The discovery this week of two paintings that have been hanging in the kitchen of a Sicilian factory worker for decades has come as a great shock to the art world. One of the paintings was done by the artist Paul Gauguin and said to be worth around 30 million euros. Over the years there have been countless other valuable works of art that were stolen. Some have been missing for close to 100 years. Any one of them could be found at any time, but why have they been taken? Will they perhaps never come to light?
The two paintings are known to have been taken from a collector’s house in 1970. Three men posed as engineers for burglar alarms (the irony) to gain access to the property. The men asked for a cup of tea and when the housekeeper went off to make it, they took the two paintings and fled. The paintings were then left or discarded on the Paris to Turin train. In Turin they were given over to the lost property of the station and later sold to a local Fiat worker for the equivalent of $100. As the years ticked away, the paintings were hidden in plain sight in the Italian’s kitchen, looking over him as he prepared his meals, and probably absorbing moisture and deteriorating in their position.
It was only when the worker’s son noticed a similarity to the work of Paul Gauguin that the paintings were brought back into the spotlight. The son decided to have the works looked at after his father died, and was surprised to discover their true value. The Gauguin was painted in 1889 and valued recently at between 10-30 million euros. The other painting, which was by Pierre Bonnard is to be worth 600,000 euros.
Art theft does not seem like a viable money-making venture. Most museums and private collections are heavily guarded in order to protect the pieces, and if the thief succeeds in removing an item, then they have the trouble of moving it as most art is painted on heavy, bulky canvas that is not exactly easy to conceal. If they are successful in removing said piece from its residence, then the next issue is what to do with it. Unlike jewellery theft, a painting cannot be broken down into individual stones. They are often recognizable making them difficult to sell. Most thieves try to ransom the piece back to their owners, but this always comes with a possibility that they will get caught. They can try to put it on the black market, but again problems of recognizability can get in the way. They could take a leaf from the recently published novel by Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch and use the painting as insurance against loans or for drugs. Finally they can sit on it with the hope that as the public spotlight shifts away, they can sell it on later. Sometimes the painting is simply used as advertising of the abilities of a criminal organisation.
However, this can still be a dangerous move, holding on to something with a recognisable style like a Paul Gauguin can act as proof of guilt. For the Dutch Kunsthal Museum there is a very plain reason why they will never find the works that were stolen again. The paintings were burnt by the mother of a Romanian suspect after he was arrested. The missing seven may have included a Picasso, a Monet, a Gauguin and a Matisse.
Sadly, this is the way that a number of beautiful missing works of art may have gone. Others, like those found in Germany in the possession of the reclusive Cornelius Gurlitt, may be damaged beyond repair or never found at all. In this case at least, the painting by Paul Gauguin and the other by Pierre Bonnard can expect to have long lives, somewhere safe from damp and in a temperature controlled environment. But while the rest of the world may wail about why they could not have had the eye for art like the Italian factory worker, it just may be worth taking a second look at that dusty old thing hanging over the fireplace. It might just be more valuable than a buck or two.
By Sara Watson