Thursday, April 19, 2012

Hot art

This evening I attended Blue Metropolis Literary Festival event Crime Writing: Hot Art and Montreal.

Joshua Knelman, author of Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives through the Secret World of Stolen Art, spoke about the state of international art theft. The book came about from an award-winning article he wrote for The Walrus, of which he is a founding member.

I have not read his book, but I am fascinated by the subject. Here's what he said in a Q&A on the Indigo non-fiction blog:

The minute a Picasso is stolen from a museum there are pictures of it in every paper across the world, with the value of the painting, every auction house and art gallery knows this piece has been stolen, every collector knows its been stolen. It's a headache for the thieves because suddenly everyone is looking for this painting. It's a headache for the police because if it's a really famous painting stolen from a cultural institution the police get pressure from the political side.

Headache art cases make up about 5% of what is actually stolen every year. So you're talking about a very small piece of the art theft pie but it gets probably 95% of the media attention. So again it's the complete inverse.

He's out to dispel the glamour I (and many others) tend to associate with this type of crime.

Most stolen art is worth a fraction of a Picasso, but theft from private collections is apparently going on all the time — it adds up to ahuge black market art industry.

It's complicated by the difficulty of establishing a work of art's provenance, and the fact that the business of art is completely unregulated. Further, very few people are equipped with the knowledge of art and understanding of how the art world operates required to investigate crimes of this nature. The people who do have specialized knowledge are usually dealers and collectors, who with their interests at heart very often turn a blind eye. Art cops are few and far between.

For about an hour Knelman talked about his research, with anecdotes about the art thiefs and the detectives he's met who devote themsleves to this niche — and how remarkably similar their skillsets are.

I still think it's glamorous, and I'm thinking about a career change.

Read Joshua Knelman's article "Artful Crimes" for a taste.

Art theft fiction
Since I tend to turn to fiction, here are some titles I dug up — novels that involves art theft, though generally of the more sensational kind. I'm somewhat surprised there aren't more, but it occurs to me that art crime doesn't need fictionalizing to be a good story.

  • The Raphael Affair, by Iain Pears — Featuring detective art historian Jonathan Argyll investigating the destruction of a newly discovered painting thought to be by Raphael.
  • Doors Open, by Ian Rankin — A bored, self-made man decides to commit the perfect crime: rip off the National Gallery of Scotland.
  • Artists and Thieves, by Linda Schroeder — By day Mai Ling recoveres stolen art for Interpol. But she is also duty-bound by her family to steal a priceless object, and return it to China.
  • The Rembrandt Affair, by Daniel Silva — Retired spy Gabriel Allon is pulled into a race across the globe when an art restorer is murdered and a portrait by Rembrandt stolen.

Art appreciation?
Complex as it is to pull off a theft of this nature, and as beautiful as the objects of these crimes are, what intrigues me most is the question of who is actually in the market for stolen art. I imagine the filthy rich eccentric who goes down to his cellar occasionally to admire the genuine Mona Lisa that hangs there. (See also The Eiger Sanction, by Trevanian, whose protagonist is an assassin and an art collector.)

But the idea of such a connoisseur isn't very realistic either. Stolen art tends to move to dealer to dealer to collector to auction house to dealer, etc. It's not about the art — it's the money.

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