What do you mean? It is TOO hacking-related. Wait till you learn how great art is used to launder drug money, how it’s exchanged for illegal weapons, how it’s sanitized as it travels up the chain from B&E artiste to stately auction house.
And where murder comes into it.
Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives Through the Secret World of Stolen Art is exactly the kind of book that practically leaps off the shelf and into my backpack, with of course a brief stop at the cashier; how ironic would it be to be caught shoplifting a book about thievery? Did it deliver all the excitement the noirish cover promised?
Well, not really, no.
It is a good book, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the field, in spite of a certain shall we say Torontonian cold-bloodedness?
Instead of chasing anyone at all, Joshua Knelman interviews them, starting with an art thief in Toronto who begins their acquaintance with a midnight “I know where you live” call, and ending with a murderous LAPD officer and a twenty-year old crime passionnel. And always, always in search of the elusive Dr No archetype: the obsessive collector, wealthy beyond the dreams of mortals, who simply MUST have a certain piece, at any price. That last proves a phantom; nowhere does Knelman find anyone who’s encountered such a figure.
Instead, it turns out that the global art thievery racket (and it is a global racket) exists simply because it’s a money-spinner. The addicts and down-and-outs who do the actual heisting couldn’t care less what they’re lifting; they just want their cut of the dosh. The shifty lower-tier dealers who buy the stuff know it’s hot, but also know that the police are crippled by a lack of coordination.
Ultimately, the story of global art theft is the story of databases. What could be more computery than that, kittens?
There’s the Interpol database, accessible only to law enforcement. There’s the LAPD database. There’s a private one in New York. There’s one at a University. Scotland Yard keeps records, but again doesn’t make these available to the public. And none of them connect directly with the others. Information is our age’s most valuable commodity, of course, and god help the person who tries to persuade a government agency (which law enforcement is) to give up control of it, for free.
As a result, the path is clear to buy in Town A and sell in Town B, given that grandma, now bereft of her minor still life, isn’t going to go traipsing all over the countryside looking for her missing DeWhoever.
The book itself is structured as a series of interviews rather than as a narrative, chasing one particular painting or even one particular thief, although Knelman struck gold when he made contact with Turbo Paul, a lifelong (but now retired) art thief from the criminal hotbed of Brighton. He now writes his own blog, Art Hostage. Paul says things like…
[Old Masters are] “Headache Art. They only give everyone involved a fucking headache! The criminals who get greedy and pull off high-profile art thefts are mostly idiots, they have no idea what they’re doing most of the time. They just see that something is worth money and they take it. Greed is their undoing. Stealing art is the easy part — moving it is the hard part. A good thief stays out of the spotlight, and under the radar. That’s the golden rule.
This is indeed gold, as Paul knows what he’s talking about, having made a living at it since the age of sixteen until he retired as “a guest of Her Majesty’s” and decided he was too old for this shit.
Most of the other characters interviewed are not as lively (who is?) but nonetheless they paint a very complete picture of the way art is looted, laundered, and legitimized over time and distance. It’s not exactly a caper tale; nor is it an exposé; it’s more a newsy yet didactic introduction to the field, something that could be assigned reading in an art history class.
This is not to say it’s not enjoyable; merely that at times it suffers from lack of story arc. The chapters feel very much like index cards shuffled into deliberate order because A has to be covered before B can be discussed, rather than for plot or chronological reasons. But the book is well-written, the experts are quotable and erudite without being inaccessible, and it certainly does leave one with a quite solid understanding of a very complicated field.
As an example of the kinds of choices the author has made, let’s look at the case of Detective Stephanie Lazarus. The book opens on the author doing a ride along with LAPD art squad Detective Lazarus and her partner, Donald Hrcyk, as they investigate a break-in at a gallery. Lazarus scans the author’s shoes to see if they match a footprint left at the scene: everyone is a potential perp, particularly a journalist from Toronto interested in art thefts who just HAPPENS to request a ride-along on a day there’s a major art theft.
Stephanie Lazarus was arrested for the murder of her ex-boyfriend’s wife on June 5, 2009, a fact practically glanced over in the book.
Me? I’d have built the book around Lazarus and her opposite number, Turbo Paul. For him, it was just about the money. For her it never was. The world of art thefts is simultaneously more and less cold-blooded than you might expect. And so is Hot Art.