“You don’t expect hammers, guns and glass flying all over the place at TEFAF”

“You don’t expect hammers, guns and glass flying all over the place at TEFAF”

Analysis of a jewellery theft

28-02-2024 · Science

On 9 March, the antique and art fair TEFAF will be opening its doors to the public again. Who doesn’t remember the news from 2022, when five men with Peaky Blinders-style caps used a hammer to smash open a protective case of an English jeweller at the fair in MECC? Bystanders appeared to remain reasonably calm as the crime took place before their eyes. Donna Yates, associate professor at the Department of Criminal Law and Criminology, explains why. 

Tuesday 28 June 2022, about 11 o’clock in the morning: The European Fine Art Fair is world news. Five thieves manage to steal jewellery worth millions in broad daylight. “I was at the faculty in a digital conference about art and received all kinds of messages and links to Twitter and news sites,” Yates remembers. The previous day, Yates had taken a tour of the fair for her research within the framework of a large project subsidised with European funding, called Trafficking Transformations, for which she had received a starting grant worth 1.5 million euro. What is the attraction to people of rare collectable items such as antiquities and fossils, and how do they maybe ‘inspire’ them to commit a crime, Yates wants to know.

TEFAF is a choice opportunity to do fieldwork. Which was the case on 27 June, one day before the theft. Yates savoured the general atmosphere, focussed on the furnishings and decoration as well as the clothing style. Normally, the fair always takes place in March, but in 2022 this was moved to June due to Covid. “It was hot!”, Yates remembers. So hot that it was the primary topic of conversation in the MECC. The congress centre did not have climate control which regularly drove a considerable number of visitors, but also the art dealers, to despair. Because, what could this heat mean for fragile objects? Also, would potential buyers refrain from coming because of the heat?


“Although there is no obligatory dress code, there are unwritten rules. People dress for the fair and the fair dresses them,” Yates describes in the scientific article Affective Atmosphere in Art Fair Jewel Heist, which she and Diāna Bērziņa, a colleague from the Faculty of Law, published last year on account of the heist.

Those unwritten rules imply that gentlemen wear neat trousers, shirt and blazer, possibly with a scarf, tie, cap or hat. Neat leather shoes are always appreciated, as are luxury watches or expensive rings. Women wear fitted suits, designer dresses or blouses with expensive trousers or skirts, says Yates. “The norm is impeccable hair and make-up.”

That day, Yates wore jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers. “I wore those on purpose. I wanted to provoke something; what will happen if I walk around like that?” She, herself became subject of her own observation. If there are any women walking around the fair in jeans, those are designer items. Moreover, they won’t have sneakers on their feet, but high heels. Yates received subtle disapproving glances that Monday afternoon, gallery owners ignored her. They preferred to be on their telephones. Whether that was just because of her appearance, she can’t say for sure, she admits, but during her earlier visits to fairs, when she was dressed ‘appropriately’, she was approached in a more friendly fashion. It brings her to two elements that she highlights in her publication: the thieves’ clothing. Their style fitted in with TEFAF to a large extent, she says. “It is exactly the reason why they were not noticed at all.” On the photographs circulating on the Internet, we see men in light-coloured shirts, often completely buttoned up, vests and a blazer on top, as well as ties. Four of the five wore Peaky Blinders-style caps on their heads, named after the criminal gang from Birmingham in the late 19th and early 20th century (a drama series on the BBC is named after them).


TEFAF with all its luxury – carpets, upholstered seating, insane flower arrangements, flawlessly dressed members of staff, security, champagne and oysters on the menu – creates an atmosphere in which nobody even thinks for one second about a million-euro robbery. While a protective case is being smashed to pieces, many visitors and art dealers just look calmly at the ‘spectacle’ from a distance. They take photographs and videos with their telephones. The highlight is maybe the older man, resting on a bench with his legs crossed, right next to where it is all happening. When the thieves run away, in front of and behind him, he just looks at them. There is one person who picks up a vase and wants to throw it at the five, but changes his mind when he sees a gun. He is one of the few to take action.

What is happening here? Yates: “When you are witness to a crime on the street and you see someone smash a jeweller’s shop window, you immediately know: this isn’t right. But at this art fair, you don’t expect hammers, guns and glass flying about the place. This is absurd and irrational, so the fact that there was no outbreak of panic, is not so strange at all.” Even the day after the robbery, when Yates spoke to a number of eyewitnesses at TEFAF, she understood: “People were not afraid, they thought that it was performance art, that it was part of everything.”


Yates sketches a broader context. In 2018, there were lots of protests in the Sackler wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York – the Sackler family made their wealth through the sale of the addictive pain killer OxyContin. Demonstrators threw bottles of pills on the floor. The same ritual followed later on in the Guggenheim Museum in the same city and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In the British Museum, hundreds of protesters gathered to demonstrate against an exhibition that was sponsored by oil company BP, in 2019. Also, just before the TEFAF heist, a man hit the protective glass of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and smeared it with cake. A so-called ‘environmental protest’. And who doesn’t remember the demonstrators who glued themselves down or the ones who threw soup?

Artists themselves also contributed, Yates argued in the article. Remember Banksy’s painted version of Girl with Balloon. At the exact moment it was sold, half of it went through the shredder. Deliberately. The work became many times more valuable after that. The thought that the five ‘Peaky-Blinders types’ would reveal themselves at some stage as being activists or artists was not strange at all in light of events like these in the art world, Yates reckons. “People could expect the unexpected to happen.”

Author: Wendy Degens

Photos: Loraine Bodewes

Categories: news_top, Science
Tags: tefaf, luxury, heist, robbery, jewels, peaky blinders,analysis, criminology,donna yates,law,instagram

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