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Hot art, cold cases: Unsolved art theft in Berlin

With the help of a famed art detective, Exberliner re-investigates two famous cases of art theft in Berlin, as yet unsolved.

Lucian Freud hoped this poster, designed in 2001, would help him retrieve his stolen ‘Portrait of Francis Bacon’ (Bridgeman Images)

In 2001, a ‘wanted’ poster went up across Berlin. The image showed an artist’s rendering of a man’s face, the romantic visage of an outlaw: half-lidded eyes refusing to look up, a single strand of hair falling across the grooved forehead, puffy face partially obscured by shadow. It offered a reward of 300,000 Deutsche Mark (about €150,000) and a hotline number to call into. The man on these posters was, though, no outlaw, but the Irish painter, Francis Bacon.

The image was Lucian Freud’s own drawing of his 1952 ‘Portrait of Francis Bacon’, which had been stolen from the Neue Nationalgalerie in 1988. Freud made the posters in the hope of recovering the painting in time to display it at his 2002 retrospective at the Tate Museum in London. It seemed reasonable then to hope. The statute of limitations on the crime – 12 years in Germany – had expired. The reward was significant money. However, though some people did phone in, authorities received no concrete leads. The trail had gone cold.

Less than 10 percent of stolen art is ever recovered

To this day, no one knows what happened to this painting, or even why it was stolen in the first place. Nor does anyone know what happened to two other famously vanished paintings: Carl Spitzweg’s ‘The Poor Poet’ and ‘The Love Letter’, stolen from the Schloss Charlottenburg just a year later in 1989. That these art thefts threaten to end in mystery is typical: less than 10 percent of stolen art is ever recovered. And, as is the case with most art crimes, until the perpetrators and paintings are found, the motive for the thefts will be guesswork. To understand the crimes, we have to deduce based on the few clues we have – and what we know of art thieves in general.

Seven types of art thieves

Pop culture projects romantic images of art thieves. They are like Pierce Brosnan’s character in the 1999 Thomas Crown Affair, a smooth millionaire who steals art for the thrill of it. Or they have an insatiable, compulsive attachment to the art, as is the case in 2018’s animated film Ruben Brandt, Collector, where an art therapist’s only method to still his hallucinations of classic paintings is to follow his own advice: “possess your problems to conquer them.” Arthur Brand, a Dutch art detective who made his name recovering Picasso’s stolen ‘Buste de Femme’ and Josef Thorak’s long-lost ‘Horses’, scoffs a little at these depictions. “In Hollywood there is always a collector who wants to have them for himself,” he says. “In real life they hardly exist. The stories are always great, but we should never forget these are crimes; these people are criminals.”

Academic literature on the subject, however, suggests a wide range of art thieves beyond the two types usually depicted by Hollywood – “the ‘Dr No’ type” (the collector) and “the Compulsive Thief”. Art crime researcher Edgar Tijhuis counts five other figures in art theft: there are common thieves who just happen to steal some art, organised crime members, thieves who steal for ideological reasons, the opportunistic “art napper” and internal thieves – people who work in the institutions from which they steal. The thieves who stole the Lucian Freud and Carl Spitzweg paintings could have, in fact, been almost any of these.

A moment of madness?

On the Friday afternoon of May 27, 1988, some 800 people visited the Neue Nationalgalerie between 11:30am, when a photographer documented the complete exhibition of Lucian Freud, and 3pm, when a security guard noticed the space on the wall where the pocket-sized ‘Portrait of Francis Bacon’ had hung. He rang the alarm. Police sealed the museum and searched the visitors, but the painting, on loan from London’s Tate Museum, had vanished.

There were no witnesses to the theft. All that is clear is that Freud’s painting, one of only two complete portraits of his one-time friend and mentor Bacon, was unscrewed from the wall. Most theories have settled on this as a crime of passion and opportunity – a classic instance of ‘art napping’. This is what Brand certainly thinks, pointing to the many students in the museum that day. “Maybe he or she was a fan of Lucian Freud, or a fan of Francis Bacon, an admirer,” Brand says. “They looked around and they saw no security. They thought, ‘it’s small, let me take it with me.’”

But what student carries around a screwdriver? There was no sign that it had been torn from its mounting. Still, a crime of passion or admiration makes the most sense as the artwork never resurfaced. As Brand notes, “it’s strange that a painting was stolen so many years ago and nobody ever heard anything.” It certainly does not fit the pattern of ideological art theft or professional crime – as in the two cases when a Spitzweg was stolen.

‘The Poor Poet’ (1839) by Carl Spitzweg was Hitler’s favourite German painting. It is one of the two artworks stolen from Schloss Charlottenburg in 1989. Image: J.P.Anders

Theft as art

The first time Carl Spitzweg’s ‘The Poor Poet’ was stolen, December 12, 1976, it was not art theft, but theft as art. This painting, a typical Biedermeier of the 19th-century, depicts a downtrodden writer in his garret, burning his papers in the oven for warmth, plugging a hole in the ceiling with an umbrella. In the 1970s it was voted Germany’s second-favourite painting after the Mona Lisa. When German performance artist Ulay saw it in the autumn of 1976 in the Neue Nationalgalerie, he remembered it as the central painting of his childhood. He remembered it, also, as Hitler’s favourite painting.

Ulay hung the painting in the home of a Turkish family… and said he would return it only if the director of the Neue Nationalgalerie came to see it in its new, proper context.

On December 12 around 1pm, Ulay took it. The event is memorialised in his film, There is a Criminal Touch to Art. After placing a reproduction of the painting over the entrances of the Hochschule and the Kulturhaus Bethanien, two important art institutions in Berlin, he walked into the national gallery, lifted the painting off the wall, and walked out an emergency exit. He then ran to his van, holding the artwork under his arm. His partner Marina Abramovic and Werner Herzog’s cameraman Jörg Schmidt Reitwein filmed him the whole time.

Ulay hung the painting in the home of a Turkish family on Kreuzberg’s Muskauer Straße, who had permitted him to film a documentary there. He called in the theft to the police and said he would return the painting only if the director of the Neue Nationalgalerie would come to see it in its new, proper context.

“There’s a sense that he was setting out to insult the national spirit,” says Dominic Johnson, Professor of Performance and Visual Culture at Queen Mary University of London, who has written extensively on Ulay. He points out how Ulay “is also exposing, in a sort of aggressive or violent way, the persistence of fascist tendencies or assumptions or institutions in Germany at that time.” The papers railed against Ulay’s action. They declared he had humiliated a national treasure. Ulay saw it differently. “He was very keen to ensure that it wasn’t a work of vandalism. He accepts that it was theft, but he didn’t accept that it was vandalism,” Johnson says. “He described it as an unlicensed loan – which I thought was kind of brilliant.”

However, this unlicensed loan might have spawned an imitator. Brand suggests Ulay’s precise action led to real vandalism – the later, more permanent robbery. “He showed that it was an important painting,” Brand says, “and he showed that you could steal it.”

For money – or for Hitler?

On Sunday, September 3, 1989, no one suspected anything of the man in the red wheelchair and his companion, pushing him through Schloss Charlottenburg’s Galerie der Romantik. When the security guard realised they had taken Carl Spitzweg’s ‘The Poor Poet’ and ‘The Love Letter’ off the wall, he confronted them. They assaulted him and fled, leaving in their wake the alarm system blaring, the injured guard, and the red wheelchair, a prop. The action of the men who stole the Spitzweg was not ideological, but practical. They situated the wheelchair in front of security so he couldn’t see them removing the paintings. They were ready to use violence when the guard tried to stop them.

Carl Spitzweg’s ‘The Love Letter’ (1845-1846). Image: Wikipedia Commons

“I think it was professional criminals,” says Brand. “The common person who steals something, as in the case of the Lucian Freud, always acts alone. Your friends will not say ‘oh, that’s a good idea, why don’t you steal it.’ When you come in a pair, as in the Spitzweg case, you can be certain they are professional burglars.” Johnson, too, sees this second Spitzweg theft as having the hallmarks of professional crime – likely, he thinks, for a collector. “‘The Poor Poet’ is subject to two different modes of art theft,” says Johnson, “one which is ideological, and the other which is probably for monetary gain. There is a lot of theft on spec, where they’re stolen because someone has requested it. I’m guessing that is what happened in the case of the second theft, which is why it will never be found. It is probably in some sort of art bunker.”

Brand agrees that Johnson’s theory could be one possible explanation for why the painting has not surfaced. “There is a slight chance, but I wouldn’t put it at more than one percent, that this actually ended up in the collection of Nazi admirers,” Brand says. “It was one of Hitler’s paintings. It was one of Germany’s favourites.”

The afterlife of stolen paintings

None of these stolen paintings ever surfaced on the market and this partly explains why they have not been found. Art criminals are most often caught when they attempt to sell their booty – something which has only become more difficult since the decade when these works were stolen. Today’s online archives, such as Interpol’s ‘Stolen Works of Art Database’, which contains 52,000 pieces, and the Art Loss Register, a private database, have made it easier than ever to find out if a work is stolen before purchasing it. Even private collectors these days often want little to do with stolen work. As Bonnie Czegladi, a Canadian lawyer specialising in international art and cultural heritage law, says, “it just takes one person to see it to make it too hot to handle.”

So where could the paintings have ended up, if not in private collections? The options are limited for thieves. “Sometimes they destroy the artwork – because they are scared. Sometimes they store it away. And the third option,” says Brand, “is that it is going to be used as payment in the underworld, for drugs or whatever.” The latter possibility seems unlikely to Brand as, usually, word of this filters back up to the police. The detective’s guess is that all the paintings have been destroyed: “The chances are very high that they don’t exist anymore.” Whilst these cases might be cold, they are not closed. Both the Tate and the Alte Nationalgalerie, to whose collections the Freud and the Spitzwegs respectively belong, still consider these paintings part of their holdings. Though they are no longer actively searching for them, both institutions are ready to begin investigations should they receive any new evidence of the paintings’ whereabouts.

“If they exist, people should know two things,” Brand says, “the statute of limitations has expired so they shouldn’t be afraid to hand it back. And if they are afraid to hand it back, they can always contact me, and we can do it anonymously.” For the moment, the only possible solution to the crime lies in this fading hope: that the people who stole the art, or their descendants, have become weary of keeping it hidden – and might want to relieve themselves of the burden.

Do heists still happen? Thanks to increasing specialisation of the Berlin police and the rise of electronic databases, art theft has been trending down in the capital, with only 55, 54 and 38 instances in the past three years. But, if art thefts are few, they are certainly spectacular. In April 2002, nine expressionist paintings were stolen from the Brücke Museum by burglars who entered through a window. They were recovered one month and 47 tips later in Tempelhof. In 2017, thieves associated with Berlin’s Remmo clan absconded in the night from the Bode Museum with a Canadian golden coin weighing 100 kilograms. While three suspects were apprehended and convicted in 2020, the ‘Big Maple Leaf’ coin was nowhere to be found.