Hot art in the city

Midtown Toronto has become Canada's art theft capital, thanks in part to the thieves' strategies

Art and rare collectibles are some of the most precious gems of Toronto’s underworld. It’s high value, easily portable and, best of all, not easily policed.

Just think about it: Canada is not even considered one of the top five art markets in the world. (That honour goes to the U.S., London, China, France and Italy.) And worldwide, art theft recovery rates are believed to be only about 5 percent. In Toronto, it’s believed to be even less.

In posh neighbourhoods such as Yorkville, Rosedale and Forest Hill, burglars know they are likely to find rare and valuable goods inside homes and the community’s exclusive galleries. And so, midtown Toronto has become an unlikely hot spot for theft.

Some memorable thefts include:

[font=Symbol][size=12pt]·[/font] In 2001, the Lonsdale Gallery in Forest Hill was robbed not once but twice. A pinhole photography collection was taken, along with some other art. The estimated value of stolen goods is about $250,000.

[font=Symbol][size=12pt]·[/font] In 2004, a Toronto lawyer was charged in connection with “Project Antique”, a police investigation into valuable stolen artwork and antiques from high-end midtown auction houses. The charges were eventually dropped.

[font=Symbol][size=12pt]·[/font] In 2008, two Stanley Cup championship rings were stolen from a Forest Hill home belonging to the Bronfman family, former owners of Montreal Canadiens. Also stolen from the home that day was $1 million in family jewels.

[font=Symbol][size=12pt]·[/font] In 2010, a home on Russell Hill Road was burglarized. Police reported stolen several hundred thousand dollars worth of property, including Israeli Buillon coins worth about $10,000 each.

At the time police told the media that organized crime rings were surveilling and targeting multi-million-dollar mansions in midtown Toronto.

Det. Rob Ermacora, a 53 Division police officer who has worked in the area for five years, acknowledges its reputation as a “very exclusive, wealthy community” draws attention.

“There are people who live here who are interested in art and can afford to buy it,” he remarked in an interview.

On April 7, the Odon Wagner Gallery on Davenport Road reported three paintings — “Wild Fields” by Greg Harris, “Still Life With Flowers” by Weidong Wang, and “Seated Lady With Fan” by Zhao Kaolin — stolen.

The robbers broke the gallery’s front window and grabbed the pieces, which in total are worth about $73,000.

Ermacora, the detective investigating this particular crime, said the gallery was likely targeted. Only 24 hours before the robbery, someone walked into the gallery and made inquiries about the exact three paintings that were taken.

Police have arrested two suspects in connection with the case. The artwork had not been recovered as of mid-May.

“The suspect that was arrested has a long history of breaking and entering,” Ermacora said of the first suspect charged in the case. “I can only speculate he’s not an art connoisseur.

“It was planned. He was likely told he needed to go in and take those exact paintings.”

But while $73,000 worth of stolen art might mean a lot to the gallery or even the culprit who now holds the pieces, it’s of relatively low value in the underground art market. That makes it an ideal item for those looking to move items fast and discreetly.

“Based on the low value of the works (as they are under $1 million), there is less risk involved,” says Mark Durney, a New York based art-theft researcher. “If the artist isn’t well known, that’s even better because work that is not from a high-profile artist is easier to sell.”

In a telephone interview from New York, Durney, the blogger behind Art Theft Central, told Toronto Today that Canada is not only an ideal place to steal art, but also an ideal place to sell stolen valuables.

In January, someone tried to sell the J.W. Morrice Painting “Chateau Leven” to an auction house in Yorkville. The painting had been reported stolen from Pearson International Airport after it was flown in from Calgary in the summer of 1988. The auction house did due diligence, discovered it had been reported stolen and promptly turned it over to police.

The same thing happened last year when an $80,000 Henry Moore sculpture stolen in 2001 from the James Goodman Gallery in New York was recovered in Toronto. An astute Yorkville gallery owner did her homework when a man in his 30s tried to sell the piece to her. She checked the piece against the international database, the Art Loss Registry, and discovered it had been stolen.

“While Canada isn’t quite in the top four for art markets, it does share a border with the U.S,” Durney said. “Stolen works of art can easily be exported.”

Again, the Moore piece that was recovered is of considerably less value than other pieces crafted by that particular artist. It probably wasn’t enough to raise the suspicions of customs officers who may or may not have spotted the seven-inch artifact.

Though the RCMP has made strides in the last five years, and have attended seminars on art theft, it may not be enough to tackle the problem.

Joshua Knelman, a Toronto writer who won an award for a magazine article he wrote on art theft in Canada, said the lack of police resources dedicated to such crimes is a big contributor to the problem.

“In speaking with gallery owners and art lawyers, they say Canada is a great place to steal art and sell stolen art that was stolen elsewhere because no one here is tracking it,” he told Toronto Today.

Knelman said it is “a tricky situation” because there’s no source of intelligent information out there about what kinds of things are being stolen and how often.

“The less information that’s available, the better it is (for thieves),” he said, adding that the only municipality in Canada that has a police unit dedicated to art theft is Montreal, and that’s just because a local detective was able to find a link between stolen art and the local Hell’s Angels chapter.

“Montreal is the second largest market in Canada,” he said. “Toronto is the largest, and so the largest market in the country is unpatrolled.”

Knelman is in the midst of writing a book, entitled Hot Art, which takes a look at the international black market. It’s expected to be published this fall.

He says there is “clearly activity here,” but activity is just one symptom of a problem.

“Without dedicated detectives who know how to handle these things, it’s hard to know what else is happening outside the surface,” he said.

The FBI estimates the black market for art is a $6 billion industry. About 30,000 works of art are listed as stolen in an Interpol database. But the actual figures could be much higher than what’s being reported.

Durney’s research has uncovered that, on average, a third of Interpol’s member countries’ national central bureaus respond to the poll annually. The U.S., the United Kingdom, China and France — the four largest art markets in the world — do not report statistics to Interpol.

Art theft is grossly under-reported, especially when it happens inside a private residence, Durney says. Most of the time those thefts are lumped in the broader category of generic property theft.

Unlike some private collectors, gallery owners have the means to register their work with a database such as the Art Loss Registry. But although many galleries do register the loss with the database, gallery owners are often reluctant to report thefts to the police in fear that it would get out to the media and damage their reputation.

Chad Wolfond, owner of the Lonsdale gallery, told Knelman in 2005 that his colleagues had cautioned him about reporting the thefts. He said they warned him that artists might not want to showcase their work there if they doubted the gallery’s security.

Wolfond was unavailable when Toronto Today attempted to contact him for comment, but the gallery owner had told Knelman in the Walrus magazine article, “Artful Crimes”, that he ended up taking the advice of an art lawyer who urged him to publicize the stolen works as much as he could.

Nonetheless, Durney said his research shows that most of the time thefts happen from private collections in people’s homes. In fact, many would-be thieves pose as potential homebuyers, he said.

These suspects would have a grand time being given a tour of the home by the owner or agent and could even use the opportunity to ask questions about the pieces they come across.

Last October, an Oshawa couple was caught doing just that.

Peter Mason King, 52, and Nora Ann Thomson, 51, were charged with stealing more than $500,000 in valuables in open houses across the Greater Toronto Area.

The thefts happened over a period of five years. Police in Durham Region say the more people heard about the incident, the more people called in to report similar incidents of crime.

Police say they recovered about 500 stolen items, worth about $50,000. The lead detective in the case told the media at the time that the suspects likely sold some of the stolen property.

However, police made a serious effort to reconnect the valuables with their rightful owners, telling the public that all they would need to do to take possession of their property is properly identify it. The goods did not need to be kept for evidence.

“The stats we do have show that private residences are far and away the main location for most thefts,” Durney said. “According to Interpol’s data from 2003-08, thefts from private collections accounted for 34 percent of the total thefts registered.”

Most of the time, the perpetrators behind the smash and grabs appear to have some notion of value or are working for someone who definitely does.

Take a recent case in Rosedale.

Late last month, police raided a home on Mount Pleasant Avenue as part of an investigation into dozens of stolen rare gold bars, worth $2 million.

Five people were arrested in connection with the case.

The owner of the home has links to organized crime in Montreal, according to police sources. The bars in question were obtained from Montreal with a fraudulent bank draft. Police caught up with the suspects after one of them tried to sell one of the gold bars to a Toronto company.

That gold bar has since been recovered, but the rest are still missing. The rare bars, each weighing 10 ounces, are from the Perth mint in Australia. Police say they may have been melted down into another form by now, to avoid detection.

While police continue to work against the odds of finding stolen collectibles, private collectors must continue to take responsibility for protecting what’s theirs, Durney said.

For museums and gallery owners theft is a minor risk, but that’s not so for private collectors who don’t often have adequate security, he said.

“There is opportunity for private collectors to utilize some of the successful theft mitigation strategies employed by museums,” Durney advises.

If private collectors don’t take the necessary steps, the result could be heartbreaking.

“In New Haven, Ct. one fella was taking paintings right off the wall, then walking down the street for a mile and exchanging it for $50 worth of heroin,” he said. “Now that’s street barter value!”

About this article:

By: Sandie Benitah
Posted: May 26 2011 3:26 pm
Filed in: NEWS
Edition: Toronto