Unveiling the atmosphere: insights from TEFAF Maastricht's jewel heist through research

by: in Law
Flags TEFAF Maastricht 2024

As the 37th edition of TEFAF Maastricht is set to welcome visitors from 9th to 14th of March, many will remember the armed jewel heist that took place almost two years ago. During TEFAF opening hours on 28th of June 2022, five men violently smashed a display case with a sledgehammer, removed jewellery, and then escaped. At the time, two elements of the heist, namely, costumes worn by the thieves and the muted reaction and calmness of many onlookers captivated the traditional and social media. 

About the researchers

Last year Dr Donna Yates and I published an article titled Affective Atmosphere in an Art Fair Jewel Heist[1]. We both are criminologists whose research involves art crime. Prior to the heist, we had been conducting observational fieldwork[2] at TEFAF focusing on senses, affective qualities of objects, and on the atmosphere of a space. Through our work, we were able to better understand and explain the costumes worn by the thieves and reaction by onlookers. 

Blending into the atmosphere

TEFAF creates an atmosphere of ‘eliteness’ and luxury. It is a deeply affective space created and maintained in number of ways catering to different senses. This includes large installations of flowers, champagne and oysters available at various points throughout the fair, deep carpets, and lavish booths. While TEFAF does not have formally written dress code, attendees tend to follow the unwritten rules. Clothing conforms to the elite atmosphere, and at the same time, the clothing sustains the elite atmosphere ­– it is a self-sustaining phenomenon. People who do not conform to this atmosphere stick out. While people on social media interpreted the costumes as absurd, within this highly affective setting, the costumes chosen by the thieves made perfect sense. They disappeared within the space, blended in with the other attendees, and were able to go undetected by the security.

Not only did the atmosphere of the fair dictate how the thieves need to dress, but it also hindered the way the onlookers interpreted the robbery. Within this space, the onlookers thought that they are witnessing art and not crime. This is not an unreasonable interpretation of the heist considering the wider art world context[3]. Several art fair participants that we spoke with the day after the heist thought that the heist was a performance art or a protest. Only few fair participants expressed feelings of being in danger or feeling unsafe.

In a nutshell

Art fairs have been specifically designed to influence people. The atmosphere of an art fair is a deeply affective one. The way the crimes that are carried out in this space are affected by the ambience. Yet the same atmosphere also affects the way onlookers experience and interpret these crimes. While outside of the art fair the attire chosen by the thieves and muted reaction to a violent robbery seemed absurd, within the context of art fair both made perfect sense.

Read more about this research

Interested in reading the full article? You can find it here.

[1]Yates, D., Bērziņa, D. Affective Atmosphere in an Art Fair Jewel Heist. Eur J Crim Policy Res (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10610-023-09549-7

[2] This fieldwork is part of the larger ERC-funded Trafficking Transformations project. More information about the project: https://traffickingtransformations.org 

[3] E.g., ‘Banksy tried to destroy his art after it sold for $1.4 million. The shredded version just went for $25.4 million’. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/10/15/shredded-banksy-painting/

Protests taking place in the museums such as ‘Campaigners protest against BP sponsorship of British Museum’. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2019/feb/16/campaigners-protest-against-bp-sponsorship-of-britishmuseum

  • D. Berzina

    Diāna Bērziņa is a PhD Researcher on the project ‘Trafficking Transformations: Objects as Agents in Transnational Criminal Networks’ based in the department of Criminal Law and Criminology at Maastricht University.

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