The Guardian’s wonderful art critic, Jonathan Jones (author of the highly-recommended The Lost Battles, about Leonardo’s lost Battle of Anghiari, a topic discussed in one of my LA Times articles) wrote a thoughtful article a few days ago, entitled “Is Art Theft an Act of Homage?” He was kind enough to mention two books of mine, a novel (The Art Thief) and a history book (Stealing the Mystic Lamb), along with a fine book by a colleague of mine, Sandy Nairne’s Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners. Jones notes that a number of high-profile art thefts, and the majority of the presentations of art theft in fiction and film, show thieves as obsessive collectors or art lovers, and suggest that the act of stealing a work of art is in some ways an homage to that work.
I should note that my fiction is guilty of perpetuating the stereotypes that began with some real-life thefts (Adam Worth and Gainsborough’s Duchess of Devonshire, Vincenzo Peruggia and Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Arsene Goedertier and Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece), but which really dug in through fiction: the Raffles stories, the novels of Maurice LeBlanc that feature master thief Arsene Lupin, and more recently in films like Thomas Crown Affair. In fact, the vast majority of art thefts are committed by members of organized crime groups who have no interest in, or knowledge of, the art they steal. Jones is right that works targeted for theft do have an added cache–someone who may or may not know much about art has decided that this work is worth stealing. The theft of the Mona Lisa is really what made it the world’s most famous painting–it was already well-loved, and a cult already surrounded Leonardo, but the 1911 theft pushed its fame over the top. People visit the Gardner Museum now for the gruesome attraction of looking at the empty frames on the wall, from which paintings were ripped in the infamous 1990 heist, which is not only the largest unsolved art theft in history, but is probably the largest unsolved property theft in history (the art is valued at $500 million).
So while stolen art is granted an added cache, it is very rare that the thieves, or the patron of a theft, has any knowledge of art. Since the Second World War, the majority of art theft has been perpetrated by, on behalf of, or in collaboration with organized crime groups. These groups range in size from small local gangs to large international syndicates, and they have in common a lack of knowledge of what they are stealing. The Carabinieri keep the world’s largest stolen art database, with over 4 million entries. There are around 50,000 artworks reported stolen every year. Out of that vast number, and having studied art crime and taught it for years, I know of only about a dozen or so cases that fulfill the largely-fictional cliche of gentleman thieves stealing art for private delectation. Among the real-life Thomas Crowns ranks Pablo Picasso. He commissioned the theft of several Iberian statue heads from the Louvre (they appear as masks in his 1907 Les Demoiselles d’Avignon). You can read the full, true story of Picasso’s involvement in my The Thefts of the Mona Lisa–all profits from the sale of that book go to charity. But such filmic, romantic stories are few and far-between in real-life art heists. When we do hear about them, though, the certainly capture the imagination.
Kudos to Jonathan Jones for a thoughtful, thought-provoking article, and for his kind words about my books. If you’d like to learn more, you might take a look at a recent TED talk I gave on just this subject.