06/28/2012 12:40 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What's the Motivation Behind Recent Art Crimes?

We usually think of art crime as calculated heists, diverting security guards and lasers while wearing black ninja attire.  If we manage to separate reality from Hollywood, we can at least hope that security in galleries and museums could prevent people from walking around with cans of spray paint to make a mark on the collection, or from carrying big bags to conceal stolen artwork. Three different incidents this month alone show us, however, that crime in museums is very easy to achieve. Elementary yet different in execution, these recent events allow us to ascertain what motivates people to commit art crimes. Let's investigate the evidence.

Stealing a masterpiece right off the wall proved to be no big deal for one man who walked into a recently opened gallery in New York City, Venus Over Manhattan, under the auspices of a normal gallery hopper on June 19. Pausing in front of Salvador Dali's Cartel des Don Juan Tenorio (pictured top left), he asked a security guard if he could take a photo and was told it's possible without a flash. Once the guard stepped out of the way, however, the man simply placed the artwork in a shopping bag and walked out with a souvenir worth $150,000 (pictured right).

The value of Pablo Picasso's Woman in a Red Armchair most certainly decreases with a bull and the word "Conquista" spray painted over it. Aspiring Mexican-American artist Uriel Landeros vandalized the painting (pictured below right) during his visit on June 13 at Houston's Menil Collection, an act caught on video (watch here) by another visitor's smartphone -- instead of stopping him. When Landeros finished, the other visitor chased him outside found out why he would do such a thing. Apparently he wanted to honor the cubist master.

The June 11th spray painting on the walls of Yad Vashem, Jerusalem's Holocaust Museum a few days earlier was on the contrary, as dishonorable as possible. In ten different locations around the museum compound, graffiti thanks Hitler for the Holocaust and other anti-Zionist slogans, shocking Israel and Holocaust survivors around the world (pictured below left). The police were searching for a group that similarly defaced monuments in April, so only two weeks after the Yad Vashem incident, they arrested three people in connection with both crimes. A large compound displaying exhibits on Jewish persecution, history, memorials and artwork, the chairman of this museum said in a statement that it was the worst thing he has seen in his career.

 With the evidence in place, security in museums is first called into question. A small gallery, as in the case of Venus Over Manhattan, surely has less security procedures than a large metropolitan museum, making it more susceptible to theft. Yet even the world's best museums are frequently victimized -- perhaps most notably when the Mona Lisa was stolen off the wall of the Louvre by Vincenzo Peruggia (pictured below right) in 1911, or when The Scream was stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo in 1994. The head of museum services at Britain's Norwich Castle, where security measures were recently tightened after artifacts worth over $56,000 were stolen, explains: "One of the problems we have with museums is we are not Fort Knox. We want people to come and enjoy the collections - we don't want people looking through bars."

Aware of so many examples of art crime, enough in fact to warrant an entire national FBI Art Crime division, we can excuse the security measures and discuss what motivates these acts to occur in the first place. The case of the stolen Dali painting is easiest to close first: most likely this novice thief aims to sell it. As Robert Wittman, who founded the FBI art crime team, explains frankly : "Generally speaking, art thieves are fairly good criminals, but they're terrible businessmen. And the true art is not the stealing, its the selling." Usually these stolen works are recovered because of how much attention they attract when seen on the market.

The motivations behind the other two June incidents of vandalism are more complex. In the case of tagging the Picasso with a bull, Landeros seemed to want to get caught. Outwardly vocal on the internet about his crime, he even posted the media coverage on his facebook wall. Clearly wanting attention for a future career as a street artist, perhaps Landeros isn't as crazy as most would like to think. After all, in 1974 Tony Shafrazi spray painted the words "Kill Lies All" on Picasso's Guernica, housed in New York's Museum of Modern Art. In a 1980 interview, he elaborated on his purpose: "I wanted to bring the art absolutely up to date, to retrieve it from art history and give it life." Now Shafrazi is a successful art dealer in Chelsea, making pretty profits from all of the modern works he manages to sell.

The last incident, at Yad Vashem, is perhaps the most perplexing, given the fact that those responsible sought neither money nor fame. It was purely an ideological act of political hatred. Regardless of their opinions against the formation of the state of Israel, they used a museum as a forum for their message in the most cowardly way - spray painting hateful slogans under the cover of darkness.

This week, three people were arrested for the Yad Vashem incident and Landeros was charged, with a warrant issued for his arrest. Realistically, it's only a matter of time before the man with a Dali painting in a shopping bag is found, as soon as he tries to sell the artwork. Museums and galleries around the world are forced to think in recent weeks if their security measures are adequate enough. And as for art lovers -- after recovering from the shock of these consecutive acts, we can continue to be amazed at how art prompts people to act.

Written by MutualArt's Christine Bednarz

What shocks you the most about these recent art crimes?  Is the security in museums adequate enough?  How should authorities punish those responsible?