Art theft

Art thieves steal five Francis Bacon paintings from Madrid mansion

Police investigating “professional” theft of works worth at least €30 million

Visitors admire Francis Bacon’s ‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud’ at Christie’s in London. PA Wire/Press Association Images / Cordon Press

A stately mansion in a quiet residential area of downtown Madrid has been revealed as the setting for the largest contemporary art heist in recent Spanish history.

Five paintings by Francis Bacon worth at least €30 million were taken from the house in June. The art thieves managed to get away with the works without setting off any alarms or raising any eyebrows in one of the city’s safest and most heavily monitored districts.

The owner reported the theft and a Madrid court has since been quietly investigating the whereabouts of the five portraits and landscapes by the Irish-born painter, who died in Madrid in 1992.

The circle in which someone might sell this type of work is very reduced

Anonymous art expert

Although nobody will provide any details of the case, it has emerged that the owner of the works is one J. C. B, 59, an art lover and personal friend of the painter who received them as an inheritance from the latter.

Specialized police investigators believe that the artworks are still somewhere in Spain.

Thieves watching the house – located near Encarnación Square, just meters away from the Spanish Senate – took advantage of the owner’s temporary absence to break in. The building has no security cameras, and neither the doorman nor the other residents of the five-story block noticed anything suspicious.

The apartment itself did have an alarm, but the burglars managed to deactivate it, preventing a warning message from reaching the security company’s headquarters.

Francis Bacon in 1991.

Investigators agree that it was a professional job, as the thieves left no fingerprints or clues of any kind. Undercover agents posing as art buyers dropped by this year’s ARCO contemporary art fair in Madrid in the hope that a dealer might secretly offer them one of the five small-format paintings. But nobody did.

“The circle in which someone might sell this type of work is very reduced,” said one contemporary art expert on condition of anonymity. “It is not at all easy to offer a Francis Bacon, either small or large, without it reaching the ears of the scouts operating in this very special sector. The thieves are not going to have an easy time of it.”

As for the possibility that it was a commissioned theft, an expert working in state law enforcement is adamant: “That kind of heist is not real, and only shows up in movies. There’s no such cases in Spain.”

Francis Bacon’s work commands some of the highest prices on the global art market. His Three Studies of Lucian Freud – Sigmund Freud’s artist grandson and a friend of the painter – was auctioned off in 2013 for a record $142.4 million (since surpassed by Picasso’s Women of Algiers). In 2014, Christie’s also sold Bacon’s Seated Figure for €32 million.

investigacion@elpais.es

English version by Susana Urra.

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