Over the six years between 1995 and 2001, Stéphane Breitwieser stole more than $2 billion worth of famous paintings, making him the world’s most prolific art thief.
The 52-year-old Frenchman lifted more than 300 works from museums and cathedrals across Europe. In a book about Breitwieser called The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Passion, author Michael Finkel explained how Breitwieser would often simply remove the painting with a Swiss Army knife, slip it inside a greatcoat and walk out of the museum.
A lot of people remain justifiably outraged at the theft of such beautiful works of art. But to intangible asset experts, his actions provoke thought around the tangential relationship between traditional art theft and copyright infringement.
Let’s face it, Breitwieser’s theft of the paintings has no impact on most people. Even if he stored them forever in a locked basement or burnt them on a firepit, the general public would still get to view reproductions of the work as images online in greater detail than would be possible with the naked eye at the Louvre or other art museums.
So, it’s worth asking what was actually stolen by Breitwieser. Not the art. The art is on Wikipedia. The only thing that was stolen was the original, tangible medium on which the art was recorded. A medium, mind you, that decays and deteriorates with each passing moment.
Who was really harmed by Breitwieser? Not the artists, they are long deceased. Not their heirs, the stolen paintings were all public domain works. The only parties harmed were the museum and cathedrals. But the role these institutions play in our culture is to limit access to the physical expressions of great works for which copyright has long since expired. So, it’s hard to feel sorry for them.
Any reproduction of a famous painting in a book had to be authorised by a museum. For example, the Corbis Corporation has the exclusive right to digitally reproduce works found in the Louvre. When a new photo of a public domain work is created for anything other than personal use, this constitutes a new copyrighted work that is then owned by the museum. But why is this? Because the Louvre controls access to the painting. It’s their building. The owners of the Louvre can permit or refuse photography to anyone they want.
Consider what would happen if Breitwieser posted new ultra-high-resolution scans of the paintings to the internet. What if he secretly updated the existing Wikipedia photos of the works with his own high-resolution scans? Would we still consider his actions a theft of art or a theft of the painting? What does “copy” or “theft” mean in this context, and how would the damages be calculated?
Again, it comes down to the role of the museum. The museum has its own intangible assets, such as brand wherein the reputational value is measured by the experience it supplies for a person seeing the real paintings in context. After all, if you saw the Mona Lisa at a McDonald’s, you probably wouldn’t have the same curated experience as you’d have in the Louvre.
Some might say that standing before the canvas upon which Picasso laid his brush is compelling in a way that simply looking at a reproduction of that canvas on a computer screen is not. But that isn’t the point of art. If it were, the great works of musical composition would be long-dead as well since we can’t hear them as Mozart or Bach would have performed the works themselves (did Bach have AirPods?).
The art of a painting is the ripple of the water around the lilies and the curious smile on the face of the Mona Lisa by means of sfumato. The art is the slop of green and blue paint that looks like lilies drifting in a pond. The art is thinking Leonardo da Vinci’s model is a real woman smiling. At the time when most of the great works were commissioned, painting as the only way to record events.
And then there’s the old Ship of Theseus thought experiment. If all the parts of an object have been replaced over time, can it still be said that the original object exists? Each famous old painting has been restored by curators many times over the years which means none of them look exactly as the day they were created. The moment the artist sets down their brush, Nature picks up hers. Cracking, fading, changing, flaking, curing. Ssme pigments don’t merely fade, they change to entirely different hues over time.
The great works were painted using the light of the sun, and for centuries could only be seen when placed in sunlight. Look at what happens to house paint which is chemically engineered to resist the effects of sunlight – now imagine those damaging rays sneaking towards the Mona Lisa for hundreds of years before someone had the good sense to move it under candlelight. Even then, all those noxious vapours, waxes, dust and soot would condense on the surface and leech into it.
Yet, even with all these effects and changes, the intangible value of these artworks remains. All Breitwieser ever really stole was the physical expressions, the objects hanging on the wall. The intangible aspects – beauty, prestige, image and history attached to the work – were never stolen. In fact, with modern advances in digital media, it is arguably impossible to ever really steal the true “art” of a famous painting.
That’s a great lesson for companies worried about copyright theft (or garden variety tangible theft) impacting their businesses. While copyright and other registered forms of protection definitely have their place, developing a strong constellation of other intangible assets (such as brand, relationships, data, confidential information, industry expertise, etc.) can insulate your market position more efficiently. A thief may slip a laptop beneath a greatcoat out the door, but not the reputational value of a brand.
Think about it this way: now that Breitwieser’s stolen artworks are all returned to the museums, you want to experience the art in situ, don’t you? Standing before the Mona Lisa in the Louvre really would feel different. This is the brand power that the Louvre has built around its business by investing not only in physical security systems and registered rights to protect the artworks it owns, but also in its broader intangible assets.
So, what’s the takeout for business?
When assessing where the value lies within your organisation, ensure you’re looking beneath the surface at what’s truly driving your competitive edge. In today’s knowledge economy, you may need to look beyond registered rights to protect your assets and build a sustainable competitive advantage that will stand the test of time.
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