March 4, 2019

Noah Charney, the founder of ARCA and leading expert on art crime, returns to Amelia to teach at ARCA's Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection


This year, the ARCA Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection will be held from May 30 through August 14, 2019 in the beautiful heart of Umbria in Amelia, Italy. In the months leading up to the start of the program, this year’s lecturers will be interviewed. This week I sit down with Noah Charney, the founder of ARCA.

Can you tell us something about your background and work? 

I was trying to decide what to study--traditional art history or playwriting believe it or not--when I stumbled into the field of art crime. I originally decided to study art history but did so in London where I could also go see a lot of plays. During that time I thought I wanted to be a playwright and actually got an agent for my plays. But she said that it was far easier to make a living as a novelist than a playwright and did I maybe have a novel in mind? I didn't, but I got started writing.

It was the era of The Thomas Crown Affair and The Da Vinci Code and I thought I'd try something along those lines. As I began my research I realized that there was very little published on true art crimes, especially from an academic angle.  The outcome was I wound up writing The Art Thief, which I was very lucky with.

My interest in studying art crime was piqued at that point and eventually I shifted from art history into criminology, in order to focus on its motivating factors. Turns out I was one of the very few academics drawn to studying this type of crime. While working towards my PhD I organized a conference in Cambridge that brought together art police and academics researching art related crimes. I got lucky again and the conference and this blending of law enforcement and academia were written up in The New York Times. This really kicked things off and was the starting point for my deciding to found ARCA as a research association on art crime, in order to bring together individuals from the various disciplines and specializations that, at the time, seemed so separated from one another. 

What sets the ARCA program apart from others developed later? 

I'm very proud of ARCA's post graduate program, both in terms of what we have created, and what it has supported its graduates to gone on and do professionally.   The program itself was written up in a separate article in the New York Times specifically because of its distinctive subject matter and for it being the first program of its kind in the world, in which one could study art crime but also in a very unique and distinctive format.

The program runs every summer over 11 weeks and we bring in 11-15 world experts in varying disciplines who each teach, or co-teach, one of eleven course modules, each of which are interconnected and make up the foundation of our postgraduate-level professional development program.  Some of our lecturers include Richard Ellis, the founder of Scotland Yard's Art and Antiques Squad, Marc Masurovsky, who is an expert on Holocaust looted assets, Dorit Straus, who is an art insurance underwriting expert who also sits on the United State's Cultural Property Advisory Committee, and Dick Drent, the former director of security for the Van Gogh Museum who is a risk management consultant for museums around the globe.

We are also lucky to have a judge, three criminologists and two archaeologists as primary course professors and guest lecturers who come in every year and speak on current cases and art crime deterrent initiatives, which add to the diversity of material we cover.   This year we will have guest lecturers working in conflict archaeology and two curators from the British Museum who will be part of our opening course, lecturing on the issues of circulating illicit artefacts and due diligence. 

I myself teach our history of art crime course, which has a heavy emphasis on forgery. In developing our format, students pursuing MAs and PhDs and professionals can take the program over the course of one summer, or split the program up over two summers and still get the time to explore Italy and Europe. Setting up the program in this way also allows us to bring major experts in the fields, who otherwise have full-time jobs elsewhere, to teach with us one week or two weeks each summer, sharing their knowledge.

Since ARCA's first year of programming in 2009, we have now trained more than 260 alumni who come from 35 different countries around the world and from all different professional backgrounds.  Some of our participants go on to work on Masters degrees or their own  PhDs, and others already work in allied art industry fields.  What's interesting is that the profile of our participants cuts across all disciplines and age groups from late twenties to mature senior learners.

We have had graduates invent new careers in the field, some who have moved on to prominent roles at art law firms, consulting with UNESCO and other heritage organizations, or who blaze their own trails, working in the fields of provenance research or within museums in varying capacities. It is always a wonderfully bonded group that falls in love with the town of Amelia in Italy where the program has been held for more than a decade and who stay in touch with one another, networking long after the program concludes.  That chemistry and diversity is something that we are very proud of. 

Another thing we are proud of is our training of scholars working in conflict countries.  This month we are running a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds so we can offer more scholarships to heritage professionals from countries where cultural heritage is particularly at risk as the result of war and or poverty. Since 2015 we have been able to give scholarships to professionals working in Yemen and Iraq and Syria and we would like to be able to do more in this capacity.

What would a typical day be like in your classroom?

Our program schedule is very intensive -- 5 hours a day for 5 days a week.  But while there are a lot of lecture hours, 220 over the course of all 11 course modules, the overall feeling during the summer is quite relaxed. Classes begin at 10:30 in the morning so it is not exactly at the crack of dawn. We also have a generous 2-hour break for lunch and classes finish by 5:30 in the evening so participants still have time to adjourn to lovely gardens or cafes and to enjoy some wine and pizza. We also try to balance the quantity of home-based assignments with in classroom assignments.

For me, I love teaching and the 5 hours a day of lectures I give fly by. Teaching the history of art crime with a focus on forgery, my goal is to highlight historical case studies that help participants understand how to analyze criminal cases.   Even when we have incomplete information on the crime committed by delving into these historical examples we shed light on present and future issues.

I also always include a bonus lecture for our participants that focuses on strategies for writing their thesis or any academic journal article. If there is time and enough interest, I also include a second bonus lecture on how to get published and earn money as a freelance writer.  There are lots of lessons that I had to learn through experience that I think can really help people and it's my pleasure to offer anything I can to help our participants who are interested in writing, whatever their age or background might be.

While each year participants are very enthusiastic about your course, is there anything you learn from them in class?

I am always learning and part of the fun is the fact that art crime is both so understudied and also so multifaceted. As only a limited amount of material has been published in detail on this subject area,  and as so few people in the world have historically focused on art crime in the art world, each person who studies with us has a chance to make a real and meaningful contribution by exploring the nuances of the genre.  By the very reason that this subject area is a rare though important field of study, postgraduate scholars can make real breakthroughs that can really shake things up and contribute to the knowledge base within this sector.

As an emerging area of focus, there are lots of empty spaces and unanswered questions that need to be filled in. For example one of our earliest participants focused on the specific ways certain criminals had passed off forgeries and looted works of art as legitimate.  By fabricated documents to create a plausible collection history of the artwork, what people in the art trade call provenance documentation, this disreputable player had created a wholly fictitious backstory in order to legitimize the sale of objects on the art market.   Knowing that there was no real focus on gathering and confirming or discounting presented documentation in order to determine an object's illegitimacy, the criminals had laundered artworks onto the market with impunity.

When I talked about some of the ways that historically criminals have tricked the art trade and buyers one participant explained that in their country, in many art market situations and sales environments there isn't anyone whose job it is to verify an objects providence, or to determine whether or not the consigned object or its paperwork, were forged. The fact that an industry the size of the art market was so intentionally vulnerable, all in the name of sales, was a real eye opener. 

In anticipation of your course, what book, article, or movie would you recommend to participants?

There are so many good writers, many associated with ARCA, who have good and useful books well worth reading. I think it's also actually a good exercise to indulge in art crime entertainment. It is useful because it's fun and it also exemplifies how misleading so many films are.  This is a useful starting point for recognizing which aspects of art criminality presented to the general public are accurate and which are not.

There are many great films that are a lot of fun and that also teach viewers two things. First the films give a sense of what the public thinks, or wants to believe about art crime, and are something criminals themselves learn from about the art world as they have access to the same sources of the general public.  But films and fiction are also generally not very accurate. Second, understanding the criminals' knowledge base is very helpful in stopping them.   Films are useful for our participants because they see just how much they've learned by the end of the program by being able to think back on these pop culture touchstone's and having learned to recognize which aspects of them are plausible and which are truly just Hollywood-esque entertainment and hype.

What makes the yearly ARCA program so unique? 

The program is unique. That phrase is often used as hyperbole but in this case it is very true. ARCA's PG Cert was the very first program in the world where you could study art crime in an interdisciplinary academic way. There have since been other programs developed that have popped up long after ours was initiated but they tend to focus on specific subsections of art crime, such as criminal investigation or law as it relates to specific countries, or to the illicit trade in antiquities. Whereas ours remains the only comprehensive program out there.  So for me, if someone wants to study our crime I believe this is still the only place where one can really do it full justice as we aren't restricted to one subject discipline. 

Is there anything you can recommend for future participants to do in Amelia or Umbria? 

Amelia is a wonderful place to spend a summer and our participants inevitably fall in love with the town and the region and the people in the city and their fellow participants. Many of our alumni come back to our summer art crime conference every year not just for the interesting scholarship but also as an excuse to visit old friends and colleagues. Over the course of a summer it is also easy for participants to explore every nook and cranny of Amelia as it is modest in size but with surprising riches such as a city's spectacular Duomo.

Borrowing a car, or better still, a friend with a car, is a great thing to do because there are wonderful day trips to do near Amelia. There are many wonderful towns worth seeing in Italy, and I'm not just talking about the grand tour cities of Rome and Florence and Venice and Naples. Bomarzo, with its amazing and crazy mannerist sculpture garden, is full of these stone sculptures of giants and monsters that are much larger than life size and which is only a half hour away from where we are based. Orvieto and Viterbo, Civita di Bagnoregio, Narni, Spoleto...are also gems worth visiting. 

Maybe one of the nicest activities to do that is beyond the traditional beaten tourist path is to attend a summer sagra. This village food festivals pop up all over Italy throughout the summer. Each one has a theme focusing on a special food from their area and during these it is like a giant pop-up communal restaurant filled with local townspeople, eating at long tables.  These provide lots of camaraderie and dancing and are a cheap way to enjoy delicious speciality eats with locals.

Can you tell us something about your books outside the field of art and crime? 

While I'm known mostly for my books on art crime I've also enjoyed branching out in recent years. I just finished helping a famous Slovenian chef with his latest cookbook and I had great fun publishing a book about my adventures living in Slovenia called Slovenology.  This book has been very well received and translated into several languages.   I seem to be known for two things: art crime and for being an American expat in Slovenia. I hope I have brought some positive changes and interpretations to both of these subjects!


For a detailed prospectus and application materials or for general questions about this postgraduate program please contact us at education@artcrimeresearch.org


Edgar Tijhuis serves as the Academic Director at ARCA and is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Criminology in Ljubljana. He is responsible for the postgraduate certificate program in the study of art crime and cultural heritage protection and since 2009, has taught criminology modules within the ARCA program.

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