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Label: theft

Friday 10th June 2016Stolen Art Mystery Solved

One of the most perplexing art theft mysteries has finally been solved, thanks to the keen eye of a professor at the University of South Carolina Upstate. The theft took place in 2003 in South Carolina at an estate in the countryside named Hobcaw Barony, and while it didn't excite much notice at the time, it was featured on a 2013 episode of the popular show 'Antiques Roadshow'.

The missing pieces included a painting by renowned English artist Sir Alfred Munnings, a famous equestrian painter and an incredibly outspoken critic of the Modernist art movement, entitled Bell on Souriant, which was valued at over $1 million USD. That wasn't the only piece that went missing, however - there were also some original folios painted by the famous naturalist John James Audubon from the series 'Birds of America', valued between $45,000 and $80,000 USD.

Professor Frazer Pajak immediately recognized the piece by Munnings as the work stolen 13 years ago, after being asked to consult on a lot of pieces that had been acquired by John Allen Ivy of Ivy Auctions, a local South Carolina auction house. The painting and prints were part of a collection they had received from the estate of a deceased wealthy Colombian collector, although there was little information as to how they wound up in that collection.

The 17 prints and paintings went missing in 2003 as part of a larger heist originally reported by Samuel McIntosh, who had just retired as the curator of the Hobcaw Barony collection. He fell almost immediately under suspicion of the thefts, and several of the missing pieces were discovered in his home, but the recently rediscovered pieces stayed missing for the last 13 years.

"We were relieved and happy because we never lost hope that our paintings would be seen again. These pieces help tell the story of Hobcaw Barony,” said George Chastain, the executive director of the Baruch Foundation, which owns Hobcaw Barony. “Their theft left a hole in our history. Thanks to the assistance and persistence of Matt Jacobson of the FBI’s Greenville office and Assistant United States Attorney Rhett DeHart, they will be restored to their rightful place, both physically and narratively."

Unfortunately some of the pieces were found to be in bad condition, but technical and forensic experts hope that they will be able to be successfully restored to their original glory.

Posted on June 10th 2016 on 01:45am
Labels: art, mystery, theft

Friday 25th March 2016Verona Heist Suspects Arrested

In a result that's at best only halfway to the goal line for police, 12 arrests have been made in one of the largest outstanding art thefts of the last decade. This all sounds like good news, of course, with the exception that none of the missing paintings have been found, and so far none of the suspects are talking.

The robbery took place last year on November 19th, as the armed thieves entered the Castelvecchio museum in Verona, Italy, and made off with 15 paintings from major names. According to the museum, the works were valued at over 15 million euros, and included works by a number of high profile artists including Portrait of a Lady by Peter Paul Rubens, Male Portrait by Tinteretto, and other less well-known works by Hans de Jode, Pisanello, Giovanni Francesco Caroto and Jacopo Bellini. A total of 11 of the stolen works are considered masterpieces by their creators.

The museum's working theory at the time was that the gang had been sent by a private collector to acquire the pieces, and that has yet to be proven or disproven, but it has since transpired that one of the guards who was on duty at the museum at the time was arrested among the suspects in the theft.

“It’s as if you broke into the Uffizi Galleries and stole a Botticelli. You couldn’t sell it on the open market. It’s certainly the most serious theft in the history of Italian art,” said art historian Tomaso Montanari.

Speaking right after the theft, the mayor of Verona summed up the theft: “Someone told them exactly what to steal and given that they are very well-known paintings, I imagine they will end up in a private collection."

“They were real professionals. They didn’t say a word to each other and they struck at exactly the right moment – after the museum had closed to the public but before the alarms had been activated.

“They tied up the guard and the cashier and grabbed the paintings. It was very targeted and deliberate. They went from room to room, knowing what to take.”

Telephone calls between the thieves right after the brazen theft were intercepted, as they were discussing the fact that they would have to wait several months to try to sell the paintings, but as of yet, almost 6 months later, the paintings still have yet to be recovered, and authorities have yet to discuss whether or not they have any active leads on the location of the missing works.

Posted on March 25th 2016 on 07:57pm

Wednesday 12th August 2015Boston's Biggest Unsolved Art Heist

As any avid mystery fan knows, a 'cold case' is a term used by law enforcement agencies to describe a criminal case that was never solved, and has since gone 'cold'. There are no new leads to follow, and the entire investigation has hit a dead end, languishing in a file drawer (or hard drive) somewhere, waiting for something new to turn up. You probably don't need to be a detective to realize that very few of these cold cases are ever solved, and they get colder the longer they sit around. Except every once in a while, there is a lucky break, and suddenly the investigation is thrown wide open again - just ask the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

The Gardner is a beautiful old museum, preserved exactly the way its namesake designed and arranged it, as stipulated in her will. Unfortunately, it is also the site of perhaps the most famous and high-valued art heist in the last 100 years, as in 1990, thieves absconded with an estimated $500 million USD worth of art. Thanks to Gardner's will, the museum now has 13 empty frames hanging on the walls which they are forbidden from moving, which used to house several paintings by Rembrandt, Manet, Degas and Vermeer. In an admittedly appealing attempt to turn this black eye into a method to keep the theft in the public eye, the museum generated a 3D walkthrough for the 25th "anniversary", available to guests that showcases the missing paintings as they were when Gardner herself curated the collection.

As it turns out, however, the Federal Bureau of Investigation hasn't yet given up the trail of the thieves, and the case has suddenly gone from stone cold to warm in a matter of weeks. While the thieves stole the surveillance video of the night of the crime itself, the FBI recently released some video from the days preceding the theft, which appears to show the thieves doing a dry run of the heist. This is the first time the public has seen the footage, and almost immediately a lawyer stepped forward representing an anonymous client who claims to be able to identify one of the men in the video.

While there has been a neverending stream of public discourse on the matter, including various articles, books, and documentaries about the crime, this is the first time in 25 years that a real lead has developed. It may turn out to be nothing, but it goes to show that even after all this time, there is still the chance of returning these masterworks to the safe arms of the Gardner Museum.

Posted on August 12th 2015 on 03:14pm

Wednesday 15th July 2015The Multi-Fake Art Theft

Art theft is one of the biggest dangers that plague the art world, despite the air of romance created by television and movies surrounding the dashing, rogue-ish cat burglar type of character. Sometimes, thefts aren't nearly so grand, but rather become infinitely more bizarre - after all, truth is almost always stranger than fiction. Never was this more true than in a recent case of art theft in China, at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. No dashing cat burglars, but a truly strange story nonetheless.

In fact, our antihero in this story is actually the (now former) Chief Librarian at the university, a man named Xiao Yuan. Over the course of several years, dating as far back as 2006, Xiao began to paint replica pieces of landscapes, calligraphies and other scenes by Chinese grandmasters, and swapping out the real pieces for his fakes, which he then took to the black market to sell. He amassed quite the fortune from this trade, and he managed to swap out over 140 paintings before he was caught. So far, this is actually likely to be much more common than we're lead to believe, but this is also the point when the story begins to get truly strange.

Xiao began to notice something odd happening to the replica masterpieces that he had hung himself on the walls of the galleries - they were suddenly being replaced by other fakes! Speaking during his trial in Guangzhou People's Intermediate Court, Xiao said,
"I realized someone else had replaced my paintings with their own because I could clearly discern that their works were terribly bad."

Xiao had made a huge fortune by selling the stolen works, estimated by Chinese authorities to be somewhere in the neighbourhood of 34 million yuan, approximately $5.5 million USD, and is believed to have stolen several more paintings that are unaccounted for worth upwards of 70 million yuan, or $11 million USD. One is forced to wonder what became of the fakes that he painted that were replaced by other, as yet undiscovered parties - were they sold at auction on the black market as well? If so, there's no doubt some very unhappy people around who are going to be looking for answers. It also begs the question - how many of the masterpieces we have hanging in galleries in the West are unsuspected fakes? 

Posted on July 15th 2015 on 03:25pm
Labels: art, fakes, replicas, theft

Wednesday 17th June 2015Artist Spotlight: Richard Prince

Richard Prince has been in the news a lot recently after something of an extended absence, and with good reason. As we discussed in a recent post, Prince's latest exhibit consisted of photographs taken directly from other people's Instagram account, enlarging the photos, printing them and then putting them up for sale for a rumoured $90,000 apiece. Naturally, the photographers whose images he used were less than impressed, and at least one has begun to explore the possibility of some kind of formal legal action. Prince is no stranger to this kind of appropriation, and in fact has decades of this kind of practice under his belt - as well as a few legal challenges.

Prince's career began in the mid-1970s, with an appropriation of a photograph used in a Marlboro cigarette billboard advertisement. Somewhat surprisingly, this photo recently sold at a Christie's auction for over $1 million USD, making it the first "rephotograph", as they are apparently known, to earn the honour. The addition of fame and wealth brings a curious question about ethics into his work, especially when "his" works command such incredible prices, of which the original creators never see a dime, naturally. It's one thing for a starving artist to challenge conceptions of ownership, but somehow seems to be an entirely different matter when the artist in question happens to be worth millions of dollars.

Speaking on the subject of found photography, Prince said, "Oceans without surfers, cowboys without Marlboros…Even though I’m aware of the classicism of the images. I seem to go after images that I don’t quite believe. And, I try to re-present them even more unbelievably." As artistic statements go, it's perhaps not the most elegant, especially when viewed in the context of his Instagram exhibition, which is entitled New Portraits, all of which have sold.

Regardless of how you feel about Prince or his work, one of the most interesting things to happen from his work is the feedback loop he created by (possibly without awareness) took the images of other professional artists and models. The easiest way for them to fight back against this appropriation of their work is to turn the tables and reappropriate their own images of his images, although they seem to be lacking in the financial success area at the moment. Many legal challenges have been fought against Prince, but so far, he has somehow managed to win every single one. We'll keep a close eye on this ridiculous circus, and let you know how it develops!

Posted on June 17th 2015 on 07:57pm

Wednesday 29th April 2015Thievery or Idiocy?

When you hear about a painting mysteriously disappearing, it's generally pretty safe to assume that the piece was stolen - especially when it's just been listed and sold by an auction house for over £2.2 million. Art theft is a major problem in the industry, and while it's not exactly a new wrinkle, there are those who are naturally extremely frustrated by the possibility of having their new and incredibly expensive purchase lifted out by a five-finger discount.

In this case, however, the story is a bit more ridiculous than a dashing, debonair gentleman cat burglar (or even a dodgy group of backstabbing thieves). The painting in question is entitled Snowy Mountain (shown to the right), painted in 2012 by Chinese artist Cui Ruzhuo, who also happens to be one of (if not *the*) highest-fetching Chinese artists still living, and while it wasn't exactly stolen, as far as police can yet determine, it has definitely disappeared from the Grand Hyatt hotel where it was being sold on the block. The bizarre wrinkle became apparent when police took the standard precaution of reviewing the CCTV footage of the time in question.

Quite clearly, it shows cleaning staff collecting the painting and absconding with it, which has lead police to consider the possibility that it has now taken up residence in one of the city's landfill sites. While the Grand Hyatt has neither confirmed nor denied the possibility that their cleaning staff are responsible for the theft / mix-up, it has stated that hotel staff aren't supposed to have anything to do with the auction items, as their value is quite extreme, and that private companies often provide their own security and custodial staff.

Poly Culture, the company which hosted the auction, is also the third-largest auction house in the world behind Christie's and Sotheby's when ranked by revenue, and was hosting the auction in Hong Kong. Awkwardly, this is their very first sale following an initial public offering earlier this year, adding some additional major embarrassment to the mess. This does make it seem more likely that they were being targeted as being unprepared by some extremely prepared thieves, but there is no evidence yet that suggests this was the case. Only time will tell if the painting is ever recovered, but who knows what will happen to Poly Culture's stock price after a huge gaffe like this.

Posted on April 29th 2015 on 12:53pm

Saturday 06th December 2014Picasso Stolen from Miami Art Fair

Art fairs are becoming de rigeur in the modern art world, growing to replace all the traditional gallery models in terms of popularity and sales volume in a very short time. It seems like popularity isn't the only thing that they're growing in, however, as this year a piece was stolen from a prominent Miami art fair - just probably not the one you're thinking of. Art Basel in Miami Beach is in full swing, but they're not the ones who have had something stolen, as it turns out. A smaller art fair, Art Miami, is the center of the theft, which occurred in the last few days.

Leslie Smith Gallery's booth at the fair was showing a number of pieces by famed Cubist Pablo Picasso, including the artifact that was stolen, Visage aux Mains (Face with Hands, 1956), a silver plate about 17 inches in diameter. Valued at roughly $85,000 USD, the piece is the first the gallery owner has ever had stolen, whether from an art fair or not. Classified as a grand heist by the police due to the value of the work, the current theory seems to be that the thief had little to no knowledge of the art world and the vagaries of its pricing models, as a much more expensive ceramic piece, also by Picasso, was hanging directly below the stolen silver plate.

Currently, the market for Picasso ceramics is in quite a boom, meaning that the thief is likely unaware of the intricacies of art and likely wanted it for its silver value - a mere $400 USD. It is possible, of course, that they simply wanted the piece itself and have no plans to resell it or melt it down, but until the thief is caught nothing can be said for sure. The organizers of the fair have offered a $5,000 reward for the return of the piece, no questions asked..A statement was sent to artnet news by fair director Nick Korniloff, emphasizing this:
    We have issued a $5,000.00 reward for the return of the work with no questions asked—based on our own internal conclusion that whomever took the piece knows nothing about art and took it based on the fact that they thought it to be solid silver. [...] It makes absolutely no sense that this work would be targeted by anyone with knowledge of art. We hope that the piece is returned to the owner to preserve the existence of the work for future generations.

Here's hoping they get it back!

Posted on December 06th 2014 on 03:54pm

Thursday 06th February 2014Missing Art Discovered Stashed in Salzburg

Often overlooked among the despicably inhuman acts of World War 2 is the cultural fate of the nations that were invaded by the Nazis. As part of their cultural persecutions, many pieces of famous art were confiscated from their owners, branded as 'degenerate art' and boxed up and hidden in various locations by Nazi soldiers. However, not all the pieces that were branded 'degenerate' were destroyed outright, and according to the Claims Conference, an organisation dedicated to restitution of valuables lost during the war, four art dealers were commissioned by Hitler to handle sales of stolen art with the intent of helping to fund the war effort. They claim that Hildebrand Gurlitt was one of those four, who died in 1956 leaving a staggering number of potentially stolen works in the possession of his son, Cornelius Gurlitt.

After the initial discovery of over 1400 paintings were discovered in Gurlitt's apartment in Munich in 2012, including long-lost pieces by Pablo Picasso, Otto Dix and Henri Matisse among other long-lost and even previously unknown works, the initial appraisal placed the value of the works at $1.35 billion US dollars. This inspired the further exploration of a house in Salzburg, Austria, which lead to the discovery of even more unknown paintings, numbering nearly 60. A lawyer for Mr. Gurlitt, Hannes Hartung, described the collection: "They are very prominent works. A wonderful Seine scene by Pissarro, a wonderful bridge picture by Monet and a sailing boat sea scape by Manet. Then there are also many other works by Renoir, and by Liebermann. They are in general artistically outstandingly good pieces, which are of more significance than the collection from Schwabing [located in Munich]."

It's important to note that it has yet to be proven one way or the other whether the paintings were inherited legally by Mr. Gurlitt, although authorities have taken possession of the works until their provenance can be verified. Mr. Gurlitt insists that his father only purchased paintings legally, although many groups are calling for a list of the works to be published so that their own experts can cross-reference looking for stolen pieces.

Perhaps the strangest part of all? All these revelations stemmed from a simple tax investigation by German authorities. It makes the imagination wonder what other artistic treasures have been locked away from the world for so long that we've forgotten about them, or believed them destroyed.

Posted on February 06th 2014 on 06:37pm

Wednesday 30th October 2013Protecting Your Artwork Online

As an artist who sells work online, you've got images of all aspects of your work all throughout your Gallero gallery - it's the only way to sell online, after all. But how do you prevent people from taking your images and using them without permission, or simply prnting out a copy of them and framing that instead of buying the original from you? It can be an extremely frustrating problem, and one that doesn't always have an easy solution, since to a certain extent you probably do want people to share your images to help you grow in popularity. There are a few things you can do that will minimise the problem while still giving you that viral popularity boost, so let's take a look at the more popular options.

First of all, the best practice for online images of your work is carefully control the size of your output. Images on the web are displayed at 72 pixels per inch, more than enough to accurately show off your work on-screen - but if you try to print out these images, they wind up looking like pixelated junk, as printers typicall operate at 300 pixels per inch. If you constrain your image sizes to under 1000pixels, you'll get a great on-screen representation, but anyone who tries to steal your work and print it out will wind up with a 3-inch image that they can barely see properly.

Another popular tactic, generally combined with the size control technique listed above is to watermark your images. A watermark is a marking of some kind placed over the image in such a way that it doesn't interfere overmuch with the appreciation of the image itself, but makes it every clear that the image has an author and that the watermarked copy of the image has been used outside of its originally intended purpose. Most watermarks consist of the artist's name and/or logomark superimposed over the centre of the image in a very light opacity, not to be confused with an image-based byline in the bottom left or right corners which can be easily cropped away. If you choose to use a watermark, make sure that you note in your Gallereo descriptions that purchased artworks do not contain the watermark.

Finally, one of the most foolproof ways to ensure nobody is using your artwork online without your permission is to employ an intellectual property protection service. These companies have sophisticated software to crawl the web for examples of infringement, and scary legal teams dedicated to rooting out theft. Of course, this isn't always an option for those of us who are still in the 'starving artist' phase of our careers, but it is extremely effective. If you can't afford to use such a service, there is an alternative, although it requires some work by hand. Google has recently debuted a new type of image search that actually lets you search using images as your search terms. You upload a copy of your artwork image, and it searches the web for other instances of that image. Simply visit to test it out for yourself!

Posted on October 30th 2013 on 06:17pm
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