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Art Theft: Not Such a Pretty Picture
We talk to Canadian journalist Josh Knelman about his new book 'Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives through the Secret World of Stolen Art'.

Art theft is fast becoming one of the most lucrative crimes in the world, so much so that Interpol and UNESCO now consider it the world’s fourth largest black market, trailing behind only drugs, money laundering and weaponry.

We talk to Joshua Knelman, award-winning investigative journalist and founding member of The Walrus magazine, about his new book Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives Through the Secret World of Stolen Art. A true crime story, Hot Art is the result of four years’ investigative work by Knelman into the world of international art theft.

How did you develop an interest in art theft? How did the idea for the book come about?

Hot Art began as a small story I was hoping to report on, focused on a local art gallery here in Toronto that had been burglarized. It turned into an international story, although that wasn’t what I had in mind.

During the initial reporting, I began searching around Toronto for anyone with information about art theft. No one in the police force seemed to know very much about it. It all seemed very mysterious. I did, though, meet two people who changed my perspective, and pointed me in the right direction: one of them was a cultural lawyer–Bonnie Czegledi–and the other was a Toronto-based art thief. Though they were opposites in many ways, both of them encouraged me to look beyond the local gallery theft, to the bigger picture–the criminal interplay on the global level, and all the different ways in which the international black market in stolen art was exploding.

In Toronto, there was no unit that specialized in art theft investigations, even though there was, by all accounts, a lot of art being stolen from across the city. There was also no one at the RCMP level that seemed to have a lot of knowledge on this subject. So I began making phone calls and sending emails to the FBI, Scotland Yard, the LAPD, and also, a police unit in Montreal that was doing some groundbreaking work here in Canada. I also developed what turned out to be a three-and-a-half-year conversation with a very savvy former art thief in the UK.

Art crime, it turned out, can move from local to global in a heartbeat, so a piece stolen in Toronto can be flown to Paris, London, or beyond in a matter of a day or two. This is a challenge for law enforcement, and an advantage for criminals. Toronto, by the way, is also a destination for stolen art. So, the story of art theft always seems to start local, but then the mystery involves following the story to any number of surprising destinations around the globe. Follow the breadcrumbs, remember to bring your passport.

Did your investigative work for the book require you to go undercover?

I never did go undercover, but a few of the sources in the book have a lot of undercover experience. Tips I’ve heard a few times: be yourself, don’t stray too far from the truth, a sense of humour goes a long way. My research wasn’t so much about going undercover; it became a global manhunt for people with knowledge about how the black market worked. In some cases, it took months, sometimes a year, to earn the trust of a person, so it was a process of getting to know someone, and then meeting them. First phone calls, then travel: Cairo, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, London, or Brighton–the stomping grounds of the former art thief. 

Brighton is known for being a postcard-perfect resort town, but underneath the veneer, there’s a blueprint for how art theft evolved into an efficient international shadow industry. For me, the process of learning the story of art theft was less about going undercover, and more about being able to see what’s hiding right there in the open.

What was the most interesting discovery you made from your investigative work?

There were a few discoveries, but the most interesting, for me, occurred over a period of many months where I’d be on the phone with say, Donald Hrycyk, head of the LAPD Art Theft Detail in the morning, and then have a two-hour conversation with Paul, the UK-based former art thief in the afternoon. These are two people who have never met, who live on different continents, but their stories started to match. They were both dedicated to their causes–and had very different goals–but they’d had to learn many of the same rules to do their jobs well. So, through these interviews, I began to perceive some larger criminal patterns that seemed to be occurring in different countries, and were linked. It also became clear that whether you were a police officer, or a criminal entrepreneur, once you understood that the art market was global, and completely unregulated, it was a market that could be exploited. These two coming-of-age stories and the lessons learned in them–of the thief, and the detective–form the core of Hot Art.

What cities around the world would you consider to be art theft hot spots at present, and why?

Big centres that draw in stolen art are: New York, London, Montreal, Toronto, Zurich, Los Angeles and Paris. Basically, follow the money, and look at the art market. Wherever there’s a big trade in legitimate art, there will be a trade in stolen art. The trick, again, is being able to figure out what objects are stolen. This can be tricky. When you zoom out, though, and look at the world, there are other answers to this question.

For example, when Iraq was invaded, their national museum was heavily looted, but there were also over 10,000 archeological digs that were left unguarded. We’ll never know what’s been stolen from those sites. Recently, Libya was in turmoil. Again, there are so many historical sites and digs in that country, and it is certain that they have been looted–in fact, are currently being looted. Those stolen pieces then begin to move across national borders, and are eventually drawn to the list of cities above. In that sense, art theft an epic, global game of hide and seek.

Do you think art theft is a crime on the rise?

There is still so little information about art theft, but there are many indicators that it’s on the rise. Globalization, greed, and a lack of regulation mean that there’s a huge market to exploit, and to make money from. We’ve seen a lot of example of armed gangs running into museums, during daylight hours, and ripping works of genius off the walls, then screaming away in cars with a Picasso, or a Rembrandt. These are the most visible edges of the problem–“Headache Art,” a term coined by the former art thief. He calls it “Headache Art” because it’s high-profile, attracts the attention of police and the media, and gives everyone involved a headache. His advice: Don’t steal a Van Gogh. But beyond the “Headache Art” cases, there are all the lesser-known stolen pieces, many of them taken from private collections–residences, houses, condos. This is happening all over the world, and tied to criminal organizations that are much more sophisticated than our local police forces. Yes, I would say that art theft is a crime on the rise, and right now, the thieves–at all levels–are winning.

Did you experience many incidents of art forgery in your research? Do you think that this is a growing phenomenon in the world of art crime?

Yes, every detective I interviewed had experience dealing with fakes and forgery cases. When I was in Los Angeles, and spent a few days with the LAPD, I had a chance to see some great forgeries up close. One of them was a Renoir, and it was absolutely stunning. And there are many different kinds of forgeries. For example, another case at the LAPD involved a stolen painting that had been replaced, in its original frame, with a fantastic photo-replica of the original work. It was months before the owner walked up to the painting, and ran her finger across the canvas, only to discover it was a photograph. That work was supposed to be an oil painting, but of course, her finger found only the smooth surface of the photo. The original painting has already been flown from LA to Sweden, and sold at an auction for over half a million dollars.

How does Toronto fare when it comes to cases of art theft?

Toronto is a great place to steal art, to sell stolen art, and to hide stolen art. It’s an hour’s flight from the world’s largest art market–New York, and there is no unit here to patrol the business. So, it’s a perfect city for an art thief to work, or use as a gateway city for the international market. In other words, Toronto is an excellent place to hide in the open.

Are there any plans to write a follow-up to Hot Art?

Well, I’ve started a few conversations, and am waiting to see what comes of them. There are a few stories out there I have my eye on, and as I’ve learned, you never know where they may lead.

Join senior editor of The Walrus, Rachel Giese, in conversation with Joshua Knelman about his new book, Hot Art, at Indigo Books, Manulife Centre on Thursday, December 8th at 7:00 pm.

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