a valuable Caravaggio altar piece disappears from a small church in
Rome in a daring break-in, it is one of many art thefts reported
each month to the overworked Italian police. Italy, a country
virtually brimming with priceless art in all its forms, is ripe for
the picking in the lucrative world of art crime.
Meanwhile, a rare Malevich painting is auctioned for $6.3 million
to the London National Gallery of Modern Art. A Malevich expert
suspects it is a forgery because she knows it to be secured in a
Paris vault, but when she checks the vault she finds it missing.
She is still suspicious of its authenticity because the famous
white-on-white study could be easily forged due to its simplicity.
The quandary arises of whether to expose its possible forgery,
thereby embarrassing a major world museum and its cadre of art
experts. But even that problem becomes moot when, within hours of
its delivery to the National Gallery, the Malevich, genuine or not,
is stolen in a daring midnight heist.
Now the shell game begins. First you see it, then you don’t;
now you know which is the genuine article, and then it’s
proven to be rubbish. Or is it?
Gabriel Coffin, world-renowned art expert, is called in to
investigate the apparently unrelated burglaries that involve
detectives from three nations. He in turn calls upon colleagues in
the field of fine art to help trace the missing articles, worth
millions to collectors and the criminal masterminds who pride
themselves on their own high art form --- commissioned theft and
forgery. Engaged in the hunt are two Parisian detectives who
sometimes seem more interested in feeding their gourmand appetites
than pursuing criminals. A relentless Scotland Yard inspector with
no knowledge of art but as an expert in human nature has never
failed to run his prey to the ground.
Author Noah Charney is an expert on art crime and the founding
director of a consulting group on art crime prevention and
solution. Art crime is considered high class, prestigious and
intriguing. Wealthy collectors will pay huge sums to commission
expert thieves to steal or even commit forgery of priceless
masterpieces to add to their private collections. Less well-known
pieces are stolen for lucrative resale to collectors in all parts
of the world. It is the only form of offense where the public tends
to cheer for the criminals --- the more adventurous and daring the
caper, the higher the admiration.
Gabriel Coffin says: “But then, the public was not aware of
how art crime funded more sinister activities, such as the drug and
arms trades, and even terrorists. The average citizen felt somewhat
detached, and sometimes threatened, by fine art. It was considered
elite and evasive, beyond their mental capacities, and therefore
frightening to many. It was with some satisfaction that the public
read about gracefully orchestrated art thefts. It was a combination
of voyeurism into a glamorous world apart, and a satisfying jab at
an institution that felt exclusive.”
THE ART THIEF is more about the chase and less about the
crime. Charney does not abuse his platform to preach about the
criminal aspects, and the reader will be rewarded by learning a
great deal about art history, especially iconic art.
The shell game continues to the very end. Who are the thieves, and
who are the investigators? THE ART THIEF is a riddle
wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on January 24, 2011