Balkans targeted in hunt for stolen art

Balkans targeted in hunt for stolen art

This is a prime opportunity for art recovery experts to retrieve works

By Riah Pryor. Market, Issue 231, January 2012
Published online: 19 January 2012

Picasso’s Tête de Cheval, 1962, stolen from an exhibition in a Swiss town in 2008 and recently recovered

When two paintings by Picasso, stolen from a Swiss gallery in Pfäffikon, turned up in Belgrade last October, the Serbian police refused to provide any information on the chain of events leading to their recovery. But The Art Newspaper has learned that Dick Ellis, the former head of the Metro­politan Police Art & Antiques Unit and now a private investigator, played a key role in the return of Tête de Cheval (horse’s head), 1962, and Verre et Pichet (glass and pitcher), 1944, which were on loan from the Sprengel Museum, Hanover, with an insurance value of “several million” dollars.

Ellis told us that he has set up a specialist art recovery firm, Art Management, with four Serbians, including businessmen and private investigators, to focus on the Balkan region. European art recovery experts are increasingly concentrating on developing their businesses in the Balkans to track down stolen works of art circulating in the region’s criminal networks. We understand that, in addition to Ellis’ firm, at least two other private investigators are active in the region, while the Art Loss Register (ALR) has launched a campaign targeting Balkan criminals.

The ALR, whose representatives made around eight trips to the region last year, presented a briefing document at a conference in Barcelona last October, setting out options for recovery in a notoriously difficult region. Since the break-up of Yugoslavia and the subsequent war, the authorities have largely focused on hunting war criminals and combating drug trafficking. However, the region has become an important transit point for art stolen from France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, the former Czechoslo­vakia, Hol­land and Belgium by well-known gangs including the “Balkan Bandits” and the “Pink Panthers”. While Serbia is the main base for the gangs, many of the stolen works are emerging in surrounding Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro.

Charlie Hill, another former Met Police detective, says that, despite the silly names, “these … are all-singing, all-dancing criminals. The problem with art crime in the Balkans is that it’s a fascinating nightmare—the crim­inals are a nightmare but the art turning up is fascinating.”

A golden opportunity?

Criminals are thought to be under pressure from their own governments who are keen to improve relations with the EU and Nato. And while the economic outlook in Europe remains grim, the Balkan states are benefiting from increased inward investment in core infrastructure as well as tourism, providing legitimate business and investment opportunities for criminals. Meanwhile, increasing levels of due diligence by foreign art dealers and intensified efforts at recovery by police, insurers and victims, are further strong incentives for criminals to dispose of stolen goods.

Ethical issues

In its briefing document, the ALR says it hopes to offer people in possession of stolen works, or works with doubtful provenance, a “window of opportunity” in which to surrender them. The company says there is a risk that art will otherwise be destroyed, and adds it will only make payments “for the recovery of items stolen years ago, where those actually involved at the time are likely to be dead or incapable of further crime or in those cases where the individual has been turned into a useful source on other cases”. In an attempt to prevent the encouragement of further thefts by Balkan gangs, there will be no negotiations on thefts committed after 2010, “when [the company] made more direct contact with the gangs involved”.

Ellis, who is equally wary of encouraging the thieves, says he will offer rewards for information rather than buying works back, but only when he is confident the source was not involved in the original crime.

Concerns around making payments for stolen works were raised during the Tate’s recovery of two Turner paintings, Shade and Darkness and Light and Colour, both 1843, for £8m in 1999. The Tate sought approval to pursue the recovery, which was granted by a Frankfurt court, but Julian Radcliffe, the chairman of the ALR, says such a formal route can be slow and expensive. The “informal amnesty” being offered by the ALR does not have specific permission from authorities in the Balkan states, which could prove problematic if the region’s police forces expand their own investigations.

An EU-wide law, to strengthen intergovernmental co-operation, was discussed in Budapest last month, but is not expected any time soon. Meanwhile, a recovery of €1m worth of paintings stolen in France, including a work by Maurice Utrillo, is said to be imminent, according to trade sources.

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