Perceivings: Who steals unsellable art?

The author and a friend. Courtesy photo.

By Alan Dean Foster

I love art, and I like to think I have reasonably wide-ranging tastes. As I’ve said before in these columns, I don’t have much use for modern art of the Koons/Johns/Lichtenstein variety because I don’t think “repurposing” another artist’s work constitutes a valid expression of originality. Or to put it another way, it’s plagiarism. The “art world” apparently thinks otherwise, and who am I to criticize when someone takes a panel of a comic strip (drawn by a real artist, who can actually like, you know … draw), blows it up to giant size, and puts a six-figure price tag on the bottom? I do confess to a certain liking for Jackson Pollock’s work, perhaps because my wife does a better Pollock than Pollock (the artist, not the fish). Notwithstanding that, I’m still waiting for someone to explain the difference to me between a Koons balloon dog and one from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Come to think of it, if Macy’s blew up a balloon dog and used it in the parade, would it count as a parade balloon or art?

If I had the money (and more wall space), there is certain art I’d like to own. I’d love to have a Margaret Brundage, and a Chesley Bonestell, and a Bierstadt or a Church. But it’s not necessary, because you can now purchase reproductions that are virtually indistinguishable from the original, professionally printed on canvas. Art.Com, for example, partners directly with museums to produce museum-curated reproductions according to customer demand.

Which begs the question … why steal something and risk prison if you’re caught when you can have a near-perfect copy for a fraction of the cost of the original? For most art lovers, that should be enough. The answer, of course, is that those who steal well-known works of art are either in it just for the money, or are stealing to order.

As to the first, it plainly has nothing to do with art. For art thieves, the art itself is nothing more than a commodity, no different from jewelry or car parts. Unscrupulous dealers then sell stolen art so they can buy things that are not art, such as food and aircraft. But in order to sell a famous piece of stolen art, crooked dealers and independent contractors need to have a client in mind beforehand. You can’t just steal a Degas and put it out on the open market. Like the Degas that was stolen from a Marseille museum in 2009 (it was on loan from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris) that was found in February on a bus outside Paris. Almost a decade has passed since the original theft, during which time the thief or thieves were unable to find a buyer.

Obviously they were amateurs. Because anyone with a knowledge of art encountering the painting in someone’s house might also be aware of the original theft and subsequently report the owner to Interpol. That’s the drawback to art theft on demand: Only the owner can enjoy it. It needs to be kept locked up and out of sight of everyone else, and art that is not shared becomes very tired art indeed.

A pair of gentlemen “relocate” a masterpiece. Photo via Belvedere Art Museum, fair use.

History is replete with similar tales of great art stolen from museums or private collections that suddenly surface in flea markets, or are turned in anonymously to the authorities, because they’re too well known to find a buyer. The rise of the internet has allowed anyone with even a casual interest in art who encounters a suspicious original to quickly and easily research its provenance. Of course, there are always those small of mind but large of wallet who are content to view a piece in a small, private room without ever sharing it with anyone else. But it’s for them alone. They can’t leave it to friends or heirs because eventually someone is bound to see it and report it. Those who have a work of art stolen to order risk incriminating their offspring.

Better to purchase a high-quality reproduction. It looks the same, possesses virtually the same visual impact, and costs infinitely less. Additionally, there is the matter of keeping one’s soul.

One of the world’s most famous paintings — “The Kiss,” by Gustav Klimt — resides in the Belvedere in Vienna. You can’t take pictures of it, but there is a reproduction nearby you can photograph to your heart’s content. No one seems to care, and visitors eagerly snap away at the copy.

If only those who finance art theft were of similar mind. When art becomes all about money, it’s no longer art; it has become a commodity.


Alan Dean Foster is author of more than 120 books, visitor to more than 100 countries, and still frustrated by the human species. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster.Com.

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