Ho’s book looks at the many different kinds of art thefts, digging deep into the motivations, methodologies and statistics behind the crimes.
Derived from Ho’s dissertation in criminal justice at Rutgers University, this book offers an evidence-based overview of how, why and where art thefts are committed, particularly in the commercial galleries of New York. Ho performed research in the New York Police Department’s Art and Antique Investigation Unit, and much of her statistics are derived from their case files as well as from an extensive survey she conducted onsite at 45 Manhattan galleries. As its subtitle suggests, the book does read as a memoir—in part. In fact, its approach varies fairly evenly among memoir, criminal justice dissertation and a history of art theft, the latter being by far the most successful. Ho’s anecdotes are both thrilling and fascinating; the criminals whose stories she tells—and she tells them well—are simultaneously alluring and repellent characters. One wishes for the same sort of pop-history approach for her treatment of New York galleries—a community that is also full of colorful personalities—but alas, here she has promised confidentiality to her participants. Instead, she offers a fairly dry assembly of demographics and statistics, derived from the survey, about locations of gallery reception desks, insurance policies, number of employees and other details, enlivened by only a few individualized (but still anonymous) incidents. The memoir approach seems to have been a conscious attempt to modify the original dissertation into a sort of gumshoe detective story, but it’s not quite successful. The first-person voice is generally awkward and unnatural—“As my epiphany melted into memory, giddiness transcended into intimidation”—and she uses it inconsistently and misleadingly, giving her narrator dialogue that clearly reflects no remembered conversation but is instead an opportunity to expound on her (admittedly impressive) research.
Ho’s well-documented research will intrigue criminologists—though they may get more value out of the original dissertation—while culture vultures will appreciate the art war stories yet wish for a bit more.