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How art has been part of the worst crimes in history

After the turn of events at the 14th general elections, the country has seen some of the most exposing hypes surrounding the raids and inquests concerning the inordinate amounts of money and luxury items that were confiscated from residences connected to the former prime minister. Bags of cash, expensive watches and 284 Birkin bags were part of the unending list of items seen carted out of these homes. However, something we haven’t seen pictures of is what might have adorned the walls of these apartments or any paintings, sculptures and other works of art that may have been seized. This is curious given that art had played a major role early on in the scandal.

Leonardo DiCaprio at the The Wolf of Wall Street premiere.

Last year, Leonardo DiCaprio had to hand over to authorities a USD 3.2 million Pablo Picasso painting and a USD 9 million Jean-Michel Basquiat collage after ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ and its production company, owned by the former prime minister’s step-son, came under investigation. His paintings were gifted to him but the US Department of Justice’s anti-money-laundering division began claiming forfeiture of $540 million in assets that it says were bought with money stolen from the 1MDB fund and entities that it controlled. Upwards of $100 million worth of art were specified including in the Concetto Spaziale by Lucio Fontana (USD36 million,) and Tete de femme by Pablo Picasso (USD40 million.) This was on top of the Monet and Van Gogh paintings the Swiss authorities had already seized in 2016.

Pablo Picasso’s Nature Morte au Crane de Taureau (1939) handed over by Leonardo DiCaprio to the US government.

The art market’s reputation has long suffered criticism for its relationship to money laundering. As the New York Times explained, “Secrecy has long been central to the art world. Anonymity protects privacy, adds mystique and cuts the taint of crass commerce from such transactions. But some experts are now saying this sort of discretion is not only quaint but also reckless when art is traded like a commodity and increasingly suspected in money laundering.”

Let’s say you have USD10 million of dirty cash you need cleaning. Buy a piece of art worth that amount anonymously, then take that to Sotheby’s and put it up as collateral for a loan of USD9.8 million. Take the cash and there you have it. Clean money. Art is also attractive to criminals because of its ease in transportation. Gold or cash in equal value to that of a work of art would be far heavier to transport. Furthermore, the value art is not bound by markets or index since it holds no universal currency. This makes it far less risky compared to precious metals or currency whilst its price can be manipulated easily by private sales or at auctions.

La Maison de Vincent a Arles, by Vincent Van Gogh seized in 2016 by Swiss authorities.

Aside from money-laundering, the world of art has had a rich and nefarious past. From theft to even murder, let’s have a look at some of the more fascinating stories behind art’s criminal past.


Vandalism is not a major crime but a chargeable offence none the less. Graffiti and street art are now certainly coming under the appreciation of being true art with artists like Banksy, enhancing areas as opposed to mere defacing. Vandalism of art itself, on the other hand, has caused far more financial distress. From the two separate slashings of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch to the spray painting of Picasso’s Guernica, vandals have always tried to make political or further artistic statements by being destructive.  The most notorious of vandals is Hans-Joachim Bohlmann. Known as the ‘serial art vandal,’ he spent 29 years defacing over 50 works of art in public exhibitions. He threw sulfuric acid over works by masters including Rembrandt and Rubens, completely destroying one piece by Paul Klee. The total damage he caused to works of art before he died was estimated at over USD 180 million.

The Mona Lisa went missing for two years


The art heist has been glamourised by countless Hollywood films but in reality, they were not that complicated to pull off before technological security advancements. In 1911, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, arguably the Louvre’s most treasured artwork, went missing for two years. Vincenzo Perugia, an employee at the museum simply hid inside before it closed, removed the painting and walked off unobtrusively with it hidden under his smock once the museum had reopened the following morning. When he was finally caught in Italy trying to sell the masterpiece, he only served 6 months in prison as he was hailed a national hero for bringing Da Vinci’s work back home.

The Scream by Edward Munch, 1893

Two versions of Edward Munch’s The Scream was stolen. Once in 1994 when four men broke into the National Art Museum in Oslo and stole its version of the iconic painting, leaving behind a note that read, ‘Thanks for the poor security.’ Then in August 2004, two masked robbers entered Oslo’s Munch Museum, holding tourists and employees at gunpoint as they tore another version of “The Scream” as well as Munch’s “The Madonna” off the wall.

Picasso’s Le Pigeon Aux Petits Pois has never been recovered.

Unlike these examples, there are plenty of works that have been stolen and never recovered. The saddest of these cases would be Picasso’s Le Pigeon Aux Petits Pois, which the thief threw in the bin, shortly after it was stolen from the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. The bin was emptied before authorities learned of its contents and it has never been recovered. If the painting hasn’t been destroyed, it will be worth over USD26 million at auction today.


Like any item of luxury, if there is demand then there will be fakes. In 1996, art historian Thomas Hoving estimated that forged art comprised up to 40% of the art market. With modern day technology it is becoming a lot harder to sell forged works of art and smart forgers also intentionally make flaws or hide messages so as to protect themselves from criminal repercussion if they are caught.  One forger who was exposed even capitalised on his infamy. Thomas Keating – who had claimed to have produced over 2,000 counterfeit paintings – served as a presenter on British television programs detailing the techniques of old masters. Some forgers make us question the world of art and those who claim to be experts in it. Wolfgang Beltracchi, duped the international art world for nearly 40 years by forging and selling paintings of early 20th-century masters, amassing a fortune in the millions.

Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery?


Art seems to attract all types of criminal behaviour and the ultimate act of murder is no exception. Caravaggio is the most famous artists who committed this crime. Aggressive, ill-tempered and constantly in trouble for fighting and given to carrying a sword, Caravaggio eventually killed a man in 1606 during a fight and had to flee Rome. Whilst on the run from the law he painted some of his darkest works, full of regret and sin. Benvenuto Cellini, on the other hand, killed without much remorse in the 16th Century. He stabbed his brother’s murderer to death, killed a rival goldsmith and shot an innkeeper dead. He was never punished for his crimes as he was so admired as an artist.

David with the Head of Goliath

In the 1980s, minimalist master Carl Andre was trialled for the second-degree murder of his wife, Ana Mendieta, who fell 34 floors to her death. Andre was eventually acquitted but the judgement remains questionable. It should be said that artists are not always the perpetrators but have also been the victim to attempts of murder. Andy Warhol was shot in his studio in 1968 by Valeria Solanas, who claimed Warhol had “too much control” over her life.

Some may argue that art will always have a dark side. It is what has been the motivation behind many famous canvases and only serves to enrich our experience of it. Charles Baudelaire summed up the relationship between art and its villains best when he stated, ‘ A work of art should be like a well-planned crime.’

Tengku Muzhaffar Petra
Watches and Culture Editor
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