Art Theft: How Crime Uncovers the True Value of Art
By: Madeline Walsh
September 8, 2014
Art theft often takes a starring role in movies and television. The glamour and thrill of stealing fine art has endless allure. As of 2000, this underground industry has garnered an estimated worth of over 5 billion dollars a year. We’ve previously discussed the stolen street art epidemic, but now we’ll focus on more traditional thievery. Just a few months ago, the FBI recovered pieces by the Polish artist Hanna “Kali” Weynerowska in a Bay Area storage unit. Weynerowska’s works, while technically not stolen in a traditional sense, raise a greater question about the value of art.
Hanna Kali Weynerowska was relatively unknown throughout her career and even today. There is no wikipedia page dedicated to her achievements. Although she was a WWII survivor, revolutionary and painter, Weynerowska’s accomplishments faded into the background of popular media. In his SF Gate article on the find, writer Bob Egelko explains the Weynerowska artworks were initially promised to a Swiss-based Polish museum. However, the artist’s surviving relative clearly could not bear to let the works go. Weynerwoka’s pieces hold significance not only as Polish works created before Soviet Union’s collapse, but also as pieces of her life and legacy. Without these valuations, Weynerowska’s artworks may not have been stolen or even classified as stolen.
Weynerowska chose to send her work abroad permanently to support the re-growth of Poland’s national art collection. Poland has struggled to recover many of its works stolen by the Nazis during WWII. As an individual, Weynerowska’s contributions to society were important on a creative level and also a historical level. In her youth, Hanna Kali was a member of the Polish resistance squad and fought in the Warsaw uprising against German forces. This, among her many achievements, adds to the foundational value of her artworks.
Today, there are five recognized types of art theft: boon for theft, quick sale, overseas sale, ransom and fundraising and theft for personal enjoyment. Only an estimated 5-10% of stolen artworks are ever recovered. The elusive nature of art theft has left a wake of unsolved and ongoing cases. Art theft is motivated by money, triggered by emotion and illustrates the social influences that create artwork value. In some cases, such as that of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” the theft is what generates an artwork’s value. Up until her kidnapping, the Mona Lisa was relatively unknown. It was not until after the painting was recovered that critics began lauding the piece as a Da Vinici masterwork. The unique circumstances surrounding Weynerowska’s works has compounded their value in many different ways. Art value isn’t only determined by prestigious institutions, but by everyday people themselves.
For further reading, the famous art detective Robert K. Whitman’s book “Priceless” has garnered a good deal of press in recent years. The book chronicles Whitman’s work uncovering stolen art while undercover.