Stolen art—like a political sex scandal, corporate meltdown, or celebrity criminal trial—makes for a good story. Behind the thrilling headline of an $80-million Rembrandt heist, however, exists a complex network of thieves, dealers, auction houses and galleries. It is this network that Joshua Knelman traces in Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives through the Secret World of Stolen Art.
That most art stolen is far less expensive than a Rembrandt, or clumsy break-ins and not sophisticated heists are the norm, is the less-than-thrilling reality. But what Knelman reveals is that these middling examples elaborate a pervasive criminal network far better than high-profile museum thefts. Major works, unique and easily recognizable, are “headache art” and nearly impossible to unload. Knelman veers into a discussion of silverware, jewelry or even stamps, in order to address this far more insidious problem. A Rembrandt may make the headlines, but far more illustrative are those works easily passed off to dealers, or, in the age before the Art Loss Register and similar databases, even laundered through auction houses.
Part of the appeal in reading about these cases lies in their striking contrast of high and low: demure galleries and bourgeois interiors run amok by hapless burglars; delicate works of art wrenched from frames and mounts with shattering speed. Knelman exploits this contrast to great effect. Working his way episodically between Los Angeles, London, New York and Montreal, the book’s structure is reminiscent of other recent writing about the global art market (Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World, for instance). Moving through these cities, Knelman introduces us to a motley crew of cops, gallerists, collectors, and pseudonymous thieves. Revealing this system piece by piece, one has to wonder about its cut-and-dry organization. Robert Wittman, a retired FBI agent who dished his experiences as lead of the Art Crime Team in Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures (2010), disagrees with Knelman’s too tidy summation of the relationship between organized crime and art. The connection does seem far messier than Knelman argues in his section on biker gangs in Montreal. Knelman’s discussion of a theft at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has a very tentative connection to biker gangs; other cases he describes seem eccentric or arbitrary—that a painting is burgled and not a television seems almost incidental. Stolen property is stolen property, after all.
There’s a good deal of tragedy in reading about so many stolen works of art. Perhaps it’s because when cultural property is reduced to an insurance claim, it loses something of its real importance. Diminished to collateral, these cases lay bare the economic foundation of the art world—a foundation underpinned by the largely unregulated circulation of money for ideas. Knelman’s great success in elaborating such a system only makes the tragedy more acute.