Fetishization of ‘Art Heists’: Movies vs. Reality

 Victoria Mileson

It’s no secret that heists make for great entertainment. From the classic The Italian Job to the more recent Ocean’s films, we never seem to get tired of the classic heist tale and there’s always an opportunity for a new angle. We find ourselves rooting for the criminals, but why? Is it the glamour, the danger of taking something on display, or the possibility of being caught?

In a film, we might see the plotting thieves, the heist itself and a close escape from the police. A pattern though, is that the criminals rarely get caught. Heists are robberies; but these robbers aren’t the ones in balaclavas, they’re often hidden in plain sight. There are a few failed heist movies, but part of the charm that we buy into with art heist entertainment, is that it isn’t the reality, and a good plan can be enough to escape.

In 2012, there was an art heist at the National Gallery in Athens. On 29th June 2021, two of the stolen pieces, Pablo Picasso’s Head of a Woman (1939) and Piet Mondrian’s Stammer Windmill (1905) were recovered from a gorge just outside of Athens. A third piece by Guglielmo Caccia is still missing and the burglars dropped an additional Mondrian painting as they fled the gallery.

The heist was calculated and elaborate. The criminal gang set off the gallery’s alarms so many times that security decided to disable the alarm system, which in turn helped the thieves complete their heist and escape in just seven minutes. It sounds like the plot of a movie, and you can picture the thieves gathered around the blueprints of the gallery, mapping out their plan. But, in this case, it is the reality.

The 1939 Picasso painting had an inscription on the back of the canvas: “For the Greek people, a tribute by Picasso.” The renowned artist offered it to the Greek people as a gift for their resistance against the Nazi occupation in WWII. The painting had more than aesthetic value and possessed cultural worth for the Greek people. The inscription also meant it was identifiable and virtually impossible to sell without creating attention; meaning it went undiscovered for almost a decade.

A 49-year-old man has been arrested in connection with the heist. Unlike in the films, he got caught and offers his love and passion for art as a justification for the theft

A 49-year-old man has been arrested in connection with the heist. Unlike in the films, he got caught and offers his love and passion for art as a justification for the theft. Even though the international market for stolen art has been valued at over £3.5 billion each year, some thieves just want to possess the artwork and have no intention in selling them.

Films tend to sell the heist as an act of greater good; repairing an injustice against themselves; righting a wrong, but that is not necessarily the reality. High profile heists are romanticised in filmmaking and carry more risks than there are made out to be. They don’t focus on the aftermath or consequences. For example, valuable art is famous art, which means it’s virtually impossible to sell, which is often a motive in art heist entertainment. They also don’t focus on the possibility of the art being damaged. Cutting the canvases out of the frames diminishes the value of the piece. The key suspect for the 2012 heist also claims to have damaged the Caccia artwork in the process of the heist and decided to discard it in the gallery’s toilets. The Caccia artwork is assumed to have been disposed of and lost forever.

It’s charming that we can easily imagine ourselves in the environment of a heist. We can visit museums and then when we watch art heist entertainment, it doesn’t seem completely outlandish and impossible.

However, things go wrong in an art heist that the Hollywood cameras don’t show – it would ruin the charm and escape of it all. Art heist movies remove the very real possibility of mistakes and timings not perfectly coinciding and therefore offer an escape to the viewer. A key part of the charm of the Hollywood art thief is their calculated nature and skilful sleight of hand. It’s not presented as a crime, but instead as a reclamation of culture back to the people.

Movies and reality don’t match up when depicting heists. The motivations and method aren’t the same. The films detach the element of crime from the proud owner of the piece. This doesn’t stop it being fun to watch though and heist entertainment will always remain a cult classic. 

Victoria Mileson

Featured image courtesy of Arzu Cengiz via Image license can be found here. No changes made to this image.

In article image courtesy @theipaper via No changes made to this image.

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