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Maybe a Dr. No Does Exist in the Art World
The New Yorker’s Jake Halpern has a long profile of Vrejan Tomic, the burglar who stole five paintings from the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in May 2010. The theft, which included a Modigliani, two Picassos, a Matisse and Légèr, was tagged with a notional value of $70m which drew international attention especially when combined with the fact Tomic gained entry through a high window in the lightly guarded museum.
During Tomic’s 2017 trial, the public fell in love with the idea of cat burglar with a passion for art:
- “French people are very fond of thieves’ stories when there is no blood,” Stéphane Durand-Souffland, who covered the story for Le Figaro, told me. “For us, Tomic is a perfect thief,” because he “acted without weapons, did not strike anyone, robbed not an individual but a poorly supervised museum, fooled the guards without any difficulty, and chose the works he took with taste.” Tomic was also “polite to the judges,” Durand-Souffland added.
Beyond Halpern’s descriptions of Tomic’s derring do—the admiring comments of Philippe Starck whose daughter was among Tomic’s victims—there’s an important revelation in the story that comes out mostly as an aside.
One of the central problems with art theft is the fact that most prominent works of art are unsaleable. The art world’s registry of stolen works is fairly rudimentary but the market has a general aversion to works that do not have proper provenance and documentation. Most experts in art theft will tell you it is a crime of opportunity committed by thieves who are, as Halpern quotes former Scotland Yard art theft expert, “foolhardy”, “stupid” and “pig-shit ignorant.”
The movie image of art thieves operating with a shopping list for evil rich folks is, we are repeatedly told, a cartoon. And yet this seems to be exactly what Tomic was doing. The art thief worked with a receiver who commissioned the original theft to acquire the Légèr. Tomic got carried away with the Matisse, Picassos and the Modigliani. That accomplice, Jean Michel Corvez, testified at trial that he could not reveal who he intended to sell the Légèr to without jeopardizing his safety.
Halpern explains that it was Corvez who got Tomic to steal art in addition to jewelry:
- Knowing that Tomic frequently broke into rich people’s apartments, Corvez gave him a list of artists favored by his clients, among them Basquiat, Chagall, Klimt, Léger, Modigliani, Monet, Pissarro, and Warhol.
When Tomic was apprehended, he was planning to rob the Centres Pompidou. This suggests there may be more of a black market for stolen art than has been previously acknowledged by the industry or law enforcement.
The World Gets Another Thomas Gainsborough
The Telegraph tells us that the author of Thomas Gainsborough’s catalogue raisonné has re-attributed a portrait hung high in the Hereford Cathedral as work by the artist, not a disciple as previously thought. The new catalogue will be published in late February from Yale University Press. It will include the painting thought to have been made in 1770 among 1100 other works updating artist’s catalogue for the first time in sixty years:
- The sitter is Rev’d Isaac Donnithorne. Ordained as an Anglican priest in 1735, he later inherited wealthy family estates in Cornwall, including tin-mining which employed 250 miners at Polberra and produced huge annual profits of £35,000.
One reason the work was mis-attributed is because of the existence of another version of the work that led the previous Gainsborough scholar to discount the existence of two very similar works being both done by the master.
The Market Will Decide Caravaggio Attribution
A lost Caravaggio painting of Judith and Holofernes, believed to be a second version of a known Caravaggio, that re-emerged more than four years ago, has been cleared for sale by the French government which will not exercise its right of pre-emption. Eric Turquin, the expert acting as a representative for the owners, told Le Figaro that the market would have to make a decision about the attribution which is split among scholars. Some believe the work to be a copy; others believe it is from Caravaggio’s hand. Whether the government declined because of the presumed nine-figure price or the ambiguity of the attribution was not reported. If the work is sold, it is expected to be auctioned by Marc Labarbe, an auctioneer in Toulouse where the painting was found.