The Art of the Crime: The MFAH's Director Assesses the Threat

Over the summer, it seemed a crime wave was crashing overseas. Left and right, priceless works of art were disappearing from European museums, and most recently in August, Vincent Van Gogh's Poppy Flowers (valued at $55 million) was stolen from the Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Egypt. On Tuesday, Egypt's Culture Minister Farouk Hosny (who has exhibited his own artwork at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) called the theft "not a big deal."

Not a big deal?

But that wasn't the most arrogant thing Hosny said. In a classic pass-the-buck move, he patted himself on the back while relieving himself of all responsibility:

"I was responsible for the creation and opening of the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum [from which the painting was stolen], [and which is] equipped with the most up-to-date security equipment available... But its operation was the responsibility of museum administrators and of those who have proven themselves incapable of handling such a responsibility."

Egypt's Independent Conference of Intellectuals called for Hosny's dismissal after the theft. Hosny fired back:

"No one should call themselves an intellectual. An intellectual should be familiar with different cultures and be knowledgeable about all eras and phases of art history."

We wonder how knowledgeable Hosny was about the threats leading up to the theft for which he wasn't responsible.

It's been suggested that art theft is the third most common form of trafficking, behind drugs and arms. Interpol won't confirm that statistic, but it's difficult to say whether it's even profitable. Art theft is a shady, mysterious subject, to say the least.

We asked the MFAH's director, Dr. Peter Marzio, what his museum does, if anything, in response to thefts abroad.

"It's the kind of thing that we constantly deal with. From what the insurance inspectors tell us, at least 90 percent of thefts have an inside connection--not that it's engineered from inside necessarily, but there's someone on the inside who is probably a staff member. All we try to do is do what most responsible museums do. We have a lot of guards; we have filmed security in virtually every area of the museum. A number of things are alarmed. The only thing we've reacted to was when [Alberto Giacometti's] Walking Man was sold at auction and went for over $100 million dollars--we have the woman from that series, and she had been in the sculpture garden. She's not worth as much as the man is, but she's way up there, so we actually brought her inside. We weren't so much thinking of theft, but vandalism and so forth. So far that's the only thing that we've really done. But it's the biggest worry, frankly."

Security bolsters insurance:

"Our record's been so good that our rates haven't changed, so we keep raising our level of insurance, and it seems to be meeting the highest standards. I think what's happened in the areas where there's been theft--it's not always this way--like that museum in Egypt where the Van Gogh was stolen, it's sort of a private collection, and I don't want to say 'without security,' but certainly not at the standards you would think for something that valuable. And I think a lot of these thefts that occur, they happen in the museums where, for one reason or another, the budget hasn't been adjusted enough to deal with the issue of theft (maybe there's never been a theft). That's when security starts getting weak, when you begin to think it's not going to happen. And of course, that's immediately when it does happen. There's no easy answer. You try to keep looking at your own people."

Why the rash of theft?

"That's a good question. Unless there's a dark market somewhere, which I don't really know about ... there's this theory, which I used to poo-poo, about the idea that there are these rich, idiosyncratic people who pay a dollar on a $10 dollar value to keep for their lifetime a stolen painting in some hidden library. I'm only speculating, because no one admits this, but I think things are stolen for ransom. People get them, and if they don't panic, like apparently they did years ago when the museum up in Boston had those great paintings stolen (the Gardner), [the thieves] eventually get a message to the police or the owners that if they pay them a million dollars, they'll give them back the $100 million dollars worth of paintings they stole. And I think the insurance companies just don't talk about that. I honestly don't know that, but when you hear that the painting's coming back or they've located it--sometimes it's just good police work. I've literally heard of things where the thieves just get scared and abandon them and make a call. But I can't help but think that there have been ransoms."

Art Attack thinks a screenplay is in order.

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