Art thieves amongst us

Sadly, like more heinous crimes the perpetrator is often someone we are familiar with – a colleague, an associate or a friend.

There is the myth of the international art thief that is akin to the jewel thief that conjures images of a black-clad cat burglar stealthily spiriting away a Rembrandt from a Museum or Conrad Black’s mansion. What I am writing about is much more local and personal – different situations where the everyday artist has work stolen from them.

It has always confuddled me slightly how someone can steal a unique object – I mean, what are their plans with it? Many of the thefts I am familiar with would have no value afterwards yet be too particular and distinctive to ever show it in public again.  I doubt some rich megalomaniac is visiting local art shows and pocketing work to show in a private gallery in a reclusive complex somewhere. The act is more sad than that, to me, it speaks of a child-like naivety insistence on wanting and getting something pretty. Even if it is stuffed in a dark, dank place for eternity afterwards.

Many artists are philosophical about it, often joking that you are not a real artist unless someone steals your work. One friend understands the pull of a work of a work, the instant connection that can happen when you are confronted “with a piece that you’ve never seen anything like it ever before.” He continues to explain, “the person who stole my work did so probably for the same reasons that I created it”.

Here are three art theft experiences I know of that typify the “inside job” aspect.

1. The employee

To be fair, this thief could have been anyone at any level at the art school I worked at but certainly was someone who was receiving a paycheque and based on that assumption I managed to stop it though we never found out who it was for sure.

The school had an artist consignment boutique in little room off the lobby that faced the busy downtown street. About once a week something would go missing – a small work, a sculpture usually or some work from an Inuit artist foundation showing with us. Whoever it was was carefully pulling out the work through a small opening of the locked glass display case, which kinda led me to believe that they were in no hurry and probably thus were supposed to be there. Accusing anyone or even raising this possibility to the staff would have been demoralizing and unfair to a group of (typically) underpaid and overworked employees working for mostly the love of art at a small art school.

To compound our problems, there was almost nil funds to set up security cameras – more specifically, we had older generation set of cameras, some wires but no time-lapse VCR recorder to record onto. These, used, were a few hundred dollars to obtain second hand. So I did the next best thing and pretended we had one. Locking up a useless old VCR in a wooden cabinet in the boutique, connected to a camera that obviously was powered and pointed at the cabinet, I lied to everyone there and told them about this great new surveillance system we had working now.

The thefts stopped immediately.

2. The faceless art mafia

Another type of common art theft is a brazen and coordinated sweep of an entire space – often with the implications that someone very familiar with the facilities must be involved.

I know several people in a cooperative that shows in small municipal building in a park overlooked by a large, national gallery. This small stone building is secure and quaint, and used to be a gardener’s shed back in the Victorian age of the city it was located in. It is very securely locked and even has an alarm system. The park is downtown and borders both the U.S. Embassy and the National Gallery of Canada, and the building is owned by the National Capital Commission.

To continue, the collective was have a showing staffed by volunteers during the day and was reasonably assured of being secure at night what with the police, security guards and surveillance cameras that abound in that area.

Well, one morning when one of the artists showed up to open things for the day they discovered the art was gone. Completely and utterly gone – every last scrap work including the labels, guest book and hanging hardware. It was like an art moving company showed up and professionally packed everything away. The building was locked and the alarms on the windows were not tripped.

I don’t think this theft was exactly a high priority with the police, and it takes time to deal with the petty bureaucracy of places like the National Gallery and the NCC – both who eventually claimed that their security cameras showed nothing or were “pointed the wrong way.”

When I spoke to the members about it, they looked pained to discuss it – the same look I had at the school when I knew who the art thief was but could not say because I had no proof.

My own theory is that it was a group within the NCC – a notoriously insular and unaccountable organization that is well known to have internal competition and animosity between groups with a shared loathing of local culture and initiatives. I’m not kidding. So it seems to make the most sense some employees were ordered to get rid of this “unsuitable” use of this space to discourage use of this kind of space by another group at the NCC. Meaning the art is probably destroyed, not hidden. Another interesting aspect of this is that the very valuable tools and antique gardening pots on the second floor were untouched – all NCC property was seemingly accounted for.

Or it was someone in the collective themselves. Who knows. Any answer to this is ugly, and remains unsolved to this day.

3. The padfoot Curator

Who is better positioned to steal work than someone on a gallery administrative team? They get to pick and choose the work and are people who are often fanatical about certain artists and certain pieces, not to mention complete access and a position of trust.

I have to be careful here because I know who this particular thief is, and this thief knows I know. Awkward! as this person is in the “in” contemporary crowd – which makes sense for their predilection of stealing really good artwork from local emerging artists. This person is cold and almost downright hostile to anyone who is not useful, valuable or who, like me and a group of slightly older artists, knows something is up.

I found out that this person was strongly suspected with an issue of thousand’s of missing dollars from a previous gallery they worked at – another small, dedicated artist run center that could ill afford such a loss but most vulnerable to it. They can’t say or do anything about it because there is no proof.

A friend of mine was contacted by this curator when a work of his was seen by this curator on a website – and this curator was so smitten with the work my friend was asked to join a group show at the last minute! Great news, and his work is very large and very unique. Unfortunately, sometime in the a.m. on the very last night of the exhibit his huge work was taken down, rolled up and spirited away – all other works and gallery property untouched. There was no forcible entry and no alarms in the building or gallery were tripped. The person wanted this work in particular. Hmmm.

I admit I have fantasies about busting this little rat. I am certain there is some secret location where years of stolen loot is collected; certainly not in the home as too many people would pass through there. Maybe someday I will go all creepy and sketchy and follow this person after setting up some art bait to tempt another filch, camera in hand and a grand expose screening planned.

A daydream, but I am certain someday it will come out in the wash and legions of shallow clinger-on artists will act surprised that someone so “dedicated” will turn out to be a thief.

The art thief’s mind

This is not planned insurance fraud we are talking about – though it may well be a side benefit to some – but a compulsion. It is deliberate, but not a means to any other end but possessing something. I imagine the type of local, petty art thief amongst us is a lonely person who is largely living within their own mind and believes the connection they have with a work supersedes all other moral, ethical considerations including an absence of emotional empathy to the artist victims themselves. This tells me these people probably are highly incapable of meaningful and sustained human connections and the aesthetic emotions unique to artwork that they experience are the closest thing they have to feelings as you and I think about it, I suspect.

It is too much of a small crime for the police and individual and small organizations to deal with effectively. It is too easy to do to prevent. And the implications of dragging into the light the obvious is too severe and traumatic for the typical small and close-knit communities of galleries and artists – not to mention the negative attention drawn the institution, gallery or collective.

Art thieves – more than not, we know who you are.

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