Who’s stealing art these days?
“The greatest predators in Western Europe for high-profile art robberies and burglaries are the thieves known as the Balkan Bandits,” says Charley Hill, who knows as much about art thieves as anyone. A private investigator based in London, he was formerly a top member of Scotland Yard’s fabled art and antiques squad.
I called Hill recently after the BBC broadcast a documentary called Undercover Art Deal, which tells how two Turner masterpieces stolen from the Tate Gallery in London were recovered after the gallery handed over about $5 million to an intermediary.
Hill was with the squad at the time of the theft in 1994 and assigned a colleague named Rocky to the case. The paintings were stolen while on loan to the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt. Three thieves and a driver were arrested in 1995 and convicted in Germany in 1999. One painting was recovered in 2000; the other in 2002. The theft, Hill says, was organized by the Balkan Bandits, who were subsequently double-crossed by the hired thieves.
Doris Moeller-Scheu, a spokesperson for the state prosecutor in Frankfurt, told ARTnews that the prosecutor was reopening the case after seeing the documentary. “We are following through on some clues,” she says. “The investigation was never completed.” She did not elaborate on the clues.
Did the Tate pay a reward, or was it a ransom?
“My personal feeling is they paid a ransom; there is not the slightest doubt about it,” Egmont R. Koch, codirector of the documentary, told ARTnews. “The entire thing is a ‘buy back’ operation, which we showed in the program.”
The paintings had been insured in 1994 for about $18 million each. In 1996, following the theft, insurers paid about $36 million to the Tate, and title to the works passed to the insurance company. In 1998, according to the documentary, the Tate took a gamble and paid back about $13 million to the insurers for the ownership rights. The Tate then received permission from the High Court in England to spend about $5 million of the insurance payout to fund the recovery.
At the time, Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, said that the gallery had not “paid the thieves in any sense” and emphasized that the money had been used for travel, expenses, and payment for information.
Hill also disagrees with the ransom claim.
“It was a reward,” he says. “Simply, in the circumstances, what else could have been done to recover the two pictures? From my experience, the Tate was painted into a corner, so they went to a High Court judge and put their case to him. His judgment was that what they proposed to do was both legal and reasonable. I honestly do not think that it will encourage future art-napping because the handlers were shafted by their own kind. The thieves went to prison. Only the Tate made a real and unencumbered profit in addition to getting the masterpieces back.
“The Tate’s reward will not persuade the Balkan Bandits to steal more because there are easier ways to make that kind of money. Drugs and other crimes are more lucrative and less difficult. Frankly, only fools, show-offs, and trophy hunters rob works of art. The real money in art crime is in fraud—forgeries, fakes, and false attributions.”
So, who are the Balkan Bandits? “They’re various groups of Serbs, Croats, Kosovar Albanians, Macedonians, and Montenegrins,” Hill says. “Some are Romas—gypsies. They’re commodities dealers. Art is a small part of their activities. Their main activities, in no particular order, are drugs, prostitution, art, and stolen cars, particularly German cars. In fact, there’s a new guidebook in Montenegro. It says the Montenegrins are particularly welcoming of the German tourists—because they have all their cars. “The thugs who had hidden the masterpieces for the Balkan Bandits behind spare car parts decided to do the deal themselves and return one of the two Turners for a few million dollars. They stiffed the Balkans and headed off to Cuba, and then to Brazil.”
Didn’t this upset the Bandits?
“The short answer is ‘yes.’”
How come the gang didn’t go after the thugs?
“The Balkan Bandits’ arm doesn’t extend as far as the Italian mafia’s arm extends, so they haven’t reached South America yet for revenge.”
Has Hill met any of the Balkan Bandits?
“I’ve met about a dozen of them. None of them are art lovers. They just love money. They’re not like the Italian mafia, who are essentially family- and clan-oriented, whereas the Balkans are ethnically oriented. They’re violent, particularly toward one another.
“I’m trying to persuade the Kosovar Albanians to return a version of The Scream and another Munch that they stole from the Munch Museum in Oslo back in August 2004. A Balkan Bandit, who is Croatian, stole a Cellini from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna in April 2003.”
Do the Balkan Bandits have a virtual monopoly on art stealing?
“No. You have another group called the Irish Travelers. Not all of them are bandits. Like the Balkans, they’re separate groups linked with one another. One of the Irish Travelers says one of their units has the paintings stolen from the Gardner Museum, including the Vermeer. He told me they don’t want to part with the works because they don’t feel the need to. Do I believe him? It’s hard to tell. I’ve got no way to check. He’s well connected, but I’m fairly sure the paintings are in Ireland.”
Any lighter moments during these meetings?
“The Balkans insist that you drink with them. Their two main drinks are an apricot brandy and a plum brandy. They distill roughly 35 pounds of plums into a small bottle that is pure alcohol. It took me four days to get over the trip.”
Milton Esterow is editor and publisher of ARTnews. Additional reporting by Toby Axelrod in Berlin.