An interesting thing happened last night: Someone broke into the Kunsthal Rotterdam and raided the place, reportedly taking Pablo Picasso's 'Harlequin Head', 'Reading Girl In White and Yellow' by Henri Matisse, 'Waterloo Bridge, London' and 'Charing Cross Bridge, London' by Claude Monet, as well as 'Woman with Eyes Closed' by Lucian Freud, 'Girl in Front of Open Window' by Paul Gauguin, and Meyer de Haan's 'Self-Portrait'. So far the monetary value of the haul hasn't been revealed.
The raided work is part of the "Avant-gardes" collection, on loan from the Triton Foundation in celebration the Rotterdam's 20th anniversary. The show combines unlikely paintings, drawings and images by those who sidestepped convention, while still keeping a thread of continuity with the way the pieces were constructed or designed. All of the heavy-hitters were present: from Duchamp and Warhol to Piet Mondriaan, Vincent van Gogh and Frank Stella. And still, the place was secretly shopped early this morning.
Stolen artwork is a tricky business. Once jacked, the pieces are often sold at slashed prices around the black market, changing hands like a game of hot potato until finally landing in the secret art lair of a private collector, the hands of someone who doesn't know the piece had been nicked or passed off as a remarkably good copy. When the financial dust settles, those last holding the work are the ones with heavy hearts and light wallets. The artwork then is returned to its rightful owner. According to a rep from the art loss register, the world's largest database of stolen art, that's actually fairly rare. In fact, saying that even 5% of stolen artwork resurfaces would be generous. And in the Netherlands, things get even trickier.
The Dutch have a legal policies in place that encourage art thieves to prosper twice. Once, by immediately giving up information of the artwork's whereabouts in exchange for a monetary reward, which is frequently joined by a no questions asked policy. The other way is simply by waiting.
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The Netherlands has a 20-year statute of limitations to stolen artwork, which is the only policy of its kind globally. That means that if the pieces are shuffled about for the next 20 or so years, whoever is holding them at the end of that time cannot be prosecuted and becomes the work's rightful owner. There are a few alternative charges that can be argued, like handling stolen goods or money laundering, but the work itself is up for grabs. And considering the size of last night's haul, I doubt we'll see much from these pieces for another couple decades.