Why Art Crime has Gone Understudied

Despite being the estimated third highest-grossing criminal trade worldwide, behind only drugs and arms, according to the US Department of Justice, Scotland Yard, the Carabinieri, and other notable sources, art crime has been largely overlooked as a field of study.  That is not to say that there are no works on the subject—far from it.  But relative to any other major criminological field, art crime barely makes a dent in the literature.  That is one of the reasons why ARCA was founded, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, an international non-profit established with enthusiastic support from members of the FBI, Scotland Yard, the Carabinieri and more, in order to set up art crime as a proper field of study.

The Cathal Blake Art Crime Library, which is run by ARCA and resides in Italy, contains every book in print, and many out of print, on the subject, including works wherein the subject of art crime is touched upon but not the central topic.  And yet, it spans only three bookshelves.  This, despite the fact that art has been stolen for as long as it has been created, from Biblical times through the wars of the ancient world.  There are tens of thousands or reported artworks stolen every year, and many more go unreported.  So why has scholarship been slow to catch up?

The main reason is that the study of art crime falls between established fields, and there is a tendency for academics to be shy about stepping outside of their specialization.  Understanding art crime involves aspects of criminology, certainly, but also art history, the art trade, archaeology, art law, police and security studies, anthropology, sociology, museums, insurance, and more.  It is inherently interdisciplinary, and to approach it from only one discipline risks seeing only part of the picture.  Most of the literature on art crime consists of more journalistic or anecdotal accounts of famous heists, with little or no attempt at placing them in a historical, international, or scholarly context.

It is only in recent years that a few scholars have turned their attentions to the subject, and most have approached from other, related fields.  This is a great start and wonderful work has been done.  Plenty of good books have been written on the looting of art during the Second World War and on the illicit trade in antiquities.  But what is still wanting is work on the subject in general, but most specifically on theft from extant collections and on fakes and forgeries, which boast the fewest books and scholarly articles.

There is a reason why the 2006 conference that I organized at Cambridge University made such a splash internationally that it resulted in a New York Times Magazine feature article—it was nothing I had done, per se, but it was the fact that this was the first major conference to attempt to establish art crime as a field of study, bringing together the relatively few world scholars and art police in a joint venture.  Out of that rose ARCA.

Part of ARCA’s mission is to encourage scholarship, and in that it has been most successful.  We have established the first and only interdisciplinary academic program in which art crime is the focal point of study, ARCA’s Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Studies, run every summer in Italy.  We also established the first and only peer-reviewed academic journal on the subject, The Journal of Art Crime.

But there is still nowhere else in the world where one can enroll in an academic program dedicated to art crime.  One can study it, but one must approach it from another field: criminology or law, for example.  There are only a handful of professors in the world who feel confident enough in their knowledge of art crime to accept a doctoral student who wishes to pursue the topic.  This is changing, for the better.  The more scholars who turn their attentions to the subject, the better for all.

A recent article in a criminology journal was entitled “Art Crime: A Brief Introduction.”  The title says it all.  The very fact that we still need “an introduction” to this topic is proof enough that it is still a fledgling.  Can you imagine someone publishing “Arms Trade: A Brief Introduction,” or even something as mundane but well-combed-over as “Cigarette Smuggling: A Brief Introduction?”  Those topics have shelves upon shelves of articles and books dedicated to them.  And yet we still do need “introductions” to art crime.  This is all changing, swinging toward ever-improved scholarship written by top-notch academics, professionals, and aspiring students.  But relative to any other important subject, one with a history that dates back thousands of years, it is interesting that we are still in its early days.  This is exciting for those interested in the field, because it means that any contribution can be significant.

Continue to join us in this column, as we will discuss this subject more in the future.  I am finishing a chapter on art crime for an upcoming criminology book on the history of transnational crime, which will provide just such an introduction, as well as writing an expansive history of art crime textbook—this will be the first of its kind.

The subject of art crime is moving forward wonderfully well, and it has the advantage of being intriguing to experts and laymen alike.  We need more thoughtful introductions as well as in-depth studies to further this young field of study.