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April 28, 2011

Thursday, April 28, 2011 - , No comments

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

by Katherine Ogden, ARCA Alum 2009

A Face That Only a Mother Could Love?

When publishing an article on a stolen painting who is the victim? While understanding that there is always victim when it comes to art crime in the form of a museum, a gallery, or an unnamed collector, not to mention the fact that that priceless piece of culture is forever taken away from the general public; there is usually a lack of a face. Should the news media outlets focus on the artist, who is obviously a victim since their piece has been taken? Should the news media focus on the collector(s)? Or should the news media focus on the fact that the world is the victim for the loss of a cultural artifact?

This perplexing situation shows the problem with reporting art crime; a faceless victim represents its target. Perhaps it is because of this that news media outlets have a problem reporting on these stories, they lack the perspective that the media usually thrive upon. In the case of art crime, they are unable to get a picture of the grieving mother asking for her child back from kidnappers, because in this case the owner of the lost work wishes to not be named or photographed to protect not only their identity, but more importantly the rest of their collection. This highlights the fear that most institutions and private owners have - once stolen from they do not want to publicize the theft in order to protect their reputation and the rest of their collection. If a theft occurs it outlines a weak link in that institution’s security, a fact better kept unpublicized. Furthermore, without a face of a victim there lacks the ability to create a gripping dichotomy between a visual representation of the victim and criminal.

The faceless nature of art crime is what leads to its under-representation as a crime. How can you report on art crime if you cannot picture the face of a victim, a criminal or even an investigator? One of the leading art investigators in the world, the now retired United States FBI agent Robert Wittman, credits much of his success in recovery largely on his ability to blend into any situation and assume different personas (Worrall). It is because of this that it is impossible to find a picture of his face (Worrall). By creating this faceless persona while continuing to broadcast the cases of recovery that he has worked on, Agent Wittman is unwittingly assisting news media outlets in creating a view of art crime as fascinating and mysterious.
Charley Hill

On the other hand, one cannot mention Agent Wittman without mentioning his British counterpart, Charley Hill. Prior to his retirement to the private sector, Detective Hill was one of the most successful detectives in the Art and Antiquities unit of Scotland Yard (Cole, Art Detective Charles Hill). The main quality that differentiates Detective Hill from Agent Wittman is that you can easily find pictures of Detective Hill with a quick internet search.

So how does Detective Hill succeed in catching criminals? Through a seemingly endless supply of disguises and accents. It seems as though the faceless nature of the art investigator has the capacity to be both good and bad, but in the case of Detective Hill, good. When criminals are not able to pinpoint the “look” of an art investigator, the investigators are able to transform themselves just enough to garner minimal suspicion. In one well-known case Detective Hill posed as a curator from the Getty Museum in California and brokered a deal for the purchase of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, which had been stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo (Cole, Art Detective Charles Hill). The success of this recovery and countless others leads one to believe that perhaps it is best if the face of the art investigator maintains an air of illusion, as it is quite common in all crime reporting to not see the face of the investigator. This should also serve to strengthen the need for public display of the criminals responsible for these crimes, the more the criminals are put in front of the public, the faster the illusion of the sexy criminal will erode.

Sexy Art Crime: Fact or Fiction?

No discussion of the representation of the art crime criminal is complete without a look at an actual art crime criminal. What do art crime criminals look like if they do not look like the representations seen in print, movies and on television shows? Every season there is a new television show that focuses on heists, if art crime criminals aren’t well-dressed, educated, and cultured people then who are they? In order to answer this we could look at a wide range of convicted art crime criminals, we could start with Rose Dugdale the former debutante turned IRA sympathizer who robbed the Russborough House in Ireland, or we could look at Robert Mang, an alarm specialist turned thief who decided that since he could he should steal the Cellini salt cellar from Vienna’s Art History Museum just because he felt like it (TIME, IRELAND: Renegade Debutante)(Pancevski). For the purpose of our discussions we will focus on Myles J. Connor Jr., a media darling in the regional papers around Boston, and a self professed and convicted art crime criminal (Connor). [Read a 2009 article on Rose Dugdale "Tiaras to balaclavas" in The Sun here]

Myles J. Connor, Jr.
The things we need to know about Connor for this discussion are as follows: while only convicted of a handful of robberies, in his autobiography Connor admits to robbing other institutions, though he will not name the institutions nor the items he stole (Connor). He has admitted to shooting a cop, worked with the mob in the Boston area, frequently brought weapons along on heists, was convicted of robbing banks and used artwork to procure his first shipment of drugs that he intended to sell in order to get the piece of artwork back (Connor). Connor freely admits to all the above in his autobiography, and yet he is still not an instantly recognizable bad guy in the face of art crime. Returning to the group of sixteen peers mentioned earlier, they were all shown a photograph of this man, and not one person could identify him. This is why a faceless criminal is detrimental to art crime. In order for art crime to be taken as seriously as it should, the general public needs to understand that convicted felons like Connor are committing the thefts, not fictional photogenic characters. Until this bias can be corrected art crime will continue to be seen as a frivolous crime in the eyes of the general public, the news media, law enforcement, and other industry experts.