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


And a novel about art theft? No better way to bring art and art history to the masses, he says.

"It's really more akin to kidnapping, because of the emotional connection between the owner and the object and the fact that you cannot simply buy another one. A monetary equivalent is insufficient."

-- Noah Charney '02, art-theft expert
“I’m not interested in publishing a peer-reviewed article that is going to be read by five people, not including my mother,” Charney said. “But if I can write a book that is going to be read by a few hundred-thousand people, it’s the best chance to reach a large audience.”

It could be that The Art Thief will have that reach. The first printing for the U.S. hardcover was 75,000, according to Charney’s publicist at Atria Books, an imprint of Random House. A Spanish version, El ladrón de arte, is out and selling like hotcakes (Charney finished the U.S. book tour and flew to Madrid to do publicity there), with editions in several other languages coming next year.

So what will the novel teach readers about art theft?

Charney invites readers into the world of art, thievery, and forgery in London, Paris, and Rome. An art detective and an art historian track the art and the thieves into a world of intrigue that Charney himself has studied, and he’s eager to share his knowledge—both in fiction and in person.

At the Gardner he mounted the stone steps to the second-floor Dutch Room, where empty frames mark what were the locations of works by Vermeer and Rembrandt, among 13 works stolen 17 years ago.

Was this the work of some diabolical collector? Most likely. But, Charney said, “That’s incredibly, dramatically the exception.”

In Boston, the fact that other, far more valuable works were left behind points to a collector who sent thieves with a shopping list. But, Charney said, contrary to popular fiction, most art crimes are commissioned by an administrator who is usually a branch member of an organized crime syndicate.

“They choose what to steal and they have a sense of what they want to do afterwards,” he said. “They might want to sell it to someone, but most of the time it gets traded on a closed black market for an equal value of other illicit goods like drugs or arms. The reason we know that tends to be haphazard. It tends to be accidental police raids of storehouses. They find drugs and arms and art.”

Some thieves steal art to trade for guns or drugs. Others hope to sell the art but soon find that unloading a stolen Vermeer is easy only in the movies (which the thieves have seen). “Unfortunately, taking the object isn’t all that hard,” Charney said.

In fact, most valuable art is shockingly vulnerable to theft, Charney says, with only large metropolitan museums likely to take steps to protect works of art. “For instance, in all of Poland, which has wonderful art, there is only one painting that has its own security, and that same painting is the only one in the entire country that’s insured,” he said. “There are ninety-five thousand churches in Italy. Every single one has at least one important work of art.”

How to protect them from thieves? In museums, separate the most valuable objects and station a security guard next to them—not at the threshold of the gallery. Rearrange art works periodically, making it harder to plan a theft.

Of course, thefts do occur—six to 10 billion dollars worth a year, according to Charney. “Interpol just released stats on highest growing criminal industries,” he said. “Number one is drugs. Number two is money laundering. Number three is arms. Number four is art crime. It slipped down. It used to be number three.”

Vermeer's "The Concert"

Most stolen art is looted antiquities from archaeological sites, but with art values skyrocketing, museums and churches are regular targets. Most thieves soon learn that stealing a painting is easy. “Then they have the object and they realize that there isn’t anyone to sell it to,” Charney said.

An art thief’s Plan B? Ransom the work back to the institution from which it was stolen. If that falls through, Charney says, most art is abandoned or cached. “Police don’t take seriously threats to destroy art. It’s in no one’s interest. It’s like setting fire to a briefcase of hundred-dollar bills,” he said. “So then they just wait. They might have to wait a couple of generations, even if the object is literally just sitting in a storeroom somewhere.”

And the paintings stolen from the Gardner? “I would say they are buried somewhere in Ireland and will be stumbled upon at some point, but only by accident,” he said.

Why Ireland? Charney hesitated, then confided that some Boston criminal elements were connected to the Irish Republican Army, and the IRA was known to steal art to use to barter the staples of its other illicit activities, like guns and drugs. “I also have information that I can’t talk about, so apologies about that,” Charney said.

It was all very mysterious. In fact, Charney himself—tall, suave, recently engaged to a woman from Slovenia, peppering the conversation with Italian phrases—could have stepped out of a suspense novel.

Especially his own.

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