Agence France Presse profiles the head of France’s art theft investigative unit, Colonel Stephane Gauffeny. Despite their great efforts to retrieve works, few are recovered. France’s density of museums, churches and private homes filled with art make it a cornucopia for crimes of opportunity, elaborate thefts and more nefarious activities:
Local and foreign thieves have for years been targeting the collections in French museums, churches and private homes, exploiting a rich cultural heritage that draws millions of foreign visitors a year. […] Gauffeny says thefts have declined by a factor of four in the past decade as thieves look for loot that is easier to sell and France has stiffened penalties for those convicted of stealing objects classed as cultural assets. But this still left 2,000 thefts across the country in 2008, according to his figures.
“We concentrate our energy on the biggest thefts or the biggest criminal rings,” Gauffeny said, citing an ongoing investigation of auctioneers at the renowned Drouot auction house in Paris. Two Drouot brokers were charged last month after police recovered more than 100 artworks, including a painting by the 19th-century artist Gustave Courbet, “Seascape Under Stormy Skies”, worth 900,000 euros. Gauffeny said it was a huge case and “extremely rare”, possibly involving scores of insiders — a different class of crime from the armed robberies or opportunistic thefts that his unit has dealt with in the past.
“We have put all our investigative resources into it,” he said.