The Thomas Crown Affair meets The Devil in the White City
in this fast-paced international true crime story.
A young journalist from Toronto spends four years immersing himself in the mysterious world of international art theft, travelling from Cairo to New York, London, Montreal and Los Angeles. He befriends the slippery Paul, a master thief who got his start in Brighton as a knocker—travelling door to door as a junk collector while secretly scanning homes for valuables that he would steal later on. He gets caught up in the world of Donald Hrycyk, a detective who works on a shoestring budget in downtown L.A. to recover stolen art. Through alternating chapters focusing on Paul and a small international network of detectives, the story of the thief and the detective unfolds, revealing the dramatic rise of international art theft.
Joshua Knelman’s investigation finds there are only a handful of detectives, FBI agents and lawyers fighting a global battle against a thriving black market estimated to be one of the largest in the world. Meanwhile, the chain of criminals moves from thugs on the street to multinational organized crime syndicates, to a global network of art dealers who wash the artworks’ provenance clean again. In a surprise ending, Knelman learns that corruption can appear in the unlikeliest places.
A major work of investigative journalism, Hot Art is a globetrotting mystery filled with cunning and eccentric characters.
What prompted you to start researching and writing about international art theft?
I was sent to investigate and write a short feature on a Toronto art gallery burglary. The owner was told by the police that chances were slim he’d ever see his art again. He consulted with colleagues, and most told him not to alert the media, and to be discreet. When I met with him, he gave me the phone number of a cultural lawyer who had given him opposite advice: go to the media, and do everything you can to publicize those stolen artworks. Her name was Bonnie Czegledi, and we struck up what turned out to be a seven-year conversation about the state of international art theft. Czegledi encouraged me to investigate and write the story. She also convinced me that it wasn’t just a local story, but one with international tentacles. I contacted the FBI, and Scotland Yard, and began searching for a small group of specialists around the globe who track the black market, and in some cases, use it to make a living.
Who are some of the favourite people you met during your investigation?
Many of the people I interviewed for the book are obsessed with understanding the black market for stolen art, and obsession is always attractive in an interview subject.
At the core of Hot Art are two opposing narrative poles— Detective Donald Hrycyk, a dedicated LAPD art-theft detective, and Paul Hendry, a retired art thief based in the U.K. Though they have never met, and live on two separate continents, Detective Hrycyk and Hendry both spent their lives learning how the same black market evolved. Although they were uncovering the same patterns, each was using the knowledge to forward a different goal. Detective Hrycyk was learning the various paths that artwork could take after being stolen, and watching as his suspicions were confirmed when some artworks stolen from L.A. appeared in Europe, and further afield. Paul Hendry, on the other hand, was using his knowledge to build a larger network of dealers, and to find more efficient ways to earn a profit from the material items that he drained from houses across England. What I found remarkable was how similar their descriptions of their learning experiences were. Needless to say, they both were absolutely dedicated to their causes.
You infiltrated a complex, mysterious and often inscrutable industry. What were the greatest challenges you faced when investigating the world of international art theft?
One challenge was finding reliable sources of knowledge and information, and then building a relationship with those sources. When I first interviewed Paul Hendry, he told me he had never stolen art from major museums. If, for example, I had not met Rick St. Hilaire, a county prosecutor from New Hampshire with a passion for art theft cases, I think I would have been disappointed by Hendry’s admission. But because I’d learned about the black market from cultural lawyers, and others, when Hendry told me he’d earned a living from laundering stolen art back into the legitimate market, and that he’d done so by “staying under the radar” and dealing in less famous artworks, I knew I was talking to precisely the right person—a seasoned pro. In fact, St. Hilaire had advised me to seek out, and build, a profile of a thief who made a living in just this way.
In your experience, do most detectives (and thieves) in the stolen art world have a particular passion for visual art? Or, is art viewed as another ‘currency’?
Most thieves steal art for money. Every detective I interviewed agreed on this point: The FBI, Scotland Yard, the LAPD, The Surete du Quebec, and Interpol. Stealing is a way of making a living, and of supporting a lifestyle. That said, the higher up the criminal chain a person is, the more knowledge they tend to have of the art itself. So, for example, one of Hendry’s advantages was the knowledge he had about the product that he was dealing with. In his case, I came to know that he does love and appreciate art. Most thieves who steal art, though, do not care about the art, or where it goes. They want to sell what they have stolen, and move on.
With this in mind, are criminal organizations that deal with art theft usually involved in other crimes, too, such as drug smuggling, extortion, etc.?
Some of the patterns indicate that some organized crime groups have developed a sophisticated understanding of the art market, and know how to exploit it. Alain Lacoursiere, the detective who founded the Quebec art crime unit, discovered that the Hells Angels were using art as a way to launder money. Lacoursiere said that organized crime now owned auction houses and art galleries. He also found evidence that thieves were stealing art from houses or galleries to pay off drug debts owed to more powerful criminals. The FBI and Scotland Yard both indicated that because the legitimate art market is one of the largest unregulated businesses in the Western world, it is a perfect arena for criminals to exploit.
Many film depictions of art theft – The Thomas Crown Affair, Oceans Twelve, How to Steal a Million – portray the business as sleek, sexy and a ‘victimless crime’. Is this the case in real life?
A big challenge in researching this book was getting beyond the myth of The Thomas Crown Affair. The idea of a rogue-billionaire who steals art to enjoy it in the privacy of his living room, or vault, has captured the imagination of Hollywood, and, in many instances, the media, and has informed the ways in which art thefts are covered in the news. One theme throughout the book is the great disconnect between the myth (The Thomas Crown Affair version of art theft), and the reality of the problem (an international black market that requires many levels of criminal behaviour to operate with efficiency). Almost every lawyer, detective, or special agent I interviewed dismissed the myth and pointed to the reality.
Bonnie Czegledi noted that the best way to erase a culture is to destroy its cultural heritage, and that, for example, the Nazis understood that very well. LAPD Detective Hrycyk pointed out that most people set aside money to buy art or objects, in an effort to make their life more beautiful and meaningful— it is often those items that people value most among their material possessions. A television can be replaced. A painting that has hung on a wall in your home for the past twenty years cannot.
In the first scenario, stealing or destroying art and antiquities can strike straight at the heart of a culture. For example, when the Iraqi National Museum was looted, everyone understood that this wasn’t just about stealing material value. It was about robbing a culture of its historical touchstones, and, in this case, stealing items that gave us clues about how we, as human beings, lived thousands of years ago. On the other end of the spectrum, when thieves break into a person’s home and steal artworks, often they are inflicting deep emotional losses. In both cases, the value of what has been stolen goes far beyond the monetary value, to the victims of those crimes, be they nations or families. These two points are, for me, the extremes of the spectrum of damage that art theft can inflict.
How did this understanding of the damage art theft can cause affect your relationship with Paul Hendry, and your opinion of him?
Hendry was a guide, in the same way that Bonnie Czegledi and Rick St. Hilaire were teachers for learning about how the international black market works. Rather than judge, I wanted to show how the black-market for stolen art functions, and how it has evolved. In the academic world, there’s a method of research called “Triangulation.” Most simply described, this means that a pattern is discerned by using different sources to confirm it. If I’d only interviewed Detective Donald Hrycyk, or any of the detectives or lawyers in the book, one piece of that pattern would have emerged, but by spending time discussing the black market with Paul, and hearing about his life and career, a similar pattern was revealed from the other side of the equation—the criminal world.
Hendry was a gentlemen from the moment we began our discussions, and took the time to teach and discuss the problem of art theft from a variety of angles. He is not just a former art thief; he is a source of intelligence, and analysis. For me, his perspective provided critical insight in understanding the scope of international art theft.
Are there any particularly clever heists that you were told of during your research?
Here are a few: entering a museum by stealth through a skylight, disarming the security guards, and then vanishing without a trace with 12 famous paintings (Montreal Musee des beaux arts, 1972). Stealing a small work of art, but also stealing the name-plaque beside it so there is no visible indication that a painting was ever there (a university in Australia, 2007). Taking a photograph of a painting, paying a photo-lab to create a perfectly-sized copy of the painting, and then framing that photograph in the original frame and placing it on the wall in place of the original painting (Los Angeles, 1987). Storming a museum during visiting hours, and using a getaway boat parked on a river behind the museum as the escape, while detonating bombs in other parts of the city to distract law enforcement (Sweden, 2000).
There are so many ways to steal art that are clever and make for spectacular headlines, but the story that captured me wasn’t a Hollywood-worthy choreographed event, but rather a much quieter and efficient system. This is the one Hendry used, and in some ways, perfected, and the one that Hrycyk came to see as the most insidious form of art theft: stealing art that is lesser known (don’t steal a Van Gogh), and using a network of contacts to sell that stolen artwork back into the legitimate art market, and then circulating those stolen items to hot spots around the world.
"If Aunt Millie gave you a treasured vase, here is a story that will make you quake with fear. For those of you who have shopped in a flea market and wondered where some of those beautiful objects came from, these pages reveal a dark underbelly, a world of shadowy characters. Buy a digital camera, put a photo of your treasures in your vault, and put extra locks on your door. The world is a dangerous place. This book shows how the stealing is done, and how to protect yourself. It's a handbook to all. For a great read, and a great education, Hot Art."
David Mirvish, Mirvish Productions, Aug 29, 2011Read more about Hot Art >>
"Art theft is one of the largest underground markets in the world, yet very few people know how it works, or how to stop it. Joshua Knelman delves into this uncharted world with an open curiosity, befriending the detectives dedicated to retrieving stolen art, the lawyers struggling to protect cultural property, and the thieves who have their own reasons for doing what they do. These pages are full of shady characters and experts determined to outwit each other; an intriguing look at human lusts and foibles. Hot Art is fascinating, smart, and a page-turner."
Catherine Osborne, Deputy Editor, Azure magazine, Aug 24, 2011Read more about Hot Art >>
“Knelman’s book is The Godfather of investigative journalism. He takes us to places we always wanted to be but didn’t dare to enter, and he makes us fall for people we are not supposed to love—on both sides of the law.”
Andras Hamori, Executive Producer, The Sweet Hereafter and Crash, Jul 25, 2011Read more about Hot Art >>
“With an eye for detail worthy of Rembrandt’s Landscape with cottages (1654, stolen from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1972), Joshua Knelman has painted a luminous picture of the interconnected world of thieves, cops, and lawyers obsessed with stolen art. Whether he's writing about those who covet the art or those who protect it, Knelman's gifts as an investigator and storyteller drip from every page. Hot Art? Hot book.”
Jeremy Keehn, associate editor of Harper’s Magazine, Jul 19, 2011Read more about Hot Art >>
“Now this is investigative reporting. Dogged, fearless, and thrillingly thorough, Joshua Knelman becomes our Virgil through the secret underworld of stolen art. Like legendary muckrakers Bob Woodward, Seymour Hersh, and Barlett and Steele, Knelman relentlessly trails both the bad guys and the slightly less bad guys, looking for truth amidst all the deceit. It’s an astonishing debut.”
Richard Poplak, author of Ja No Man and Kenk, Jun 14, 2011
With huge advance praise from heavy-weights across the continent, Hot Art is set to launch on September 18th in Toronto. Author Joshua Knelman takes the show on the road with events in Kingston, Montreal, Ottawa and Winnipeg as well. The details:
Toronto, Sunday, September 18, 2011
at 10:00 am
Ben McNally's Books and Brunch
King Edward Hotel, 37 King St. East
Tickets $45.00 (taxes included).
Please call (416) 361-0032 with your credit card information to reserve a ticket.
Kingston, Sunday, September 25, 2011
from 1:30 pm to 2:30
The Kingston Writers Festival www.kingstonwritersfest.ca
Ottawa, Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Joshua Knelman in conversation with Rosemary Thompson, Director of Communications for Canada's National Arts Centre
at 7:00 pm
Collected Works, 1242 Wellington St.
Montreal, Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Joshua Knelman in conversation with Jonathan Goldstein, host of Wiretap, CBC
at 7:00 pm
Libraire Drawn & Quarterly, 211 Bernard West
Winnipeg, Thursday, November 17, 2011
Joshua Knelman in conversation with Robert Enright
at 8:00 pm
McNally Robinson Bookstore, 1120 Grant Ave.
Buy the Book: