Monday, November 30, 2009

Book Review: "Art and Crime"

In what's billed as the first interdisciplinary essay collection of its kind, Art and Crime: Exploring the Dark Side of the Art World (Praeger, 2009) brings together contributors from many areas of the art, law, security, and library fields (plus collectors) with an interest in studying, understanding and combating art crime. Edited by Noah Charney, the director of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA), the volume provides useful background and important case studies for anyone interested in thefts of all fine arts (not just paintings and sculpture, but also books and manuscripts).

A recurring theme in these essays is the intense need for additional research into art crime, since statistical data is difficult or impossible to come by (thanks to underreporting and insufficient record-keeping by police). For the study of art crime, statistics are key - without them, as A.J.G. Tijhuis notes in his paper "Who Is Stealing All Those Paintings?", gaining a true understanding of just who the art thieves are is a tricky proposition indeed.

One of the interesting case studies is Silvia Loretti's look at Picasso and a pair of Iberian statuettes stolen from the Louvre; she argues that a reexamination of the evidences suggests that Picasso could have been prosecuted for having knowingly purchased stolen goods, and that a decent circumstantial case could be made that he was even more deeply involved in the thefts. Col. Giovanni Pastore of the Italian Carabinieri Division for the Protection of Cultural Heritage argues for an international ethical code that would require dealers and sellers of art to prove that the objects were free and clear. An interview with the security directors of the Isabelle Stewart Gardner and Tate Modern museums provided fascinating insight into the security procedures and mindsets at those key institutions.

The most interesting section for those of a bookish worldview will be Part V, Libraries and Archives. Travis McDade gives a very useful introduction to the problem of thefts from libraries, including the very real risk posed to general, circulating collections by enterprising and nefarious thieves (ala Brubaker, Spiegelman, et. al). His concerns (particularly about the usual severe lag time between theft and discovery, and the problem of eBay and other online auction sites as the ultimate fence) are those that all of us who worry about these things are thinking about. McDade concludes by noting the slow strides being made to take book crimes seriously in federal courts (thanks in large part to the lack of latitude federal judges have in passing sentence), while lamenting the lack of progress in foreign courts and at the state/local level.

Another essay of note in the libraries section is that of Richard Oram and Ann Hartley, who discuss the complicated process of returning stolen goods to their institutional homes. A valuable object lesson for sure, as the pair conclude: "... the experiences provides curators with a fascinating, if unsought, tutorial in the law of replevin and the inner workings of law enforcement and the book trade. Those who have lived through it pray that it is a once-in-a-lifetime education" (p. 181).

A well-edited, useful, readable and (sadly) very much necessary collection.