria in Moscow or St. Petersburg, and it won't bring as much as Sotheby's London or Sotheby's New York," he said.As soon as a piece of art enters London or New York's markets, its provenance can be more easily concealed or muddled, he said.Someone calls him with an "important" piece of Russian art about once a month, but his gallery refuses any items without detailed paperwork, he said.

The apparent rise in art crime over the years is a lesson in the origins of parallel markets. As the price tags for artworks rise ever higher, the incentive for criminals seems to increase exponentially. In 1990, Vincent Van Gogh's "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" sold at a New York Christie's auction for $82.5 million.A 39-inch by 32-inch Picasso painting, "Boy with a Pipe," sold for $104 million in 2004. In June, the record was broken again, when a Gustav Klimt painting sold for $135 million at the Neue Galerie.

There would be a tremendous demand in America for the hundreds of avant-garde illustrations of architectural fantasies by Yakov Chernikhov stolen from the State Archive in Moscow, Peter Schaffer, a co-owner of a Russian art dealership in New York City, A la Vielle Russie, said.

The path of an art object once it's stolen varies, but it can move quickly, the executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research, Sharon Flescher, said.

"It will often move from criminal to fence to individuals who don't ask too many questions," she said. "When it comes to art theft, international borders are porous. Art, particularly small pieces, can travel very fast. If a theft is well publicized, however, that's much less likely to happen."

The international response to an art theft, especially a well-known piece, has changed dramatically from half a century ago. Nowadays, the pieces are immediately entered into art registries, the two largest of which are the Art Loss Registry and Trace, and Interpol sends out international notices regarding the missing works.

Art that may have entered the legitimate market and is for sale at an auction house is usually recovered quickly, as was the case with 274 of the Chernikhov drawings, which were located by officials on the Russian and international art markets after Christie's in London sold nine pieces at an auction on June 22.The drawings were never released, and have since been returned to Russia. As few as 500 or as many as 900 drawings are still missing, according to an article in the London Times.

The fear is that these items, as well as the enamels, silverware, and jewelry stolen from the State Hermitage Museum, could be put in hiding for years now that they have been singled out by the art industry and law enforcement, analysts said. Anonymous sources and collectors who didn't realize they had purchased stolen art have returned about 18 of 221 pieces to the museum from the State Hermitage.

President Putin ordered cultural officials to conduct a nationwide inventory of art and artifacts in light of the thefts, which some observers have said indicates systemic security and recordkeeping problems among cashstrapped museums in Russia.

For the thieves, the market - even the black market and its $6 billion a year in sales - is now too hot to sell the art. The only option, some observers said, is to hide the work indefinitely.

"It's going to go in hiding," the director of the New York office of the Altermann Galleries & Auctioneers, Peter Falk, said. "Publicity tends to send things underground for awhile. Maybe it would quietly find its way to the wall of some Russian oligarch."

Mr. Schaffer of A la Vielle Russie said: "If they hide it, they hid it ad infinitum."

"There are rumors that in places like Turkey, they will have the stolen painting and keep it behind another painting, so that they can turn it around and view it," he said.