Two episodes into the docuseries This is a Robbery: World’s Biggest Art Heist, I get a sense that it seems to be overly exaggerated and dramatic. Not to say that it didn’t happen, just the little details seem off. First of all, is it really the world’s biggest art heist? I decided to dig a little.
Besides the famous robberies of the Mona Lisa and The Scream, both of which were returned, there is the plundering of European Art done by the Nazis between 1933-1945. Twenty percent of European art were stolen for Hitler to either put into his Fuhrer museum or to destroy because he deemed it unworthy to exist. The most notable being the theft of the Amber Room of the Catherine Palace near St. Petersburg in Russia. Sculptures and other items were taken, never to be seen again. People have theorized that they were bombed, sunken with a submarine, or buried.
Even before World War II ended, a massive campaign started to recover and return these art pieces. Yet, by 1994, there were still 100,000 pieces missing, and 16 of the 40 top paintings were recovered. Then in 1997, the National Jewish Museum renewed the efforts in retrieving the pieces through a program they had established. In conjunction with the National Jewish Museum and the National Archives, they began pouring over the photographs and records taken of War Crimes.
In the early 2010s, a trove of 1,280 paintings was discovered being squirreled away in Germany by a recluse named Hildebrand Gurlitt. He had inherited these paintings from his father, who was a big-name art dealer. Gurlitt kept these paintings believing that he was a ‘steward’ and was protecting. A website was created for claimants to come forth, and towards the end of his life, Gurlitt attempted to thwart the authorities from confiscating the art.
Let’s not forget the countless thefts of archaeological artifacts and artworks, all done primarily on online trading markets. Last year alone, Interpol, Europol, and WCO (World Customs Organization) seized 19,000 stolen items and arrested 101 people in conjunction with these thefts. This was the second time that these organizations worked together to thwart these art thieves.
If you were to combine these two robberies, wouldn’t it be much bigger than the theft of 13 paintings from a museum in Boston? What I’m trying to get at is that the title of the docuseries is not true. Obviously, there have been bigger thefts.
I plan on watching the rest of the episodes. The show is intriguing, but I’m trying to figure out if it’s because it’s more like a show or a true accounts telling of an art robbery.
UPDATE: Recently a French heiress dropped her fight with the University of Alabama over her right to claim back a painting by Danish-French artist Camille Pissaro; which was one of the paintings stolen by the Nazis. The heiress had lost relatives during the Holocaust and was adopted by a couple; they were the ones that had owned the painting. Facing legal threats from the university and the fact that she had signed a document (“under duress”) indicating that she had agreed on donating the piece to them, she had no choice but to drop the case. Another art casualty in the recovery of the Nazi-looted masterpieces.