Stealing the show, one painting at a time

Minnesota has had its share of art-related theft over the years.

Spencer Doar


Rembrandt was in town for a little under three months at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. In that time, the exhibit witnessed so much traffic and daily sell-outs that the MIA extended the exhibit’s hours during its final two weeks.

“I can tell you that [on  Sept. 14] we hit over 100,000 visitors,” said Kate Hearth, who works security for the MIA.

That’s a lot of people traipsing through a gallery with millions of dollars hanging on its walls. And it’s millions of dollars of work by an artist that has been the target of thieves numerous times.

Rembrandt’s painting “Jacob de Gheyn III” holds the Guinness World Record for the most stolen painting of all time (four times).

Minnesota isn’t immune to slick-fingered, art-minded criminals. In 1978, more than half a million dollars in Norman Rockwell paintings were stolen from a St. Louis Park gallery.

The annals of local history are replete with examples. Just this summer, an unknown suspect raided the Uptown Art Fair and absconded with several artists’ works that had a combined value of more than $17,000. There are no leads.

“I think it’s pretty strange honestly,” said Helen Gotlib , one of the artists whose work was stolen. “My feeling is that somebody who is willing to steal from an artist is probably the lowest type of person.”

There is something to be said for art theft as a different criminal anomaly.

Unlike bank robbers, who target a more tangible commodity, art thieves find themselves with loot that derives its value from its singularity. That means that thieves frequently sit on the items, sometimes for decades, before trying to capitalize on the work’s value. This leads to plenty of problems for investigators who see leads dry up quicker than Bob Ross’ color palette.

In some cases, the work does turn up after years, as in this summer’s case of a St. Paul man arrested for fraud. He had tried auctioning off works of art that he had previously reported as stolen in 2007 and from which he collected a quarter of a million dollars in insurance.

But actual gallery thefts are becoming less common as museums and the like rep security on par with Fort Knox.

“If anything, it’s probably more problematic on the transportation side of things when the artwork is coming in to be installed,” said Todd Balthazor, a guard at the Walker Art Center.

A far cry from the everyday muggings and petty thefts that mark the day-to-day of urban law enforcement, art theft is its own kind of crime.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has 6,484 entries in its stolen art database, ranging from pipes of antiquity to contemporary watercolors, and estimates that some $6 billion is lost annually due to art and cultural property crime. After the problems with stolen artifacts in Iraq during the invasion of U.S. troops, the FBI increased their art theft detail to 13 agents.