Twitter share

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Stolen Art Watch, Something Hot (Art) For The Weekend

Books: Hot Art, by Joshua Knelman

Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives though the Secret World of Stolen Art, by Joshua Knelman (Douglas & McIntyre, 314 pages, $29.95 hardcover) — From the middle ages until 1995 there was something in the south London borough of Bermondsey called a market ouvert.

Anything sold in this market between sunset and dawn, literally under the cover of darkness, conveyed legal title to the purchase, no matter how dodgy its provenance. Unscrupulous dealers bought antiques and fine art from even more dishonest burglars and conmen, who had likely acquired them within the previous 12 hours.

If you have ever bought an antique in London, there is a chance that it was stolen. Bermondsey, literally, was a thieves’ market. Equally, if you have ever bought something though an auction houses such as Christie’s or Sothebys’s or Bonham’s or Phillips, there is a possibility the person who consigned it may not have been the legal owner.

If you were after a Rembrandt or a Vermeer, anything in the $10 million-plus range, you are probably safe. Paintings such as Vermeer’s The Concert, stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Steward Gardner in Boston, or the Dulwich (London) museum’s portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III, nicknamed Rembrandt’s most stolen painting, are too well known to be sold in public. They are either returned in exchange for a ransom, hoarded by a rich but corrupt collector, or used as collateral in a major drug deal.

It is the much, much less valuable works that end up being fenced through auction or dealers, author Joshua Knelman explains. Only one per cent of stolen art and antiques is ever recovered. The police don’t have the expertise or manpower to deal with art theft, especially when they are dealing with unresolved murders and sexual assaults, crimes they consider genuinely worth their attention.

Knelman, who is a founding editor of the Toronto-based The Walrus magazine, spent five years probing the world of international art theft. In a convincing manner and with fascinating detail his book shows that the villains who steal art and antiques are not charmers like Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair but crooks who specialize in items that are small, light and valuable.

William Christian is a retired University of Guelph political science professor. He is the author of the 2008 biography Parkin: Canada’s Most Famous Forgotten Man.

Order Hot Art Here:

Treasures from the police stolen property room

Here's the scene: Flashing police lights and officers pull over a suspect van. Two thieves are found inside along with cartons of stolen electronics and computers.

The scene: A bare-bones apartment where police respond to a domestic dispute. After calming the situation, they discover a horde of stolen jewelry and expensive Rolex watches.

The scene: Officers respond to a 9-11 home invasion call and are lucky enough to catch the perp red-handed. A subsequent search of his storage locker reveals clearly stolen goods, including fur coats, coin collections and framed pieces of fine art.

These and similar scenes are played out every day in communities across the country. Some victims are lucky enough to recover their stolen goods -- that keepsake cameo Grandma handed down or the pearl-handle pistol Uncle Joe bequeathed -- but often the confiscated items remain stored away in police property rooms because no one comes to claim them.

Some victims don't file a police report because they don't want to call attention to themselves. Other times, a homeowner will file a report with their local P.D. but their items are discovered two or three states away. There's no way overburdened police departments can share information about a missing racing bike or a stolen iPhone. The result: Property rooms bursting at the seams with dust-covered merchandise.

State laws vary, but generally, law enforcement is required to hold on to items for a certain length of time and then auction them off.

It costs a mountain of taxpayer money just to manage all this property and to divert trained officers from law enforcement to mere clerk duty seems like a waste of a valuable resource.

In a move that grew out of true American ingenuity, a retired detective from Long Beach, N.Y., came up with a unique idea to lift the property-room burden off cop-shops nationwide.

Tom Lane, the son of a police officer, is a been-there, done-that former cop who well remembers being assigned to clean out the property room. Today, with his brother John, he runs, an online auction house primarily featuring police confiscated goods.

It's a site where consumers can get astounding deals on jewelry, coins, furs, computers, car stereos and GPS systems, bicycles -- even gold or silver bullion and luxury cars. Many items on the site start at a bid of just one dollar, and if no one beats your bids in the allotted time, you win!

Lane, whose pitch to law enforcement is simple -- "I'm gonna haul away your headaches and send back money!" -- currently has deals with more than 2,700 departments across the country. His company sends a truck to pick up the goods then researches their worth, documents them in photos and posts them online for auction. Lane and his crew of former detectives (and one retired IRS agent) take pride in their prompt delivery service to winning bidders.

To date,'s chief operating officer, P.J. Bellomo, told me, they've funneled more than $36 million back into local police coffers -- departments as far flung as Albuquerque, Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Fargo, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, St. Louis -- the list goes on and on. In addition to the extra money, communities get a police force that can concentrate on public safety.

This has proven to be such a burden lifted that now local municipalities are asking to participate too, having sell off used lawnmowers and cars, office furniture and other items. When those sales are factored in, Bellomo says, has raised a total of $40 million for communities.

Naturally, police want to reunite victims with their stolen property whenever possible and so does Lane's company. If a citizen finds his or her item on his website and can prove it is theirs, will send it to that person free of charge.

One man spotted his missing silver cup sailing trophy up for sale. It was a sentimental award won by him and his daughter right before she went away to college. When the man was able to recite what was engraved on it, he got it back.

The owner of a long-lost class ring was reunited with his memento and so was a citizen whose custom-made, one-of-a-kind racing bike was stolen. Perhaps the most memorable item returned was an antique accordion brought to this country from communist Yugoslavia and stolen from a car during a visit to California. The man who owned it plaintively blogged about the loss on an accordion aficionados website.

A year later, a reader of that site noticed the unique instrument up for sale at and alerted the owner. When asked for proof that it was his, the Yugoslavian man instructed the caller to open the bellows clasp and look inside for his name. His prized accordion was promptly sent.

Look, in this time of austerity, our cities need to think outside the box to both save money and keep us safe. This idea seems like a no-brainer.

And while many of us are still paying off Christmas purchases and worrying about buying that special Valentine's gift, you might want to check out

Art Crime Around The World

No comments: