Skillfully rendered overview of the startlingly complex world of art fraud and thievery.
Toronto-based journalist Knelman makes shrewd use of extensive interviews with figures on both sides of the law, allowing him to fully establish this hidden, high-stakes milieu. The author argues that, far from being a sexy victimless crime, art theft has a hugely corrupting influence on museums, commerce and cultural patrimony. As one thief tells him, “It’s like a big shell game. All the antique and art dealers, they just pass it around from one to another.” One key element of the story is provided by “Paul,” a retired British art thief who has since started an angry blog on the topic called Art Hostage. Paul explains why this has been such a profitable criminal specialty: It is low-risk and high-reward, the police response is often disorganized and the purportedly legitimate art market is suffused with hidden relationships and secrecy. As the LAPD’s art-theft specialist observed, “some art dealers act like drug dealers.” Since the 1980s, law enforcement has coordinated tracking efforts with the industry-run Art Loss Register, yet numerous unscrupulous individuals evade their efforts, constantly developing innovations to both hide, and eventually sell, stolen art. The FBI finds stolen art at auction 15 to 20 times per year, while the few urban cops on the art detail have consistently found it being used as underground-economy currency by drug dealers and organized crime. Knelman’s account is surprisingly pessimistic, but it’s entertainingly written, with a fine sense of the cultural landscape that drives both thieves and a handful of cops to become self-educated art experts in perpetual competition.
Engaging exposé of an underground world less glamorous and more intricate than its Hollywood representations.