Surrounded by beauty – Can an object ask you to commit a crime? PART TWO OF TWO

In part one, we asked if art crime was different from other illegal activity. When there’s no economic motive, it is different. Can art be criminogenic or corruptive? In that post we looked at art crime art through an object-centric lens, rather than considering the criminal.

Art can be criminogenic when it inspires a higher loyalty. Like when Vincenzo Perugia, stole the Mona Lisa in 1911, claiming it rightfully belonged to and in Italy. He was incorrect, btw. What about when something comes over certain people when they are surrounded by beauty, in the form of art?

In March 2013, a c-suite executive with a large Mexican corporation traveled with his family to their home in Miami, and later to New York City. On Friday, the 29th, they visited the Metropolitan Museum where he attempted to take a 19th century Islamic rosewater/perfume sprinkler from its case in the Damascus Room. Fortunately, a specifically designed mount secured the eleven-inch-tall object’s base and a wire held its top. The museum visitor walked away but returned twenty minutes later and snapped the carved red coral lid and silver stopper off and, after looking lovingly at it, put it in his pocket. The act was recorded on video and because his daughter had used a credit card in the museum store, he was later identified. The next time he entered the U.S. he was arrested. The man was well educated, with advanced degrees, and had held high-level government positions in his home country. There was no financial motive. What came over him?

Sociological theory tells us why art has value to a collector, but since the art thief can hardly show off his Picasso, possessing the object brings a different kind of thrill. It might be as simple as the thrill of the chase. And maybe the capture of something no one else has. The beauty, uniqueness, and social significance of these objects creates a strong demand, which results in limited access. Limited access creates exclusivity. And that gives the possessor of the art work, antique or antiquity power. Restriction of access to the painting goes beyond museums not being open twenty-four/seven. Dealers act as gatekeepers – some brag about only selling art to certain people. Museum curator and collectors act as taste setters. Antique stores display goods so peculiar that only the oldest of old money can understand and appreciate it. The nature of the art market – the secrecy and the opacity – make it practically impenetrable. It’s easy to see how an outsider would feel powerless and frustrated enough to literally take matter into his own hands.

One final factor to include in an object-centric look at crime is what is called supply-demand dynamics. Without value, there’s no crime. (How many people are in prison for stealing pinecones?) The law affirms the values that make the object desirable, supporting and enhancing the objects’ power. For instance, the lid of the perfume sprinkler in our example was valued at over $5,000, so the FBI’s Art Crime Team, with their resources, was brought in. Laws punish art thieves because art is valuable. Art thieves steal art because it’s valuable. (Because of its exclusivity.) See how the object is exerting parallel power on both the people making and the people breaking the law?

Museums can be big, emotional spaces. You may have felt that, too. I know I have, and I’ve tried to convey that in THE COLLECTOR. The Met was for the corporate executive tourist, Mr. X, who wanted to take a piece of the Met home with him. You may be wondering what happened to him. He returned the lid, and reimbursed the museum for costs incurred restoring it, plus a fine of $50,000. He was confined to house arrest at his home in Miami for a year wearing new jewelry – around his ankle.

Stay in touch,


  1. I’m wondering if there is something in the psychology of the people who steal/buy stolen art knowing that they can’t share it. Is it the secret? Is it having something no one else has?

    I can understand a well-planned theft of art for the money but, wow, what compels someone to steal from a place like the Met, as if it was the candy store.

    1. I do think there’s something about possesing something that you literally cannot put a price on. And that there is just 1 of.

  2. that’s a really interesting story, Lane. I would have assumed it would be completely impossible to steal anything from a place like the Met because of all the surveillance. But he did it! If he hadn’t come back to the US, he’d have gotten away with it. I think in this case, it was definitely the thrill. Like shoplifting on steroids.

  3. This is fascinating, Lane. Have you read Jonathan Santlofer’s book, The Last Mona Lisa. I feel like you’d enjoy it. I feel compelled to say that I did steal a pine cone from the tree of a house of an author I love. So if anyone winds up in jail for stealing pine cones, it will be me. 🙂

    1. I promise not to call the cops. I took a rock from Stone Hinge. (So now you have something on me, too.)

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