The report of a robbery has shaken the art world in Spain recently. A few days ago, the owner of a house located in Nigrán appeared at a Civil Guard barracks in the province of Pontevedra, from which he assured that two works by the painter Edgar Degas had disappeared. And nothing else, just the pictures. The news has surprised and disconcerted collectors and experts, not only because of the theft itself, but also because they were unaware that there were two paintings by this author in Galicia. It is not even known what they are, since the titles or the type of work have not been revealed.
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The whistleblower told agents the value is “incalculable.” Those responsible for the investigation confirm few details: they believe that the thieves entered through a window of the chalet taking advantage of the absence of the owners and took the two works. The works, adds a source from the Pontevedra Civil Guard Command, are underway and they should not talk about them.
“We had no idea that there could be a Degas in Galicia. It shocked me a lot and it seems strange to me,” summarizes art specialist Paloma Alarcó, head of modern painting conservation at Thyssen, the only museum in Spain that owns paintings of the impressionist painter. Four pieces appear in his collection and the museum manages “a lot of information on collectors who may have his work.” “But neither this collector nor these works were known to us,” she emphasizes.
Edgar Degas (1834-1917) is, along with Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir, one of the considered fathers of Impressionism. Known above all for his facet as a painter, he also made sculptures, engravings and even photography. Fascinated by movement, his pieces of delicate dancers or racehorses have achieved high appraisals in recent years. In 2008 the Sotheby’s auction house sold his painting for almost 26 million euros. ballerina at restdated 1879. In 2015 the sculpture 14 year old little ballerina it was sold for more than 22 million euros.
There is no data on the type of works stolen from Nigrán’s house and in the complaint they have been described, according to the Civil Guard, simply as paintings. The price changes depending on whether it is a painting, an engraving or a drawing, according to a member of a family of collectors from Vigo who prefers not to give his name and who assures that he regularly surveys art sales channels: “Recently, He sold an engraving by Degas for about 15,000 euros. In Uruguay, the sale of a drawing of his was closed for 187,000 euros. It varies a lot depending on the format.”
He adds that the Nigrán case seems “strange” to him. “Those of us who move in the art world are aware of this area and these works were unknown to us,” he adds. He points out a hypothesis: that he is not a collector, but a punctual investor who had decided to acquire two Degas.
The identity of the complainant has not been disclosed either. But, by his place of residence, an approximation of his profile can be made. The house where the paintings were stolen is on the Monteferro peninsula, a privileged enclave with views of the town of Baiona to the south and the Cíes Islands to the north. In the area there are many chalets and large houses that in real estate agencies are advertised for more than a million euros in some cases. “Not just anyone lives here; we call it the Beverly Hills of the Rías Baixas,” says a resident of the nearby town of Panxón sarcastically. Some of these houses have private security guarding the main entrances on the outside, but this was not the case with the house from which the Degas disappeared.
It is not the first time that the theft of works by the painter jumps to the front page of the newspapers. In 2008, the theft in France of the extras when it was part of a temporary exhibition at the Musée Cantini in Marseille. There were no suspects in the theft and the painting was not heard from again for a long time. In 2018, during a routine police check, a suitcase with a painting was found on a bus that turned out to be the Degas stolen almost 10 years earlier. None of the passengers identified themselves as the owner of the luggage and no arrests were made. This event reveals a fact that influences the attractiveness of this author’s paintings for a robbery, which is their size. “Generally Degas has painted pictures or works of small size, more manageable and easier to hide,” says the specialist Paloma Alarcó.
In another media case that occurred in Spain, the theft in 2015 in Madrid of five paintings by Francis Bacon, of which three have appeared, the art detective Arthur Brand intervened to recover the pieces. This 52-year-old Dutchman has experience tracking down stolen works of art and has located more than 200. He is an expert on pieces looted by the Nazis after World War II. His clients are collectors, museums and also governments.
In a conversation with elDiario.es, Brand points out that he is aware of the theft of the alleged paintings by Degas in Nigrán and gives context to the art thefts: “There are two possibilities in the type of art thieves: the common thief who enters steal anything and whoever is looking for something specific. If they are the first, they would have a problem; if they are the second, it is because they have a plan”. In this case, the only thing the complainant has said is missing are the paintings. When there is a strategy outlined, the alternatives are usually two, that there is already a buyer or ask for a ransom for the works.
“The black market is not as big as people think. If a person has money, why would they buy on the black market if they can do it directly?”, says Brand, who points out that “only the owner knows how many people he knew that he had these Degas”. There is a question that the detective dodges. He refuses to clarify whether Nigrán’s complainant has contacted him to investigate the case: “That is a question I cannot answer.”
On how these two paintings could have arrived at a house in a coastal town in Galicia, Paloma Alarcó considers that “it would be very difficult for them to have been bought in Spain”. All works of art that enter or leave Spain should “in theory” do so with a passport from the Ministry of Culture, which “should be informed and have it on the list of works,” she adds. That department of the central government responds through an email that “there is no legal obligation to declare the existence of any type of work found in Spain by the mere fact of being a specific author.” It does not offer more information on whether these two works were registered and ensures that, in any case, “there is fluid communication in terms of heritage between the Ministry of Culture and the security forces, in this case the Civil Guard.”
In the art world, the robbery is often just the beginning of a story that will probably unfold in more installments. Detective Arthur Brand emphasizes that “stealing paintings is not that difficult, the problem is then selling them.”