NAPLES, Italy—When Italian anti-Mafia police discovered two precious Van Gogh masterpieces worth $100 million wrapped in a bed sheet under the stairway of a mobster’s house near Naples last month, Dutch art detective Arthur Brand wasn’t surprised.
But what did surprise Brand, who works as a private art consultant helping collectors spot forgeries—in addition to his sleuthing as a stolen art hunter—was that there wasn’t also a Rembrandt in the cache.
Brand first heard eight years ago that the Neapolitan Camorra had a cache of stolen paintings, including the two Van Gogh works stolen from the Vincent Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2002. At the time, Italian investigators were trying to crack a drug ring between Dutch and Italian criminal gangs and a South American drug cartel in Venezuela.
The Camorra and other criminal gangs don’t steal precious art per se. Instead they acquire it, generally when someone owes them a lot of money or when they commission its theft if they think they can “artnap” it and get a hefty ransom for its return from a private owner or museum.
Brand says they often don’t even know the value of the art when it comes to them, but they almost always have affiliates who are versed in the value of art and ancient artefacts.
In Sicily, the Cosa Nostra makes a lot of money from the acquisition and sale of ancient antiquities, a business they and the Camorra have recently expanded to the acquisition of art from terrorists in Libya.
That’s why most art that is found in the hands of criminal gangs is not hanging on a mobster’s wall but rather hidden in the basement or under a stairwell, as was the case with the Van Gogh pieces.
Brand said that the Camorra gang members, who were unwittingly wire-tapped during the drug trafficking investigation, discussed the two Van Goghs and an unidentified Rembrandt they apparently obtained from Dutch criminals.
Brand, who works with private detective Sander van Betten, is often hired by museums and governments to negotiate with art thieves as he did to help secure some of Hitler’s lost art last year.
The two have a hunch that the Rembrandt they were referring to is part of the private collection worth $500 million that was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990, which is second on the list of the FBI’s top 10 art crimes.
He said that cops involved in the Venezuelan drug bust unsuccessfully tried to “smoke out” the Camorra by hinting that they knew about the stolen art.
As it happened, Italian police working on the Venezuelan drug investigation held a press conference two months before they and Dutch authorities made several major arrests tied to drug dealings at the Tamanaco Hotel in Caracas in 2009.
The police had apparently hoped their subtle hint would cause local mafiosi in Naples to scramble to get rid of the stolen art or that one of their well-placed informants or a turncoat would tip them off.
Instead, there was radio silence. “Strangely, two months before they took all these people in, they held a press conference to announce that the two Van Goghs were in Italy,” Brand told The Daily Beast. “Because they were wiretapping all these people, they tried to bait them into talking about it or doing something about it. But it didn’t work.”
At the press conference, the cops didn’t mention the Rembrandt, which could have caused the Camorra to separate it from the Van Gogh pieces, especially if they thought the local authorities were on the trail of the stolen art.
Brand said that in the criminal world, the worth of a major work of art is about 10 percent of its real value because there is no way to sell it without causing suspicion.
He said criminal organizations generally end up with the art as collateral, often sold up the criminal chain of command after being stolen by small time thieves.
“They are normally stolen from criminals far from the top who think, ‘Gee, why do we steal a car for ten thousand when we can steal a painting for ten million,’” Brand said. “Most often it is done without much forethought.”
Only 5 percent of stolen art is ever recovered, primarily because those who have it can’t sell it, so they end up hiding it away, as in the case of the Van Gogh pieces.
When they try to liquidate its value, as one criminal gang did this week in Italy by putting a 15th century manuscript up for auction, they often get caught and the art is confiscated.
Sometimes people like Brand act as intermediaries between the criminal gangs and authorities, essentially trying to save the art by negotiating its safe return.
Brand has worked with terrorists and tomb raiders, criminals and members of the former Irish Republican Army when they were into art thievery.
“‘Artnapping’ requires intense negotiation and we always try to negotiate a good deal for everybody to get the pieces back safely,” Brand said. “If you arrest someone for having stolen art and the painting is not under his bed, there could be a chain of command that leads to the destruction of the piece and that’s risky. The Van Goghs were found by luck. You won’t ever get art back by arresting people.”
Fabrizio Parrulli, commander of Italy’s Patrimony Police said that having people like Brand involved in negotiations was crucial.
“If we want to save the art or artifacts, we often have a better chance at recovery if third parties are involved in negotiations with criminals,” he told The Daily Beast. “If the priority is truly to save the art from destruction, the art has to be treated almost like humans are in negotiating a safe return.”
Brand said he is sure the Camorra still have the Rembrandt.
Two months before the Van Goghs were found, Brand and Van Betten decided they would focus on the old tip from the Venezuelan drug raids.
“We were thinking about how to proceed. We have a very good London-based person who is close to the Camorra who was able to verify that the gang still had all the paintings,” he said. “The police beat us to the Van Goghs, but the Rembrandt is still out there. I think we can find it.”