The Story of the Stolen Works of Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian from the National Gallery of Greece
P. Mondrian. (1905). "Mill" [Painting]. https://www.alphafreepress.gr/2021/06/29/ellada/klemmenoi-pinakes-pikaso-synenteyksi-xrysoxoidi-kai-mendoni-poios-o-listis/
The artworks heist and the illicit trafficking of cultural property are considered a multi-billion dollar industry following the illicit trade of drugs and weapons. How many times have we wondered when a new case broke out the news "Why did thieves steal the paintings?", "What did they do with them?". Although answers to these questions remain elusive, it is commonly accepted that the offenders do not steal artworks to hang them on their walls. As the Dutch prosecutor, Ursula Witsel claims "People steal art pieces for the same reasons they steal cars and other luxury goods." The sale of any well-known artwork which is known as missing is a more complex process even from the theft itself. Such items are usually sold on the black market at prices much lower than the expected ones. On the other hand, some criminals never managed to sell the stolen art pieces; as happened with the stolen works of Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian from the National Gallery of Greece in Athens.
Back on 9 January 2012, a man managed to trip to the National Gallery of Greece, just a day before the closure of the Gallery for a radical renovation. He snatched the only Pablo Picasso's work "Woman's Head" (1939), in the possession of the National Gallery, with a Piet Mondrian's painting named "Mill" (1905). The "Mill", oil on canvas, with35 X 44 dimensions, was purchased in 1963 by Alexandros Pappas and was donated to the National Gallery. While Picasso's work, apart from its objective artistic value, has also a hugely emotional one. In the "Woman's Head" (1939), Pablo Picasso had captured, his partner Dora Maar, on a 56x40 canvas. She was a well-known surrealist photographer and political activist. The painting was a gift from the artist himself to the Greek nation, bearing a handwritten dedication on the back. "Pour le Peuple Grec, Hommage de Picasso" in English translation, "for the Greek people, a tribute from Picasso". The painting was donated by the artist to the Greek people as an honorary offer for their attitude towards fascism and Nazism during World War II. So, the theft of the works through the center of Athens, apart from being an outrageous event, was also an act with huge symbolic extensions.
P. Picasso. (1939). "Woman's Head". [Portrait].
The case of the stolen works was an "open wound" for the reputation of both the National Gallery and the police authorities. For many years it was not clear whether the perpetrator was one or he had an accomplice. Testimonies of the guard who noticed and chased the man spoke of a single person wearing a hood, removing the works from their frames with a knife. Despite the efforts of the guard, the perpetrator managed to escape. The paintings remained unaccounted for 9 whole years until June 2021. The investigations yielded and led the police authorities to arrest the perpetrator.
The robbery is reminiscent of a cinematic plot with interesting details coming out every day. The theft took place shortly after 16:00 am. The perpetrator managed to enter the National Gallery, breaking one of the windows on the ground floor of the building, misleading the guard with false alarms. The perpetrator snatched the paintings, headed towards the stairs, then led to the basement, thus found the opportunity to temporarily hide and remove the works from the frames with a knife. According to police sources, the perpetrator had been preparing for the theft for 6 months. He used to go to the gallery every day either as a visitor or from outside to examine the place. The collection of information was done with such diligence that the perpetrator was able to know even the moment when guards went out to smoke, until the day of the robbery.
What could be the motives of the perpetrator? According to an art detective Arthur Brand, there are three usual motives; financial reasons, political ones, and unexplained personal reasons. The National Gallery's thief appears to have confessed that he never planned to sell the works. On the contrary, his great love and appropriation for art were what led him to this act. Such thefts for just the sake of prestige are not a common phenomenon. So, is reasonable to deal with the perpetrator's allegations with hesitation.
New evidence brought to light by Arthur Brand reinforces our suspicion. The perpetrator of the National Gallery seems to be connected with the theft of 2 important works, a Monet and a Picasso, from the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam. The robbery happened in 2012, the same year as the one in Athens. From these works, Brand is afraid that the robber managed to sell Picasso's work on the black market.
Interesting photos have come to the spotlight showing that the perpetrator has entered the British police force. A very clever strategy as Brand underlines. Through that experience, he learned how to erase his traces. Also, the perpetrator had a social media account under the name "Artfreak". He even made posts and reposts from major art museums, while he had managed to gain access to circles of artists and museologists. In that way, he managed to go unnoticed all these years by creating a seemingly reliable profile.
Brand. (2021). The Greek Picasso-thief. [Photo] https://www.protothema.gr/greece/article/1139773/klopi-stin-ethniki-pinakothiki-o-listis-eihe-allon-ena-pikaso-kai-enan-mone/
The works have not yet returned to their "home". Firstly, they need to be thoroughly examined by art experts for possible damages. The Police found the works dumped in a ravine when the "artfreak" thief realized that the police were on his trail and desperately tried to escape. We do not know the conditions in which the works were kept all these years. Therefore, their proper and formal maintenance after the examination is a natural consequence before we see them again decorating the walls of the new building of the National Gallery.
BBC. (2021, June 29). Picasso painting found as builder arrested over art heist. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-57644846
Kadir, J. (2021, June 29). Greek police recover Picasso and Mondrian paintings stolen nine years ago in mayor yeist. The Art Newspaper. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/picasso-mondrian-stolen-athens-national-gallery-art
Smith, H. (2021, June 29). Picasso and Mondrian paintings found as builder arrested over Athens gallery theft. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2021/jun/28/greek-police-recover-two-stolen-paintings-by-picasso-and-mondrian
Westfall, S. (2021, June 29). Nine years after Greek art heist stolen Picasso is found in a gorge. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/06/28/stolen-picasso-found/
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