Open Book: Hot Art, by Joshua KnelmanLast April, two thieves broke into a Toronto gallery and ran off with three paintings worth $73,000. The sum was high enough to attract local attention in the press, but the incident represented little more than a good day’s work for members of the worldwide fellowship of art thieves.
It’s a grand fraternity, flourishing in a global culture where art has never commanded greater prices. In the United States, according to Joshua Knelman’s Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives Through the Secret World of Stolen Art, the “business of fine art is worth an estimated $200-billion annually.” The value of the amount of stolen art annually is — well, no one knows for sure. If there was even a vaguely useful figure, depend on it, Knelman would have obtained it. Seven years in the making, Hot Art is an engrossing and thorough study of the shadow side of art fairs, galleries, museums, auction houses, private and public collectors.
It began in 2003 when Knelman was researching a story about a burglary at a small art gallery for The Walrus magazine, research that led him to some strange contacts, including one thief who threatened Knelman serious injury if he wrote anything about his involvement in the art gallery theft. A curious feature of Knelman’s narrative is that he becomes part of the story at the very beginning and at the very end, while in between lies a fairly impersonal stretch of reportage. The episodes that involve Knelman are unsettling. Aside from the anonymous thief, an ever wary Los Angeles Police Department detective temporarily regards Knelman as a suspect in a gallery heist — claiming to be a journalist could be a very good ruse, he figures — and the organizer of a conference on art theft in Cairo demands extra payment on his hotel bill. Knelman refuses to pay that extra money and successfully stands his ground, but only after a blistering argument and another not so veiled threat to the author’s health.
Finally, near the end of the book, his main informant from the criminal world, “Paul,” seeks reassurance from Knelman that there will be enough material left over for his own book. Knelman tries to ease his concern on that score, although he doesn’t actually guarantee anything.
None of these episodes — not even the hotel confrontation, which, strictly speaking, has nothing to do with Knelman’s story — are gratuitous. They help to establish in an intimate and sometimes ironic way themes of innocence and guilt, including the guilt of depriving a crook of the rightful fruits of his experience.
The main story is told from the perspective of a handful of crusaders who battle not only the increasing sophistication and determination of art thieves but the indifference of their police colleagues and even the hostility of gallery owners who don’t want to change their ways. “The business of art is one of the most corrupt, dirtiest industries on the planet,” maintains one such crusader, a Toronto lawyer specializing in cultural property law named Bonnie Czegledi. “There are no regulations and theft is rampant.” Proper documentation of sales is often missing, and gallery owners often feel it is rude to inquire closely about the provenance of a work of art offered to them. “Nobody in the art world asks questions,” Paul informs Knelman.
There’s a certain acceptance in that world of what happened to the Toronto gallery last April — art theft has been in existence as long as art. The history of Egypt, for example, is the history of systematic plunder of its antiquities. Czegledi, a descendent of inhabitants of Hungary’s Carpathian Mountains, who have long been persecuted by Romanian authorities, is particularly sensitive about this political aspect of art theft. “There’s almost nothing left of my people except a few songs collected by Béla Bartók,” she says to Knelman. “The best way to destroy a civilization is to erase their cultural heritage. The Nazis, for example, understood that very well.”
It is greed, however, rather than politics that drives today’s plundering of art, and it is intensive police work that must counter it. Knelman’s other lonely crusaders include LAPD detective Donald Hrycyk, virtually the only member of that police department’s Art Theft Detail; Richard Ellis of Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiques Squad, a squad that includes Ellis and one partner; Robert Wittman, the first agent in the history of the FBI to investigate art theft full-time; and Julian Radcliffe, a corporate consultant on terrorism and kidnapping who founded the Art Loss Register. That register had its beginnings when Radcliffe realized, in Knelman’s words, that “the best way to curb international art theft was to create an international list of stolen artwork. Whoever assembled that list would be the master of the art world.”
As a counterpoint to these voices, the more or less reformed thief Paul gives his own perspective on the art racket, sometimes sounding grimly amused at the spectacle of art’s losing battle against theft. Hrycyk, for one, admits that “the vast majority of these cases are not solved.” There are different sorts of thefts, however. One kind of theft is the stealing of paintings from galleries and private residences — more than half the items on the Art Loss Register are from private collections. These sooner or later find their way into galleries and auction houses as legitimate items of sale. Another kind is the theft of very high profile paintings from museums. Paul warns criminals against this kind of theft because it draws a lot of police attention. “A good thief stays out of the spotlight,” he says.
It’s one thing to lift a famous Rembrandt, another to dispose of it. A gallery owner tells Knelman, “When a painting is stolen, it has to be laundered. There are two ways to do this. One is to send it to Japan or to another country very far away. The other way is simply to hide it somewhere for a very long time, until anybody who would recognize the stolen painting is dead or has long forgotten it.”
It is hard to believe that Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee or Vermeer’s The Concert — two among the 14 paintings stolen in the famous 1990 heist from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum — will ever be forgotten.
Knelman leaves us no assurance that the scourge of art theft will abate any time soon. Closer regulation of the arts and antiques business might reduce theft by helping to dry up that market for stolen goods. Museums might redouble investment on alarms and securities systems in the almost fanatical mode of the Getty Center in Los Angeles, which has never suffered an incident of theft. Even that solution may not last for long, however, and not just because Getty Center-style security is very expensive. As museums become better secured, one expert tells Knelman, the way to steal art will be through armed robbery, in smash and grab mode. “The only thing thieves need to do is beat the alarm response time,” he observes.
We owe it to posterity, however, not to give up the attempt to secure art. Knelman, in this outstanding work of journalism, places the problem in perspective by quoting the FBI’s Wittman on the successful case of a stolen Rembrandt. “The Rembrandt that I recovered was 400 years old,” he says. “Do you know anyone who is 400 years old? Cultural property is permanent. We are fleeting.”