It’s not surprising that one of the most interesting subjects in art media, whether you follow it like I do or not, is the topic of art crime. Even someone with no particular interest in what’s going on in the art world will read an article or watch a report on the theft of a famous or valuable work of art, or the news that something which was once thought to be by a particular artist now turns out to be a clever fake. Some people, like yours truly, get that sinking feeling when we see such headlines, because we care a great deal about art. Others, perhaps, might get a sense of schadenfreude, thinking that some rich person or exclusive institution has suffered some sort of loss.
Yet whatever the particular art crime may be, do we ever stop to consider what the real costs of such activities are? Let’s see if we can get a better sense of some perspective on that question.
For example, there’s a fascinating interview in yesterday’s New York Times, in which a well-known thief of works of by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) speculates on the motivations behind the most recent theft of a Van Gogh, which subscribers and regular readers will recall I’ve been reporting on recently. Describing his own experience in trying to sell the stolen paintings, the thief notes that “he first offered the van Gogh paintings he had stolen to two criminals, but both of them were murdered before the deal could go down.” Meanwhile, a friend recently sent me a link to this story on the Jordan Harbinger show, in which a lifelong art forger talks at length about the tricks of the trade, and how he duped many people in the process.
Despite the fact that art crime is almost inevitably connected to some truly reprehensible and indeed horrific things – from kidnapping to theft of public funds to even murder – we continue to have a romantic view of it, for some reason. In both versions of “The Thomas Crown Affair” for example, art forgery and theft go hand-in-hand, but we’re so taken in by the smooth urbanity of Steve McQueen and Pierce Brosnan that we overlook how they hurt innocent people and indeed civilized society in the process. Similarly, in “Ocean’s Twelve” we get so caught up in the adventure that we forget that stealing a Faberge egg, which itself was stolen from a murdered family, in order to please a life-long criminal as part of some pointless competition, doesn’t clean the blood off of the object. Even the ultra-cool yet aristocratic character of “The Night Fox” in that film, at the end of the day, is little more than a snotty, spoiled brat who seeks to hurt other people, when you strip away the cars, clothes, and so on.
To illustrate this point, a documentary on the Knoedler scandal, which brought down one of the most prestigious art galleries in New York, is now out. In it, the filmmaker chronicles the bizarre twists and turns by which the very respectable seller to both private individuals and public institutions wound up selling all kinds of fakes. The final lawsuit in the case wrapped up just last summer, and several of the alleged conspirators are still on the run.
Similarly, my regular readers may recall my telling you about the discovery of what has since come to be known in some corners as the “Gurlitt Hoard”, a collection of hundreds of art objects, many of which experts believe were obtained illegally by one of the Nazi party’s favorite art dealers during World War II. This week, authorities announced that, despite exhaustive efforts, they have run out of options in trying to track down the legitimate owners of many of these items. As ArtNews reports,
Just 14 works from the trove, including paintings by Henri Matisse, Thomas Couture, and Max Liebermann, have been formally identified as having been looted and restituted to the rightful owners. And experts now believe that more than 400 works in the trove were not looted. That leaves around 1,000 works with provenances yet to be firmly identified.
So in the end, while we can enjoy the glamour and capers we see on screen as a bit of escapism, let’s try to remember that in real life, nothing involving art crime is ever neat and clean. Works of art often get destroyed or disappear forever, taxpayers are bilked of both funds and access to publically-owned art, scholarship is called into question for decades thanks to persuasive fakes, and those are just some of the more mild consequences. Any time there’s a news story about an art crime in real life, there’s probably a great deal of very, very awful backstory or sequelae to the crime in question that would turn your stomach.
With that said then, let’s turn to some more positive stories that emerged from the art world over the past week.
Archaeologists searching for the remains of an Ancient Roman villa in a vineyard near the Italian city of Verona have stumbled across an almost perfectly-preserved mosaic floor dating from sometime around 200-250 A.D. The site of the luxury country estate had first been identified around 100 years ago, but its exact location had been lost in part due to massive overgrowth of vines on the steep, hillside location. It’s not currently known how much of the vibrantly colored floor remains intact – you can see below how much digging there is to do – and the site is on private property, so officials will need to negotiate with the owners of the land regarding both continued excavation as well as visitor access.
Staying in Italy for the moment, research engineers believe they have now figured out how Italian Renaissance architects were able to build massive domes out of brick, without the need for any supporting structures. According to ArtNet, scientists at Princeton and the University of Bergamo have concluded that intricate helix models were used to distribute the weight, first by Filippo Brunelleschi( 1377-1446) in the famous dome of the Cathedral of Florence, and later improved upon by Antonio da Sangallo (1484-1546). I won’t go into all of the technical details, other than to say that this structural innovation helps explain why domes all of a sudden became the “in” thing in Italian architecture, once the descendants of the Ancient Romans finally figured out how to build them again. For those of you with a scientific frame of mind, you can read the full report in the July issue of the academic journal Engineering Structures.
And moving on to another beautiful piece of architecture, there’s now approval for the glorious Art Deco Chrysler Building in New York – the most beautiful skyscraper in the world – to reopen some of its upper levels to visitors, many decades of being mothballed. A new all-glass observation deck will allow visits to the building rain or shine, and the building’s owners are also looking into bringing back The Cloud Club, which has been closed and neglected since the 1970’s. While the experience won’t quite be that of Natalie Merchant in the iconic 90’s music video for 10,000 Maniacs’ song “These Are Days”, that’s partly because it was obviously green-screened (you can’t dance on the giant eagle heads, sorry.) More details on the proposal are linked to via The Architect’s Newspaper. The original observation deck on top of the building hasn’t been open since 1945, so if this is done well it will definitely become a major destination for design-conscious tourists, marriage proposals, and lavish weddings.