Why Toronto museum heists look nothing like the movies
Why Toronto museum heists look nothing like the movies
By Raju Mudhar
Monday April 16, 2018
If you have ever seen a heist movie, you know what art thieves are supposed to look like and the means required to pull off a caper. These crimes are committed by debonair con artists who use elaborate schemes of misdirection and cutting-edge technology to outwit the authorities. Think The Thomas Crown Affair or Ocean’s Twelve.
In real life, in Toronto at least, the suspects look like your buddy’s grandmother or a schlubby guy in a tracksuit, allegedly ripping off museum pieces and getting away — with neither cunning nor fuss. Recently, police have asked for the public’s help in apprehending two suspects in separate cases who brazenly helped themselves to museum pieces during regular business hours and left with items worth thousands of dollars.
On March 12, police say, a woman walked out of the Gardiner Museum with a rock with an estimated value of $22,000. Part of Yoko Ono’s hands-on exhibition The Riverbed, the rock is inscribed with the words “Love Yourself” in Ono’s handwriting. The investigation is still open, but police have posted photos of the suspect from the museum’s security camera, last seen walking south on Queen’s Park.
On Feb. 11 at 12:30 p.m., police say, someone walked into the Spirit of Hockey store (affiliated with the Hockey Hall of Fame), let himself into a storage closet that opened up to a display case, and swiped two championship rings worth thousands of dollars that were donated to the institution by a recent inductee, retired NHL star Paul Kariya. Security cameras showed the suspect leaving in a rented U-Haul panel van. Toronto police recently laid charges in connection with the theft, but the rings have not yet been recovered.
In terms of thrills and glamour, these incidents fall far short of the Hollywood version.
“It’s hard to tell whether these were premeditated or just crimes of opportunity,” says Joshua Knelman, who tracked the real shadowy art underworld in his 2012 book Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives through the Secret World of Stolen Art. “It’s almost like ‘file under SNL skit.’ It doesn’t to me fit into a real art thief’s style. Certainly, everything is worth something, but this is not The Thomas Crown Affair. This seems like the opposite.”
But sometimes it helps to not look the part.
“It shows how far someone who is determined and looks like they belong can get,” said one Toronto police detective in the major crimes unit, who asked not to be named.
While the items have yet to be recovered, it’s believed that thieves will have a hard time flipping them for cash right now.
“The one thing they have in common is that both are celebrity memorabilia thefts. It’s like pop-culture theft,” says Knelman. “The problem with both of these items is that once an item has been publicized as being stolen as widely as these two have, they become increasingly more difficult to sell.”
The incident at the Gardiner highlights another issue for museums and galleries: balancing security with accessibility. These institutions are doing whatever they can to bring in audiences, and for the Gardiner, the star power and attraction of an exhibit by Yoko Ono is an obvious draw — the museum says it’s been a hit, with attendance more than twice what they usually see at this time of year — as does the fact that it is interactive, which is one reason the crime was relatively easy to pull off.
“People can actually go up and interact with it, pick up the rock, say a prayer, meditate, that sort of thing, and then put the rock back,” said Gary Long, a police spokesperson, to the Canadian Press. “I guess this is something that Yoko Ono believes in, the interactive part of it. So it’s an unusual circumstance.”
Interactive exhibits are becoming more popular. The theft reminds Knelman of an incident involving another superstar artist. In 2010, Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds was presented at London’s Tate Modern, featuring thousands of porcelain sunflower seeds filling Turbine Hall. At first patrons could walk on the art and interact with it, but it was eventually put behind barriers, in part due to all the porcelain dust that was kicked up by gallery-goers. On top of that, some people helped themselves to the art.
Ai Weiwei “basically put thousands and thousands of sunflower seeds in Turbine Hall, and people basically walked away with them. I know people who walked away with them,” says Knelman.
The chance to handle art in places like museums, where visitors are usually not allowed to touch anything, is part of what makes the interactivity exciting, even if it does open the door wider to pilfering.
“Yoko Ono is a pioneer of participatory art, who inspires creativity and community, both of which are on stunning display right now, in The Riverbed,” says Rachel Weiner, spokesperson for the Gardiner Museum. “There is always going to be a risk involved in a participatory or an interactive exhibition, more so than a display at a traditional museum exhibition, where the objects are displayed behind ropes or glass. But the rewards, the potential for more meaningful and lasting art experiences are immense.
“So while there are these risks, and museums have this difficult task of balancing their stewardship responsibilities with the goals of increasing engagement and accessibility, more and more, cultural institutions and artists are going out on a limb and putting their trust in visitors, for the sake of deeper engagement and a more meaningful, lasting art experience.”
It is all part of an overall institutional movement to be much more welcoming to patrons. A perfect example is the new Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto, which will have a free, first-floor common area with participatory activities for visitors when it opens in May. In an interview by the Star’s visual arts critic Murray Whyte, the new CEO noted that it will have more guides than security guards.