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The Fine Art of Crime
– protecting your cultural property

Collected Impressions of the Special Interest Day
led by Malcolm Kenwood
on November 12th 2016

Our engaging speaker for the day was Malcolm Kenwood, a former specialist police detective with the Sussex Constabulary.  He was Recoveries Director for the Art Loss Register which operates an international commercial database of stolen cultural property.  He has trained law enforcement officers and worked with the Met, New Scotland Yard, Interpol, the FBI and museum staff.  He invited us to travel with him through a day of villainy and kicked off with the assertion that Antiques Roadshow is prisoners’ favourite TV programme!

Lecture 1:  The Mona Lisa Mystery

Malcolm shared with us the details of how the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre on Monday 21st August 1911, who was charged with the theft and how it was reunited with its owners.  This is considered the first major art theft and it shocked the art world.  He set out the catalogue of unfortunate coincidences which, coupled with incompetence, meant that an aggrieved employee of a contractor could learn enough about the workings of the staff at the Louvre to be able to walk out of the building with the painting under his smock.

It had been the custom to encourage artists to work in the Louvre copying original paintings and in close proximity to them.  As a concession to concerns about possible damage to the paintings, some were encased in glass fronted boxes. So the 21ins by 30ins Mona Lisa became a 14 and a half stone item.  On Mondays the Louvre closed for cleaning, the movement of exhibits and the photographing of works, and staff at work on those days all wore white smocks.  One noticed the picture was not in its usual spot on the wall but assumed it had been taken for cleaning.  It was the next day before the alarm was raised by a visitor hoping to copy it but finding only four hooks on the wall.  When some staff eventually discovered the empty large wooden case and the frame another recalled finding a man on the Monday in a smock struggling to open a nearby door.  He had helped him unlock it without realising it was the thief who had removed the picture from the frame, concealed it in his smock and then made off through a public exit to the museum.

The world’s media speculated on a range of possible motives for the theft and public interest was high.  The Louvre was closed for a month and on reopening thousands queued to see the four hooks!  With the wisdom of hindsight many then came forward with tales of lax security at the Louvre and how taking a statue home was common practice amongst certain radical groups such as the one led by Apollinaire, opposed to the very idea of museum exhibits believing they stifled the creativity of new artists.

The villain was an aggrieved Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian migrant who hated the French.  He had worked as a carpenter for a company contracted by the Louvre to make the frames for its pictures.  He knew the security weaknesses at the museum, its working practices, had the smock and knew how to take the painting out of its frame easily.  Failings in the fingerprinting practices of the French police at the time (who only took right hand prints from those they arrested) also helped him evade detection as the left hand prints they found they could not use.  Whilst he kept the painting under his bed in his home a few streets away from the museum, police had been searching liners that had sailed from France in the wake of the theft.  It was two years before they made any progress in locating the painting when Peruggia made contact with the authorities and claimed he wanted the picture to be returned to the Uffizi in Florence.  This apparent motive for the theft resulted in his receiving only a one year sentence.  He then served in the Italian army in WW1 and ended his days as a painter and decorator in France in 1947.

La Joconde est Retrouvée (Mona Lisa Found), Le Petit Parisien, 13 December 1913

In 1932 the story took another interesting twist as a US journalist uncovered a story about an Argentinian forger who claimed he had set up Peruggia to steal the painting, had forged 6 copies and sold them to gullible rich collectors none of whom would want to own up to being hoodwinked.  Thus began the myth of there being more than one Mona Lisa and the seeds of doubt about its authenticity were sown.  The theft of the painting and its recovery and forgery sagas have all worked to propel the painting to iconic status: 6 million a year visit the Louvre and most go to view it.

Viv King

Lecture 2:  The Fine Art of Crime

Malcolm's second lecture covered 'The Theft of Cultural Property' from famous works of art to pedal cars!  Art theft, at the moment, ranks 4th highest financially in the criminal world.  The purpose behind these thefts seems to fall into different categories: Gang Crime, Extortion and The Collector.  All art crime falls under the auspices of The Art and Antique Unit at Scotland Yard.

Gang Crime: Artwork is often stolen as collateral for the payment of drugs and firearms rather than large sums of money having to be laundered.  As these shady dealers are probably not art experts they employ specialist advice to verify that the painting or object is genuine and it is here that the police can often use an undercover expert who will report back enabling an arrest.  There have been incidents of museums being targeted such as Durham Museum and more notably The Fitzwilliam in Cambridge where some wonderful examples of jade were stolen.  In both cases CCTV footage was released to the public which led to the arrests of not only the immediate culprits but a further 17 men in cahoots, via Limerick, with a Chinese gang trading the jade ornaments with counterfeit goods to be sold back in this country.

Extortion: Art-napping is, in effect, demanding a ransom from an insurance company once the victim of the crime has been paid off.  The threat being 'pay up or we will destroy the masterpiece'!

The Collector: Malcolm then told us the story of the theft of a 45,000 Euro trumpet from the Richard Wagner Museum in Lucerne.  The following day (the theft having been much broadcast) a dog walker noticed a man behaving strangely in the undergrowth behind the museum and had the foresight to notify the police.  This led to the thief's arrest and the subsequent discovery that he had been stealing small sized objects and artwork for many years for his own personal collection displayed in the attic of his home.  Unfortunately his mother, in a bid to rid her son of quite so much incriminating evidence, set about shredding the priceless paintings and threw the rest of his collection in the local canal!  This was fortunately retrieved later.

Finally Malcolm explained the importance of The Art Loss Register which is a database of stolen goods that insurance companies have settled claims on.  Auction houses pay to use this data base in order to avoid unwittingly selling stolen goods and will scan it closely against their catalogues.  If an item appears similar at first sight further forensic investigation such as wood grain, scuff marks, chips and cracks can often prove an item's true identity.  A classic example of this was a child's pedal car which fortunately was still in its original condition ... slightly bashed and rusty!  The trail of this one item went on to lead to a positive Aladdin's Cave of stolen property.

This was a truly gripping lecture and at times was like listening to a good who dunnit!

Julie Rashbrooke

Another delicious lunch provided by our special events committee
prompted much convivial conversation

Lecture 3:  How to protect your cultural property

Malcolm Kenwood’s afternoon talk covered the steps to be taken to protect one’s own property.

  • Photography.
    Use digital cameras wherever possible and turn off the flash (he suggests asking a 12 year old to assist in this!).  Keep the background plain, and take items outside if necessary.
    The quality of the image is important, and so photograph individual objects, not groups.
    Uniqueness – if photographing furniture, include scratches, chips and the grain of the wood.
    Damage matters, as forensic scientists can prove that chips are from stolen property.  Marks matter; although dinner services look identical, the firing marks are unique.
    Photograph labels and serial numbers, and even a case if objects are contained in one.  Two sets of photographs are recommended.
    Keep photographs safe – not in a bureau, which could also be stolen, and ideally on a safe.
  • Recording Fine Art
    Often there are details on the back of a canvas – record them, and measure the canvas.  Ignore the frame.
  • Property Marking
    Ultra-violet pens are useful, as post codes or house details can be marked on items, but the downside is that they can be erased with a wet rag.  Also, they will not adhere to metal or silver.
    A modern alternative is “SmartWater” which shows up under ultra-violet light.
    Details are to be found by checking “Forensic Property Marking” on the internet.
  • Insurance
    Try to accurately value items.  Although loss adjusters and assessors are usually supportive, it is important not to under value contents of a house.  Malcolm gave an example of the Duke who had a £3million valuation on his contents, but stolen items were worth £100million!
  • Once you have photographs and details, sign up to the Auction Search Market, and you will be notified if any of those items appear in any Auction Catalogue.  The pedal car referred to above was identified when it appeared in an auction catalogue in Australia.  The seller was then identified, and upon search, was found to have a multitude of stolen goods.

It must be borne in mind that there is far too much information available on the Internet.  House details on Right Move, for example, with photographs, may reveal valuable items.  Google Maps will show access to properties which would not otherwise be available to criminals.

In conclusion, Malcolm emphasised that it is all down to Risk Management; make life difficult for the potential burglar.

This talk offered practical advice to protect one’s valuables, and concluded a most entertaining day.

Philip Akroyd