by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor
Interpol and UNESCO listed art theft as the fourth-largest black market in the world (after drugs, money-laundering, and weapons). But what did that mean? After I’d been following [Bonnie] Czegledi’s career for several years, one point was clear: don't look at the Hollywood versions of an art thief -- the Myth. This is a bigger game, with more players, and the legitimate business of art is directly implicated. A lot of the crimes are hidden in the open. Stealing art is just the beginning. Then the art is laundered up into the legitimate market, into private collections, into the world's most renowned museums.
-- Joshua Knelman, author of Hot Art
Toronto journalist Joshua Knelman, author of Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives Through the Secret World of Stolen Art (Tin House Books, 2012), introduces to the general reader the international problem of art crime and the limited resources of legal authorities in fighting this problem in the first decade of the 21st century.
In 2003, Knelman was just a 26-year-old researcher for the Canadian magazine Walrus when he stumbled down the rabbit hole of art theft and recovery. A gallery owner hesitant to speak about the theft of $250,000 worth of photographs stolen two years earlier opens up to Knelman after police recover part of the stolen artwork. Knelman eventually contacts the suspect’s lawyer, and that leads to a midnight phone call from the thief who has been investigating Knelman. The two meet in a café in Toronto. The aspiring reporter is physically threatened, given stolen art, and then lectured by the thief about how the secretive business practices in the legitimate art market actually supports art crime. Thus begins Knelman’s adventures through the world of thieves and investigators of looted art.
The journalist befriends Bonnie Czegledi, a Toronto attorney specializing in art crime, who educates Knelman about the types of stolen art and cultural property: missing Holocaust-looted artworks; pillaging of antiquities from source countries such as Egypt, Afghanistan, and Turkey; multi-million dollar thefts from museums worldwide; and unreported thefts from galleries and residences. Knelman writes:
The world’s cultural heritage had become one big department store, and thieves of all kinds, at all levels, were shoplifting with impunity, as if the one security guard on duty was out on a smoke break.
Stolen art can be laundered through auction houses and art dealers; police aren’t trained to investigate art theft; and lawyers aren’t trained to prosecute them. “Meanwhile, the criminal network is international, sophisticated and organized,” Czegledi says.
Ten years ago when Knelman first met Czegledi, tools to recover stolen art included Interpol’s stolen art database; the International Council of Museum’s guidelines for the buying practices of museums; the International Foundation for Art Research; and the Art Loss Register.
For example, Knelman relates that a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum was offered the chance to buy some Iraqi antiquities (the institution declined). This was after the National Museum of Iraq was looted in 2003 and about 25 years after Canada had signed the 1970 Convention barring importing stolen artwork across international borders.
Knelman points out that only a handful of detectives worldwide have the expertise and training to investigate art thefts – from the pairs of police officers located in Montreal and Los Angeles to the larger European squads in England and Italy.
In 2005, Knelman’s published an article in The Walrus, “Artful Crimes” which highlights art crime in Canada against an increasingly global and transnational problem. But he wasn’t done with the story. Two years later, Knelman paid his own way to join cultural attorney Czegledi at the International Ccouncil of Museum’s conference in Cairo. American prosecutor Rick St. Hilaire guides him through Egyptian history of ancient art crimes and summarizes the problem of smuggling of antiquities today which Knelman smartly summarizes in his book. Knelman also meets Alain Lacoursière, the police officer that initiated the study of art crime in Quebec, while dodging an Egyptian conference organizer who demands the journalist pay a higher rate on his hotel room – Knelman sleeps on the floor in another room to avoid paying the organizer his cut.
By 2008, Knelman has a contract to write an investigative book on the mysterious and increasingly violent black market for stolen art. He goes online to find an art thief interviewed by the magazine Foreign Policy. He tracks down Paul Hendry, a Brighton knocker who graduated to handling millions of dollars in stolen paintings and antiques. “We struck up what turned out to be a three-year conversation,” Knelman writes. “We started to talk once, twice, sometimes three times a week.”
“It was easy to make a living from stealing art, according to Paul, if a thief made intelligent choices, if he stayed below a certain value mark – about $100,000. Less was better. Don’t steal a van Gogh. To someone who knew how to work the system, the legitimate business of fine art became a giant laundry machine for stolen art. You could steal a piece and sell it back into the system without anyone being the wiser.”
“It’s called ‘pass the hot potato,’” Paul told me. “A dealer sells it on to the next dealer, and the next, until nobody knows where it came from. It’s a fantastic system! And that system is the same wherever you are. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about London, New York or New Delhi,” he explained. “Art is something you have to think about as a commodity that goes round in circles. The only time it appears in the open is when someone tries to filter it into the legitimate art market – auctions, art fairs, gallery sales, dealers. Otherwise it’s hidden away inside someone’s home.”
Hendry grew up in Brighton and learned his outlaw trade as a “Knocker” who talked elderly residents out of their art and antiques. Since 1965 Sussex Police had been responding to a high number of residential burglaries and created England’s first Art and Antiques Squad that operated until 1989.
According to Paul, in the 1960s Brighton closed down a large open-air market and built a huge shopping mall, Churchill Square. Produce vendors started going door to door, which created opportunities to buy “good junk.” They became known as “knockers”.
Knockers sold “junk” to antique dealers at a price higher than they had paid for it. Knocking turned into a devious game that allowed thieves to peek at the inventory inside the houses of the upper middle class.’
Hendry tells Knelman of his poor and chaotic childhood, his training on the streets of crime, and how he hires local men from the neighborhood bar to break into homes and steal family treasures that Hendry can then sell.
The second part of this book review continues tomorrow.