Popularized in all mediums of fiction, art theft has been a part of Western narrative since at least the 15th century. Modern art theft is a crime to which we collectively return; most of us are both fascinated by the procedure of actual theft and at the same time curious about objects that are valued so abstractly. The romantic cat burglars of the heist, well-dressed and elegant in fictional depictions (and often promoted as gentleman thieves), are seen less as criminals and more as connoisseurs, stealing from stately museums and often returning art to a unique space of solidarity.
The popularity of art theft in the cultural imagination may depend on how valuable we perceive the art to be, but its appeal is also enhanced by a sense of mystery as to the motivation of the art thief, so like the complication that turns out to be any theft. . Streaming services have seen huge audiences for art heist documentaries (Netflix’s docuseries This is theft shot up his top 10 list on the day it fell in 2021). Many of these films offer detailed narratives that literally map out the job, quantify how many people it took to put an end to the crime, and offer a large dollar amount of the prize.
Aaron Freundschuh considers how the theft of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in 1911 from the Louvre became a focal point not only for period crime stories but for understanding everyday urban life in Paris both in the cultural field as in space. As Freundschuh emphasizes, Parisians thought of the robbery as “the impossible crime,” not because of its irreverence, but because of the logistics of getting the painting to the city streets. For those who walked the sidewalks every day, who knew the spatial and urban order that keeps the promenades and monuments in line, the theft becomes unimaginable, less to do with the painting itself and more to do with the experience of an urban space.
Hillary Kelly details the procedure followed by art crime investigators, and it’s noteworthy that her guide is visual, object-oriented, and labeled as neatly as an investigated crime scene. His interview with Robert Wittman, who went undercover and recovered paintings by Norman Rockwell and Rembrandt, along with original copies of the Bill of Rights, confirms our view of art crime authorities like Poirot, one step ahead of the thief because” he is able to think like one. It is a representation that aligns the criminal art investigator directly with the thief, appearing as a worthy and dignified adversary. Art is priceless (or worthless, depending on when it is valued the piece and by whom) but the object, whether the fictitious Maltese falcon or an authenticated sketch by Pablo Picasso from a traveling exhibition, has already been set aside and forgotten. , replaced and revalued by up to how far someone would go to possess it and how much someone else might sacrifice to get it back.
The recent documentary The painter and the thief talks about these complex perspectives on art: a young Czech artist, Barbora Kysilkova, confronts and befriends the thief, Karl-Bertil Nordland, who stole her paintings from the Galleri Nobel. There is little emphasis on the cost of the paintings (the estimate of the stolen works is around 20,000 euros, but the valuation is mentioned simply to emphasize the financial difficulties of the artist as a relatively unknown name). When asked why he took the paintings, the thief simply replies that he thought they were beautiful.
There’s also a lyricism to this kind of art theft (or at least that’s how the film frames it, and the painter seems to agree). There is no fan base to mourn the theft of Kysilkova’s paintings. His work was not supervised, it was done in broad daylight. Nordland’s assessment of his work, unattached to a price tag, marks the beginning of a tenuous friendship between the two that leads to Nordland sitting for a portrait. While the film was well received by film festivals, it has also been underwhelming for audiences expecting a Hollywood narrative, perhaps a romance, or Kysilkova’s rise as a successful artist. None of this is offered, however, and the questions we encounter at the beginning of the film about the value of art and the invisibility of artists remain unanswered.
Few real art theft narratives offer tidy platitudes about the value of art, and the tension between looking and owning has become even more palpable with NFTs in the mix, changing the way artists and houses auctions talk about art. The difference between having a singular painting and a unique blockchain code involves big stakes, both monetary and philosophical. Walter Benjamin’s 1935 The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility (or “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” as it is better known) prefigures this problem and identifies the aura decay Mass production punctures any authenticity regarding a work that claims a certain space or time; not necessarily a negative thing, according to Benjamin, but a truth we have to face in technological (and now digital) reproduction. For Benjamin, the museum democratized art to a certain extent by opening the doors to the masses. From this perspective, a theft from a gallery could be understood as a theft from the public; the theft of an NFT and its unauthorized replication is more difficult to measure.
While the ultimate digital art heist is bound to happen, its details likely won’t fit neatly into traditional narratives. Instead, it will be captured like the impossible theft of the 1911 Mona Lisa or a seemingly illogical theft of an unknown artist—fascinating crimes that are intertwined in our evolving understanding not only of what art is but of how we value it
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