Art Theft News Headlines – Caught: Drug lord who claims to have bought €20m worth of stolen Van Gogh paintings for their ‘artistic value’
Arrested in Dubai, story of mob suspect Raphael Imperial confirms long-suspected link between drug trafficking and art theft
Art Theft News Headlines
Notice from the Italian Ministry of the Interior for Raffaele Imperiale for International Drug Trafficking and Mafia Involvement Courtesy of the Ministero dell’Interno, Rome
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Adventures with Van Gogh is a weekly blog written by our longtime correspondent and expert on the artist, Martin Bailey. His stories, published every Friday, range from extremely exciting artist news to scientific stories based on his own meticulous research and discoveries. © Martin Bailey
The Rafale Imperiale is expected to be extradited from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to face serious drug charges in Italy. It made headlines five years ago when Italian police found two Van Gogh landscapes stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam hidden in a family home in Naples. The empire story confirms long-suspected links between drug trafficking and art theft.
Italian authorities believe that Imperiale is a prominent member of the Camorra Amato-Pagano gang, a mafia-like organization operating around Naples. The gang was described as “one of the most dangerous and active criminal groups”.
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In January, Imperiale was listed as one of the six most wanted criminals in Italy, representing “maximum risk”. Authorities believe he is behind the smuggling of Latin American cocaine into Europe. And in one case he indulged in imperial art.
Van Gogh’s View of the Sea at Scheveningen (August 1882) and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Neunen (January-February 1884 and Autumn 1885) Courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Independent Dutch thieves Octave Durham and Henk Byslijn set up a ladder for the museum, climbed onto the roof and broke a window. They break in, grab two paintings from the wall and escape on a rope. The whole operation took only a few minutes.
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Both men were arrested in 2004 and sentenced to several years in prison. But they no longer kept the paintings that were gone. However, by 2010, investigators were convinced that Van Gogh’s landscapes had fallen into the hands of the Italian Camorra.
In September 2016, following a tip-off, Italian police raided a home in the seaside resort of Castellammare di Stabia, 25km south of Naples. This is Raphael’s parents’ house. Two unframed Van Goghs were found hidden in a wall cavity next to the kitchen.
A restored painting by Van Gogh leaving the Reformed Church in Scheveningen with the sea and the church in Neunen after conservation in the studio of the Van Gogh Museum in April 2019 Photo: Martin Bailey
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. A few grains of sand were found in the paint, evidence that Van Gogh worked on a beach near The Hague. Vincent wrote to his brother Theo that a storm was approaching: “The wind was so strong that I could not stay on my feet and could not see the clouds of sand.” Traces of a forged signature were also found on the authentic painting, probably in 1903 when it was with a dealer in Rotterdam.
Although the paintings were found, Imperial was believed to have already left Europe and was living in Dubai. Last January, he gave a candid interview to a Naples newspaper.
Imperial explained: “I loved those Van Goghs, I bought them […] because I knew their artistic value”. He says he owes his artistic sensibility “to my father, who took me around historic cities and museums.”
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At this time, imperial Europe was seen as an outlaw from the outside. However, an extradition treaty between Italy and the United Arab Emirates has recently entered into force. Imperial was eventually tracked down, leading to his arrest in Dubai on August 4.
After their seizure in Castellammare di Stabia in 2016, the Italian authorities set their value at €20 million. But why did the Imperials want to buy paintings that weren’t fully sold on the open market?
Art is sometimes used as a cover for drug purchases in the underworld. For example, if a gang wants to buy cocaine from Latin America, they cannot pay until the drug is sold on the streets of Europe. Thus, lending artworks instead of drugs can bridge the gap and return street income. Under these circumstances, a work of art is “appraised” for a fraction of its open market value.
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There is another motive behind the great art crime. Crooks may hope that “holding a museum object hostage” will prove a useful bargaining chip when trying to extract concessions from legal authorities.
(Frances Lincoln, 2021, available in UK and US). Van Gogh’s leading expert and investigative reporter
. Bailey Van Gogh has held exhibitions at the Barbican Art Gallery and Compton Verney/National Gallery of Scotland. Associate Curator of Tate Britain
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(White Lion Publishing 2019, available in UK and US) provides an overview of the artist’s life. By all accounts, the biggest art heist in Canadian history is about to get even bigger. After midnight on September 4, 1972—fifty years ago this month—a man wearing a ski mask and climbing on spurs scaled a nearby tree to the top of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. He then extended the ladder to two similarly masked robbers below. From the top of the building, the trio entered the gallery by rope through a broken skylight. Once inside, they began shooting and tying up the security guards and ransacking the building—smashing frames, smashing display cases—with the apparent intention of revealing anything of value. The plan is to descend and ascend like the Grinch on the ceiling in an all-night operation.
Thirty minutes into the break-in, however, one of the alarms goes off and forces the gang out a side door: thirty-nine objects, mostly jewelry and figurines, and eighteen canvases, including paintings by Gustave Courbet, Eugène Delacroix, John Davidge de. Heim, Thomas Gainsborough and Peter Paul Rubens. The most valuable piece made by men
, a dark pastoral work attributed to Dutch Golden Age master Rembrandt. The museum originally reported a total value of $2 million.
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The prize the thieves left behind was perhaps even more valuable: paintings by Pablo Picasso, El Greco, Francisco Goya and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, as well as another Rembrandt, all coincidentally on the gallery floor. The exploitation is ambitious, but not as obvious as the participants intended.
However, if crime decreased during the operation itself, it decreased further in the public imagination. Contrast this with the 1990 robbery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. This theft has been fictionalized in eight novels, analyzed in three television documentaries, and name-checked in a Showtime series.
And generally John F. Conspiracy theorists elected him with zeal over the Kennedy assassination. America’s biggest art heist still looms large in popular culture, it seems.
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As for the Canadian equivalent, in a 2019 magazine article — the most comprehensive reconstruction of the event — arts and culture writer Chris Hampton noted that the robbery coincided with Canada’s hockey summit series against the Soviet Union. “One is remembered in volumes,” he wrote
. “Another, not at all.” He reported that in 1972 the Montreal police assigned two detectives to the case. But after a year, they practically gave up.
The biggest question surrounding the MMFA break-in — bigger than the mystery of who did it and where the paintings are today — is why such an ambitious stunt was relegated to a historical footnote. A related question is why it did not cause lasting public outrage at the time of the theft. I suspect that western culture has a lot to do with the weird way we value art and the warped ethics of the art trade, which makes it hard to be outraged by art even when it happens. At the million dollar level.
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The correlation between the aesthetic, cultural and monetary value of a given work of art is minimal, if any. For example, it is unclear why the art establishment that produced icons of early abstract painters such as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee was so enamored with contemporary Marsden Hartley, or why the cubist paintings of Picasso and Georges Braque were so celebrated. like the more vivid, unique cubism of their colleague Juan Gris. Taste defies logic, which is even more evident when you follow the recent digital art craze and learn that someone—God knows why—spent $537,084 worth of cryptocurrency on Pepe’s non-fungible token. A frog’s butt.
Art either attracts people or it doesn’t, and that seems to be true of art plagiarism as well. In 2000, three people amaze us with their rudeness
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