December 8, 2010

Profile: ARCA Founder Noah Charney

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin

Noah Charney, Founding Director of ARCA, will be teaching "Art Crime and Its History” in Amelia this summer for ARCA’s Postgraduate Program in International Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection Studies.

Mr. Charney is the Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Art Crime. Recently a Visiting Lecturer at Yale University, he is currently Adjunct Professor of Art History at the American University of Rome. He is the editor of ARCA’s first book, Art & Crime: Exploring the Dark Side of the Art World (Praeger 2009). In addition, Mr. Charney published a novel, The Art Thief (Atria, 2007), and a nonfiction book, Stealing The Mystic Lamb: The Incredible True History of the World’s Most Frequently Stolen Masterpiece (PublicAffairs, 2010).

ARCA blog: Welcome to the ARCA blog, Noah. How would you describe your course to the readers who are applying to this program?
Noah: Our program is unique, the first in the world to offer courses of study in the unusual topic of art crime and cultural heritage protection. It has received quite a bit of attention, even though it was only founded in 2009. That same year a New York Times feature article introduced the program to the world, and we’ve grown and solidified since then. What I love about our program is that it embraces the inherent interdisciplinary nature of the study of art crime, which involves art history, archaeology, law, criminology, police and security studies, even conservation. We bring in world-renowned professors in an unusual format—each comes for two weeks over the summer to teach an intensive, 25 hour course in their area of expertise. As a result you get 10 amazing professors, plus numerous guided field trips and guest speakers, plus our international Conference on the Study of Art Crime at the heart of the program. Our unusual format, fitting over 250 lecture hours (the equivalent in hours to a year-long European Masters Program) into the three summer months allows adult professionals to take the program, or students during the summer between full-time programs. As a result we’ve had post-graduate students and professionals, ages 22 to 65, ranging from students to conservators to curators to investigators to lawyers and so on—a diverse and international group. The program does a great job of offering both academic/historical courses, like mine, with practical professional courses, like the course on “Art Policing and Investigation.”
My course is a complete history of art crime, and an introduction to the field of study. It really paves the way for the rest of the program, and provides an anecdotal history—we examine around 60 case studies carefully chosen because they each illustrate a point or phenomenon related to art crime. The stories are great, too, vivid and fun, which makes the lessons easier to remember. My goal is for my students to remember the dynamic stories that I teach, and thereby remember the lessons vicariously—if I’m doing my job well, students should not have to study, but be sufficiently drawn in during class to absorb all of the lessons without feeling like they’re having to “work.”
ARCA blog: You’ve taught this course many times over the past few years, in New Haven and Amelia, how has it changed over the last few years? Do you find yourself having to overcome any common misconceptions students may bring with them to class on the first day?
Noah: I feel like I’m an actor performing a play that I’m really passionate about once a year—I think I always get better at teaching the material, and it comes more easily. A key for me is never reading a lesson from notes. I think that’s about the most boring thing a professor can do. I much prefer teaching with just the barest outlines, which gives classes a sense of energy and freshness. I’ve taught this course at undergraduate and postgraduate level, and I’ve honed my selection of case studies to 60 cases that really tell the entire history, and future, of art crime. I’m working on an academic book covering the subject, as we speak.
One thing I’m pleased with is that since ARCA was founded, students and journalists have been largely educated about art crime in a way that was not the case beforehand. That is not to say that this is ARCA’s doing, but we’ve helped bring issues and facts to the fore, so that journalists and students are versed in the correct facts and phenomena about art crime from the start. This is really a great improvement and shows that hard work and education outreach has paid off.
ARCA blog: You’ve taught this course over a semester and also compressed over two weeks. How would you advise your summer graduate students to prepare for this class?
Noah: The two-week “executive training” version of the course has largely the same presentation of case studies, but with a bit more story-telling and a bit less collective group discussion, simply for time constraints (a semester-long course is normally 40 hours, and a postgraduate level course in our program is 25). We also have less reading during the course. I’m a big fan of relatively little homework, provided my students are focused and participate in class. But we assign some books to be read in advance of the program, so that all of our students arrive with shared material which can be used as a point of departure. We assign ARCA’s first book, Art & Crime (Praeger 2009), The Medici Conspiracy by Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini (PublicAffairs 2004), a choice between The Lost Masters by Pittaway and Harclerode or The Rape of Europa by Nicholas, and my new book, Stealing the Mystic Lamb (PublicAffairs 2010). That may sound like a lot, but we have almost no assigned reading during the summer, so students can concentrate on enjoying and learning from the great lecturers we bring to them—and can relax with some wine and prosciutto as they spend their summer in Umbria.
ARCA blog: Will you be including the story of “Stealing the Mystic Lamb” in your course this year?
Noah: Well, I’m always shy about assigning my own books to students, but all teachers do it—and it helps to have this central point from which to depart. Since this book will be assigned to students ahead of time, we’ll discuss it and use it as the spine, or through-line of the course. Pretty much anything bad that can happen to a work of art has happened to The Ghent Altarpiece, as my book explores, so it’s an ideal lens through which to study the history of art crime, collecting, and the power of art that reaches far beyond the art world and into international politics, war, and faith.

Photo by Liisa van Vliet of Noah Charney recently speaking at The Courtauld Institute in London.