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In art heists, reality rarely matches imagination

As police in the Netherlands carefully study the security camera video of the massive art heist that netted thieves millions of dollars worth of works from the grand masters, speculation has already started about who was behind the daring operation and where the paintings might end up.

There is a habit, driven by books and movies like "The Thomas Crowne Affair" with Pierce Brosnan, or "Entrapment" with Sean Connery, to imagine that the world's art thieves are a tiny, global network of handsome, cultured, rogues clad in black turtlenecks dangling from the ends of ropes descending from skylights. We picture their buyers as a wildly rich coinsurers or corrupt Russian oligarchs who live in a shadowy world of super collectors with hidden galleries behind metal doors in the basements of their mountaintop castles.

"Actually, the world's greatest art thieves tend to be great burglars and terrible businessmen," said Robert Whitman, a retired FBI agent who worked undercover to buy back some of the greatest art treasures ever stolen. "Great thieves because they take on a very challenging environment to steal from and do it very well. Terrible businessmen because they have usually focused on the object they want to steal and how to do that. They think they will find the black market for it after they get it. It's only later they figure out that black market doesn't exist."


To sell a piece of stolen art to the limited world of people who could afford to pay even a quarter of its worth, three basic things are required, says Whitman: "Authentication, provenance, and some proof of legal ownership." It's that last one that seems to trip up the thieves.

So what happens to the stolen masterpieces? Usually, one of three, painfully disappointing things:

One, they find a buyer who can pay real money for a real masterpiece. That is almost always an undercover agent like Whitman posing as a buyer.

Two, they try and "help" return the work to the insurance carrier for a "reward." Some countries like Great Britain now bar such deals. The UK passed a law in 2001 saying that no reward could be paid for the return of a stolen artwork without it also including an arrest. But still, Chris Marinello, director of The Art Loss Register in London, says he frequently gets calls from people in possession of stolen works who say, "we know where the paintings are, and we want this much money."

The third scenario for thieves is just to hide the stolen piece in the back of their garage until they get arrested for some other crime. "That's when we see them try to use it as a 'get out of jail free card,'" said Whitman. The thief may tell the prosecutors, "I know a guy, who knows a guy, who might be able to find that missing Rembrandt." In almost every case, that guy is the suspect they already have in handcuffs. The options aren't promising, and Marinello says the value of a stolen painting will plummet as a result. "They are worthless ... nobody is going to touch these paintings."

It seems a far cry from Robert Wagner's debonair character in the 1960s TV series "It Takes A Thief." Wagner played Alexander Mundy, a sophisticated playboy who had financed his lifestyle by a string of high-end thefts of art and jewels before taking on an undercover role for the government.

My first encounter with real-world cat burglars burst the bubble fairly quickly. In the 1970s, I was assigned to track down some of the real-life characters from the famous "Star of India" theft from New York's Museum of Natural History. The daring burglars broke in during the pre-dawn hours of Oct. 29, 1964. The largest star sapphire in the world was swiped from an alarmed glass case along with its companion gems including the "Liberty Diamond", even as the museum was patrolled by a team of security officers and maintenance workers, none of whom saw a thing.

Jack (Murph the Surf) Murphy, a handsome surfer and cat burglar from Miami who seemed to fit the image of the sophisticated thief, was the mastermind. He and a partner, Allan Kuhn, had rappelled down a rope into the Gem Room, using a glass cutter to enter the case and a squeegee to sweep the gems out the hole. The theft would seem to have reflected the glamor and intrigue of movie heists like in "The Pink Panther."

The realities were rather dull. As I would learn from John McNally, the NYPD detective who investigated the daring burglary, they didn't bypass the alarm. The battery hidden under the midnight blue velvet in the glass case had been dead for months. Murphy and Kuhn had been talking about the thefts for weeks, but actually carried it out that night on a whim because they were drunk. Their lookout, Roger Clark, posted outside with a walkie-talkie couldn't raise them on the radio, so he simply went home.

"Murph the Surf" did less than three years for the heist because of a secret deal cut with prosecutors that lead to them "finding" the "Star of India" and the stolen gems in a storage locker at a Miami bus station. Only the "Libert Diamond" remains missing. Murph went on to murder two women in the Everglades, play violin in the prison band, became a born-again Christian and now runs an organization that evangelizes to newly released inmates at halfway houses in Florida.

My next encounter with art crime came when working on a story on art theft in New York in the early 80s. Alan Gore, then the director of security for New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and I worked on a caper to recover three missing sculptures by the French artist Gitou Knoop. Alan Gore posed as the buyer, I took on the role of the 20th century sculpture curator for The Met.

The mysterious seller of the missing sculpted heads, using the name "Sonny," had actually contacted the wrong museum. He meant to reach out to the Museum of Modern Art, but got the Met instead. We met in a hotel room in Westchester County and I pretended to expertly examine the heads as a backup team from the Greenburgh, N.Y. police and video cameras watched us through a double mirror. Sonny turned out to be the son of a mob-connected loan shark who had received the missing objects as collateral for a loan from a guy who had once been one of Frank Sinatra's accountants. For me, as a kid who'd grown up on "The Pink Panther," it was all pretty low-rent.

Even so, there are still mysteries that seem to strike us with the trappings of sophisticated robbers and well laid plans.

There was the 1990 gunpoint heist by faux cops at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The fake cops overpowered security guards and walked out with three Rembrandts, five Degas, a Manet and a Vermeer worth a combined $300 million. Even the $5 million reward offer has not brought a single piece to light.

In 2010, burglars in black broke a padlock and smashed a window at the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris to make off with paintings by Picasso, Matisse and other great artists. Like so many museum thefts, the thieves seemed to have the advantage of knowing that the alarm wasn't working in that section of the museum and the cameras seemed to be pointing the other way.

"In 80 to 90 percent of high end art theft, we see indicators of inside help," said retired FBI art theft expert Whitman.

The burglars made off with such works as "Dove with Green Peas" by Pablo Picasso (painted in 1911), "Pastoral" by Henri Matisse (1906), "Olive Tree near l'Estaque" by Georges Braque (1906), "Woman with Fan" by Amedeo Modigliani (1919) and "Still Life with Candlestick" by Fernand Leger (1922).

In 2010, in a daring raid that seemed to be something out of the film "The Italian Job." a small, armed team of masked robbers ran into the waterfront Swedish National Museum with a machine gun and robbed the cream of the museum's collection. They made their getaway by leaping into a speedboat and roaring off through the harbor. But like most of the cases, the men turned out to be a loose band of common criminals. Eight conspirators were found guilty and all three paintings - two Renoirs and a Rembrandt - were recovered.

But it is still unlikely that most of the great works that are still missing from the $6 billion art theft business have ever made it out of a garage or crawl space where they are stashed. The two great myths of the field seem to be the romantic image we have of the thieves and their romantic image that they can ever sell their bounty.

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