It’s Art Heist April on Kat’s Clues! Join me all month long to discover books, movies, and more, all featuring art heists.
Let’s kick off the month with a real-life account of how art thieves operate and move art all over the world. Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives through the Secret World of Stolen Art, by Joshua Knelman, is part-caper, part–true crime. The story begins when Knelman is approached by an art thief in Toronto who wants to tell his story about a small but lucrative gallery heist. From there, we dive into a global investigation of how the art-theft world works, following cops in Hollywood, lawyers specializing in art theft, Interpol agents, and known thieves.
This is a great non-fiction book to get your toes wet and learn about the shady world of art thieves. Beginning with heists in Toronto and LA in the 2000s, the book then goes back and traces art theft through its “golden age,” when thieves could easily get artworks across borders before there was any organized international enforcement or response.
Some of the best material comes from Paul, a thief in England with fantastic stories and great connections. A mastermind art thief, Paul got his start as a young knocker–someone who knocked on the doors of the wealthy in his native Brighton. There, he would offer to buy older homeowners’ or relatives’ jewelry or small items that he would “appraise,” pronouncing them nearly worthless. He would buy them for a song, then turn around and sell them at a much higher price to antiques dealers who well knew that the merchandise was hot. But they would sell for an even greater sum, and so on–and as soon as the piece is sold once or twice, it has a provenance and a legitimacy, making it hard to recover.
“The real criminals weren’t just the thugs running into museums with guns,” Knelman writes. “They were installed at all levels of the industry and were willing to turn a blind eye to the looting of global cultural heritage because of a need to make money or climb the social ladder. The corruption and moral degradation didn’t surprise him, though. It was the illusion of respectability that people associated with the art world that confounded Paul.”
Hot Art serves as a history lesson, especially of the latter half of the twentieth century, including touching on the famous and still-unsolved Gardner heist and the newer involvement of organized crime in the art world, especially of the Hell’s Angels. Knelman’s style is straightforward and engrossing, and his characters are well drawn.
From “headache art” (the really identifiable stuff that’s hard to sell) to the surging black market in expensive but lesser known works, from the so-called golden age to today with a global register and a handful of highly trained agents working to stop the trade of stolen art, Hot Art is a great primer on what art theft is really like, how thieves operate, and where the art goes.