London’s National Gallery was hit by the biggest art heist in history

London’s National Gallery owns some of the most famous (and expensive) artworks in the world: Van Gogh’s Sunflowers; one of da Vinci’s most famous altarpieces; 15 paintings by Botticelli. But on Sunday at midnight, the collection was the victim of an audacious heist, one that included all but two of its pieces.
Whisked from the confines of their Trafalgar Square home, the paintings began to pop up in museums almost instantly, via Russia, France, Japan and Australia. The Ambassadors, by Hans Holbein the Younger, ended up behind shimmering white guardrails, the room softly glowing with rainbow spotlights. Sunflowers appeared in several locations: in a gold frame on a blue brocaded wall, surrounded by bronze columns, for example, or in a tiled entrance lobby beneath a luxurious balcony.


The smuggling, after all, was a digital one: the artworks now available for anyone with PC and a Steam account to hang in their private collections in the game Occupy White Walls (OWW). Photoshop (rather than a scalpel) was used to cut the pictures from their frames. And instead of smashed glass, balaclavas and a disarmed alarm system, all this heist took was Javascript, an open-source tool called “Dezoomify” and some manual data sorting.
“I like to think of it as liberation,” Yarden Yaroshevski, CEO of Stikipixels, who created the game, explains. OWW is a sandbox massively multiplayer online game, which allows its more than 50,000 players to build, curate, and open their own museum to virtual visitors. In-game museums are populated with pieces from collections such as Washington’s National Gallery and New York’s Metropolitan Museum – hi-res images similarly pilfered from the museums’ websites. “But this is the first time we’ve done a whole collection, like this,” Yaroshevski says, explaining that the team has also made architectural elements from the National Gallery available to its users. Once the London museum’s catalogue is added, there will be will be more than 10,000 artworks available.
Yaroshevski never intended to steal a whole collection’s artworks. His team met with representatives from many galleries and museums, including the National Gallery itself – which declined to comment for this article – to discuss making artworks available in the game. But the game’s interactive and egalitarian principles seemed at odds with the the bureaucracy of the museum world. “There’s no one whose job description is ‘let’s blow up the whole traditional model,’” says Yaroshevski.
However, even though museums have been cautious about getting involved, there is little they can do to stop others using photos of the artworks in their collections. The National Gallery’s collection, in particular, is mostly comprised of paintings whose copyright has long expired (only two don’t pass this test), and therefore are in the public domain. This will also apply to exact photos of the artworks, as long as images used don’t ‘put their own stamp’ on the original, explains Tony Morris, a consultant at the the law firm Swan Turton LLP. “It is hard to imagine that an English court would decide that a photograph, even a high res photo, of an out-of-copyright artwork would be something on which the photographer had put her/his stamp,” he says. In other words, images of these artworks are free for anyone to use.


“I believe that public collections are like trustees – they’re looking after the art on behalf of society, and the main mandate is to try to show it to the public and increase access,” Yaroshevski says. In fact, he explains, this is part of the reason he started the game. “Public domain artworks should be for everyone,” he says, pointing out the perennial issue of lack of exhibition space for artworks in public collections. Most of them are hidden away in the museum archives and basements, and barely ever seen. The National Gallery exhibits a relatively high proportion of its collection (usually, over half of its pieces are on show at any one time), but many museums that house some of the world’s most significant cultural icons can only hang 5 or 10 per cent of their works at any time.
Yaroshevski says that the game is intended to make the stuffy, elitist art world more engaging – as accessible to a teenager in Brazil as it is to a nurse in Thailand. All artworks in the game cost the same amount, no matter who they are by, and the algorithm used by the game’s AI recommendation system only counts user engagement, rather than art world praise or real-life price estimates. This leads to some surprising results. For example, the trippy digital collages of a young Dutch artist called Carl Alexander are currently more popular by the in-game metrics than the paintings of van Gogh.“It’s very important to us to try to present all the artworks as equal,” says Yaroshevski.
Inside the game – in what Yaroshevski calls the “metaverse” – players can not only look at the artworks but also play with them, interacting with old masters and contemporary images in ways that are still unthinkable in a museum context. It’s a strong contrast to the digital experiences currently offered by museums and galleries themselves. When institutions closed their doors during the recent lockdown, many “digital exhibitions” ended up being nothing more than jpegs on a website or Google Street View-esque glitchy walkthroughs, that provide a pale imitation of the experience of actually being in an art gallery.“They’re still thinking like buildings,” said Yaroshevski.
This week, as the National Gallery’s works trickled into OWW’s endlessly creative museums, whose total floor space is now more than 400 times the size of the Louvre, the game’s players got to work hanging their newly acquired treasures. The game’s aesthetic gives these screenshots the look of an architectural rendering, almost like real life. But unlike in real life, now, anyone can drop in to take a look, no matter where they are. This week, the National Gallery also announced its post-Covid reopening plan: appointment only, booking in advance.
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