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Thieves Find More Than Beauty in Prized Picassos


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

When Diana Widmaier Picasso awoke Tuesday morning in her Paris apartment, two well-known canvases by her famous grandfather were missing from her walls - one a portrait of her mother, Maya; the other a portrait of Picasso's wife Jacqueline. The two paintings have an estimated value of $66 million. Police say there were no obvious signs of a break-in in the Paris apartment. They say that Ms. Widmaier Picasso and another person were asleep when the apparent theft occurred.

The story got us wondering about the world of high-stakes art theft, so we turn now to former FBI agent Thomas McShane. He spent more than two decades tracking stolen art. He joins us now from our New York bureau. Hello.

Mr. THOMAS McSHANE (Former FBI Agent): Yes. Good afternoon. How are you, Debbie?

ELLIOTT: I'm good. Good. How would you go about tracking down these Picassos?

Mr. McSHANE: The first thing to do, of course, would be to interview all the people in the building. I remember the case of a Cezanne and it was a famous museum here in New York and it was in the closet. We look for months and months and -

ELLIOTT: In whose closet?

Mr. McSHANE: One of the janitor's closets.

ELLIOTT: At the museum?

Mr. McSHANE: At the museum.

ELLIOTT: So that was just actually missing. It wasn't stolen.

Mr. McSHANE: Well, it was stolen by the caretaker and he couldn't get it out of the museum so he just hid it.


Mr. McSHANE: Yeah. Yeah.

ELLIOTT: - he had hidden it away in a closet here. So we would hope that the police there in France have looked through all the closets in this apartment building.

Mr. McSHANE: Oh. I'm sure they have. It reminds me of a case I worked before art - bank robbery. And a bank had been robbed way out west and we're looking all over for the bad guy and he was up a tree in front of the bank. We had combed the whole area. He just ran out of the bank and climbed up the tree and there he was.

ELLIOTT: And nobody looked up.

Mr. McSHANE: So those Picassos could be right next door. They could be a hundred miles away. I remember the Rembrandt that we recovered up in Buffalo. That was stolen out of a museum in France and it went through three continents and six countries before we got it.

ELLIOTT: Is it more common to see something like this stolen as a commodity to sell or stolen as some sort of a prize to have on a hidden wall somewhere in your penthouse, as you say?

Mr. McSHANE: It could be either or both. So you would perhaps have a mastermind criminal. We all remember "The Thomas Crown Affair," where Pierce Brosnan had his Manet in his room and was very proud of himself for pulling a fast one. You know the theories are - they are boundless.

ELLIOTT: What do you do with something like this once you've stolen it? I wouldn't think there would be a market out there for it.

Mr. McSHANE: That's a very good point, Debbie. And there are many factors that go into stolen paintings. Perhaps this step involved an insurance situation where the bad guys realized that they do have a hot potato, two hot potatoes on their hands. But there are a number of ways these bad guys operate. They could ransom it back to the insurance company.

Hopefully it's not a political statement that we may hear in a couple of days from now that they want to release some political people. It could be a terrorist group who saw the opportunity and took the two paintings and they may trade those paintings for arms or cash to buy arms to other bad people who would, you know, revel in the fact that they have two beautiful Picassos and all their people are very, you know, proud of the fact that they're stolen. They're not going to be displayed to people like you and I, but they'll be displayed to their type of criminally-minded people.

ELLIOTT: Thomas McShane is a retired FBI art expert and the author of "Stolen Masterpiece Tracker: The Dangerous Life of the FBI's #1 Art Sleuth." Thank you for talking with us.

Mr. McSHANE: Oh, thank you very much. My pleasure.

ELLIOTT: An art detective's work is never-ending. Just a few days ago, a missing Norman Rockwell painting surfaced in the collection of director Steven Spielberg, 30 years after it was stolen from a gallery in Missouri. Spielberg says he didn't realize the painting was stolen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.