Pierce Brosnan as Thomas Crown in "The Thomas Crown Affair" (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

The myth of the art thief: It's not a gentleman's crime

The romantic Hollywood image of art crime is a far cry from the truth



Noah Charney
September 24, 2017 6:00PM (UTC)

It was 9 a.m., the day after Thanksgiving, 1985, at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. What appeared to be a middle-aged woman and a young man, both in winter overcoats (despite it being only 55 degrees out), entered the museum, the first visitors of the day. After wandering the galleries for less than ten minutes, the woman asked a guard some questions. Soon after, the two visitors hurried out of the museum. Noting this odd behavior, a guard quickly surveyed the collection and spotted a painting missing, cut from its frame. Willem de Kooning’s "Woman-Ochre," valued then at half a million dollars, now considered worth tens of millions. Sketches were made of the suspects, but the FBI and local police had little else to go on.

That was until 2015, when the estate of a Jerome Alter, who had lived not far from the museum, was evaluated by a local antiques dealer. Among the more interesting items spotted was "Woman-Ochre," which was hanging in the master bedroom of the Alter’s home, visible only when the bedroom door was closed, obscured by it when the door was open. The dealer acquired the painting, not knowing its author or value — he paid just $2000 for it. It was only years later, when some customers mentioned that the painting, which remained at his shop, looked like a de Kooning — actually like the de Kooning that some folks mentioned had been stolen — that the dealer took action and turned the painting in to the police.

Advertisement:

Now investigators are working backwards: The artwork has been recovered, but the unlikely suspect, Jerome Alter, died years ago. Some wonder if he and his wife, or even he and his son (if he had dressed up as a woman, as the female suspect sketch supposedly resembles him), were the ones to have stolen it. Or did they, like the antiques dealer, acquire it from someone else, without knowing that it was hot?

When one thinks of art crime, a Hollywood image is conjured: one of black-clad cat burglars, thieves in top hats and white gloves, and perhaps the occasional criminal collector twirling his waxed moustache as he cackles maniacally over a stolen horde in his Bavarian castle. But the truth behind art crime, a truth that is misunderstood by the general public and professionals alike, is far more sinister, and more intriguing. Art crime has its share of cinematic thefts and larger-than-life characters, but it is also the realm of international organized crime syndicates, the involvement of which results in art crime funding all manner of other serious crimes, including the drug trade and terrorism. Art crime has shifted from a relatively innocuous, ideological crime into a major international plague, one of the highest-grossing criminal trades worldwide. But the general public is still stuck in this Romanticized image of art thieves as looking and acting like Pierce Brosnan or Cary Grant. Thomas Crown stole art for fun and to admire it, in his cinematic incarnation. But how many real-life art thieves fit this description?

This is the question I’m most likely to be asked when I teach the history of art crime. The answer is easy: There have been almost no known, real-life art thieves who steal art in order to admire it. But the general public, and the world of criminals, seem to believe that this is the norm. This goes hand-in-glove with another popular misconception: That there exist criminal collectors who commission the theft of artworks, or regularly buy art that they know was stolen from extant collections. This, too, has happened so infrequently in known history that it is negligible, from a criminological standpoint (compared to the tens of thousands of reported art thefts worldwide, such instances number in the dozens only). But that does not stop the misconception from radically affecting criminal activity. We’ll set aside the idea of criminal art collectors for a separate column. For now, what about those who steal art from extant collections (meaning that the art’s legal location and ownership are known) because, well, they like art and want to keep it at home?

Advertisement:

Within this category of thief/collectors, we must divide case studies into sub-categories, and consider to which, if any, Jerome Alter might belong. There have been some thieves who suffered from a kleptomania, a psychological compulsion to steal, and this happened to be focused on art. Stephane Breitwieser is a Swiss waiter who stole, and kept, at least 239 paintings, worth over a billion dollars, never trying to sell any of them. Sent to prison for this pastime, shortly after he got out, he resumed compulsively stealing art, and was back in prison in no time. But Jerome Alter, from what is known of his life story, was no kleptomaniac.

There are thieves who stole art for other reasons, but wind up keeping it. Adam Worth swiped the world’s most expensive painting at the time, 1876, because he planned to ransom it to help spring his brother from custody. But when his brother’s lawyer did the job for him, Worth (called “the Napoleon of Crime” and inspiration for Professor Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes stories) ended up keeping Gainsborough’s "Portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire" for 25 years.

Vincenzo Peruggia stole Leonardo’s "Mona Lisa" in 1911 ostensibly for ideological reasons — he claimed to have thought it had been looted from his native Italy by Napoleon (a fair guess, but not the case), and thus smuggled it from Paris, where he kept it for two years, to Florence, where he returned it to the Uffizi, and appeared entirely surprised to find himself arrested. These thieves kept the art they stole, but they stole it with a different initial rationale.

Advertisement:

Perhaps Jerome Alter stole the de Kooning, if indeed he did, with another plan in mind as to how to profit from it, but this also bears no relation to his known biography. Most art is stolen by members of organized crime groups (which can include large, international mafias, but is defined as any group of three or more individuals, engaged in criminal activities for collective, long-term goals), and no one seems to think that Alter was a criminal. Steve Cooperman stole his own paintings, hid them away, and tried to claim their insurance value. But this, likewise, is not the case for Alter.

There is no such thing as a professional art thief — this is another Hollywood myth (and one I’m guilty of perpetuating, as my first book was a novel, "The Art Thief," which featured one such character). There are some thieves who have stolen art more than once, and who quite like the cinematic sound of being called an “art thief,” but history includes few to none who stole art as their primary criminal activity.

Advertisement:

If Alter was the thief, then he joins a miniature group of known, historical thieves who did not steal compulsively, who were not career criminals, and who took a single object, on one occasion, apparently because they liked it and thought it would look nice in their bedroom. The most famous example of such a person, the case that breaks the rule? Pablo Picasso. In 1907, he and an accomplice stole a pair of ancient Iberian statue heads from the Louvre Museum. He kept the heads hidden in his sock drawer, and they appear in his 1907 painting, "Les Demoiselles d’Avignon," the artwork that launched Modernism. But aside from Pablo, the historical cupboard of Hollywood-y art thieves is decidedly bare. Maybe we can add one Jerome to the mix? How fitting that his surname is Alter.


Noah Charney

Noah Charney is a Salon arts columnist and professor specializing in art crime, and author of "The Art of Forgery" (Phaidon).

MORE FROM Noah Charney



Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •