Buy, Borrow, Bypass: Art Crime!

Art crime: arguably the most glamorous of all the crimes, or at least that’s how it’s played out in fiction. But even in real life there’s something fascinating about it that you don’t find with other sorts of thievery. Who owns art? What is and isn’t considered valuable, and why? What defines an “authentic” work of art? All of these questions seem to pop up whenever art crime is discussed, which is probably why art lovers–including myself–can’t resist reading books about it.

how to steal the mona lisa by taylor bayouthHow To Steal the Mona Lisa and Six Other World-Famous Treasures by Taylor Bayouth

Step into the exciting and glamorous world of people like Thomas Crown and Danny Ocean with this handy “plug-and-play” art theft guide. Learn how to pick locks, dig under buildings, operate helicopters, manipulate people, and more! All in the name of stealing the world’s greatest treasures for fun and profit.

This book is supposed to be a parody (or so the author claims), but the humor it deals in is extraordinarily dry, so be forewarned if that’s not your jam. Even while I was laughing at the bizarre and outlandish instructions (e.g., test your companions’ ethical framework and loyalty by casually asking, “Have you ever thought of doing something really wild, like ripping off a priceless piece of art?” All my friends and family said no, disappointingly), there is definitely a deeper point Bayouth seems to be making about the irony of reducing a cultural icon’s worth down to dollars and cents so as to make it available for sale and private ownership. But basically this is just a silly book about indulging in the fantasy of committing a grand heist à la a Hollywood movie.

Verdict: Borrow. It’s fun and good for some light entertainment, but for what it is I think it’s currently overpriced. That said, I would be SHOCKED if this book isn’t being developed into a screenplay as we speak. And you can bet I’ll be seeing the movie.

the art forger ba shapiroThe Art Forger by BA Shapiro

Claire Roth is a master art copier, specializing in the works of Edgar Degas. But what she really wants, of course, is to be recognized for her own original paintings. Into all the art studios in all the world walks Aiden Markel, owner of the lauded Markel G gallery, with an offer Claire can’t refuse: for a giant pile of cash and her own show at Markel G, Claire agrees to copy a Degas painting lifted in the famous 1990 Gardner Museum heist. But forging a stolen painting is easy; it’s getting away with the original that’s hard.

There was some pretty dodgy art history going on in this book, but I’m willing to set that aside, since few besides actual art historians would care. Even without that, there were just too many convenient coincidences and things that didn’t make sense for me to enjoy or buy into this story as much as I wanted to. For example, Claire’s BFF just happens to be an assistant curator at the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum? And another of her friends is a high-powered attorney. HOW WEIRD GUYS, I wonder where that’s going??? Also, I recommend you drink every time someone says, “Copying a work of art isn’t a crime.” They’re right, it’s not. But possessing a stolen work of art with the intent to sell is. Remember that whole thing about the law and intent? No? Neither does the main character, or the lawyer, or the FBI character.

Verdict: Borrow.

a fool and his monet by sandra orchardA Fool and His Monet by Sandra Orchard

Special Agent Serena Jones of the FBI Art Crime Team returns home from her very first undercover case, only to be thrown right into the middle of an apparent art heist at a local museum. Will she be able to find the theif[ves], keep her amateur sleuth aunt safe, and choose between two guys who have the hots for her, all within in 300 pages?

I can never say no to a book with a punny title. Never ever. It’s a sickness. I also once harbored an ambition to work on the FBI’s Art Crime Team, so there was no way I was going to pass this book up. It’s light and fluffy reading, which normally I’m all about, but unfortunately everything is just curiously flat and bland. The characters come across as either boring or cartoonishly stereotyped, the crime is completely uninteresting, and while Serena gets into plenty of hijinks they all feel one-note. The Captain Obvious statements explaining stuff that’s common knowledge–for instance, tiramisu or Pig Latin–and things easily inferred through dialog don’t help. And don’t get me started on the character’s obsession with not becoming a spinster, which is simply BIZARRELY old-fashioned. This book is supposed to be funny but I never laughed, not once.

Verdict: YMMV, but for me this was a bypass.

priceless by robert wittmanPriceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures by Robert K. Wittman and John Shiffman

And speaking of the FBI’s Art Crime Team, how about a memoir by the guy who actually founded it and worked in the trenches to recover pieces like those stolen from the Gardner Museum? Yes please. Robert K Wittman addresses both the nature of art crime and why protecting art is so important, debunking all the Hollywood myths you can think of along the way.

Priceless is the exact opposite of A Fool and His Monet: it’s emotional, thrilling, unputdownable, and it made me change the way I look at art. I’ve seen the phrase “The best book ever written about art crime,” tossed about in regards to this book several times, and normally such hyperbole would make me roll my eyes. But in this instance I think it might be true. It would be stating the obvious to say Wittman knows of what he speaks, but Priceless is much more than a police procedural or a “just the facts” book. Every chapter centers around one stolen object d’art and what makes it valuable. Hint: it’s not how much it sells for. It’s clear Wittman sees himself, 100% justifiably, as a crusader against those who would steal the world’s cultural identity through art theft. I learned so much from this book–not just about the Art Crime Team, but about art in general and what it means to people and cultures. One of the most surprising nonfiction reads I’ve ever picked up.

Verdict: Absolute buy. If you have any interest in art crime at all, this is a must-read.