Stolen art can’t be sold but is still coveted

Details of Munch’s The Scream — one of the world’s most iconic paintings of which there are only four copies, but also the world’s most stolen painting.

The hole in the wall at the Poundland shop in Haringay is all that remains of ‘Slave Labour’ a Banksy mural created prior to the Jubilee celebrations in London, last year. (See a copy at

Antique and collectible objects are not as valuable as they used to be. So the focus of thieves in this recession has been on gold, jewellery and electronic items that are easy to offload.

James O’Halloran, MD at Ireland’s largest auction house Adam’s, said there is not a market in stolen antiques. Valuation for insurance purposes is a significant part of the business. These days valuation requests are invariably by collectors stung by an insurance bill and seeking to have a downward value to reflect the current market.

Thieves are always with us and security is always important. When in doubt dealers and auctioneers will check with the Art Loss Register, the world’s largest database of stolen art and antiques. The theft of art, although it is impossible to offload on the open market, continues unabated.

Munch’s iconic painting The Scream, of which there are only four copies, is one of the most stolen paintings in the world. Similarly the Mona Lisa has been stolen and recovered; Russborough House, home of the Beit Collection, was hit by art thieves four times. No fewer than 19 paintings stolen by an IRA gang, which included Dr Rose Dugdale in 1974, were recovered in West Cork. Martin Cahill (aka the General) robbed the house in 1986, and his old associate Martin Foley carried out robberies there in 2001 and 2002.

In 1990 a Metsu stolen in Russborough in 1986 turned up in Istanbul in the hands of a thief trying to barter it for a shipment of heroin. In the last couple of weeks a mural by grafitti artist Banksy was withdrawn from auction in Miami. Haringay Council in London wants it back. You cannot sell a work by Banksy without a certificate of authentication from his agents, Pest Control.

Some stolen paintings are recovered, many remain missing. Most notably the theft of $300m worth of art, including The Concert by Vermeer from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in 1990 remains unsolved.

The theft happened on Mar 18, just as St Patrick’s Day celebrations in the city were winding down.


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