The Art of Theft

The Art of Theft

Noah Charney '02 has fashioned a multimedia career from the work of those who steal paintings.

By Gerry Boyle '78 | Photos by Robert P. Hernandez


There’s his debut suspense novel, The Art Thief, and the 10-city author tour that brought him to Boston in October. Another novel in progress, this one set in Slovenia and having to do with an art theft that took place during World War II. A television drama in development by DreamWorks that Charney describes as “sort of an art-theft CSI.” An art-crime TV documentary that he hopes to co-write and host. And a book of contributed essays about art theft, which he is compiling and editing. And an art-theft think tank he founded that has gathered experts from around the world.

And so on. None of which will come as a big surprise to anyone who knew Charney at Colby, where he played squash, audited extra courses every semester, wrote and produced plays, was lead singer in a rock band, founded a film society, and had a breakfast named after him at Bonnie’s Diner—all in four years.

Rembrandt's A Lady and Gentleman in Black, 1633
Rembrandt's "A Lady and Gentleman in Black", 1633
“I was really hyperactive there,” Charney recalled, chatting in the Gardner museum cafe.

The more things change …

The son of a Yale psychiatrist and a Yale French professor, Charney arrived at Colby from Choate. Tall and lanky, he did the things listed above—and he took art history. Lots of it, from first semester on.

“I spent a lot of time with my art-history professors who I loved. I just can’t say enough good things about them. They’re really superstars, but they became friends and I keep in touch with them more than I do any students.”

He’s referring to Associate Professor Véronique Plesch, James Gillespie Professor of Art Michael Marlais, and David Simon, the Ellerton and Edith Jetté Professor of Art, who recalls Charney as a terrific student, “passionate about lots of different things.” But in addition to his academic freneticism, Charney also showed “a sense of elegance,” Simon said. Learning that Simon had a house in northern Spain, Charney, who had spent time in Europe growing up, had some advice. “Noah gave me a list of restaurants to go to,” Simon said, smiling at the thought. “That was Noah.”

Charney went on to earn a master’s degree in art history at The Courtauld Institute in London, focusing on 17th-century Roman art. Then he earned a second master’s at Cambridge University, this time in 16th-century Florentine painting. His Ph.D. studies are on the history of art theft. (He’s now on leave from the program while he pursues other projects.)

While at Courtauld, Charney decided it would be fun to write a novel about art theft, and he set to researching the subject.

He soon found there was little in print other than newspaper articles. “It seems like just a vast oversight that it hasn’t been looked at before,” Charney said. “I’m basically it now. And I’m trying to get as many people as possible interested, because the more the better, especially people from different fields.”

Rembrandt's "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee", 1633

With characteristic aplomb, at 27 Charney founded a nonprofit, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA). He organized a conference and convinced the heaviest hitters in the world of art theft to show up in Cambridge for the meetings. The FBI and Scotland Yard were represented, along with museums like the Tate Modern.

His effort got him profiled in the The New York Times Magazine in 2006: “Though Charney’s work has thus far been largely theoretical, he has plans to put it to active use. ‘I’ve been a student all my life, but I don’t want these things to remain locked away in the ivory tower,’” the story said.

Fat chance.

In addition to his media projects, two ARCA conferences are planned for London and Ljubljana, Slovenia. Beginning next year, Charney plans to run the nonprofit from Rome. Last fall he spoke at the European Criminology Society meeting in Bologna, and he has been invited to present at the American version next year.

“I think the best thing I could do now is be sort of a figurehead for the field,” Charney said. “I honestly think … I’m not good with details related to academia. I tend to get too excited about big ideas.”

Where to begin?

Charney wants to educate the public about art crime, but first he has to educate the public about art. “Most people will think at first that it’s the collectibles of the wealthy who can afford to lose them anyway. And it’s objects going missing that they have no relationship with. And they have the idea that art is for an elitist institution that is other, that criminals are kind of sticking it to the man. It’s almost cool.”

How to bring the public closer to art?

Each spring Charney teaches in Florence with a program for students from Miami-Dade University. Each summer he teaches in a program in Cambridge, England. “I see how approaching it with the correct turns of phrase can really illuminate these students. They fall in love with it. I think it’s the most fascinating thing to study, because you study everything through the lens of this one work of art. It’s history, it’s literature, it’s biography, geometry, chemistry. It’s all mixed up in there.”

Couple teaching with crime novels, TV shows, even a movie (though presumably not in the vein of The Thomas Crown Affair) and maybe you can reach some people.

“If I can make a few people come to a museum, and not just come because it’s on their tourist itinerary and they want to check it off, but come and actually look at the art, interact with it, choose a favorite postcard and love the experience, then that would give me tremendous satisfaction,” Charney said.

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