Art Theft – A White Collar Crime ?

A museum in Switzerland has been named the "unrestricted and unfettered sole heir" of German art collector Cornelius Gurlitt, whose priceless hoard of long-hidden artworks last year set off an uproar over the fate of art looted by the Nazis.

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The idea of art crime has been on my mind a lot lately – Not because I have any works worth stealing (I surely don’t) but because there is so much buzz around the cache of “Degenerate” Art works that were found in a plain Munich apartment in late 2012. Cornelius Gurlitt had inherited the collection of now valuable paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures from his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, an art dealer who traded in works confiscated by the Nazis and who died in 1956.

According to Business Report’s web site: “Gurlitt was thrust into the public spotlight in November when authorities, following a report by German magazine Focus, disclosed that they had seized 1,280 works by artists including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall from the Munich apartment more than a year earlier.They had discovered the works while investigating a tax case after Gurlitt aroused their suspicions during a routine customs check on a Zurich-Munich train in September, 2010.

Another degenerate artist - Matisse

Another degenerate artist – Matisse

Another reason for my interest in this ongoing story is that I am taking a course about art crime at the ELLA conference.(Edmonton Lifelong Learning Association). It’s billed as “Rogue’s Gallery: Swindles, Scams and Shakedowns in the world of fine art” and is presented by Hoyne Santa-Balazs.

I have a much better understanding of the whole idea of art theft “occupying a privileged place in the spectrum of malfeasance“. We also spent two sessions talking about the Nazi plan for pillaging and stealing art from wealthy individuals, many of them Jewish, to create a museum for themselves and add to their own collections, and their plan to rid the world of what they saw as degenerate art. We spoke at length about Gurlitt and his hoard of art and of the legal battles that would no doubt ensue. Imagine how we felt when, a half hour into the session, we found out that Gurlitt had died and left his collection to a Swiss museum. This museum has been named the “unrestricted and unfettered sole heir.” Expect even more legal delays, especially when so much money is involved.

It felt very strange to be learning about something that happened before I was born, yet here I am, alive when the mystery begins to unfold. All those history books that I have read that said “whereabouts unknown” under the paintings will have to be updated because now we know what happened to at least some of them. It’s fascinating and scary at the same time.

I also recently read an excellent novel called “The Art Thief” by Noah Charney. If you’re intrigued about this whole idea of art theft and why it’s considered the cadillac of crimes, read this book. So, is stealing art a white collar crime?

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