Reading the Screen: Art Heists: A Growth Industry

According to a May 20 Associated Press story, a thief, working alone, made off with several paintings from the Paris Museum of Modern Art.  Works by Picasso, Matisse, and Modigliani are among the missing.

If you’re anything like me — and I imagine you are, but perhaps a bit taller — then this story piques your interest in art heists in movies and books.

There are plenty of good movies on the subject. The Thomas Crown Affair, thomas-crownreleased in 1968 (with Steve McQueen) and again in ’99 (with Pierce Brosnan), features a wealthy playboy type who steals paintings for kicks. I like the McQueen version better, but they’re both pretty entertaining.

In Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve (2004), which was unfairly dumped on by many critics, Danny Ocean and his cohorts target a priceless Faberge Egg, and, just for fun, they help themselves to some paintings owned by a rival thief. If you’re not sure how to take the movie, here’s a hint: it’s a spoof of itself.

the-scoreFrank Oz’s The Score (2001), starring a moviegoer’s dream team of Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, and Edward Norton, takes us through the planning and execution of the theft of valuable French artifact from the  Montreal Customs House. An excellent movie, with a clever story and a couple of nifty plot twists. If you like caper movies, this is a must-see.

The mystery/thriller genre has its share of art crime, too. James Twining writes about Tom Kirk, formerly one of the world’s most successful art thieves, who now helps the government crack cases involving stolen art and antiquities. I enjoy this series — two of the books are The Double Eagle (2005) and The Black Sun (’06) — because I like Tom Kirk, and I like the way the author works a lot of art history into the stories, but without lecturing us.

Iain Pears, an art historian, is another writer who seamlessly integrates art deception2history into his fiction. He’s written several novels about Jonathan Argyll, also an art historian, who works with the Italian police to investigate art thefts. The books are very well written, rich in character and story, and if you haven’t read them, you ought to. Check out 2000’s The Immaculate Deception, for example, or 1996’s The Last Judgement.

And where would we be if we didn’t mention Jonathan Gash’s Lovejoy, the antiques dealer and sleuth who stars in a series of witty novels? Gash has been writing the books since the late 1970s; the most recent, Faces in the Pool, was published in the U.S. in 2009. If you haven’t read the Lovejoy books, you ought to — they’re not specifically about art crime, but they are set in the art world, and they’re a lot of fun. So is the television series, which starred Ian McShane as Lovejoy.

There are dozens — hundreds — of nonfiction books about art theft. Edward Dolnick’s The Rescue Artist (2005) is a riveting account of the theft, and eventual recovery, of Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream. The case was widely covered in the press, of course, but the book goes into a lot more detail.

museum-missingSimon Houpt’s Museum of the Missing (2006) explores the explosion in art crime since the mid-1950s, pointing out how auction houses and dealers aren’t doing themselves any favors by driving prices through the roof. If you don’t want people stealing your art, maybe don’t make it such a financially attractive proposition.  

For a comprehensive look at the modern history and practise of art crime, check out John E. Conklin’s appropriately-titled Art Crime (1994). Conklin describes the various crimes involving art — forgery, theft, smuggling, etc.  — and goes into quite a lot of fascinating detail about the mechanics of these crimes. He also talks about shifty art dealers, law enforcement techniques, and some of the reasons why art crime has grown more plentiful, and more profitable, in the last half-century or so.

There are plenty more books and movies on the subject, but these will get you started.



About the Author:

David Pitt lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In addition to reviewing for Booklist, he writes a monthly column about paperback fiction and nonfiction for the Winnipeg Free Press. He has contributed to The Booklist Reader since 2010.

2 Comments on "Reading the Screen: Art Heists: A Growth Industry"

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  1.' Pete says:

    Three guards on duty, and none of them saw someone walk off with five paintings? Hmmm, I think I can suggest the first people to interrogate.

  2. David Pitt says:

    Yeah, it kinda makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Have you read Trevanian’s The Loo Sanction? It lays out a very clever way to steal painting. Not that I’m condoning that sort of behavior.

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