Next Big Thing Interview Series

The Next Big Thing is a blog series, winding its way through the internet. The Secret History of Art is delighted to participate by answering a few questions about my latest book. Big Thanks to Pam Belluck, author of the excellent Island Practice, for inviting me to join in. You can find out more about her book, recently purchased by CBS to be turned into a medical drama, at

The Ten Interview Questions for The Next Big Thing:

1. What is the title of your book (or story)?
My most recent big book is Stealing the Mystic Lamb: the True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece.  It tells the story of The Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, the most frequently stolen artwork in history, and the most influential painting ever made.  It combines my two loves, art history and art crime.

Photograph of Noah Charney by Roman Ogorevc

More recently I published The Thefts of the Mona Lisa: On Stealing the World’s Most Famous Painting, as a way of supporting the non-profit I founded, ARCA (Association for Research into Crimes against Art).  100% of the profits from this book go to support ARCA’s charitable activities, so buying a copy helps a good cause, to protect art and monuments.

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?
I wrote The Thefts of the Mona Lisa and published it to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the theft of the Mona Lisa, by Vincenzo Peruggia, on 21 August 1911.  I teach the history of art crime, and this is the most famous case of them all, so it felt good to tell it in full detail.  It reads like a novel, but it’s all true.

"The Thefts of the Mona Lisa" cover by Urska Charney

3. What genre does your book fall under?
My last two books have been popular non-fiction, in the art/history category but with a good measure of true crime thrown in.  I also write fiction, but I’ve been focusing on novelistic non-fiction: the stories are dramatic, dynamic, and hard to believe, but all true.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I heard that a film version of the Mona Lisa theft was being made a few years back, but it got derailed.  Antonio Banderas was supposed to play Peruggia, and Dustin Hoffman was in there somewhere.  Sounds pretty good to me.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
The 1911 theft of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is widely but inaccurately known—this book tells the complete, true story of that theft, as well as other crimes and mysteries involving the world’s most famous painting, from Picasso’s theft of statues from the Louvre to bizarre myths about Argentine forgers, and the mysterious fate of the Mona Lisa during the Second World War.

6. Is your book self-published or represented by an agency?
I am represented by an agency (the great Eleanor Jackson of Markson Thoma) and all of my books have been published by major presses (Atria, Simon & Schuster, Planeta, Praeger, PublicAffairs).  But this one was self-published for two reasons.  First, because I wanted it to come out by 21 August 2011, the 100th anniversary of the Mona Lisa theft, I was too late to submit it to major presses, which need at least 9 months to get a book out—I wrote this in the spring of 2011 and it came out in August of that year.  Second, 100% of the profits from this book support the charity I founded.  That means that the charity receives every dollar.  If I were to publish it through a major press, my charity would wind up with around 7% of the cover price.  So I traded more sales for a larger dollar amount per sale.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
This was a quicky—it’s really an extended essay, coming in at around 150 pages.  I wrote it in about 6 weeks.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Everyone seems to find art crime fascinating, from movies like Thomas Crown Affair and Ocean’s Twelve, to novels like Headhunters or my own novel, The Art Thief. If you like true crime and you enjoy heist stories, this is a good choice for you.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I teach the history of art crime every year on the ARCA Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection, as well as at university.  It feels good to carefully and definitively commit to published writing some of the case studies that I have taught for years.  With the 100th anniversary of the Mona Lisa theft approaching, I thought that this would make a good short book, and one which I could dedicate to charity.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
When most people think of art theft, they think of Dr. No and Thomas Crown—collectors who knowingly purchase stolen art for private delectation.  In reality, this almost never happens.  There are over 4 million art thefts in the Carabinieri database of stolen art in Italy, and I can tell you that only about a dozen cases in history have involved a Thomas Crown-style criminal collector.  But one of that dozen involves a surprising celebrity—Pablo Picasso.  In one chapter of my book, I detail Picasso’s involvement in the theft of statue heads from the Louvre.  Picasso was one of the few real-life Thomas Crowns.

Here are the writers I am pleased to tag for next week’s The Next Big Thing:

Miha Mazzini:

Saso Dolenc:

Luka Novak:

Vlado Kreslin:

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