Elizabeth Lipp has her sights set on a special prize: an emerald encrusted dagger. She convinces her lover to recruit a motley crew of crooks to break into the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. With the help of a mute gymnast, a mechanic, and a hustler, they replace the dagger with a copy. Sound like a movie? It is indeed. It’s the plot of the classic movie Topkapi released in 1964. And while numerous Hollywood directors have made blockbuster hits from films with an all-consuming art heist—think The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)—the seedy world of art theft is all very real and present. From antiquities to Old Masters and contemporary art, art-related crimes span all eras and cultures.
An Artful Robbery
Stolen paintings and palaces turned museums, the market for stolen art and antiquities is a large one no doubt. Yvonne Dewerne writes on some of the great art thefts in the Middle East and the battle we now have for saving antiquities
The museum heist that took place in the Ankara State Art and Sculpture Museum is proof. Built between 1927-1930, it was reopened in 1980, shortly before the Turkish coup d’état in September 1980. In the midst of the political upheaval, the museum was left poorly managed with no detailed records of the inventory. Famous for his landscapes of Istanbul, artist Hoca Ali Riza created thousands of paintings throughout his career. But then, in 2010, 13 of his sketches were stolen and exchanged for forged replicas—an act so amateurish that officials should have noticed. The theft triggered an audit in of the museum’s inventory, a commission that examined more than 5,000 pieces and their report, which the ministry attempted and temporarily succeeded in keeping secret, was damning. Even though listed, more than 200 pieces were missing and several pieces were replaced with fakes. The damage is estimated to be 250 million US dollars. A crafty ring of criminals and Turkish government officials seemed to have had a hand in this scheme. Even though about 50 art pieces have been on loan, it still leaves 150 pieces unaccounted for. Some missing pieces were priceless works created by Sevket Dag and Sefik Bursalu, among others. And many of these pieces are still lost.
Van Gogh's Poppy Flowers
While the heist in Turkey took place over the course of time, the heist of a painting from the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Egypt had its own Hollywood moments. A palace turned museum outside of Cairo, Egypt, it houses about 300 masterpieces created by world-renowned artists such as Vincent Van Gogh, Monet, Gauguin, and Renoir, believed to be worth a staggering 2.1 billion US dollars. One of the pieces in the collection was a painting known as both Poppy Flowers and Vase and Flowers by Vincent van Gogh and worth around 50 million US dollars. The work depicts an enrapturing still life of yellow and red flowers. In August 2010 it was stolen from the museum and is still yet to be found. Thieves had previously made off with it in 1978 before it was recovered a decade later in Kuwait. This time, in Egypt, the thieves had taken advantage of the relaxed security in the museum. Only seven out of 43 security cameras were in service and the thieves were not caught by the guards or by an alarm when they cut the artwork out of its frame. The prosecution criticised museum officials harshly and held them accountable in court. A total of 11 museum officials received jail sentences of up to three years, convicted of negligence for obvious security blunders, which made the theft possible.
Pop culture wants us to believe that art theft brings in millions—but be assured that it doesn’t. A thief doesn’t receive the actual value of a painting, but expects a high profit. Without proper documents, such kinds of profits can only come from the black market—the greater the masterpiece the bigger the outcry. That kind of scrutiny makes it almost impossible for any thief to sell on the open market, but still the chances for recovery are slim. The FBI concludes that less than 10 percent of stolen artwork finds its way back to their owner. The percentage of heists taken on by people to place artworks in a so-called underground collection is even lower.
You might think these art heists only do harm to art lovers and insurances, but you are wrong. Especially when talking about crime and art in Middle Eastern countries, where art theft benefits ISIS. Cultural heritage sites have been destroyed ever since the Islamic State militant group took control of parts of Syria and Iraq, often targeting places of worship. “We’re faced with the largest-scale mass destruction of cultural heritage since the Second World War, and we’re going to have to do something about it,” said France Desmarais, Director of programmes and partnerships at the International Council of Museums.
The International Council of Museums has now prepared a “red list” of artefacts from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, most at risk of theft. This list spells out for museums and art dealers what not to buy. Even the FBI issued a statement: “We now have credible reports that US persons have been offered cultural property that appears to have been removed from Syria and Iraq recently,” said Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, manager of the FBI’s Art Theft Programme. The reason why these activities are made possible is multifarious. Smuggling organisations have long been established and have accomplices willing to store pieces until scrutiny dies down. Customs enforcement can only screen a portion of what crosses the borders and despite the outcry, few countries seem to be interested in imposing restrictions to stop such illegal trade.
With many countries in the Middle East suffering from war and poverty, the question remains, why should these precious works be protected or returned, if states lack the resources and at times the institutions to protect them? The answer lies in art history and in the history of each country. The value of art is more than just an economical one. Art serves as a connect to our history and ancestors. The absence of (historical) art leaves blank spots on a heritage, and this may very well impact motivation, creativity and innovation. Is this not something worth salvaging?