Thieving history course debunks art heist myths

by Holly Miller

Corine Wegener’s art theft course’s curriculum covers heists ripped from headlines – old and new.

Although art thefts, like the recent robbery of $163 million worth of paintings from the E.G. Buehrle Collection in Zurich, Switzerland, often receive a lot of hype, Wegener said that a goal of her class is to educate students beyond the news stories.

top ten art thefts

A list of art and cultural property crimes which includes theft, fraud, looting and trafficking across state and international lines. This is a looming criminal enterprise with estimated losses running as high as $6 billion annually.

õ Iraqi looted and stolen artifacts
õ Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft
õ Theft of Caravaggio’s “Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco”
õ Theft of the “Davidoff-Morini Stradivarius”
õ The Van Gogh Museum robbery
õ Theft of Cezanne’s “View of Auvers-sur-Oise”
õ Theft of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Madonna of the Yarnwinder” (recovered)
õ Theft of the Gertrude Vanderbilt “Whitney Murals,” panels 3-A and 3-B
õ Theft from the Museu Chacara do Céu
õ Theft of Van Mieris’s “A Cavalier”


“(Art theft) is just another type of theft,” she said. “Art thieves aren’t any more sophisticated or brilliant than any other type of thief. People are giving art thieves a higher level attention than they probably should.”

The art theft course is offered through the University’s Compleat Scholar program, which offers short courses to community members on subjects ranging from the history of terrorism to cabin design. Program director Lara Roy said each time the art theft class is offered, it fills up.

“People are sort of curious when they hear (art theft) stories,” she said. “The students get to go to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and go behind the scenes with the curator.”

Wegener, who has been associate curator in the department of architecture, design, decorative arts, craft and sculpture at the MIA for the past 12 years, first gained experience with art theft when she was a major in the U.S. Army Reserve.

In 2003, Wegener was deployed to Iraq to assist the Iraq National Museum during its recovery from the looting after the U.S. invasion – something common during war conflict, she said.

“There is more looting during war times because of instability,” Wegener said.

Her experience in Iraq, Wegener said, is what spurred her interest in art theft.

After being approached by the University, Wegener crafted a course covering the different types of art theft: History of Art Theft, beginning with the heist of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911 and covering resources used to search for lost pieces of art.

University alumna JoAnn Heryla graduated from the University in 1964, but has continued to take courses through Compleat Scholar. Art theft has been one of her favorites, she said.

“The parts of the course that are of greatest interest to me relate to how we deal respectfully and ethically with these very valuable art commodities when we enter into these military conflicts,” she said. “Those are the things, in the end, that predate us – were here before us – and those are things that will be here after us.”

Heryla said Wegener’s experience in the field makes her a unique instructor.

“I don’t think we often think about those kind of details when we hearing about the story of our involvement in various types of military engagements,” she said.

Steven Ostrow, chairman of the department of art history, said it’s doubtful an undergraduate course will be offered on the topic of art theft.

“It’s always good to make students aware that is a phenomenon, but in a way it figures more into pop culture,” he said.

Ostrow said he mentions in his courses if a work of art has been stolen, as it is part of its history, but the subject of art theft, itself, is anecdotal in the study of art history.

The Compleat Scholar program is planning to offer the course again, if Wegener is willing to teach it, Roy said.

Wegener said the biggest concepts she hopes students discover during her course are realizing the different types of art theft and recognizing it isn’t “romantic or anything like you see in Hollywood.”

“What you see in the movies – it’s a fantasy. There’s no Thomas Crowne. There’s no Dr. No,” she said. “Art thieves are just thieves and they’re no better than any other thief. They’re not smarter; they’re not suave or debonair. They are usually stupid and get caught.”