The state register records hundreds of stolen and still lost valuable works of art. A number of the stolen objects have probably been taken abroad, which means that we may never be able to recover this part of our cultural heritage.
„As my former colleague likes to say, art does not disappear. It just changes place,“ Linda Lainvoo, chief inspector of art heritage at the National Heritage Board. And although most stories of „changing place“ have no ending, i.e. the stolen object will never be recovered, there are some success stories.
The interior decoration of the Rootsi-Mihkli (St. Michael's Swedish) Church in Tallinn Old Town was evacuated during Second World War and reached the National Art Museum collections in 1983. While our modern idea of an art museum includes sophisticated security systems and manned guard, the reality was quite different those days.
The museum depot had a single nightwatchman, who guarded the key cupboard, including the keys of the art depot. The depot was burglarized in 1987 and the pulpit support of the Rootsi-Mihkli Church, a statue of Moses, was one of the stolen objects.
Some 30 years later, in February 2015, Juta Kivimäe, an expert in modern art, called Lainvoo. “She said that a strange wooden sculpture was brought for assessment. The owner believed it had been carved by Amandus Adamson, but it was clearly not his work,” the chief inspector recalled.
As Lainvoo saw the photograph, she was quite sure that it was a Baroque sculpture, possibly by Christian Ackermann. “I started to study my records and was suddenly shocked as I saw the photo of the same sculpture,” Lainvoo said.
Since the pre-war photograph of the pulpit support was not just well preserved but also highly detailed, it became immediately clear that the figure was the same sculpture, which had been stolen back in the 1980s.
The owner, who had brought the sculpture to Kivimäe for studying, allegedly knew nothing of the theft and since the crime had happened a long time ago, it was decided to accept that a valuable piece of heritage had been recovered. The figure of Moses has by now returned to the Rootsi-Mihkli Church.
Yet the returning sculpture offered another surprise to the experts, While the statue had been painted before theft, someone had subsequently removed all the paint for some reason. “As we cleaned and treated the statue, a wartime bullet was found in it. A weapons specialist ascertained that the status had probably been hit during combat action in 1944 as it had been removed from the church. Experts determined that the bullet had been fired from a German Mauser rifle.
Lainvoo said that a lost piece of heritage is generally found approximately once a year. Considering that the register of stolen works of art, which was founded in 2011, contains a total of 653 entries (mostly icons), it does not seem a very positive outcome. Yet the national heritage protectors are happy for even that.
The most frequent users of the register are probably the local antique dealers, who do not want to stain their reputation by selling stolen property. One of them contacted Lainvoo once. “It seems I may have found something,” he said. They consulted the register together and found out that the icon in question had been stolen from a church in South-East Estonia in the early 1990s.
According to the dealer, the icon may have been purchased in the Kadaka market in Tallinn; that was allegedly one of the most popular places for trading in icons in the 1990s. That does not mean, of course, that everyone selling icons there was necessarily a criminal. Many Orthodox people had icons at home, which need not be protected national heritage.
On the other hand, we cannot rule out that a number of people may have pieces of valuable art heritage hanging on their walls or gathering dust in the attic.
Criminals were particularly active in raiding churches in the 1990s; major burglaries have become less frequent recently. On the one hand, it is because burglaries used to be more frequent back then, but on the other hand, art-related crimes have changed their focus by now. Archeological heritage is the most threatened sphere at present.
In other words, stealing art heritage is regular criminal business? “Absolutely. Business like everything else”, says Lainvoo.
In her estimate, hundreds of stolen icons and other objects have reached the West – Germany or Belgium and the Netherlands. The price of icons in the back market may reach thousands of euros.
Art heritage has been mostly stolen from rural churches, which are often unguarded and inadequately protected. The thefts mostly concern 19th century works of art, which are of modest value to art collectors, but invaluable as our cultural heritage.
“What makes it so depressing is that the profit from the crime is so marginal, but the damage to art heritage is huge”, Lainvoo says. The theft of a single icon ruins the whole iconostasis.
The National Heritage Board has no statistics about how many churches in Estonia have been raided. “But I believe that there is no church, which has not lost something”, Lainvoo speculates.
On the positive side, the work for recovering works of art is going on all the year round and the National Heritage Board can rely on the help of the police, the Tax and Customs Board, while the prevention of cross-border crime involves cooperation with Interpol and even the FBI.