The recent theft of a $50 million Van Gogh painting from the Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo is hardly an isolated case. As art prices continue to skyrocket, the underworld is rapidly developing a taste for culture, turning art theft into a global business worth some $6 billion annually, according to the FBI.

Only last May, for example, four modernist masterpieces, including a Picasso and Matisse, were stolen in Paris, while in 2008 a Cezanne and Monet were lifted from a Zurich museum. Meanwhile, thousands of Iraqi antiquities remain unaccounted for and Christian icons vanish on an almost daily rate, mainly in countries of the former Soviet Union.

That said, the way in which the Van Gogh still life “Vase with Flowers” was taken from the Cairo museum seemed like scene from the latest Adel Imam flick that could be called “Only in Egypt.” After all, where else can one enter a museum in broad daylight, move a couch under the desired painting, cut the canvas from its frame, and walk out without being spotted by either guards or cameras?

A museum employee admitted that the museum’s alarm system and most of the 49 security cameras had not been working for a while. “The museum officials were looking for spare parts but hadn’t managed to find them,” he told Agence France-Presse. The affair becomes all the more humiliating knowing that the same painting was stolen from the same museum in 1978 only to pop up two years later in Kuwait.

Admittedly, the theft of four paintings with a combined value of $130 million from the Paris Museum of Modern Art in May was nearly as embarrassing. Here too, the alarm system was out of order, as the museum was awaiting spare parts.

The security cameras however, did work. They recorded how a lone hooded thief broke a window around midnight, climbed in, cut the canvasses from their frames and left. Pity that the museum guards for some reason failed to look at their screens and only the next morning spotted the empty frames.

Yet even working cameras and guards that are awake can do desperately little against the threat of violence, which seems the underworld’s favorite modus operandi. In Zurich, for example, three men armed with automatic weapons stormed into the E.G. Buhrle Foundation, grabbed four paintings with a value of some $163 million and fled minutes later in a waiting car. Similar armed robberies have taken place in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paolo, Stockholm and Boston, where two thieves disguised as policemen entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 and stole some $500 million worth of art. The stunt is still known as the biggest art heist in history.

It should be noted that the stolen Van Goghs and Picassos are only the tip of the iceberg. Most thefts do not concern classic masterpieces and hence fail to write headlines. Furthermore, while stealing a work of art is one thing, selling it is quite another. The problem is that an art work is a unique piece. There is only one “Guernica,” only one “Vase with Flowers.” Consequently, it is impossible to simply offer the works on the market, especially since both the FBI and Interpol established art crime departments that, among other things, maintain a database of stolen works. Instead, as in an ordinary kidnapping case, art thieves will often try to obtain a ransom.

According to Interpol, the theft of cultural objects affects the whole world, but the two countries most affected are France and Italy. The organization furthermore notes that the illicit trade is sustained by demand from the arts market, the opening of borders and political instability in certain countries. The latter especially refers to the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, as looting has always been an intrinsic part of war. From the National Museum of Iraq alone some 7,000 to 10,000 artifacts remain missing, after the US army failed to protect the country’s leading cultural institution during the invasion.

In general, the future for stolen antiquities and art works looks bleak. Julian Radcliffe of The Art Loss Register estimates that only 15 percent of stolen art works are recovered within a period of 20 years. Hence, it may take a bit longer this time around before Van Gogh’s “Vase with Flowers” makes its way back to Cairo.

OCTOBER 3, 2010