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April 27, 2011

Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - ,, No comments

Forging News (Part two of four): The News Media's Misrepresentation of the Art Criminal

by Katherine Ogden, ARCA Alum 2009

Worldly Perceptions: The Reporting of Art Crime Criminals in the United States, the United Kingdom and Italy

Ironically, while the news media thrives on images, when it comes to art crime, which is situated within an art world comprised of imagery, pictures are hard to come by. When a painting is stolen the public is typically presented with a stock photo of the missing painting, and occasionally a photo taken from a distance of the crime scene. Even more rarely the article may be accompanied by a blurry image of black-clothed thieves running from the scene of the crime. It is puzzling that when dealing with such a visual medium it is rare to find a photo of said criminal. This seems to be the case in each of the countries that were focused on for the purpose of this paper. We will start our study with the United Kingdom.

The two papers with the highest circulation in the United Kingdom are The Sun and The Daily Mail (Wikipedia). Both The Sun and The Daily Mail are considered tabloid papers, which indicates that the papers’ articles focus primarily on local interest stories and entertainment. This classification does not dictate that these papers do not report on international news or contain serious journalism, but it does suggest that they are inclined to offer their readers a larger portion of entertainment than hard news. This indication becomes obvious when analyzing some of the headlines associated with stolen art articles printed in The Sun.

On April 29, 2003, The Sun printed “Stolen Art found in the Loo-vre” which referred to stolen paintings, including a Van Gogh, found in public restroom, or loo (Cardy). The article explains that the paintings were found in the loo after being stolen from the Whitworth Art Gallery at The University of Manchester, but fails to mention key factors of the theft, such as the name of the Van Gogh painting or why they chose to implicate the Louvre even though the Louvre was not involved at any point. Quite amazingly, The Sun was able to provide photographs of before and after shots of the Van Gogh painting. The inclusion of the photographs is helpful because it shows how destructive art crime can be, however the photographs would have had a stronger impact had key information such as size, title, age, etc. been included in the story.
The Fortifications of Paris with Houses
Vincent van Gogh, 1887, water colour
Whitworth Art Gallery

Another headline found in The Sun, “Mob are Sculpture Vultures” refers to an unidentified gang that had allegedly stolen up to twenty metal sculptures from public spaces in the United Kingdom. Additionally this article included a sidebar, which asked, “What’ll crooks steel?” that listed other sculptures the thieves might be interested in procuring (Syson)(Plot). While these attention-grabbing headlines may be entertaining and grab the reader’s attention, they clearly diminish the severity of the crime being committed. Besides comical headlines, The Sun also has a tendency to focus on the sensationalism of the crime as opposed to the callousness of the criminal. There is little to no mention in either article of the criminal(s) associated with the crime. [You can read 'Mystery of the stolen Moore solved' here].

Terry Adams (Daily Mail)
As opposed to the attention grabbing headlines evident in The Sun, the United Kingdom’s other widely read paper The Daily Mail offers readers more developed articles that focus marginally more on the facts and slightly less on comedic value. Additionally, The Daily Mail is one of the few newspapers in our examination that mentions the art crime criminal. Not only does The Daily Mail mention the criminal, Terry Adams, but they also provide readers with a picture and a descriptive article in “Revealed: Godfather Adams’ 500,000 Aladdin’s Cave of stolen art and antiques”. The article explains how authorities found the items, which are also pictured, in the mob leader’s home. This article is revolutionary in the field of art crime reporting, not only because it mentions and provides photographs of an art crime criminal, but also because it highlights an often disputed direct link between organized crime and art crime.

Overall, the news media outlets of the United Kingdom, primarily The Sun and The Daily Mail, focus on the details regarding the crime, sometimes the details regarding the recovery, and rarely the details regarding the art crime criminal. This is not entirely different from the way that news media outlets in the United States portray art crime. The two top circulated news publications in the United States are The Wall Street Journal and USA Today (Wikipedia). However, since there were no examples of articles written on art crime in The Wall Street Journal, this paper will focus instead on USA Today and The New York Times which is the third most widely circulated news publication in the United States (Wikipedia).

The LAPD released images of
the stolen Warhol paintings
An article published in USA Today on September 12, 2009, “Warhol’s sports superstar pieces stolen from L.A. home,” has all the markings of a traditional art crime article published in the United States (Associated Press). Along with copious mention of the monetary value of the paintings and corresponding reward money, a typical call to arms regarding the state of insurance for the art collection in question is also included. American art crime articles typically attempt to place blame with the owner for either having or neglecting to have an insurance policy for their collection. In either instance the news media finds fault. If the owner has insurance and works go missing the owner is often accused of hiring someone to steal the paintings in order to collect the insurance money. This is precisely what occurred with this Warhol case in a follow-up article entitled Insurance Waived in Warhol Theft Case, where the owner is called into question for refusing to accept the insurance premium. Why is the American news media so quick to place blame on the victim and yet so slow to call for the criminals accountability? In this particular case, the reporter has committed a great disservice to the audience by not explaining that in most cases by refusing the insurance payout, the owner is still hoping the artwork(s) will be found and returned. If the artwork is found and the owner has already accepted a payout from the insurance company, the owner forfeits their ownership rights and the insurance company acquires the title to the recovered pieces. From this standpoint, one would presume that refusal to accept an insurance payout would be further proof that the owner did not hire a thief to steal the artwork so that they could profit from the insurance.

Moreover if you were to compare this case to an automobile theft, would the news media be so quick to place blame on the owner for the theft? Granted the notoriety and money would not be proportional, but the percentage of the value of an insurance payout for a car is similar to that for a piece of art. Throughout the course of this study it has become evident that the public’s resentment towards private collectors, fueled by the news media, exists because of a distaste towards the collectors’ ability to own something of such astronomical value. Since the news media continually cultivates this sentiment, the importance of identifying and prosecuting the criminal that steals such objects is lost in the cloud of resentment. It is almost as if a sense of appropriateness has been created in a Robin Hood sense of stealing from the rich to give to the poor, even though art crime criminals are no Robin Hoods.

Moving onto The New York Times and an article that ran on February 28, 2007, titled Purloined Picassos in Paris. This piece reports on the theft of multiple Picassos from the home of Picasso’s daughter, Maya Widmaier-Picasso. Although the alliterative headline does not mention the monetary value of the stolen paintings, the first sentence displays the 65 million dollar figure quite prominently. Which brings us to a new issue, why is it a problem that the American news media focuses on the values associated with art crime? This has to do with the fact that by advertising reported values; the news media is giving thieves an inflated view of the value of a stolen painting.

On February 1, 1976, 119 paintings by Pablo Picasso were reported stolen from the Papal Palace at Avignon in France (Unknown, Picasso Theft Valued at $4.5 Million). This theft occurred at a time when thefts of master paintings in France had risen from 1,500 in 1970 to 5,000 in 1976 (Unknown, Picasso Theft Valued at $4.5 Million). This rise in thefts of master paintings coincides with an increase of record-breaking publicized sales of masterworks by the news media and began with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s purchase of Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer in 1961 (Knox). The morning after the purchase The New York Times’ front page had the bold headline “Museum Gets Rembrandt for 2.3 Million,” which the article then went on to explain was the highest price paid for a piece of art in history (Knox). After this purchase the values of other master artists rose as well, including Pablo Picasso. It is believed that the Corsican Mafia carried out the theft of the 119 paintings by Picasso, although following the initial theft there has only been one mention of leads and no mention of recovery in the media (Charney).

What the comprehensive review of news media in the United States regarding art crime criminals has shown is a large absence of the art crime criminal. News media outlets in the United States prefer to focus on monetary values associated with thefts, the thematic quality of the thefts, and rarely on the recovery of thefts. Which brings us to our final focus, the news media in Italy. The top two news publications in Italy are La Gazzetta dello Sport and La Repubblica, since the main focus of La Gazzetta dello Sport is sports, we will be focusing on the third top news publication Corriere della Sera (Wikipedia).

The first thing you will notice about the mention of art crimes in Italian news media outlets is that the monetary value of the object is rarely mentioned. This can be attributed to the strong connection that Italians have with their culture, it is a relationship that does not exist to such a degree in the United Kingdom or the United States. In Italian news media the word art is often replaced by treasure or treasures, such as the following headline from the March 12, 2004 edition of La Repubblica, “Recuperati dai carabinieri tesori d' arte rubati 15 anni fa” which translates to “Treasures recovered by art police stolen 15 years ago” (Staff, Recuperati dai carabinieri tesori d' arte rubati 15 anni fa). The article explains that these items were stolen, taken apart, and reassembled in order to be sold to private collectors. The article reads more like a missing persons report than a record of loss of monetary value, and this may be due to the Italian’s deep bond with their culture and their history, Italians as a whole see a lost work of art as a deprivation to society.

In the summer of 2009, while speaking to a group at a conference in Amelia, Italy, Vice Comandante Cortellessa of the Italian Carabinieri’s Department for the Protection of Cultural Heritage was asked if the focus of recovering art was on the artwork or the criminal, and if he had to choose one, which would he choose (Cortellessa). Vice Comandante Cortellessa responded that art is irreplaceable and that he and his men always work to secure the art first, the criminal second. He added that criminals will always commit crimes, so he can always catch the criminal another time, he may not have a second chance to recover a piece of stolen art. This connection with art is what separates the Italians from much of the rest of the world. Additionally, this connection with art previously led to the creation of the Carabinieri Department for the Protection of Cultural Heritage and the elevation of art crime as serious in the national media landscape.

An additional difference between Italian news media and the others we have discussed is their constant praise for the Carabinieri for the recovery of stolen goods. In Corriere della Sera, an article published on July 15, 2009, “Tresori etruschi in vendita ai russi
la finanza sequestra reperti rubati” commended the police for the capture of a car filled with Italian antiquities headed to Russia for sale (Staff, Tesori etruschi in vendita ai russi la finanza sequestra reperti rubati). Again there is no mention of the monetary value of these items. While the Italian news media outlets are more proactive in the fight against art crime, they too tend to ignore the actual art criminals. However, the news media’s focus on the recovery and prevention of art crime is a decidedly different approach to the reporting of art crime and leads to headlines such as this one from the November 16, 2009 edition of Corriere della Sera “Furti d'arte, calo nel 2009
” which translates to “Thefts of art drop in 2009” (Staff, Furti d'arte, calo nel 2009).