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How much for the Mona Lisa?

The most famous art theft in history was committed by a walk-in thief from Italy, using the simplest means and plans: 100 years ago, on August 21, 1911, Vincenzo Perugia hid out in the Louvre on a Sunday evening, let himself be locked in by the guards, and the next day – a Monday when the museum was closed – stole Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa.

Disguised as a janitor, Perugia is thought to have smuggled the painting out of the museum under his smock. But the most famous art theft of all time ended a few years later with the return of the painting to the Louvre and a jail sentence for the thief. Nevertheless, even today there are imitators who especially target unsalable precious objects.

Art crime causes annual losses worth around six billion euros worldwide every year. This number makes it one of the largest areas of criminal activity after money laundering, drug dealing, and human trafficking.

Georg Freiherr von Gumppenberg, Head of Art Insurance at Allianz

Georg Freiherr von Gumppenberg: No paintings of comparable art historical and national significance have come on the market in the past 100 years. We can only speculate, and even then we'd be off the mark. This is why serious experts rather not name ballpark figures, even though people would often like to know. If a picture is unsalable, irreplaceable, and priceless, then it's idle for experts to speculate about what it's worth.

Gumppenberg: Of course, basically any picture is insurable. But paintings like the Mona Lisa in their traditional locations at a museum are often not insured at all, and are also never lent out any more. If they were lost or damaged, the state – in other words, all of its citizens – would be liable. So the question of insurance doesn't arise in a case like that. That's also how it is, for example, with comparable pictures like Raphael's Sistine Madonna in Dresden.

But other very precious pictures are sometimes lent out for important exhibitions, so they have to be insured because of that. In that case you use a pro forma appraisal value, which is certainly less than treasures like these would command on the art market.

Gumppenberg: If you look at it more closely, the prices in the art market aren't that "absurd." An auction house, dealer or gallery owner first of all gets an orientation from prices that have been paid for comparable items in the past few years. This initial evaluation is often also influenced by signals from potential buyers.

Auction houses and dealers usually know pretty accurately what their clients would be willing to spend if extremely rare, valuable art works were to show up on the market. But lip service doesn't establish a market price. A market price isn't firm until a collector has actually put down money on the table for an art work.

Opportunity makes the thief: Vincenzo Perugia spent the night of August 20 to 21, 1911, in the Louvre, and stole the Mona Lisa, the most famous painting in the world.

Gumppenberg: Well, that's the rule of course, but now and again it's evaded. In the recent past it's been happening more and more often that a buyer will put in the winning bid at an auction house and then won't pay.

One of the first times was in 1987. It became famous worldwide and may have set a record: Australian brewery owner Alan Bond bid 53.9 million U.S. dollars for Vincent van Gogh's Irises at Sotheby's in New York – the highest auction price ever, at the time.

Gumppenberg: Yes, since then it's happened repeatedly and more frequently, though the paintings and bidders haven't been so celebrated. But there's yet another reason why market prices don't take effect until someone has actually paid them. It happens even more often that an auction house puts out an estimated price that is not met, or a dealer asks a price that nobody is willing to pay.

Sometimes the prices are just too high. In times of crisis, another factor may be that potential buyers prefer to keep their powder dry after the stock market takes a plunge – Why pay a lot for a painting that might be available for a lot less a little later? We keep hearing only about new records in the media. But you hear a lot less often about declines at auction.

Gumppenberg: There's no blanket answer to that. Certainly there's a trend that quite in general, buyers are currently investing more in tangible property than in securities. The art market also seems to be profiting from that. At least, that's what the good sales figures from the latest trade shows and auctions suggest.

Gumppenberg: It hardly changes anything in terms of volume. The premiums depend of course not just on the amount insured – in other words, the value of the object – but also, and primarily, on the security standards that the owner establishes in the building and its environs. An up-to-the-minute alarm system is often what's needed before you can insure a collection or object at all.

Take the latest art theft from the Museum of Modern Art in Paris: the thieves broke open a padlock and got into the building through a window. Anyone who is that negligent about protecting paintings with a value in the triple-digit millions is unlikely to find an insurer who's willing to insure them against theft.

Gumppenberg: Probably the thieves are first motivated by the speculative estimated values, hasty greed, and ignorance of the market. If owners then tell quasi-criminals to help themselves, so to speak, by falling below the minimum security standards, that probably accounts for all the main reasons.

But on the whole there's a lot of naïveté at work too: among the owners, who can't imagine they'll be burgled (until it actually happens), and among the thieves, who can't imagine after the theft that they've just torn an unsalable object worth millions off the wall and still can't sell it.

In many cases, extortion follows theft. In what they call "artnapping," art thieves try to get the owners or their insurance company to pay a ransom because there's simply no buyer on the black market.

Gumppenberg: By no means. Negotiations with criminals always have to go through the police authorities in charge. This is something that insurers should never get involved in.

Gumppenberg: I don't have enough criminal imagination to say, thank goodness. I can only guess that the decision to steal a work of art follows a very sober calculation – a weighing of effort, risk, profit if you succeed, and the punishment you can expect if you fail. Kidnapping people is a capital crime, which thank goodness is punished very severely. But kidnapping art is a kind of "criminal mischief" and of course is not punished quite so harshly.

Vincenzo Perugia, who stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911, was ultimately sentenced to less than a year in prison – not very much, I'd say. He had hidden the painting for about two years in a hole in the wall of his room, and in the end he also wanted to get some kind of fee or ransom from an art dealer in Florence for the expenses he incurred in the theft. They say he was an idealist who wanted to take the piece back to Italy.

 
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