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April 5, 2011

ARCA 2009 Student: Michelle Edelman on art crime history and provenance research as an investigative tool

Michelle Edelman
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

Michelle Edelman attended ARCA’s summer program in art crime studies in Amelia, Italy, in 2009. A native of San Francisco, Michelle currently lives in New York City. She speaks French, Spanish and Italian – useful languages in her studies at Northwestern University in European Studies, at University of Oxford studying English and French literature, and at the Courtauld Institute of Art studying the history of art for her master’s degree. She is currently investigating opportunities to work in the insurance industry specializing in art protection.
ARCA blog: Michelle, what is your favorite period of art and how did you get interested in studying art crime?
Ms. Edelman: My favorite period of art is the 19th century and more specifically Victorian painting, which is what I did my masters in. I've always had a passion for art history and a love of mysteries. Studying art crime seemed like a perfect combination of my two interests. I particularly enjoyed learning about Adam Worth, nicknamed the Napoleon of Crime, who was a 19th century art thief famed for stealing Thomas Gainsborough's "Georgina, the Duchess of Devonshire." Adam Worth was an international thief who had both Scotland Yard and the American Pinkertons hot on his trail. It was a classic cat and mouse game between Adam Worth and William Pinkerton. In the end, William Pinkerton recovered the painting. And to put an even neater bow on the story, Adam Worth's son ended up working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Ben Macintyre's book "The Napoleon of Crime" was one of the many great art crime books I was exposed to while on the ARCA course.
ARCA blog: What did you find most valuable in your ARCA experience?
Ms. Edelman: Getting to meet with and learn from so many experts in the field was invaluable. Art crime study and investigation is a small and tight knit field but is such an important one to promote because the impact of art crime is wide ranging. From Nazi looted art, to forgeries, to excavation robberies, cultural heritage is being endangered, the black market is being fed, and crime in general is prospering. 
It was such a treat to hear firsthand accounts of art crime and its consequences from the founder of Scotland Yard's Art Crime Squad team, Dick Ellis. He was someone I knew I wanted to keep in touch with from the program. And when I settled in to New York, I was thrilled to learn that I could help Dick Ellis on a case he was currently working on. To me, art history is like a detective novel. But here was an opportunity for me to get involved in a real life case. What was at stake was the authenticity of a work by Jean-Michel Basquiat. My research took me to the National Archives in DC. There was a label on the back of the work that suggested that it had been purchased by a now closed gallery in New York. I poured through their records to discover no such trace of that particular Basquiat piece having passed through the gallery. However, I contacted the gallery owner who authenticated the proof of sale document from the gallery in NYC to a gallery in Germany, but denied ever having the Basquiat work in his gallery. Something was amiss. In the end, the work in question turned out to be a fake. The art market is a slippery snake and this case highlighted the importance of provenance research. A little research goes a long way.
ARCA blog: You speak Italian and were able to travel through parts of Italy. What stood out to you during your travels?
Ms. Edelman: Well I speak French and Spanish fluently. I was therefore able to pick up a bit of Italian. This did make getting around easier. For anyone interested in art history, the Uffizi in Florence is a must. It was interesting going there after our segment on museum security with Anthony Amore. I started to look around for cameras, light sensors, looking at how the pieces were secured to the wall, and observing the museum guards at work. I've been looking at museums in a different way ever since.
ARCA blog: What has led to your interest in art insurance and what kind of career do you want to pursue?
Ms. Edelman: Working on the Basquiat case lit my fire for provenance research. It is something that is essential and too often easily overlooked. Whatever I end up doing in the field, I know that provenance research is something that I will incorporate fully. I love the idea of research and hands on art crime solving. I seriously thought about joining the FBI, but the idea of wielding a gun just didn't feel like the right fit for me, liberal San Franciscan that I am. And I would never be successful undercover because I'm just about the worst liar there is. Art insurance is still a hands on way of getting involved with solving art crime but from a safer, more behind the scenes stand point.