May 3, 2012

BOOK REVIEW CONCLUDED: Joshua Knelman's Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives through the Secret World of Stolen Art

by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

(You may find the first two parts here and here)

In London, Julian Radcliffe, founder of the Art Loss Register, a private company originally funded by auction houses and insurers to create a database of stolen art, tells Knelman of his effort to establish a stolen art database for art dealers and auction houses.  The company also reported over $200 million in art theft recoveries by 2008, including recoveries of paintings by Cézanne, Edouard Manet, and Pablo Picasso.

“Famous paintings are just a small percentage of what is being stolen,” Radcliffe told Knelman, [adding that] most of the art on the ALR list consists of minor paintings and antiques, and fewer than 1 per cent of those are ever recovered.

Radcliffe explains that art dealers often didn’t question why they could purchase a painting cheaply.  Sometimes if art dealers found out the art was reported stolen on ALR, they would not buy the work but refer it to someone else.  Even art thieves like to search the database to see if a painting has been reported stolen.

In the over 1,000 recoveries Radcliffe has enjoyed, in only three cases was the thief not after the paycheck for the stolen art, and most of the art that wasn’t immediately passed on to a dealer or auction house was stored in a vault, a closet, an attic, or a basement.
“Transactions in the art world are often carried out anonymously … and this cult of secrecy can be taken advantage of by criminals,” said Radcliffe.  “The art trade is the least regulated and least transparent activity in the commercial world, and the portability of the times and their international market make them very attractive for moving value, unobserved.”
Radcliffe said that the average value of stolen art is under $10,000 and that thieves will pass these items off to fences, who will then move them into the outlands of the art market: to small auction houses or galleries, or across oceans…. About half of all stolen art recovered by the ALR was found in a different country from where it was originally stolen. 

In the United States, Knelmen meets Special Agent Robert K. Wittman, then a Senior Art Investigator for the Rapid Deployment Art Crime Team for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Wittman was six months away from retirement.  The 1996 law, The Theft of Major Artwork had made it a federal crime to steal from a museum or to steal a work of art worth more than $5,000 or older than 100 years.  Knelman tells how Wittman recovered a Norman Rockwell painting in Brazil just three months after helping with the recovery effort after the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Knelman meets Matthew Bogdanos who had lived one block from the WTC on 9/11.  The assistant U. S. district attorney, a Marine reservist, led the art theft investigation of the National Museum of Iraq after looting in 2003, and established an amnesty program to recover the stolen antiquities.

In the fall of 2009, Knelman meets Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ Art Crime Team which had reorganized in response to the looting of the Iraqi museum.  Magness-Gardiner echoes what Knelman heard in his first meeting with an art thief in Toronto six years earlier about an unregulated and undocumented art market based on secretive transactions involving millions of dollars.

I asked Magness-Gardiner if it was fair to say that no one had a handle on how large the black market in stolen art had become.  “Yes, that’s fair to say,” she answered....  “When we say ‘black market,’ really what we mean are those stolen items that are in the legitimate market and shouldn’t be there.  The black market isn’t separate.  So we’re talking about items that have no history.  The collectors, the museums, and the dealers all partake on some level.”

Magness-Gardiner explains:
“Art is one of the biggest unregulated markets in the U. S.  The business of art tends to be very closed and secretive.  It is still business done on a handshake.  Financial transactions are quite difficult to track, because you don’t have a paper trail.  How art is bought, sold, and moved is a challenge in itself to understand.  When a piece of art is bought or sold, there is the movement of the physical object from one location to another.  There is also the transfer of money from one bank account to another.  There is nothing to link those two events.”
Magness-Gardiner addressed the lack of information about the collecting history or previous ownership of an object of art or cultural property:
“Another problem built into a business-on-a-handshake model is the issue of provenance.  The first thing we tell a new agent to do is to find out whether or not the work of art that has been stolen is, in fact, real.  Where does it come from? Where are its records? We don’t know until we do a background investigation on the piece of art.”  She continued, “Looking at the authenticity of a piece is always detective work.  Unlike most other material items manufactured today, art does not have serial numbers.  Lack of a serial number is one element that really distinguishes art from other types of property theft.  The only parallel is jewellery and gems – difficult to trace because they don’t have a serial number either, and so they are particularly valuable to thieves,” she said. 

“The middlemen and the dealers don’t want other people to know their sources.  This can stem from a legitimate business concern, because if other dealers find out who their sources are, they could use those same sources.”
Knelman dedicates a chapter to the art crime investigator, Alain Lacoursière, who had worked on art thefts as part of his police job until he retired. When Knelman met the new generation of the  Quebec Art Squad they didn’t know of the work of the LAPD Art Theft Detail until Knelman told the French-speaking detectives of Hrycyk’s work.

In Hot Art, Knelman successfully brings a personal narrative navigating the disparate international world of art theft and recovery that almost unknowingly tell of the same story of theft and laundering stolen art through the legitimate market and the limited resources to combat the problem.  From England’s first art investigative team, the Sussex Police’s art and antiques squad, in 1965 to information flourishing on the internet through blogs such as Art Hostage (written by the former  Brighton Knocker Paul "Turbo" Hendry), and information dispersed by Interpol, the LAPD’S Art Theft Detail, Quebec’s Art Crime Squad, and the Museum Security Network, who in the English-speaking world will be the next law enforcement officers to continue the work of its pioneers?

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