Art heists and the art world

Sunday Vijay Times, Bangalore, 29 May 2005

EDVARD MUNCH.S famous paintings ‘Scream’ and ‘Madonna’ were stolen from a Norwegian gallery this month. Each painting is worth $19m (Rs 828 million). Stolen paintings have a mysterious and interesting history.

An ex-worker, Vinsenzo Peruggia, who claimed he only wanted to return the painting to Italy, stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre.Famous paintings are difficult to sell because of the media hype that surrounds their disappearance. Often a collector of art might hire robbers to steal paintings. The biggest heist in American history, the $300m (Rs 13,071 million) haul taken from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, including works by Vermeer, Rembrandt and Manet is still missing. The paintings were taken when two men in police uniforms turned up at the museum in the early hours, claiming to be responding to a disturbance in the grounds, but handcuffed the security guards to railings as soon as they were let in.

Edvard Munch belongs to the German expressionist school. His canvasses and wood cut prints are intense and charred with passion. Works like ‘Puberty’, ‘Madonna’ and ‘Dance of life’ are amongst his best known paintings. He uses swirling colours and forms and his urban figures generally lack robustness, they seem to be wearied down, somewhat.’The Scream’ is a haunting image. A skeletal nondescript figure opens his mouth against a violent red and orange evening sky. ‘Madonna’ is a painting with the body of a girl/woman painted nude with swirling hair and a red halo. It’s colours are soft and yet haunting.

The expressionists were interested in depicting everyday life and universal themes to bring out the emotion in them. Munch was mainly concerned with death and illness. His personal life was harrowed with illnesses and pain. He died at 81 after painting some very evocative works. He is one of Norway’s most acclaimed artists.

Both these Munch paintings were stolen by two armed robbers who barged in to the museum and took away the paintings.’The Scream’ had been stolen before, in 1994,and was recovered undamaged after an international police effort. Three Norwegians were arrested accused of trying to ransom the painting for $1million (Rs 44 million) from the government.A man named Pål Enger, who received a six-year prison sentence for the theft has been said to have later bought a Munch at an auction.

Stolen paintings have a curious phenomenon because of the way they bring the art market into question. Art, after it has been made is seen as a possession, like cultural capital that a country must hold on to. The man who stole the ‘Mona Lisa’ said he just wanted it returned to Italy.

The life that a work of art has after the artist’s death is a strange one. Museums always catch up with art although artists pretend to shirk them. You can auction even cigarette butts and the peculiarity of the rich is that they would buy.


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