Thefts of Art from Collections Have New York on the Lookout

City is often the sale point for stolen pieces


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.