Painting theft in Movies

Subtitle: Frivolous Stress Relief

I've seen art theft depicted in movies, and I've always thought that the methods I saw would destroy a painting at the first touch.  I've seen canvases cut out of frames then rolled up into a tube.  I've seen (Thomas Crown Affair) a painting put in a briefcase and then folded in half.

While procrastinating, I cleared out some old canvas paintings, practice junk from the beginning of time (February last year).  I had a 16" x 12" painting, which was a cheap canvas, with acrylic then three attempts at painting a sky in oil over that, with a lot of liquin thrown in.  It's been "drying" for over a year.

Can I cut out a painting quickly?
I've seen scenes where a big knife was pulled out, and the canvas just cut right out of the frame, in seconds.

Yes.  It took me about 20 seconds with a sharp knife to make a nice cut all round a frame and just lift off the painting.  I didn't try to cut around the staples, just straight line cuts.

Can you roll up a painting, and not damage it too much?
Yes.  I rolled it into a 1" diameter tube, paint side inwards.  Left it there for a few minutes and unrolled it.  I wasn't flat afterwards, but it appears to have no effect on the painting.

How about the other way?
I rolled it into a 1" diameter tube, paint side outwards.  No effect.

What if I fold it?
I folded it, paint-side outwards, and I heard it crack.  I tried again, same results.  The fold is visible, but when flattened, you can't see anything.  It's damaged, but you can't see it.

The other way?
Visible folds, but when flattened, nothing again.

How bad can I make it?
Scrunching the whole painting into the size of a tennis ball finally did it some serious damage.  Plenty of cracking visible, and some flakes came off.  If there were Cadmium paint in there, I suppose this would create a hazard.

While I'm sure some old masters could be damaged by a light breeze, these paintings in front of me are surprisingly resilient.  Fun over, back to work.


  • Thanks, made my day!
  • edited April 2018
    Interesting post Paul. I know Tibetan thangka are painted in such a way as to allow them to be rolled up and moved. I have a large thangka I received in just this way with absolutely no damages. I am not familiar with their painting process

  • I have some old canvas acrylic paintings rolled up that I stored in the U.K., maybe 8 years ago at the time an old artist friend told me it was the best way to store them, rolled up! - one day I plan to collect them it would be interesting to see if they survived @PaulB
  • dencaldencal -
    edited April 2018

    Just a couple of minor points to factor into the discussion:

    The samples shown are fairly thin and even coats of paint. Most unlike encrusted paint on old masters.
    Liquin has the advantage of drying with a flexible surface, able to tolerate some flexure.
    Rabbit skin glue, lead paints and damar varnish all dry with hard but brittle surfaces.
    Modern cotton fabric uses a thread count of between 150 and 500 threads per inch. Pre-industrial revolution canvas rarely went higher than 80. Rembrandt used 60 threads per inch. The more intertwined filaments and tighter weave probably makes cutting more difficult.

    Finally, the single most important factor is temperature and humidity of the post theft environment.
    Freeze / thaw and wet / dry cycles will craze and exfoliate a painting before a reward is offered for their return.


  • Any one steals my paintings will probably be rewarded for providing a public service.
  • An artist I know sells most of her paintings online so she ships them to her clients. She told me she rolls them up which saves considerably on shipping costs. She's keen about using Liquin. I'm not partial to it myself, but whatever technique she uses, her paintings take a shorter time to dry. She's had no problems shipping this way. 
    I"d be a lousy art thief. I'd be too busy looking at the whole gallery!
  • @movealonghome, would the canvas only be "stretched" just enough to attach it to a frame? I can't imagine it surviving a regular stretch .... too much like being on the Rack !
  • @marieb ,  Painting on unstreched canvas is a fairly common practice. I have no idea if there is any special technique to ensure the paint won't be damaged when it is rolled or stretched. Re-stretching a painted canvas on a different support is also common. Can I surmise that once the paint has set that it can withstand being stretched again?
  • Check this movie out. "Incognito" 1997 Jason Patrick
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