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The heist goes highbrow
Crooks, it turns out, have expensive taste, an estimated $4 billion worth.
November 22, 2004: 11:34 AM EST
By Gordon T. Anderson, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) The Depression-era bank robber Willie Sutton famously targeted banks because "that's where the money is."

If he were alive today, Sutton might spend more of his time in libraries and art museums. That's because in recent years, an international crime wave has suggested that the bad guys have good taste.

Consider some events of the past few months:

One Sunday afternoon in August, two men in masks walked into the Munch Museum in Oslo, pointed guns at shocked witnesses then made off with two paintings worth $19 million, including a version of "The Scream."

In September, thieves broke into Masi, a famed northern Italian winery, and stole 1,000 cases of wine. Ignoring some 2.5 million other bottles, they went straight for the good stuff: the Vaio Amaron 1999 and Costasera 2000, two of the company's best vintages of Amarone, worth about $400,000.

In October, a gang attending a massive antiques show in Paris Jacques Chirac was among the 80,000 visitors grabbed two diamonds worth $14 million. They did it during exhibit hours, by distracting guards then lifting the jewels out of their case when nobody was watching.

Even if these particular thieves are apprehended, it may not deter future criminality -- the worldwide market in stolen art and collectibles is worth an estimated $4 billion, according to Scotland Yard.

From zero to hero

Sure, crooks target expensive objects because they're worth a lot of money. But some lesser influences may be spurring a rise in high-end crime.

For one thing, pop culture celebrates it.

Remember Hitchcock's "To Catch a Thief?" Cary Grant was the good guy because he had reformed -- a man who foiled felonies instead of committing them. In modern movies, heroes are the guys who get away with it.

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Moreover, the media have enlightened us all, as a British detective lamented after London's Victoria and Albert Museum was raided in October.

"Antique shows on television have raised a lot of interest and made people, including criminals, more aware of the value of arts and antiques," Vernon Rapley told London's Evening Standard.

Apparently, thugs are big fans of PBS.

But it's not just art and antiques.

A few years ago in rural England, robberies took place at three dairy farms around Somerset.

One bold theft involved trucking away 6 tons of well-aged Montgomery cheddar, just as the prized cheese was hitting its peak flavor and its $20 a pound retail price.

Fortunately, no cracker companies got hit.

The world is their black market oyster

The most famous works of art, authorities say, are notoriously difficult to fence.

Sometimes, thieves who can't find a buyer just give the works back. That happened last year in northern England, when a Picasso, a Van Gogh and a Gauguin turned up outside a public bathroom in Manchester just days after they had been stolen.

Still, in an international marketplace, it may become easier to locate unscrupulous buyers. In October, for example, a pile of priceless antiques stolen in Germany showed up in Toronto. And Italian police think the Masi wine taken last month will eventually be drunk in Russia.

Of course, the good guys live in the global village, too. And they're using technology to attack the black market.

For example, Trace, a London-based art-recovery group, maintains a database of 50 million objects that have been stolen worldwide. They and other crime-stoppers send regular updates advising legitimate dealers to watch out for ill-gotten goods.

This summer, an e-mail bulletin sent to rare booksellers around the world publicized the theft of eight 17th century manuscripts from a library in Gottingen, Germany. Soon after, they were offered to a London rare-book dealer, Tim Biro.

Biro told Scotland Yard, which worked with German authorities to arrest the book thieves. Now, they face years in prison, where they will have plenty of time to read.


The Good Life is a weekly column that chronicles products, people and trends in luxury consumer goods, travel, and fine food and drink. Write to: goodlife@money.com.  Top of page




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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2018 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2018. All rights reserved. Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2018 and/or its affiliates.