Editor: Joe Rayment | E-mail: features@ubyssey.ca

October 3, 2008 | Page 

The Midas

by Alia Dharssi

Greed, gold and stolen art


t must have seemed like a typical cool and cloudy Vancouver night when the security guard at UBC’s clifftop Museum of Anthropology stepped out to have his smoke break. After the guard walked out to enjoy a cigarette, thieves wearing gas masks and armed with bear spray entered the museum, according to a CBC interview with Anthony Shelton, the museum’s director. The masked robbers proceeded to contaminate the interior of the museum with a powerful bear spray. The fumes would have made it difficult for anyone who tried to stop them, but apparently no one did. They made off with 11 sculptures by iconic Haida artist Bill Reid—ten of which were made of gold—and three Mexican Zapotec Indian gold-coloured necklaces. When the security guard returned from his break, everything seemed normal. The robbery wasn’t discovered until the following morning, when the museum’s security guards were conducting a shift change.


ow the thieves managed to pull off the heist, which occurred between May 23 and May 24 2008, is still unclear, as is the motivation behind the act. Authorities are unable or unwilling to confirm many of the details about the case, which is still under investigation. The theft, which involved works totalling approximately $2 million, is one of the most significant art robberies in Canadian history. One rumour describes the thieves calling the museum the day before claiming to be the alarm company. They explained that the alarm would be malfunctioning that night and that the museum should simply ignore it. A CBC article claimed that four hours prior to the robbery, important surveillance cameras in the museum had stopped recording. An electric alarm alerted campus security to

the fact that the cameras had gone offline, but this information wasn’t acted on. According to Douglas Reynolds, who owns a gallery that specializes in historic and contemporary Northwest Coast Art, the construction going on at the Museum of Anthropology probably contributed to the lack of response. “You have a large renovation going on, workmen going in all the time, systems were just not in place like they normally are.” Though a robbery of this magnitude at a public institution is rare in Canada, the illegal trade in arts and antiquities has increased substantially over the past decades. Today, it forms a transnational market that some claim is surpassed in size only by drugs and arms. Worse still is that the billions of dollars made from this illicit trade every year may be funding criminal networks. All the while, fragments of our cultural

heritage are disappearing, piece by piece.


onnie Czegledi is one of a handful of lawyers in the world that specialize in international art and cultural heritage law. She explains that frequent theft of pieces from small to medium-sized galleries, museums and archaeological sites adds up to a bigger problem than individual high-profile thefts, such as the one at the Museum of Anthropology. “It only makes the news when a bigger statue or important piece is stolen; however, if we dealt more effectively with the smaller incidences, we would be more prepared to handle the big events.” For instance, in Iraq, looting of small pieces is happening all of the time and, in the process, an important part of the world’s cultural heritage is being lost. Many stolen works of art are

never recovered and form what experts refer to as the “Lost Museum,” a fictional museum that holds all of the artwork ever stolen. If you were to meander through its halls, you would see a room of lost paintings by European artists like Picasso and Monet. However, in the midst of the maze of stolen works, you might also find a bronze woman posing for a photographer who is waiting for her in Vancouver`s Queen Elizabeth Park, where she was grabbed from a tableau of statues. Another room might be reserved for an exhibit of stolen cuneiform tablets that have been looted from archaeological sites in Iraq. Fortunately, the Bill Reid pieces didn’t end up in this inaccessible museum. “The RCMP had a real team on this case and they just went all out,” said Karen Duffek, the curator of Pacific Northwest and Contemporary Visual Art at the Museum of Anthropology. By

“The fact that countless pieces of cultural heritage.” Duffek said. “They also grabbed three Mexican necklaces that were of no particular value. they are difficult to profit from without being caught. “That’s why the museum very quickly got out the value of the materials. A chunk of a dark argillite pipe carved by Reid is still missing and the Mexican necklaces were badly damaged. the Dundas Collection. Canada could look to the American guidelines on sentencing cultural resource crimes in order to use incarceration as a much-needed disincentive. U Pieces by Vermeer. There hasn’t been a huge crime scene up until.” Czegledi commented. although not in their original condition.” As prices soar they attract collectors. Little by little cultural heritage is being lost and destroyed. “Publicizing is the most important thing to do…we have to speak to the media and make the material too hot to handle. “The historic work has been undervalued. The total value of the pieces taken is estimated at $300 million. which.1 tonnes. might be melted down. a collection of 19th century artifacts pertaining to the Tsimshian people of BC. not found by Joe Rayment Features Editor the end of August. The people who steal in Vancouver are not usually the ones “with a desire for Van Gogh”—they’re just trying to make a buck. such as galleries the criminals might attempt to sell the works to. There is a reluctance to discuss this issue in the art world.” “It’s really hard to solve a problem when it’s shrouded in secrecy. 1990. galleries and public institutions in a systematic operation. The paintings were valued in the millions. declined to be interviewed for this story. “and seen in terms that have nothing to do with their original meaning to people. they feared that the gold pieces.” Duffek said.8 million paid for a prized shaman’s mask. Czegledi suggests we examine the experience of other nations.4 Million On March 18. one ceremonial drum. rembrandt and manet Reward: $5. “But they were gold coloured.000 worth of religious items. The thieves used a crane to load the sculpture. an important Canadian fine art auction house. however. so they were obviously lured by gold. . Some of the local art gallery owners I met were hesitant to speak to me or to be quoted by name.” The Museum of Anthropology’s open response may have to do with Bill Reid’s importance and the fact that the museum is a public institution. many of them made of precious metals. in my opinion. the Northwest Coast art scene has experienced mostly amateur thefts. Most art crime in Canada. To deal with the problem. but not on the same level as the Bill Reid sculptures. One was a Mini Cooper and the second was a flatbed truck. The thief entered the house through an unlocked door while the maid was taking a break. Gallery owners say that thieves are usually after sculptures or metallic pieces they can melt down quickly for profit.” Thieves tend to target metal works and sculptures in local galleries. It was a nice piece. Northwest Coast art moves further and further from home. security cameras at Henry Moore’s former studio in Hertfordshire caught caught two vehicles driving into the courtyard. in the last ten years. consists of theft from private homes or commercial galleries that aren’t inclined to go public when pieces are poached.” She noted that it is unfortunate that there is still some fear in the business.” Duffek explained. particularly from remote archaeological sites that are not well protected.000 worth of gold may seem ridiculous. Of especial note was a record-breaking $1. which weighed 2. And this is only handful of robberies—a small part of a global problem. unlike sculptures. From 1:24am to 2:45am they took 12 paintings. Artwork is regularly looted the world over. Another concern expressed by art dealers is that publicizing a theft might ruin a gallery’s reputation. Heffel. and a cedar weaved basket belonging to the Kwantlen First Nations Community from the site’s museum. an organization that disseminates information to relevant organizations.” When I spoke to Matthew Petley-Jones. All of which results in the gradual disappearance of our cultural heritage. two white males dressed as Boston police officers entered the Gardner Museum claiming to be responding to a call. away from the community that influenced the art and out of public view. The items were taken from a small blind spot in the museum’s sensor system. but “people will do a lot for $15. 2008. “More recent thefts have been unprofessional and just really smash and grab. Thieves stole three colourful ceremonial masks. so that the thieves would know that it wouldn’t be too smart to melt them down. he told me about a group of thieves who broke through his gallery’s storefront window to grab a sculpture on display. T he prospects for resale may have motivated a robbery at the Fort Langley National Historic Site this September.000 On December 15. you have the huge break-in at the Museum of Anthropology. Paintings by Hans HoFmann. However. constitutes a significant loss rivalling high-priced thefts. “If we deal with the problem of illicit trafficking at the first stages there will not be the groundwork and established network there to carry out the big-name heists.” Going through the trouble of stealing $2 million gold artwork by an iconic Canadian artist and melting it down for $15. September also saw the robbery of $18. In October 2006.October 3. Moreover. for years. all of the missing items had been recovered. on to the back of the truck and drove off. In addition to the theft at Fort Langley. a local galleryowner.000 worth of Pacific Northwest Coast jewellery pieces stolen from his gallery in a robbery that occurred a year and a half ago. “I think these record prices getting set in New York shows the importance of Northwest Coast art internationally and also brings a lot more attention to the art. Thieves broke into a number of galleries. It’s plausible that the thieves who robbed the Museum of Anthropology were after quick money. RCMP Constable Annie Linteau referred to the recovery as “amazing in itself. 2008 | Page  Lost.000 regardless of what the actual value is. 2005.” The price also attracts thieves to museums and archaeological sites. Fortunately. from a church in Surrey. “a reclining Figure” by Henry moore Reward: $190. some thieves are after culturally valuable Pacific Northwest Coast art. targeting specific works. For instance. our comments could potentially be misconstrued. “The objects are completely ripped out of their contexts. that subsided and. including “The Concert” by Vermeer. They proceeded to break the Plexiglas back of the exhibition case holding the works and made off with pieces worth $5500.” Reynolds said. although deemed small are being stolen at an increasingly rapid rate from hundreds of sites. which have risen in value in recent years. A local gallery owner I spoke to said he had $30. Reynolds said. especially historic pieces. stating in an email that “art theft is a sensitive issue. “There’s no hope of a recovery.” She partly attributed the success to the wide publicity the theft received through the media and the Art Alert Register. “The market had been literally saturated with information.000 On the morning of August 23. of course.” Czegledi said on a phone call from Toronto. None of these pieces have been recovered.” Czegledi said. was auctioned off for $7 million at Sotheby’s Auction House in New York. including Reynolds’s. Thieves gained access by smashing their way through thick glass that led into the visitor centre. and in light of recent art thefts in and around Vancouver. One of them suggested that she would be reluctant to publicize an incident because it might give other people ideas.” There was a flurry of thefts of Northwest Coast art in the mid 1990s. “Secrecy only helps the criminal. a thief stole at least a dozen paintings from a private home in California.” It would have been very difficult to re-sell the works. despite cases where people have been able to recover stolen works precisely because they were publicized. cHaim soutine and arsHile gorky Reward: $215. Small art robberies occur often in Vancouver. Few paintings are stolen from local galleries because. “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” by Rembrandt and “Chez Tortoni” by Manet. which included seminal works from Reid’s career.

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