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Title Menu: 7 Books on Art Crime

By (March 1, 2014) One Comment

Art crimes are sexy. Or that’s how they are portrayed in news reports and movies, both of which usually interpret art heists, forgeries and fakeries as crimes of passion. Over the last two years, stories of art crimes have captivated the media; in 2012 and 2013, several major thefts of works by Picasso, Gauguin and even Damien Hirst garnered international attention. In November of last year, Cornelius Gurlitt’s hoard of Modern art masterworks, possibly stolen by the Nazis during World War II, was uncovered after the octogenarian failed to declare $12,200 in cash at the Switzerland-German border. Recently, a 51-year-old man walked into the Pérez Art Museum Miami, picked up a vase from Chinese artist and activist’s Ai Wei Wei’s work Colored Vases, and smashed it to the ground (the man purports to have done this to protest the PAMM’s showcasing of international artists instead of local artists). This winter, Springfield Museums in Massachusetts opened “Intent to Deceive: Fakes and Forgeries in the Art World” (January 21- April 27, 2014), a comprehensive exhibition of objects that cheated collectors and museums.

“Everybody loves a juicy scandal,” writes Patricia Cohen in her New York Times review of the show. But “Intent to Deceive,” as well as the transgressions that have garnered headlines in recent years, largely underscores the brass tacks of art crimes, the fact that these misdeeds of deception and plunder are orchestrated to achieve very commonplace goals of money and power. In their pursuit of the truth, as well as their elucidations of why certain criminals are attracted to art objects, the following books attempt to understand the inherent, but extrinsic, value of art objects within the criminal underworld. All were published mostly in the last two decades or so, and I’ve organized this list in rough accordance to the chronology of recent notable art crimes.

art-crimeArt Crime by John E. Conklin (Praeger, 1994)

Defining art crimes rather succinctly, but blandly, as “criminally punishable acts that involve works of art,” Conklin dispenses with drama in this authoritative examination of the motivations and machinations of art-related crimes. A Professor Emeritus in Criminology at Tufts University, Conklin razors through the media myth surrounding supposed Thomas Crown criminals, studying art crime as “collective activity” rather than the work of individual offenders. “The process by which works art are illegally acquired is socially organized; it involves recurrent patterns of interaction among legitimate and illegitimate members of the art world,” Conklin writes. In other words, some art professionals (art dealers, museum personnel, etc.) are in on the scam. The International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) began a Stolen Art Archive in 1977; today, that database is the commercially-run Art Loss Register which includes more than 200,000 items. Interpol began a Notice of Stolen Works of Art in 1947, but this publication doesn’t include precise data on how many art crimes are committed each year. This is because, as Conklin writes, there’s no international standard for determining and reporting art crimes. However, writing in the early 1990s, Conklin estimated that annual losses due to theft were “at least $1 billion.” He also suggested that this figured was on the rise, given the modern and contemporary art market boom of the 1980s. Providing a brief history of agencies involved in tracking and recovering stolen art, Conklin writes that only 10% of all lifted art objects are retrieved. As first and foremost an academic text, Art Crime surveys the vast terrain of art-related offences, offering analysis and estimations from the perspective of a criminologist in an effort to quell the rising tide of thefts and forgeries.

troeThe Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War by Lynn H. Nicholas (Knopf, 1994)

This is the first book to scrupulously examine the details of the Third Reich’s maniacal fixation with art both politically and socially, as well as how Hitler’s regime looted Europe’s masterpieces in order to foist the Nazi agenda onto the lives of people worldwide. Nicholas investigates the American reaction to Hitler’s art agenda, starting her story in June of 1939, when it was still unclear if the United States would go to war with Germany. “To art professionals outside Germany the advent of Nazism and the bizarre goings-on of its art establishment were regarded at first as a passing phenomenon which would require some minor adjustments in international dealings,” Nicholas writes. “Even Alfred Barr, so upset by National Socialist ideas, planned to publish his exposés anonymously lest he alienate German museum officials.” Dissecting the contemporary political landscape, both in the American government and museum world, Nicholas grippingly narrates the story of how the Western world’s most culturally significant masterpieces survived World War II. An inspiration and source for Robert Edsel’s Monuments Men (of recent cinematic fame) and Saving Italy, Nicholas’s book offers and understanding of art’s importance to governments, and thus why power brokers go to such lengths in order to procure, protect or pillage it. But while Monuments Men is swashbuckling, The Rape of Europa coolly specifies Nazi atrocities with an eye towards how those actions affected culture in the decades to follow.

gardner_heistThe Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft by Ulrich Boser (HarperCollins, 2009)

Like Conklin, Boser is not an art historian. A journalist, Boser became interested in art by way of crime, namely the March 18, 1990 robbery of 13 art objects (including Vermeer’s The Concert and Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee) brazenly pilfered from the venerable Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Doggedly obsessive with his inquiry into the heist and the culprits, Boser reviews the evidence to date. He explores if the then-wanted Whitey Bulger was responsible, or if the guards on duty had a hand in the plot, with equal sincerity. Perhaps the most compelling piece of that evidence in the case is the fact that the two thieves, dressed like Boston Police officers, stole an eagle finial originally from a Napoleonic flag. The theft of this object bore the trademark of Myles Connor, a local ne’er-do-well with a history of museum robberies and an eye for military artifacts. But Connor was in a federal prison for drug-related offences in March of 1990, and thus couldn’t have been one of the disguised thieves. Could he have orchestrated the heist from his cell? Connor himself gives a coy clue to his culpability (or at least his knowledge of the plot) in his 2009 (mostly disappointing) tell-all, The Art of the Heist. Though Boser weighs all indications of who the burglars were, and where the artworks are now, he at times veers to far towards conspiracy theories as he injects his personal experience with the case into this whodunit.

art_theft_nairneArt Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners by Sandy Nairne (Reaktion Books, 2011)

This book centers on another bold robbery of artworks from a museum. The 1994 theft of two major Turners from the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, Germany, shocked Nairne, who was then the Director of Programmes at the Tate Museum in London. The Tate loaned the Turners to the Schirn Kunsthalle, and in Art Theft, Nairne recounts the 4:00 AM phone call that alerted him to the burglary, as well as the weeks of bureaucracy and red tape that followed. “After the shock of the theft itself—and the diversion in the following week—I felt an immense sense of loss, both personal and collective,” Nairne writes. Avoiding camp, Art Theft is a true mystery that is as compelling as memoir as it is a sharp look at the realities of high-profile museum heists. “The theft of a work add[s] notoriety, and translating to a changed perception of its significance and perhaps even its market value,” explains Nairne. Perhaps the most notable strength of Art Theft is Nairne’s ability to explain the systems of value (economic and cultural) that attend artworks without pandering, or cloyingly emphasizing the emotional content of the Turners. As an art historian, Nairne deciphers the paintings’ significance as national treasures as well as black market prizes.

Art and CrimeArt & Crime: Exploring the Dark Side of the Art World edited by Noah Charney (Praeger, 2009)

By now it should be pretty clear that authors tackling art crimes should get a little more creative with their titles. That aside, Art & Crime offers perhaps the most exhaustive look at the history of crimes against art as well as the context and scope of contemporary art criminalities. Edited by Noah Charney, a novelist and art historian who established The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA), this book blends a criminologist’s data-driven approach with an art critic’s attention towards aesthetic. As Charney explains in his introduction, ARCA is rooted in a belief that law enforcement officials must work with art historians in order to understand and prevent crimes against art. A compendium of studies by police officers, security personnel and art historians, Art & Crime tackles every aspect of the field, from art in war to art crimes within academic institutions (a subject frequently overlooked by art crime writers). In his contribution, “Art Crime in Context,” Charney offers some figures that update Conklin’s numbers, writing that illegitimate revenues yielded by art crimes comes to $6 billion per annum. “Art crime has evolved from a relatively innocuous phenomenon into the third-highest-grossing annual criminal trade worldwide, run primarily by organized crime syndicates and therefore funding their other enterprises, from the drug and arms trades to terrorism,” Charney writes. Art & Crime thus presents the most urgent and compelling question that art crimes present: how they affect other facets of illegality. It’s fascinating to consider how the War on Drugs, for example, might be impacted should the DEA investigate the relationship between drug and antiques trafficking. With essays considering several major historical crimes, including the titillating scandal of Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire’s association with a 1911 Louvre theft (the “affaire des statuettes”), Art & Crime examines art crime with particular interest in the field’s spike during the post-war era.

cover-10453The Faking of the Russian Avant-Garde by Konstantin Akinsha and Sylvia Hochfield (ARTNews, July 2009)

Anyone sincerely interested in art crime should follow ARTNews, as this is among the only art publications (others include The Art Newspaper) to investigate and analyze art crimes. Akinsha (who authored the impressive and authoritative Beautiful Loot: The Soviet Plunder of Europe’s Art Treasures) and Hochfield have teamed up before to trace fake and stolen art works; in the late 1990s, the pair investigated the many nefarious acts relating to Modern Russian artworks for ARTNews. In “The Faking of the Russian Avant-Garde” the pair writes that the Russian art market is besieged by counterfeits, explaining that the country’s 20th century history is partly to blame for this phenomenon. “These works have very sketchy provenances in which certain assertions are repeated again and again: the works are said to have come from hitherto unknown private collections or to have been smuggled to Israel by immigrants in the ’70s or to have been deaccessioned by provincial museums in the former Soviet republics—although this practice was strictly forbidden—or to have been confiscated and hidden for a half century by the former KGB (the secret police), although experts say there is not a single documented case of avant-garde works emerging from KGB vaults,” write Akinsha and Hochfield. Ever the intrepid reporters, Akinsha and Hochfield write that some Russian art experts, who are often employed by the State, have knowingly certified fakes in order to profit certain collectors. However, this article doesn’t tackle what has to be the most scandalous international art crime to date, the Soviet Union’s secret, illegal removal of the priceless Larionov-Goncharova Archive from Paris to Moscow in 1988. (The pair investigated that story in their hard-hitting March 1997 article, “The Strange, Illegal Journey of the Larionov-Goncharova Archive.”) Given the internationality of the Modern art movement, the problem with Russian art is a global issue not likely to be resolved anytime soon.

HotArt-front onlyHot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives through the Secret World of Stolen Art by Joshua Knelman (Tin House, 2011)

An immersive, broad look at small and large art thefts alike, Hot Art attempts to understand the psychology of people attracted to stolen art works on both sides of the law. Shadowing detectives, lawyer and even perpetrators, Knelman traveled the world to crack art crime cases, but moreover, to solve the mystery of why art is just so irresistible to the criminal mind. Paced almost as a cliff-hanger, Hot Art took almost a decade to write, and Knelman emphasizes how slow the recovery process is when it cmes to pilfered art. Describing an LAPD officer, Donald Hrycyk, who figures as one of the protagonists in this story, Knelman writes that “Hrycyk was such a rare find: a detective who had spent years specializing in art theft investigations and who worked his cases with the patience of a scientist—playing the long game.” Knelman plays the long game himself in Hot Art; even though a few different criminals threaten him, he presses on with his story, scrutinizing the world-wide black market for art and antiques. This study is particularly absorbing in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, when Knelman first began writing about art crime. Reflecting on bin Laden’s 2011 demise, Knelman writes that “it was strange now to think of the domino effect bin Laden had had on the world of art theft, starting with the invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq, and formation of FBI Art Crime Team—the art detectives of tomorrow.” This assertion of art crimes interconnection with more ‘serious’ offenses (such as drug trafficking and terrorism) is one of Hot Art’s most salient. In context with Art & Crime, Hot Art suggests that art crime isn’t limited to the white-wash walls of museums or the world’s elite, reminding us that stolen art is a loss for humanity as a whole.

Leah Triplett is a Boston-based writer who specializes in modern and contemporary art. She oversees the award-winning Big, Red and Shiny blog.

One Comment »

  • Dear Leah,

    Thanks for the shout out for Art & Crime: Exploring the Dark Side of the Art World edited by Noah Charney (Praeger, 2009). We hope to have some new reading for your list soon!

    ARCA alongside several of the original chapter writers and some new folk are finishing up a follow-up essay collection book that will delve further into this field. We also are supporting a writer-in-residence this summer during our postgraduate program in art crime and cultural heritage protection who is working on a manuscript on trafficking Greek and Italian antiquities.

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