Sometime during the night of December 25, 1980, thieves broke into the Argentine Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires and stole sixteen Impressionist paintings and some Chinese art works. The sixteen drawings and paintings were part of the Santamarina Collection assembled by a wealthy Argentine family between 1890 and 1930. In 1974, the Santamarinas began selling off the collection through Sotheby’s and there was a great uproar about national treasures being removed and so on. So the widow of Antonio Santamarina gave the remainder of the collection to the nation. These were the pictures that were stolen.
This was during Argentina’s Dirty War when thousands of Argentineans were “disappeared” and murdered, when children of people tortured to death were given away to government supporters, when the police had a concentration camp in the Buenos Aires suburbs. Probably no one was too surprised when it was suggested that minions of the ruling junta had stolen the pictures. These military officers had long since shown that they were willing to peddle national pride to any buyer. Some had reported seeing a green Ford Falcon death car — the favored vehicle of the secret police — parked outside the museum that night.
US President Carter had helped impose an arms embargo on Argentina and, if there’s one thing a military junta requires, it’s arms. Ronald Reagan would reverse that policy, but he was not yet inaugurated at the time of the theft. One of the few places that was willing to sell arms to Argentina in 1980 was Taiwan, so perhaps it is not too surprising that when the paintings resurfaced, there as a Taiwanese connection.
In 2001, a Texas woman named Gabriella Williams who claimed to represent a charity organization approached Sotheby’s in London requesting that the auction house give her a valuation on the sixteen pictures stolen in 1980. She said that they were in Taiwan in the hands of another charity, registered in Surinam by wealthy Taiwanese businessman, Arthur Lung. The charities wanted an evaluation so that they could use the artwork as collateral for a line of credit. Sotheby’s agreed and did a little checking into the background of the charitable organizations involved. They did not look at the Art Loss Register which would have told them that the art was stolen. Ms. Williams’ charity organization did exist, as did the one in Surinam, so Sotheby’s sent two experts to Taiwan to examine the pictures.
The experts found the Impressionist drawings and paintings to be genuine but their value had suffered since they had been removed from frames and stretchers. Sotheby’s was not asked to examine any Chinese art, not have the stolen Chinese items turned up. Mr. Lung and Ms. Williams were disappointed in the valuation given them by Sotheby’s. They had expected hundreds of millions but were given a much lower valuation: $2 Million. These were secondary works — drawings, sketches, studies — even though by Renoir, Gauguin, van Gogh, and Cezanne, they simply weren’t worth as much as larger paintings. Upon return, the Sotheby’s experts consulted the Art Loss Register and discovered that the pictures were stolen.
Julian Radcliffe of the Art Loss Register assumed from the start that the charitable organizations were scams, means to raise large sums of money for, perhaps, non-charitable purposes. In January of 2002, he flew to Taiwan to discuss getting the pictures back. He met with Arthur Lung’s brother who immediately assailed him with Britain’s imperial past: You Brits looted China, said Lung, what are you doing being all moral now? Even so, Radcliffe thought he made a little progress. He had only been back in England a few weeks when word came that three of the pictures had turned up in Paris.
A Paris dealer had been approached by a nephew of Lung’s, Yeh Yeo-huan who offered him a Gauguin drawing, a small Renoir oil sketch, and a Cezanne water color. The dealer recognized them as contraband and notified the authorities. The pictures were seized and Lung’s nephew taken into custody. Radcliffe and the Art Loss Register came on the scene to try to use this event as leverage for return of all sixteen works to Argentina. It seemed as though this might happen until Yeh’s lawyer was arrested on a charge of illegal dealings in gold. Immediately, communications with Taiwan shut down.
The three pictures were returned to Argentina. Chances are slim that the other thirteen will be seen again. The Chinese artworks seem to have been repatriated, at least as far as Taiwan Chinese are concerned. No Argentine citizens have ever been charged with the theft, unless… In 1983, after the junta’s collapse, some former Argentine police officers robbed a museum in Rosario, taking five paintings including a Goya, a Murillo, and an El Greco. In 1987, they robbed another Rosario museum taking six paintings including works by Titian, Veronese, and another Goya. A sting operation in Miami caught a former Argentine police officer trying to sell Goya’s Doves and Hens. He denied being in on the robbery. Could it be that these thieves first picked up the idea of art theft working for the junta’s black operations and continued on afterwards? Things must be tough for ex-employees of criminal governments.