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April 24, 2009

April 23, 2009

Thursday, April 23, 2009 - No comments

A Michelangelo Crucifix? Perhaps...

The Italian state recently purchased a $4.2 million carved linden-wood crucifix by Michelangelo that probably isn’t by Michelangelo. In an of cut budgets and economic crisis, such as purchase might seem frivolous. Then again, Michelangelo drawings have sold for $20 million, so perhaps this is a good deal?

The main problem is that few experts seem to think that this could possibly be the work of Michelangelo. The lovely crucifix (the cross of which is missing) is dated circa 1495, when Michelangelo would have been only twenty. Some say that its delicacy is distinctive, and bears a likeness to Michelangelo’s Vatican Pieta, made when the artist was twenty-four. But most scholars worldwide cite a number of concerns regarding the attribution to Michelangelo. One, there is no known wooden sculpture by Michelangelo in existence. A crucifix from 1492 at Santo Spirito in Florence is thought by some to have been one of Michelangelo’s earliest works, but this is unconfirmed and far from the general consensus. Two, Michelangelo’s many biographers, in particular the man who idolized him, Giorgio Vasari (whose famous biography of Renaissance artists, The Lives of the Artists was written so as to feature Michelangelo as the culmination of centuries of artistic geniuses, the chapter on Michelangelo being many times longer than any other artist) does not mention either the construction of this crucifix or any work in wood by Michelangelo. It is true that half to two-thirds of all artworks by pre-Modern artists that we know once existed (from references to them in contemporary documents, contracts, diaries, biographies, etc) are considered “lost:” a piece of optimistic art historical terminology that suggests that the works might have been destroyed or just might be found—so the re-emergence of works by great artists is entirely plausible. However it is rare indeed that a work that is never mentioned in any extant document should suddenly appear.

This debate raises interesting questions about the value of artworks. The value of art is non-intrinsic—unlike jewelry, the component parts of which are of quantitative value, art is usually wood and canvas and stone that, without the craftsmanship of the artist, would have little or no value. A pile of wood and canvas and pigment is worth little, but assembled into a painting by Picasso, it is worth millions. There is a good deal of non-malevolent wishful thinking on the part of members of the art world. The art world as a whole benefits if objects newly on the market prove to be both authentic and legally-acquired (read as “not stolen”). The owner makes a fortune in selling their treasure. The middle man (dealer, gallery owner, auction house) gets a commission. The buyer gets a trophy. Scholars get a new treasure to study, the public a new bauble to admire. If the work in question turns out to either be a fake, misattributed, or stolen, then everyone loses out—the only beneficiary is an abstract sense of justice having been done, the truth having emerged, to the financial loss, and loss of face, of many. There is, therefore, a subconscious desire on the part of much of the art world to will works like this crucifix to be by the hand of master artists. On the other hand, the skeptics, particularly academic skeptics, can make a name for themselves by denouncing the optimistic attribution. When it comes down to it, the value of works of art is a combination of authenticity, demand, and rarity—but the key to all components is that value equals perceived authenticity, plus perceived demand, plus perceived rarity. Because of the non-intrinsic value of art, perception is everything. This often results in interesting tugs-of-war between various scholars and members of the art trade. And a new treasure by one of the greatest artists who ever lived hangs in the balance.

April 15, 2009

New Book on the Theft of the Mona Lisa Misses the Mark—and Reality

The Crimes of Paris: A True Story of Murder, Theft, and Detection by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler (Little, Brown and Company, 2009) professes to tell the real inside story of the theft of the Mona Lisa and begins by mis-spelling the name of the thief. Vincenzo Peruggia spells his name with two “gs,” as may be seen in the widely-published mug shot taken of him by Italian police, after his arrest as he tried to return the Mona Lisa to Italy, after having stolen it from the Louvre. It is rather baffling, then, that the authors of this new work of non-fiction chose to spell the thief’s name with only one “g.” The odd choices do not stop there.

It is perhaps surprising that the complete story of the theft of the Mona Lisa, certainly the most famous art theft in history, has never been the subject of a book of non-fiction. It is mentioned in a number of works, but an in-depth monograph is still wanting. The Crimes of Paris professes to fill that lacuna, and its publishers were optimistic—an excerpt was featured in the May 2009 issue of Vanity Fair. (Another new book of 2009, Vanished Smile by R. A. Scotti, also hopes to tell the story—we’ll see if the author can do better). While the account of the theft and recovery of the Mona Lisa is accurate and reasonably well-written, the supposed true crime conspiracy that the authors have uncovered and present in their work, regarding forgeries of the Mona Lisa and a mastermind called the Marquis de Valfierno who was behind the whole plot, is a load of hooey. The sole source of this conspiracy, a 1932 article in The Saturday Evening Post by American journalist Karl Decker, was dismissed decades ago by all scholars worthy of the name as a wholesale invention—and one so outrageous that it is difficult to understand how anyone could believe it to be true.

Decker claimed to have met a con man named Eduardo while in Casablanca. Eduardo proceeded to tell Decker about his forgery ring in Buenos Aires and Paris, selling American millionaires copies of paintings that he told them were stolen originals. This Eduardo, who also went under the alias the Marquis de Valfierno, claimed that he had hired Peruggia to steal the original Mona Lisa in order to convince six separate American millionaires that the forged Mona Lisa that they were buying from Valfierno was the stolen original.

The Valfierno story was long ago rejected as one of two things: either a wholesale invention by Karl Decker to sell his story, or a wholesale invention by a con man in Casablanca that pulled the wool down over Mr Decker’s eyes. It is a shame, then, that a work of non-fiction professing to tell the true story behind a famous true crime, should so mislead its readers. Without the addition of myth, the story of the theft of the Mona Lisa is rich and enthralling, with a fabulous cast of characters (including Picasso, Apollinaire, and a fascinating French detective), the backdrop of pre-war Paris and Florence, and ripples felt to this day. For not only was the theft of the Mona Lisa the most famous theft of any object in history, but it also inspired other thefts, altered the concept of what makes a work valuable, and proved to be a turning point in the history of art, of collecting, and of art crime.

The book is worth reading for its solid if stolid account of the theft and recovery of the world’s most famous painting. It also covers the backdrop of Paris in the ‘teens, with a variety of characters sketched into what is more a pastiche of a period in time than a thorough exploration of one crime. In terms of setting the scene, painting the atmosphere of a time and place, the book succeeds nicely.

But it is, of course, the art crime that is of greatest interest to this review. The Hooblers’ tale of the Mona Lisa theft would have done well to have ended without the addition of Valfierno—and it would have been nice to have spelled the name of the protagonist correctly. Trying to shoe-horn a myth into one of history’s great true stories poisons the portions that are true, and cultivates the misconceptions about art crime that already abound.

March 29, 2009

Sunday, March 29, 2009 - ,, No comments

Lawsuits Abound, Defensive and Offensive

"Night Cafe" Van Gogh 1888

In recent days we have seen a number of high-profile art law suits, both criminal and defensive. Yale University filed for a defensive law suit, to secure its ownership of the star painting in its Yale Art Gallery, the iconic "Night Cafe" by Van Gogh (1888). There have been many headline-grabbing lawsuits brought by grandchildren of the victims of Nazi or Stalinist seizure of artworks, who have filed to have works restored to them, plucked out of museums and private collections. (The dramatic story of the restitution of Malevich paintings will be featured in the first issue of ARCA's Journal of Art Crime). Now we begin to see storied institutions donning legal battle armor in anticipation of a potential lawsuit.

The issue at Yale is with Pierre Konowaloff, the great-grandson of wealthy aristocrat Ivan Morozov, who owned Van Gogh's painting in 1918. The Russian government nationalized and appropriated Morozov's property during the Communist revolution--including the painting, which was later sold by the Soviet government. "Night Cafe" has been hanging in the Yale Art Gallery for more than five decades. In 2008, Konowaloff's attorney asserted his client's ownership title to the painting, and Konowaloff has publicly stated that he wants the title of the painting transferred to the Russian nation, and that he wants to receive financial compensation. Yale declared that it wishes to "remove any cloud over its ownership," pre-empting a suit on the part of Konowaloff to reclaim the painting.

Between an art theft from Yale's Slifka Center linked to a drug and arms dealer, a lawsuit from the descendants of Geronimo to reclaim the skull of the warrior chief that they claim was looted by members of the secret society Skull & Bones and is being used in the society for rituals, and this recent furor over "Night Cafe," Yale has provided a petri dish for the study of art crime over the past two months alone.

March 24, 2009

Tuesday, March 24, 2009 - , No comments

Yale Stolen Paintings Recovered

Three stolen works of art were recovered, along with nearly 40 other stolen paintings, firearms, heroin, marijuana, and cash, in a New Haven home. The three artworks, two paintings and a drawing, had recently been stolen from Yale University's Slifka Center, taken on two different days from an exhibition inside. The recovery is important both to highlight the nature of most art crimes worldwide (which involve lesser-known works of art than the headline-grabbing heists most people expect), and the link between art crime and the drug and arms trades. Even with a relatively small-time crook, such as the local New Haven heroin dealer who had stolen art, guns, and drugs in his home, the connection between art theft and "more serious" crimes is evident. 

March 20, 2009

Friday, March 20, 2009 - No comments

Headlines Memo

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Book Review: The Forger's Spell by Edward Dolnick

Edward Dolnick's The Forger's Spell is an impeccably researched and entertaining account of the "most successful art forger of the twentieth century (xiii)." In depicting the forgery career of Han Van Meegeren, the book covers a variety of topics from the Dutch experience during World War II and the art collecting practices of Hitler and Goering to the role of connoisseurs and wealthy collectors in the art market. In this respect, Dolnick's work serves as a reference guide for those interested in pursuing further research down the many avenues of art crime.

Although his work is by no means groundbreaking, it does highlight the critical conditions necessary for the "natural disaster" that resulted in the forger's being able to capitalize on the art establishment's foolhardiness (292). Here we find that the forger's skill in selling a fake product rests as much on his ability to paint as on his identification of the perfect mark. We read how Van Meegeren's marketing of each forgery induced a first impression in experts that instantly removed any doubts in authenticity and therefore any need for scientific testing as well.

Unfortunately, at times The Forger's Spell is as verbose and repetitive as any Victorian novel. It only overcomes these soporific effects when detailing the clever processes through which Van Meegeren produced his infamous Vermeer's. Never would I have thought that mixing Bakelite with lapis lazuli would yield a blue similar to the one made famous by Vermeer's brushwork. Additionally, I would have never have known that for the thirty six paintings attributed to Vermeer there have been nearly as many misattributed to him by art experts. As Dolnick discusses, these misidentified paintings have caused the ruination of countless careers and reputations.

Dolnick's intention is not to expose the fallibility of these so-called art experts and historians, but rather to simplify how we experience art by removing any prejudices and by viewing objects with a blank slate. In the words of former Met director Thomas Hoving, the idea is to "be dumb let it [the art] do the talking (242)." In this regard, The Forger's Spell succeeds because it inspires one to appreciate "art for art's sake" and to judge art for his/herself.

March 15, 2009

ARCA Trustee Anthony Amore in the New York Times

ARCA Trustee Anthony Amore, Security Director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, just appeared in a New York Times feature article. You can see Mr Amore in action in an upcoming episode of "America's Most Wanted" which will feature the unsolved Gardner theft. We salute Mr Amore and his outstanding efforts, both as a security director and in his investigation of the Gardner theft. An extensive interview with Mr Amore will appear in the upcoming book, Art & Crime, the first book published under the auspices of ARCA (published by Praeger this coming June 30). Friend of ARCA Ulrich Boser appears in the same article. An interview with Mr Boser appears in this blog. Mr Amore and Mr Boser appeared along with ARCA Director Noah Charney on a National Public Radio broadcast about the Gardner theft, which may be accessed below. We salute our colleagues, and will include further updates on the Gardner case as they become available.

Radio Boston's Gardner Theft Coverage

March 14, 2009

Steal the World

(The following is an english translation of an article that appeared in the Spanish national newspaper ABC in 2008)

A razorblade left on a library floor.

That was the slip-up that led to his arrest. Over 8 years, he had sliced out at least one-hundred rare maps from the world’s greatest libraries.

But this is not the tale of Cesar Gomez Rivero, the thief of Spain’s National Library maps. Nor is it the story of Ben Johnson, the student intern who stole and mutilated scores of important historical letters while working at Yale’s Beinecke Library. This is the story of the American Edward Forbes Smiley III, convicted in May of 2007. He, along with Gomez Rivero and Johnson, are just a few thieves among thousands worldwide who profit from the theft of rare maps, books, and manuscripts.

Map theft is frighteningly commonplace. But discreet statistics are rarely if ever kept by police, so the exact number of book, manuscript, and map thefts per year in various countries is unclear. In the US alone, there are certainly the thousands per year. It is safe to say that there are tens of thousands each year worldwide, the map thefts alone worth tens of millions of euros. The Gomez Rivero case made international headlines, and shook Spain’s infrastructure to the point of politicians and cultural ministers resigning in disgrace, for their failure to protect the treasures in Spain’s National Library. For much of the world, the exposure of Gomez Rivero was a shock—how could this criminal mastermind steal such valuable works from a prominent national institution. But for those in the know, the greatest surprise around the Gomez Rivero case is not that someone was stealing from a national library, but that someone was actually caught.

Gomez Rivero, who admited to the theft of nineteen maps, eleven of which have been recovered, is a small-time crook, compared to a master thief like Smiley. Mr Smiley used Xacto knife blades and wet string to silently dismember rare maps all over the world. He altered the edges to hide his cuts and bleached out ownership stamps, before selling the maps to international collectors and dealers. Among the libraries he victimized are the New York Public Library (eleven maps stolen), the Boston Public Library (thirty-four stolen), Yale University Library (twenty), Harvard University Library (eight), the Newberry Library in Chicago (two), and the British Library (one). And how many stolen works are still out there, which he has not admitted to? The Boston Public Library alone reported thirty-three more maps discovered missing from books which Smiley had consulted in their archives.

The libraries of Yale University have been frequently victimized, and provide a microcosmic example indicative of the huge global problem. In 1973 a pair of priests were charged with the theft of rare books from Yale and other university libraries around the United States. They would conceal rare books under their priestly vestments. The FBI raided their headquarters at the Saint Stephen’s Monastery in Queens, New York, and found hundreds of stolen books. In 1979 Andrew Antippas, a visiting professor from Tulane University, pleaded guilty to having stolen five rare maps from one of Yale’s libraries. In 1981 an antique microscope, built in 1734 and valued at $10,000 (€7000), was stolen from Yale, only to be recovered in a trash can. In 1997, a man called John Ray stole a valuable 19th century art book. And in 2001, 21-year-old summer intern Ben Johnson stole fifty items valued over $2 million (€1.2 million) from Yale’s rare books library, the Beinecke. Keep in mind that these instances are from Yale libraries only, and are only those which were discovered. Certainly countless more have occurred that have not been detected, at Yale, in Madrid, and at libraries worldwide. As Spain’s Foreign Ministry admitted, at least 300 “highly valued” objects have disappeared from the National Library in recent years. A Ministry spokesman said that “already back in 1859 the odd disappearance of a book has been noticed” and yet security remained lax.

Map theft carves a fascinating niche in the history of art crime. Professor Travis McDade of University of Illinois Law School is perhaps the world’s leading expert in rare book and manuscript crime. In a recent conversation with the author, he described what makes map collecting, and the thefts that supply its demand, distinct from other types of art crime. Unlike fine art, which is most often unique, instantly recognizable and traceable, illicit rare maps may be sold at a legitimate level. Gomez Rivero sold some through eBay, for instance. The greatest difficulty in most art crime is not in the stealing but in the selling. Maps, most of which are printed on paper, are far easier to carry, to smuggle, and to sell. McDade puts much of the blame for the ease of sale on over-zealous dealers. “Map dealers are allowed to plead ignorance, saying that they thought the stolen map they bought was a rare opportunity, a fantastic buy. Doesn’t it seem to you that if the owner of an art gallery was approached by some man who just happened to have a Velazquez available, that the art gallery owner should be very suspicious? Some in the map dealer community have been less than assiduous in patrolling their own borders.”

Map collecting has its own qualities, distinct from art or book collecting. Unlike rare books, maps have a display appeal. But unlike most art, maps do not require specialized knowledge to discuss. Much of the pleasure of collecting is not only in the conspicuous display, but in a conspicuous didacticism. To own an object of high value about which you can point out details which are invisible to first-time viewers shows off one’s worldliness. Map collecting appeals to the wealthy dilleton who wants to appear knowledgeable, but does not necessarily have the background training.

Professor McDade explains. “Maybe [the collector] notices that, in an African map, a particular cove in Madagascar wasn’t surveyed, or in another map a particular island in the West Indies was neglected. This is something he can point out to his guests, and he’s likely to be the only person to have noticed it. Often little or nothing has been written about collected maps, so the owner may be the foremost expert on that interesting and unique item on his wall. Never underestimate the need for serious people to have themselves considered smart.”

Map theft is all too easy for several reasons. Compared to art, maps, books, and manuscripts tend to receive little or no protection. Maps tend to be housed in libraries, archives, or offices where researchers are inherently trusted. As McDade warns, “thieves posing as researchers are given some sort of solitary access to items and, even if he only has five to ten seconds, if he knows what he’s doing he can easily cut the map from its housing.” Cameras are easily blocked by the body, and there is little chance that a researcher is being monitored throughout his visit. Maps are works on paper, and are therefore easy to transport, hide, and smuggle. And finally, most maps are not catalogued at an item level, only in their overall binding. “For instance,” McDade describes, “if a library has a 1667 Blaeu Atlas with 100 maps in it, most libraries only catalogue the atlas and not each individual map within it.” So the removal of one page from a book can go undetected for years. “Even if a library has catalogued each map within a book, they likely won’t check each of the maps very often. Discovery will only happen when another person happens to be interested in the same map.”

Just as Spaniards should not think that map theft is a rare occurrence and has happened only to them, they should take some cold comfort in knowing that poor library security is an international handicap. McDade concludes, “the library thefts in Madrid, far from being unique, actually follow a standard practice. A researcher is given access to these things, he knows exactly how to avoid the meager security, he knows exactly what he wants, and no one is ever the wiser.” The surprise is not in the National Library thefts having occurred at all, but that someone was careless enough to have been caught.

The importance of studying the history of art crime is the ability to learn from past mistakes and take measures to prevent it in the future. Edward Forbes Smiley III, Ben Johnson, and Cesar Gomez Rivero offer us many lessons in how to protect maps in our libraries. Researchers, even those known to librarians, should be treated with polite suspicion. Glass-topped work tables should be used so that nothing can be concealed beneath them. Work spaces should be open on the sides, not hemmed in by privacy walls. Video cameras should record steadily the workspace for researchers. Digital images should be catalogued of all maps in a library’s collection, to facilitate identification and tracing. Books should be flipped through at regular intervals, to insure that all of the valuable pages are in place. Staff should occasionally sit with researchers while they work. Rare items should never mix with items from the library’s general collections, to prevent concealment or swapping. Laptops and bags must be opened on entry and departure, always. To defend against insider thefts, better screening of employees is needed, including regular evaluations, monitoring, and exit interviews upon the termination of employment.

There are hundreds of Smileys and Johnsons and Gomez Riveros still out there, plundering one of the least protected of the world’s treasure troves. But we can learn from past thieves how to defend against those in the future.

(For more about ARCA's activities in the field of library and archive security, please see the international conference held at the National Library of Spain and sponsored by AXA last November...After its great success, ARCA is preparing a US conference on the same subject: and

March 12, 2009

ARCA Announcements UPDATED

ARCA 2009 Award Winners
ARCA is pleased to announce the winners of its new annual awards. Each year ARCA will award individuals for their outstanding efforts for the protection and recovery of cultural heritage, and the study of art crime. Awards are voted on by ARCA’s Trustees and the Editorial Board for The Journal of Art Crime
The winners of the 2009 ARCA Awards are as follows:

Art Policing & Recovery: Vernon Rapley, Scotland Yard 
Art Security & Protection: Francesco Rutelli, former Italian Minister of Culture 
Art Crime Scholarship: Norman Palmer, King’s College London 
Lifetime Achievement in Defense of Art: Giovanni Nistri, Head of the Carabinieri Division for the Protection of Cultural Heritage 

ARCA honors these individuals for their exemplary work.

Summer Internship in Italy, 2009
ARCA offers a summer internship on location in Amelia, Italy (between Rome and Orvieto) during the Postgraduate Program that we run, from June 1-August 26. Applicants must be proficient in Italian. The work schedule is 25-30 hours per week. Duties include administration, research for our various projects, and aiding students, faculty, and the Dean during the program. Housing in Amelia for the summer and a meal allowance will be provided by ARCA. This presents an excellent opportunity for professional work training in the broad and interdisciplinary field of cultural property protection and work against art crime, while spending a lovely summer in Italy. If you are interested, please thoroughly acquaint yourself with the information about our Program on our website, and contact .

ARCA Annual Conference
11-12 July 2009
Amelia, Italy

The focus of this international conference is the academic and professional study of art crime, and how the study of it can help contemporary law enforcement and art protection. ARCA seeks to encourage scholars and students worldwide to turn their attentions to the understudied field of art crime and cultural property protection. The more minds working in the field, and the better the relationship between scholars and professionals (from police to security to the art world), the better protected art will be in the future.

ARCA welcomes submissions of papers for presentation at the conference. Papers should be 20 minutes in length, and should be related to the academic study of art crime or the collaboration between scholars and professionals for the prevention of art crime.

ARCA Members may attend the conference free of charge. A small attendance fee, in the form of a tax-deductible donation to ARCA, is required of attendees who are neither members nor presenters. Tickets may be reserved by email, with limited numbers available.

A complete schedule with further information on the conference, keynote speakers, and beautiful Amelia, Italy, will be available on our website. The conference will include presentation of the 2009 ARCA Awards, and a keynote speech from Col. Giovanni Pastore of the Carabinieri Division for the Protection of Cultural Heritage.

Please send submissions, ticket requests, and inquiries to .