Monday, November 2, 2015

Art Thieves and Watch Collectors Have Something in Common

I’ve always wondered what’s behind stealing a famous work of art that you can’t sell.

Famous art can’t be cut into pieces and then sold, like a diamond. Art can’t be fenced at your neighborhood pawn shop, and you can’t try to sell a da Vinci on Craigslist. There’s only one thing you can do with the famous painting you’ve stolen: squirrel it away in your basement, secret room, or some other place where only you can see it.

Can't you imagine the Breguet Heritage in a
museum? Photo from Breguet.
That’s probably what happened to Vermeer’s The Concert, Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee, and Manet’s Chez Tortoni, stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990 and never recovered. These works are most likely being enjoyed by a single person. And I mean single person, because the only secrets that stay secrets are those that you don’t tell any other human beings about.

The master art thief sits alone, in his basement, enjoying the solitude and happiness that a Picasso or Rubens brings. It’s a lonely pleasure.

Watch collecting can be a lonely pleasure, too. The mantra among watch collectors is “I don’t care if nobody notices my watch because I wear it for myself.” I’m not sure if that’s true, because all watch collectors like it when somebody notices their watch. But that’s a subject for another article. Whether it’s true or not that watch collectors don’t care at all if other people—friends, dates, co-workers, relatives who thought you’d amount to nothing—notice their watch, it is true that nobody notices your watch. Or almost nobody. The only people who notice your watch are other watch collectors and BMW dealers who are sizing you up for an expensive purchase.

(The one exception is Rolex. Wear a Rolex and people do notice, and they form very strong opinions about you, too. Just as Rolex gets noticed, so too do the works of art a master art thief has paid for and can show off in his living room.)

Watches are art, just as much as any painting or sculpture. Unlike art that you look at only for a few minutes while passing from the Monets to the Manets in a museum, your wristwatch is portable art that you can enjoy any time. Put a Jaquet Droz The Heure Céleste Onyx or Breguet Heritage behind glass and under bright lights and they are the same as any art in any museum.

I’m even willing to go out on a limb and say that you don’t need to have a $20,000 watch for it to be art. You don’t even need for it to be a name brand for your watch to be art. When you look at microbrands’ watches, such as Melbourne Watch Company’s Portsea, you know that there was an artist who inspired that watch.

That $5,000 Omega, $8,000 Breitling, $20,000 Patek...they’re invisible to everyone around. Your suit gets noticed. People silently comment on your tie. Whether your socks go with your pants—yes, that’s important in the eyes of many. But your watch? You might as well be wearing a $50 Timex.

So that’s what an art thief and a watch collector have in common: Stolen art is art that nobody can see, and a watch is art that nobody does see.

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