TEFAF robbery: Brazen heist caught on video amid global arts

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A man clad in the drab finery of a European art show attendee interrupted the staid hobnobbing of a premier gathering for buyers and sellers of fine art in the Netherlands on Tuesday, when he whipped out a sledgehammer, and with calm focus, smashed open a display window, in full view of anyone who cared to look.

In a video taken by someone standing down the hall, shared widely on social media, he can be seen reaching into the display to snatch a prize. A man approaches, menacing the apparent thief with a flower vase, but seems to think better of the attempt when an accomplice appears to fend him off with a handgun.

In a matter of seconds, the hammer wielder and three others bag whatever they took and jog off, not moving very fast, as an alarm chirps. A white-haired man in a light-colored suit watches the heist unfold feet away, almost as if it were an art performance, his legs crossed, turning to look as the crew disappears around a corner.

Dutch authorities later said they had arrested two Belgian suspects after a jewelry robbery on Tuesday in Maastricht, in the middle of a top international art fair. The robbery interrupted the first in-person iteration since March 2020 of The European Fine Art Foundation’s annual Dutch fair, where fine art stretching back 7,000 years is displayed, drawing curators and art dealers from around the world.

A hunt is ongoing for two additional suspects.

Police for the province of Limburg said they received a report of an armed robbery at the TEFAF fair around 11:30 a.m. local time. No one was injured during the robbery, and the “robbers took possession of the property,” the police statement said.

A later update said police had arrested two Belgian men, aged 22 and 26, on a highway in Maastricht. “Their possible involvement is still under investigation,” the statement said. “Other suspects are still being sought.”

Police said the robbery took place at a jewelry display and the thieves had taken jewelry. “Additional details about the loot are not being provided at this time,” the statement added.

The Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf reported that the thieves had smashed the showcase of the London jeweler Symbolic & Chase, which sells mostly 20th-century European pieces that can go for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. An employee of the jeweler in London, reached by phone Tuesday, said he did not have any information about the heist and had learned of it from reporters.

Video shared on social media shows a man wearing khaki pants, a sports jacket, black gloves and a flat cap, in a seeming attempt to blend in, carrying out the break-in as others, similarly dressed, at least one armed, stand guard. Their outfits drew comparisons online to those worn by the protagonists of the British television series “Peaky Blinders,” about a street gang in England in the years after World War I.

TEFAF is seen as the world’s top fair for centuries-old art. This year’s event in Maastricht — the first since the fair was forced to close early in March 2020 after an exhibitor tested positive for the coronavirus — drew nearly 250 art dealers from 20 countries to present works spanning thousands of years.

The fair, which opened Friday, features pieces including a late 15th-century painting by the Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio, a 13th-century Japanese statue and a mask dating back to at least the 5th century B.C. Representatives from some of the world’s top museums — including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum and the Louvre — came to examine the art and make purchases in the six and seven figures.

Robbert van Ham, director of the Jaski Gallery in Amsterdam, said he had been standing on the other side of the fair when the robbery took place. “We saw some people running, walking pretty fast,” he told The Washington Post. “We think there’s a shooting on the other side of the fair, so we just ran outside, everybody ran outside to the emergency exit.” Evacuees waited for 45 minutes before they were allowed back into the venue.

This is the first major art heist van Ham has encountered personally after more than 30 years in the business, he said. “This was quite aggressive,” he said.

The robbery was “absolutely astounding to me,” said Christopher Marinello, CEO and founder of Art Recovery International, an organization that specializes in the recovery of stolen and looted artworks.

TEFAF is “a very civilized fair with excellent security, and it’s shocking more than anything else that someone could disrupt the fair in this fashion and get a sledgehammer and firearm into the fair unnoticed,” he said. “It just shows, to me, that these thefts are becoming more and more brazen and more and more violent.”

Marinello said he thought at first that the episode was a piece of performance art or act of protest. “But now it seems like we’re talking about some really moronic thieves or some really violent criminals,” he said, adding that the theft was “a major embarrassment for security.”

TEFAF Maastricht said in a statement that the fair had been evacuated “due to an incident within the fair” late Tuesday morning.

“The fair’s security teams worked quickly to disarm an offender and Dutch police were on-site within minutes. Nobody was injured during the incident,” the statement said. “The fair’s stringent safety procedures were followed and all visitors were successfully evacuated.”

“TEFAF has robust procedures in the event of a security breach,” the statement added. “These were precisely followed, and all visitors, exhibitors and staff were safely evacuated. The fair has now reopened. TEFAF and the MECC are now working with the authorities — no further statement will be made.”

Police said a major highway tunnel in Maastricht, along with several roads in and around the city, had been closed for the investigation. Later Tuesday, police said they had arrested two suspects driving a gray vehicle with a Belgian registration number south on the highway. Police deployed a helicopter and dogs in the search.

Images shared by the Dutch public works agency on Twitter appear to show police surrounding a car stopped in the middle of the highway. Police said the tunnel and highway were reopened later in the afternoon.

Police said their investigation is ongoing and “the focus is on tracing the suspects.” It was unclear whether authorities had recovered any stolen property.

Marinello said it’s easier to get away with jewelry theft than with stealing a painting, for example, since diamonds and gold can be melted down and repurposed. “It’s very hard to track jewelry,” he said. It’s also easy to stash; even if the thieves are caught, the pieces may not be recovered, he said.

Meanwhile, the show goes on: The fair has reopened, according to organizers, and is scheduled to run through Wednesday.

So far, at least, the robbery is proving a marketing boon for van Ham, who deals in works from the European CoBrA movement. After news of the heist spread, van Ham said, clients texted him to say they had decided to come see him at the fair after all.

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