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Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Stolen Art Watch, Joshua Knelman Reveals Pathway To Hot Art

Off the Walls

Investigative journalist Joshua Knelman, the author of Hot Art, discusses the international black market in stolen artwork

Joshua Knelman’s Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives through the Secret World of Stolen Art explores the evolution of the international black market in stolen canvases, sculptures, and antiquities through alternating stories of crooks and coppers from two continents. Hot Art, published earlier this month, is being widely described as non-fiction that reads like a novel; it’s been favourably tweeted by Margaret Atwood, among others, and Knelman has embarked on a promotional tour of morning television and talk radio shows across Canada. All of which makes everyone at The Walrus rather proud, because the story that inspired the book happened right here at this magazine. The author explains.

MATTHEW MCKINNON: You worked as head of research at The Walrus when you began investigating international art theft. Where does the Hot Art really start?

JOSHUA KNELMAN: Before the magazine launched, way back in 2003, I was sent to write a short piece about two burglaries at an art gallery in Toronto. The first of those burglaries, by the way, was discovered on the morning of September 11, 2001. When I showed up at the gallery, the owner was apprehensive about moving his story into the public arena. “I don’t know much about this world of art theft,” he told me. He did, though, give me the phone number of a cultural property lawyer based in Toronto — Bonnie Czegledi. “Apparently she knows something,” he said.

Czegledi agreed to meet. It was a lucky break. She turned out to be one of only a handful of lawyers in Canada, and one of only a few in the world, who was focused on understanding how the international black market in stolen art operates.

MATTHEW MCKINNON: What did you discover at that first meeting with Czegledi?

JOSHUA KNELMAN: It was like meeting a Jedi master. I sat down at a Starbucks in the Financial District with an empty notebook. Czegledi came in, sat down, and began what turned out to be my 101 course on the state of international art theft. By the end of our conversation my notebook was full.

Czegledi told me that the art gallery burglaries were not isolated incidents, but that they were small pieces in a vast and international puzzle that ranges from thieves to middlemen, to galleries and art dealers, to auction houses, and ultimately to collectors — all over the world, ignoring national boundaries, and skipping across continents. What we’re dealing with, she said, are: thousands of Holocaust-looted artworks; the pillaging of antiquities from Egypt, China, Afghanistan, Poland, the Czech Republic, Italy, Hungary, and Turkey; the spectacular thefts of multi-million-dollar artworks from museums; and thousands of lesser-known artworks stolen from private residences that often go unmentioned by the media.

Czegledi also told me the unregulated legitimate art market had grown to become a fully globalized multi-billion-dollar business, mostly unpatrolled by police.

MATTHEW MCKINNON: How did you feel to learn all of that at once?

JOSHUA KNELMAN: A little overwhelmed, but I was hooked. I had a lot of facts, and a lot of questions. I was writing about local burglaries, but Czegledi was pointing to global issues that seemed out of my reach.

For example, that evening I turned on my television and saw images of the Iraqi National Museum being looted. Art theft was the top story. In fact, Czegledi had just told me that the museum was probably going to be looted, and precious antiquities from the earliest human civilizations would be targeted. Now it was happening. She also told me that, beyond the museum, there were 10,000 archeological sites left unguarded when Iraqi law and order collapsed, post-invasion.

Czegledi turned out to be my teacher, and she was generous with her roster of international contacts. We began to meet on a monthly — sometimes weekly — basis. She gave me a reading list, and invited me to a series of lectures she delivered at the Royal Ontario Museum. I felt like a student cramming for a very shadowy exam. After meeting her, the focus of my story shifted.


JOSHUA KNELMAN: Well, as I learned, when in doubt, read.

I began searching the web for articles from sources like the New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC, and other news outlets from around the world. These articles were often focused on multi-million-dollar artworks stolen from museums, sometimes in Hollywood-worthy armed robberies, where masked men screamed away in a getaway car or, in one case, a speedboat. They were blockbuster heists.

The news often cited a mysterious billionaire collector as a possible mastermind behind these thefts — Dr. No — in homage to the James Bond villain. As I discovered, this was the fallback myth to art theft stories, and it was rooted in the success of The Thomas Crown Affair remake, starring Pierce Brosnan as the dashing mogul who, for fun, steals a Monet from a major museum in New York.

Brosnan’s role as the sophisticated burglar seduced audiences across the planet. It’s a fiction, but most people felt sympathy for this kind of thief. There was a romanticism associated with these crimes. In reality, this turns out to be far from the truth.

In 2005, two and a half years after I’d started to research art theft, the article “Artful Crimes” was published in The Walrus; it focused on the expanding global black market. Bonnie Czegledi was the focal point of the piece, which also spotlighted interviews with Alain Lacoursière, a Montreal detective who had spearheaded Canada’s only dedicated art theft unit, and the Art Loss Register, a private London-based firm that assembled a database of stolen artworks. The ALR’s list, at the time, was hovering around 150,000 stolen items. It has grown substantially since The Walrus feature was published.

MATTHEW MCKINNON: How did “Artful Crimes” evolve into Hot Art?

JOSHUA KNELMAN: Without The Walrus feature, there would be no book.

When I started working at The Walrus, I was twenty-six years old. It so happened that I was a staffer at a magazine that encouraged investigative journalism, and there were a few key people at The Walrus who supported the effort and helped me research, structure, and edit the piece. These included Catherine Osborne, then the managing editor, David Berlin, the founding editor, Berl Schiff, the publisher, Paul Wilson, a veteran journalist and editor, Tom Fennell, a senior editor at the magazine, and Christopher Flavelle, who was one of the first interns at the magazine and who fact-checked that feature. I also learned a lot from Marci McDonald, one of this country’s foremost investigative journalists, whose articles I fact-checked.

If I had not been involved and ignited by the atmosphere at The Walrus, the article would never have been as broad in scope. I would have written a shorter piece, focused on local burglaries, and the process may have ended there.

So it was this convergence of positive circumstances that led to the book: an international cultural lawyer who invested her time in teaching me; a Canadian general-interest magazine with its eye on the world; and a few experienced journalists who were willing to push my thinking in the right direction.

MATTHEW MCKINNON: “Artful Crimes” went on to win gold at the National Magazine Awards. Did that help you secure a book deal?

JOSHUA KNELMAN: That was another stroke of good luck. The NMA attracted the attention of an agent, Samantha Haywood, and that paved the way to a book deal.

Once I confirmed that deal, I began searching for detectives, lawyers, and thieves who could help me to understand the story of international art theft. Not the myth, but the reality. I contacted the FBI Art Crime Team, Scotland Yard, and the LAPD Art Theft Detail. I also struck up what turned out to be a three-year conversation with a very savvy former art thief in the United Kingdom. Some of these sources turned out to be masterful storytellers; together, they dispelled the myth of The Thomas Crown Affair and revealed a much more complex image of the black market. The result is Hot Art.

Catalogued, admired and stolen

An art thief named Paul (no last name, yet) provided Joshua Knelman with an overview of art theft during a three-year period beginning in early 2008 in Brighton, England. Paul’s thieving ways present a knowledgeable link to this shadowy subject that Knelman relates in the thief’s deadpan, quirky Brit humour spiked occasionally with crude street talk.

Paul learned his trade as a teenager in Brighton from “knockers.” Born poor in England’s vacation spot of the wealthy, he had only one chance to live like them, and that was to steal from them. Hence he “joined the fraternity of knockers,” petty thieves who knock on doors offering a pound or two for granny’s old glass beads, or a thief may con his way inside and snag a painting off the wall. He then scurries off to one of the numerous antique dealers on Brighton’s famous Lanes where a dealer buys the stolen loot and sells it to an unsuspecting collector.

Soon Paul was paying knockers to steal for him, which after 15 years ranked him as a “major handler of millions of dollars of stolen art and antiquities.”

In 2008, the art world was rocked by two spectacular heists, both in Switzerland, five days apart. On Feb. 6, two Pablo Picasso paintings valued at $10-million were stolen from a small Swiss art gallery. And on Feb. 11, a famous Impressionist museum in Zurich was hit by armed thieves who stormed off with four major works by Cezanne, Degas, Monet and Van Gogh.

Whether art is stolen by petty thugs or armed professionals, the cycle is consistent. The thief steals a painting, fences it to a dealer who sells it, and with that transaction the case goes cold. A stolen $6,000 Rolex watch is traceable, but a million-dollar painting is not; it has no serial number. One of the world’s most famous stolen works of art, a priceless Vermeer taken from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990, is still missing.

Knelman asked Paul if he had ever “stolen any famous paintings from a museum.” Paul laughed. “Do you think I’m a … moron?” The big stuff is what he called “headache art,” because it gives everyone involved a headache. It is easy to steal, but hard to unload. Paul dealt in the $10,000 art range, which does not attract attention from the police or the media.

In the 1980s, stolen art grew to an estimated $4-billion to $6-billion, the fourth-largest black market in the world after drugs, money laundering and weapons, according to Interpol and UNESCO. The Art Loss Register, founded in London in the 1990s, lists more than 100,000 works of stolen art. Only 2 per cent have been recovered. In 2001, the register listed as missing or stolen 659 Picassos, 397 Miros, 347 Chagalls, 313 Salvador Dalis, 216 Warhols and 199 Rembrandts. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Stolen Art File is small by comparison, with only 6,500 listings.

Toronto lawyer Bonnie Czegledi became one of the early investigators into stolen art. In 2006, she said, “There are only a handful of detectives who have the experience to investigate art theft properly.” Yet countries worldwide were being looted of their art for markets in New York and London. FBI agent Robert K. Whitman estimated that art market in New York alone is worth an estimated $200-billion annually. “That’s everything – antique markets, art fairs, auction house revenue, gallery sales.” And he added, “That market is totally unregulated.”

Organized crime has entered the lucrative field of stolen art. Knelman covers Montreal’s Hells Angels’ involvement with stolen art in the style of a detective novel. He is at his best reporting work done by the FBI, Interpol, Scotland Yard, the RCMP and U.S. and Canadian city police forces in their efforts to recover stolen art. Too often, however, Knelman assumes a novelistic tone in which extraneous detail slows the pace. And, periodically, his narrative takes on the thug vernacular, which undermines his authority.

Disappointing for me, Knelman gives short shrift to historic stolen art and wartime plunder. There is nothing about a notorious shipment of looted treasures from Cuba that came to Toronto after the Cuban revolution. And, significantly, nothing about art that goes missing, lost or stolen when left with an art dealer, auction house or art patron at the time of the artist’s death.

A final note. Knelman lost contact for a time with Paul, a.k.a. Paul Walsh and Paul Hendry. Sure enough, he had been nicked. Knelman last saw him when he was on parole, writing a blog, cracking jokes, driving an S55 AMG Mercedes – not too inconvenienced by his electronic anklet.

Iris Nowell is author of three art books, most recently Painters Eleven: The Wild Ones of Canadian Art.

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