This past week found thousands of art collectors, galleries and art dealers flocked to Miami for Art Basel / Art Miami, including at least one art thief who walked off with an $89,000 plate made by Pablo Picasso.
The stolen Picasso, entitled Visage aux Mains,is a 16 1/2 -inch silver engraved with a smiling face and stick-figure hands. Made by Picasso in 1956, it is No. 16 of 20 plates. The plate was on display at the Leslie Smith Gallery in the Art Miami pavilion, which was last seen by a guard on patrol at around 10:30 p.m. on Thursday. When owner David Smith arrived on Friday morning, he discovered the plate missing. Nothing else in his booth was absent or appeared disturbed.
Art Miami maintains 24-hour guards at entrances and exits, as well as locks and chains on the doors, but no video surveillance, which is typical for tent pavilions. Very few people would have had access to the fair after hours, except for cleaning crews and Art Miami employees. Police have a list of all personnel working on the premises and are investigating.
The Picasso plate wasn’t the most valuable artwork on display at the Leslie Smith booth. A Picasso ceramic adjacent to the plate was worth about $365,000. Smith suggested that the thief may have chosen to steal the plate because it is small enough to hide under a sweater or jacket and is not as fragile as smaller, but more expensive pieces.
The FB claims that stolen art totals about $6 billion dollars. Some art heists are well thought-out plans reminiscent of the “Thomas Crown Affair” while others are crimes of opportunity carried out by insiders. Which category this theft falls into remains to be seen. However, one thing is certain, artwork from famous artists can be difficult to sell especially for thieves not tied into those who can fence the stolen items.
Why is Stolen Art so Difficult to Sell?
Stealing art from an industry event, like Art Miami, alerts buyers and collectors to be on the lookout for the stolen goods. Collectors, galleries or auction houses will likely recognize the stolen Picasso if someone tries to sell it to them. As well, prospective buyers want to be assured that the plate is genuine, and will look to the plate’s provenance for verification. Provenance is a critical component of any art sale as it details the plate’s ownership and history while ensuring the art is genuine and being sold by its true owner. Verifying provenance is what is keeping the stolen art by Nazis in the Gurlitt Collection from being returned to the owners. Visage aux Mains won’t have any documentation, which will be a red flag.
As well, most dealers will consult international databases, such as the Art Loss Registry, the National Stolen Art File or the FBI Stolen Art List, which catalog stolen works of art. Experts around the world use these services to check the provenance of items before they buy or handle them. Owners use the databases to record pieces in their collections or that have been lost or stolen helping to maximize any chance of recovery. Should someone try to sell the stolen Picasso plate to a gallery owner, auction house or private collector, a review of the international registries will alert the buyer to the theft.
A thief can go to a pawn shop or antique shop, turning the plate into cash, but only at about at 5-10% of its value. In the United States, there is no requirement that the sale of art has any proof of ownership. A pawn dealer will not likely check any of the stolen art databases. Of course, turning the other cheek runs the risk of being discovered by the FBI’s art agents, trained to find high-value stolen art. Given the likelihood of being caught selling in the legitimate market, the alternative is to sell the plate on the Black Market.
Can Stolen Picasso be sold on the Black Market?
The world holds many unscrupulous buyers who care nothing about an artwork’s provenance or the fact that they are purchasing stolen goods. Those wishing to sell the plate for its fair market value must consider other options other than the open market.
One option is to sit on it for a while. When the theft is no longer on agents’ minds, it will be easier to find a dealer willing to generate a quick profit by buying the plate for a low price and then selling it quietly for a small profit. Eventually, if there are enough small deals, the theft may be covered up by all the transaction, eventually coming back to the market in an auction house or gallery.
The thief can also try to exchange the plate for other black market goods, like guns or drugs. If the dealer trading in Black market goods has connections in countries like Russia or China, selling the plate may be easier and fetch more money since those countries allocate few resources to stolen art recovery.
The plate can be also turned in for a reward. Smith has offered $5,000 for the plate’s return. However, if the thief worked at Art Miami, such as a member of the cleaning crew or catering service, he or she would undoubtedly be caught. Even using another person to return the plate ca lead to an investigation that might end in the arrest of both the person returning the work as well as the thief.
Finally, the thief can just keep the work for him or herself. However, displaying the work, even if hidden for several years, could invite questions as to how the person got a Picasso, especially if the person is of modest means.
Ultimately, the return of the Picasso will probably be hampered most by lack of investigative resources. While the plate is a Picasso, it is not a $10 million masterpiece so may not receive priority treatment after the initial investigation is complete. And while Visage aux Mains will always remain in one of the stolen art registries, it is only one of many stolen artworks in those registries, so can get lost in the mix. For example, the international Art Loss Register currently holds 30,000 items of stolen art. So if authorities fail to find the plate quickly, the chances of recovery are slim. Then it could be decades before the stolen Picasso plate surfaces again.