Art

If criminals are bad, why do we secretly applaud art thieves?

There's something about daring art heist that brings out the grudging admiration in us all

02 September 2018 - 00:00

Early last year Vjeran Tomic, aka Paris's "Spider-Man", was sentenced to eight years in prison and fined roughly R1.7bn for a theft that had tied French art knickers in an almost Gordian knot for seven years.
In January, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston extended an approximately R141m reward for help solving an art heist in which fake cops disappeared with R7bn worth of art in 1990.
While both incidents deserve all the moralistic finger-wagging reserved for criminal activity, they also demonstrate that it is hard for the corners of your mouth not to turn up a fraction when you hear a good art heist story.
Take Tomic's as an example. The 49-year-old career criminal built a reputation for using his Spidey skills to scale buildings and rob apartments, but needed none of that to break in to the Paris Museum of Modern Art. All Tomic needed to do to make off with works by Picasso, Matisse, Léger, Modigliani and Braque was break a window and cut a padlock.
As the story goes, Tomic had been commissioned to steal a painting by Fernand Léger. Upon discovering that the security system at the museum was faulty, "Spider-Man" (a self-proclaimed art lover) decided to look around to see what else he could pick up.
An anonymous tip eventually led to his capture. When questioned about the heist, he styled himself as Arsène Lupin, a fictional Parisian gentleman cat burglar.
As a general rule, crime has a deservedly bad reputation. It is, after all, very difficult to put a positive spin on things that cause harm - but art theft is a little different. Sure, the museums hate it, as do indignant French investigators (presumably with thin moustaches that curl up at the ends) and artists, but thanks to movies and literature, most of us enjoy a good art heist. It is perhaps the only crime where the perpetrator's little idiosyncrasies come across as charming rather than sinister.
There is also the fact that very few if any among us will ever own an art collection worth stealing, so we don't have to play the "what if it happened to me?" game.
Finally, any art heist worth its salt involves astronomical numbers, mysterious circumstances and a reluctant snitch. All of which are delectable ingredients for an entertaining story.
When it comes to South African art, one hopes that all art on display is removed by entirely legal means. Crime is awful and bad. Very, very bad.
If, God forbid, some art does get pilfered, I certainly hope that the thieves dress with élan, have an elaborate code that only World War 2 cryptographers can break and escape using an elaborate system of disused tunnels. Let us also pray that the swine get apprehended and punished to the fullest extent of the law.
Did I mention that crime is bad?..

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