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Friday, January 16, 2009

The High-Stakes, High-Falutin' World of Art Theft

I love a great true-crime book. True crime television is also great, all those stories about women poisoning their husbands with arsenic from the garden shed. Serial killers are always great entertainment, I just cannot stop watching that "Most Evil" show when it's on the boob tube. I sit and stare with my jaw hanging open like an idiot, it's so fascinating. My whole life, watching crime TV, cops and robbers has been a real bonding activity between my mother and I, and now my best friend from college has gotten in on it. We wasted an entire day eating pizza and watching shows about the Manson Family and the Son of Sam, it was great.

On a recent trip to the library, I got my hands on a whole new realm of fascinating crime non-fiction: ART CRIME. Can you imagine my excitement? A whole shelf of books, combining two of my favorite things: art history and federal criminal investigations! I've chosen three to review for your reading pleasure.

1. FAKE: Forgery, Lies, & eBay by Kenneth Walton. What started as curiosity about a local story turned into full-fledged incredulity about Mr. Walton's autobiographical story of transformation from a bored lawyer in Sacramento to a forger of signatures on yard-sale paintings. Oh, this book brought back memories of the early days of eBay auctions, the obsessive nature of it all, and how I amongst many of my friends and family were sucked in by the allure of online auctions. Similarly, Walton got sucked into a life of crime rather innocuously by an old Army buddy whose full-time job was searching for high-quality paintings at antique malls, yard sales, and local auctions, only to pawn them off to unsuspecting eBay buyers as high-value "real" art.

Walton's descent into eBay and art madness, as it were, is largely self-propelled and thus, fascinating to behold. The book itself makes drama out of his foolishness, the eventual federal case built against him, and the depths of obsession a website can drive you to. By the end of it, I just couldn't feel sorry for Mr. Walton--every other page, I wanted to yell, "WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING, YOU IDIOT?" His crimes would be ingenious if only he hadn't been caught. Mr. Walton is obviously a self-taught art aficionado, and not a great crime writer, but his case is a compelling precedent for the internet crimes of today. It certainly makes me want to avoid eBay altogether.

2. The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities--from Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums, by Peter Watson. By contrast, Peter Watson's account of tomb raiders and European antiquities is an elegant and infinitely complex adventure through the world's greatest museums. Mr. Watson, an art critic for the New York Times and hardcore investigator into art theft (see the fascinating SAFE website for info about looted, stolen, and missing antiquities), writes for the art crime connoisseur. As a lover of museums, it was alternately upsetting and captivating to find out the number of entire exhibitions that came from looted sites and a vast criminal network. Mr. Watson's chronicle of art curators taken in by art thieves, knowingly or not, will make you see a Greco-Roman art collection in a different light altogether.

3. Stolen Masterpiece Tracker: the Dangerous Life of the FBI's #1 Art Sleuth, by retired FBI Special Agent Thomas McShane. Who doesn't love FBI stories? I picked up this book after reading The Last Undercover: The True Story of an FBI Agent's Dangerous Dance with Evil, which despite the glowing review by my heroine Mariska Hargitay was sort of disappointing. (The episode of Law&Order: SVU where Munch infiltrates the man-boy love group is much better--the author was a consulting producer on it.) Tom McShane's life of undercover work is straight out of the 1970s-80s, and the alternate personae he created to bust art theft rings are exactly the kinds of guys you'd expect to be wheeling and dealing in the world of stolen masterpieces. Mr. McShane worked on some of the most high-profile thefts of the twentieth century and was the first to introduce a forensic approach to verifying stolen paintings were the real deal. He cobbled together a portable x-ray from bomb squad castoffs and spent hours in hotel rooms with criminals, getting arrested alongside them to maintain his cover identity. Fascinating stuff, and the entire book is a rollicking ride through his career.

One case is especially deserving of attention. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, one of my favorites from the ol' college days, was hit in 1990 by two men who escaped with a stunning array of Rembrandts, a Vermeer, a Manet, and more. The FBI's Art Crime Team is still hunting for these criminals, and in the most heartbreaking part, the Gardner keeps those frames empty on display for all to see. The Miho Museum in Japan is not only funded by cuckoo cult money, but is filled with stolen artifacts and masterpieces from around the world--trust me, I've been there, and it is astonishing.

On your next visit to your local museum, check up on the news stories surrounding it and there may be some juicy heists hidden in the history of those oils on canvas and marble statues!

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