May 2, 2012

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

by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

(Continued from yesterday)

In 2008, as economic chaos grips the bond markets and art prices continue to increase, Knelman interviews Donald Hrycyk of the Los Angeles Police Department; Richard Ellis, former head of Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiquities Squad; Julian Radcliffe of the Art Loss Register; FBI Art Investigator Robert Wittman; Matthew Bogdanos who led the recovery effort for antiquities looted from the National Museum of Iraq in 2003; Giles Waterfield, the former director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery who helped to recover “the Takeaway Rembrandt”;  and Bob Combs, head of The Getty’s security.

Knelman finds cooperation with Detective Hrycyk of the LAPD’s Art Theft Detail, the nation’s only full-time municipal unit dedicated to investigating art-related crimes.  The detective discusses solved cases, methods of investigation, and takes Knelman to the evidence warehouse. Knelman recounts Hrycyk’s background from patrolling the streets of South Central Los Angeles to the detective’s patient and precise work investigating art thefts.  In 2008, Hrycyk was training his partner, Stephanie Lazarus, just as his former boss and mentor, Bill Martin, had trained Hrycyk 1986 to 1989.

In Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, art theft was a hidden crime, blending many different worlds.  It cut across socio-economic lines and could move in a heartbeat from blue-collar to white-collar criminals.  A thug who knew nothing about art except that it was valuable could steal a painting; that same afternoon, the painting could wind up in the possession of an auction house; within the week or the month, it could be sold to one of the Los Angeles art elite.

In addition to visiting art galleries, auction houses, and museums, Hrycyk read the 1974 book by Laurie Adams, Art Cop, about the work of a former undercover New York City narcotics officer, Robert Volpe, who was probably the first detective in North America to investigate art theft full-time.  Knelman writes:
Volpe’s investigations included burglaries, robberies, and consignment frauds – when an artist or patron would lend a piece of work to a gallery and the gallery would vanish or refuse to return the art.  He believed that art theft in New York in the 1970s had reached the same stage as narcotics a decade earlier.
Hrycyk tells Knelman that the unregulated art world (just like the drug dealers Hrycyk arrested for years) relied upon a code of ethics where not asking for information seems to be part of that world’s business practices.  Buyers and sellers of art use middlemen just as drug dealers do.  “It is considered rude to ask questions about the provenance of an artwork – who owned it, where it came from.  Embarrassment is often one of the leading factors for secrecy,” Hrycyk tells Knelman.

Martin retired in 1992 but it wasn’t until two years later that Hrycyk returned to the Art Theft Squad to work with a rotating string of partners until he chose Lazarus to train in 2006.  Hot Art opens with a chapter on a ride-a-long with Hrycyk and Lazarus to the crime scene at an antiques store on La Cienega and recounts the detectives’ investigation.  A year later, Lazarus would be arrested for the murder of her ex-boyfriend’s wife and this year she was convicted of the crime.  Hrycyk, one of the most senior officers of the LAPD, has no successor to continue the investigative work built upon two decades of contacts in the art market.

Knelman’s sister, a student at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, introduces her brother to her thesis advisor Giles Waterford who had been the curator at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 1981 when “the takeaway Rembrant” was stolen for the third time.  Rembrant’s very small painting titled Jacob de Gheyn III is an example of “Headache art” which attracts significant media attention.  Waterfield recounts his negotiations with a German businessman for a “Finder’s Fee” that leads to the recovery of the painting.

Paul "Turbo" Hendry tells Knelman that ‘there was one detective in London, in particular, who made his reputation dealing with headache art cases’, Richard Ellis, the man who re-started Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiques Squad.

As a detective, Ellis had been involved in a number of high-profile cases, including reclaiming a Vermeer from a criminal organizer in a chase that lasted seven years and spanned half a dozen countries.  That case was chronicled thoroughly in The Irish Game: A True Story of Crime and Art, by Mathew Hart.

Ellis’ interest in art theft began with the burglary of his parents’ home in 1972 and the subsequent recovery of his family’s property at the Bermondsey Market, London’s Friday-only open market of junk and antiques.  Ironically, Ellis was never allowed to work on the Philatelic Squad that evolved from investigating crimes in the stamp market to the unregulated antiques industry that operated as Scotland Yard’s first Art and Antiques Squad.  Knelman recounts Ellis’ strategy of reopening the department in 1989 after it had been closed for five years. Ellis cases included the recovery of paintings stolen from the Russborough house in 1986; the 1994 recovery of Edvard Munch’s The Scream stolen from Norway’s National Gallery; and Jonathan Tokeley-Parry’s smuggling of antiquities out of Egypt in the 1990s. Knelman writes:
For Ellis, the Russborough case provided the link between stolen art and organized crime, diamond dealers, and a network that stretched across Europe.  The Schultz case, which involved 14 countries on four continents, proved that the stolen art network was sophisticated and involved criminals at all levels of the trade, from the men who dig in the dirt to the men in the shops and galleries on Madison Avenue.
Ellis retired from Scotland Yard in 1999.  ‘He told me that his success as a stolen-art detective was primarily due to his ability to gather information.  He relied on a network of informants to keep him abreast of what was happening in the criminal underworld.  His squad of detectives paid cash for useful information.  “Every Friday the calls would come in.  Payday,” Ellis explained.

Book review concludes tomorrow.

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