Art & Crime: The fight against looters, forgers, and fraudsters in the high-stakes art world
“Art & Crime goes beyond just bringing ‘into focus just how far apart are theory and reality in the art world’ by outlining the scope and types of fraud and theft but also provides an entertaining book on the details of these crimes.”
Antiquities and art make up the third largest category of major crime after drugs and human trafficking. This crime has many different forms, some of which connect with others. Victims include whole cultures when archaeological sites or museums are robbed. The market for this crime, as with legitimate art, extends from New York to Monaco to Beijing.
Stolen art becomes a form of currency and money laundering for all other forms of crime, however heinous. Forged copies of stolen paintings are fraudulently sold for use in laundering criminal assets. Terrorists obtain funding from selling looted antiquities. Arms dealers and dictators deal in the illicit art and artifacts market but so too do modern governments and museums!
Stefan Koldehoff and Tobias Timm, in Paul David Young’s translation of Art & Crime, write, as one example, of how “thieves used the millions of dollars stolen from the Malaysian government to buy art by Vincent van Gogh.” Stolen art “serves as a basis for extortion from insurers and collectors” and artifacts are stolen to melt down for the value of the metals.
In auction houses in London or New York, a billion dollars can change hands in just one week. The authors explain that “these multi-million dollar transactions aren’t about art; rather, lifestyle and prestige are for sale.” The final crime is that buyers purchase art and artifacts only to purchase entry into “the minority global class of the well-to-do, whose wealth has grown enormously in the last few years.”
The obsessions and wealth of these few people in recent years have exacerbated the very special elements of this always-global commerce, according to Koldehoff and Timm. The product too often has become appreciated only as investments, even to the extent of endangering the art and artifacts through indifferent means of transportation and poor storage.
“For the collectors of these questionable relics, there is obviously no price too high nor story too absurd that it couldn’t serve as proof of the authenticity of the object offered for sale.” Ironically, considering the damage to art in Europe caused by the Third Reich, Nazi artifacts and art are caught up in the modern problems of forgery and theft, a subject the authors cover in detail.
Art has always been among the least transparent markets, claimed special privileges regarding secrecy, and exists in the purest form of capitalism—all allowing for criminal activity. The authenticity of even ancient works becomes challenges of documentation, military/political upheaval, opinion, and science.
Counterfeiting has become common and widespread as sales go from one forgery scandal to the next, and even includes forged books. Even catalogs can carry false information. Modernist painting forgeries (particularly Russian) thwart science because materials and methods are easier to duplicate and the conflicts of the World War II era.
Art & Crime goes beyond just bringing “into focus just how far apart are theory and reality in the art world” by outlining the scope and types of fraud and theft but also provides an entertaining book on the details of these crimes. “Art, however, is the loser every time.” “It is taken hostage, hidden in modern robbers’ caves, and dirtied by counterfeiting.”
The first chapter recounts the stories of the most famous thefts, beginning with that of the Mona Lisa and how the organizer made a fortune selling copies of the stolen painting. The men responsible committed the crime unarmed and hurt no one. Today’s robberies have nothing in common with that most famous theft, modern art miscreants are professionals and increasingly armed and violent.
The authors observe that art is not stolen for its own sake, or at least no one has been arrested for that motive in decades, but for profit. Apparently, no “secretive millionaire” is commissioning the robberies for a most private hoard. Yet many of the stolen works have disappeared without a trace.
Leaving behind more valuable works in these robberies supports that “today, art is stolen by well-organized criminal groups that are staffed by well-educated, but poor, former soldiers from the Eastern Bloc or the Balkans.” The thefts, in museums with grossly inadequate security, tend to be simple and largely go unsolved.
Koldehoff and Timm effectively tell concise, engrossing stories, through Young’s right-on translation, that educates the reader well in art crime. Art & Crime could make anything but dull work for a criminology class. This work has illustrations (many in color) and notes but no index.