Photo by Cezar Sampaio on Unsplash
We go down the rabbit hole with expert Noah Charney to find out what today's collectors can learn from history's most famous art crimes.
In September 2021, Italian police seized almost 500 artworks alleged to be Francis Bacon forgeries and totalling approximately $3.5 million dollars. A few months prior, The New York Times reported on an FBI sting that raided a drug dealer’s home in a Philadelphia suburb and uncovered $2.5 million in cash and over 40 artworks by major artists including Picasso and Renoir. According to the Times, the dealer had “used the art to launder some of his drug cash, purchasing the works from an established gallery near Philadelphia’s Museum Row.”
And, just this week, it was reported, again by the New York Times, that an antiquities dealer from Manhattan pled guilty to knowingly selling looted items over the course of several decades for prices ranging from $100,000 to $1.5 million. Some of the items were sold directly to museums and private collectors, but others were sold via Christie's and Sotheby's auction houses—by forging provenance documentation.
Then, just a few days ago, the Pandora Papers leaked, proving (yet again) that the vastly wealthy love a good offshore tax shelter. According to Hyperallergic, "The Washington Post and its ICIJ partners uncovered offshore trusts used by the late antiquities dealer Douglas Latchford to transact in looted art." Latchford was charged with "falsifying invoices, provenance material, and shipping documents to circumvent customs restrictions," by the US Justice Department shortly before his death in 2020, at which time the indictment was dismissed. His holdings of Cambodian antiquites, many assumed to have been looted, have been estimated to be worth around $50 million.
While deception in the art world is not new by any means, art crimes have garnered considerable attention in the press lately, often due to their salacious comorbidity: extreme wealth, status, and schadenfreude.
Examples include the Netflix documentary “Made You Look”—about the hallowed Knoedler Gallery’s epic forgery scandal, which brought down the 165-year old business with a firestorm of million dollar lawsuits—as well as the British tabloids’ darling Angela Gulbenkian, a German socialite and art dealer who’s now facing jail time for defrauding her clients over a seven-figure Kusama pumpkin and a Warhol portrait of Queen Elizabeth.
To scratch our true (art) crime itch, we sat down with Noah Charney, a writer and scholar specializing in historical art crime. Noah is the founder of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA), a nonprofit that “works to promote the study and research of art crime and cultural heritage protection,” according to its website. He has also taught at the American University of Rome and the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, where he’s currently based.
As a writer, Noah has published hundreds of articles on his area of expertise in such outlets as The Guardian, The Art Newspaper, The Washington Post, and many others. His first novel, The Art Thief (Atria 2007), was translated into 17 languages and was a best-seller in five countries.
We spoke to Noah about society’s fascination with art crime, the various “provenance traps” collectors of historical works and antiquities should be aware of, as well as what he’s been working on during the pandemic. As per usual, it’s a page-turner.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Author and art crime historian Noah Charney. Photo by Urska Charney.
AA: You’ve published more than a dozen books and are an expert on art crime—what first drew you to this subject?
NC: Originally, I wanted to become a playwright, so I wrote a bunch of plays and actually managed to get an agent in London where I was studying at the time. But, she said that, if I wanted to make a living as a writer, I should write a novel.
So, I went and wrote a novel, which was my first book called The Art Thief. While I was researching for it, I was a postgraduate student in more traditional art history. I was interested in iconography—the study of symbols and art. While I was conducting research, I was looking for material about real art crimes, and I found relatively little published on the subject. It was mostly journalistic accounts, and there was almost nothing from an academic perspective. So I decided to shift my focus to this relatively understudied field of art crime—basically adding criminology to the material that I was already familiar with.
When I did, I almost inadvertently established the field of study. There were other people who had published on the topic before, but it wasn't a proper field of study. Then I got very lucky with two things: my novel came out, was promoted very heavily and became an international bestseller; and I got written up in The New York Times Magazine about having essentially founded art crime as a field of study.
Those two things came together and really gave me this tremendous push, which allowed me to become a full time writer and a semi-public figure within this field. That was unusual, but true crime seems to intrigue everybody, whereas the art history and iconography aspects appeal to a more limited audience.
AA: In general, when you’re writing about art crimes, you're not writing about money laundering, but rather about forgeries, correct?
NC: I see myself as a historian of art crime, so that covers things like money laundering, as well. But what I tend to focus on are thefts from collections, which I distinguish from looting antiquities— looting is a much bigger problem in terms of quantity and the difficulty of policing it.
Those are objects taken directly out of the earth, or sometimes the sea, and they've never existed before for modern humans. So, we have no idea what to look for. And these objects can be introduced into the open market with a falsified provenance.
I tend to focus on thefts from extant collections, whether they're museums or private collections, and forgery cases. Those are the cases that interest me most and have been the subject of past books. But, then I do basically a little bit of everything. Iconoclasm and vandalism are one component. Money laundering is another, as is museum security. I like to see myself as the historian of all of it, because there are other very good scholars looking at contemporary issues from various perspectives.
Barnett Newman, Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III, 1969 - 1970. This painting was slashed twice at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
AA: There have been cases where artworks have been attacked in museums, slashed with knives or graffitied—some pieces more than once. Why do you think that art is so emotionally charged that it begets such violent vandalism?
NC: It's a good question, and we don't really know the answer. There are various theories; but, if you want to get a little poetic, it's the idea that great art taps into something about what it is to be human—that we can't quite put our finger on. And if we could, it would be much less interesting. Walter Benjamin wrote that there's an aura around great art. And that sounds very new agey, but I think people feel that.
There seems to be an aura around authentic works, as opposed to derivative works or copies of them. There's a human need to create, and people are creating art even in situations where they’re going without basic needs. That's something interesting, because you tend to think that people would need to have all their basic needs covered before they would bother making something creative. But, in fact, people have been creating art even when they were barely surviving. And so there's some human need at the core of art and creative expression.
And then people will also argue that art holds a mirror up to the world and to nature. So it's a way for us to project our subconscious, which we can't really articulate in a way that resonates with other people's subconscious. That all sounds very fluffy and theoretical, but I think there must be something to it, because people have felt this way about art for as long as art has been around—it's gotten them upset, or it’s moved them, and it really seems to trigger some people to attack it, which is an amazing thing because it's literally just stuff hanging on a wall.
AA: That's a seminal essay by Walter Benjamin, and he definitely talks about provenance in that essay. What's interesting about provenance is, even though—by definition—it’s the chain of ownership, there is also something metaphysical about the significance of who else has owned a piece and that also contributes to the aura of an artwork.
In your research, what are some examples of red flags that collectors should look for when they're considering acquiring a work by an artist who’s deceased and therefore can’t verify the authenticity of a piece?
NC: One of my books from 2013 is called The Art of Forgery. It's got a big section about what I call provenance traps, which is a theoretical construct based on looking at lots of case studies of successful forgeries, and there's five variations on it.
The basic premise is that the con man is using the enthusiasm for provenance on the part of researchers to trap them. They're basically inventing provenance. And I'll just give you the five examples—for each one, I have a case study that I'll mention.
Forging provenance by forging archival documentation:
One example is John Myatt and John Drewe. And this version of the provenance trap was that John Myatt would forge provenance by forging archival documents that seemed to indicate the existence of previously unknown artworks by famous artists. And then John Maya would paint those artworks that were described in this forged provenance.
The forged provenance was then inserted into real archives. And then an expert who would see a Monet painting that isn't in the catalog raisonne, and they would say, “Well, that looks like a Monet, but I can't be sure because it's not in the catalog raisonne.”
And then they'll go to the archives, and there they'll find a document that nobody has referenced before. And they get all excited because they think they hit the jackpot from a research perspective. Turns out that document is forged. So that's one version.
Forging objects to match real provenance.
Another version is Shaun Greenhalgh—a case study in England. He would find provenance for lost objects and then he would create objects to match the provenance.
Create forgeries of authentic works and sell the forgeries with authentic documentation, while keeping the authentic works.
Then another case with Ely Sakhai in New York. He would buy authentic works, because he was a wealthy art dealer, and then he would have the work copied at his gallery. Then he would sell the copy with all the original paperwork that accompanied the original he had bought, but he kept the original artwork. So that's the third variation.
Create artwork forgeries that match a particular period of an artist’s output.
The fourth variation is exemplified by Han van Meegeren, the famous Dutch art forger. He created works that matched a theoretical period of Vemeer’s career, and that had been written on by the leading Vermeer specialists, such as Abraham Bredius.
In actuality, there were no extra artworks that came from that period—it was purely an idea he had—and so van Meegeren created a work of art that fit that theory. Then, of course, Bredius got really excited about it. And, being the world's leading Vermeer scholar, he locked on to it and wouldn't let go—even when it was clear that it was a forgery.
Create what appears to be a lost preparatory drawing for a famous work.
My “favorite” forger, Eric Hebborn, made a career out of forging what appeared to be preparatory drawings for famous paintings. The famous painting was the provenance and scholars would work backward from it to see a previous brainstorming session, in drawing form, for what would become the famous work.
So, those are some examples of provenance traps. And the basic thing that I would have to spotlight as a red flag is if the provenance includes only sources that you can no longer confirm. That's potentially problematic—meaning, if you see that the provenance contains a list of galleries where an object was shown, but all of those galleries are now shuttered.
For example, if I put footnotes in my book, most people look to see that there is a footnote, and feel assured that I must be telling the truth and have correct scholarship, but very few people actually bother to check that the page I'm citing has anything to do with a sentence that is cited.
Now, I don't need lots of readers to go double-checking my footnotes. But, the point is that if there is provenance, meaning if there is a list of ownership and references to an object in a catalog, for example, most people won’t bother checking. They'll just say, “Oh, somebody else did the checking.”
A very easy trick is just to reference something that looks official, but doesn't actually have anything to do with the object in question. So, basically, if you're spending a lot of money, it's worth taking a little bit of time to double-check as many of the listings that you can—to make sure that they do match the object in question.
AA: In what instances does a forgery then become as valuable as the original piece? Can a forgery have an “aura” in the Walter Benjamin sense?
NC: Sometimes the forger becomes more famous than the artists they're forging—that certainly has happened. I was actually in the Netherlands when there was an exhibit of Han van Meegeren forgeries, to give one instance. And that's also because people who may or may not be interested in art, are interested in true crime, so there's interest in relics of crimes.
So for example, I was delighted to find—on eBay—a forgery by Marcantonio Raimondi of an Albrecht Dürer print for only $350. It's the opening anecdote of my book, The Art of Forgery, about a forgery from 1506. It's just remarkable that I was able to get it and I'm really thrilled to own it.
Obviously, you don't want to be fooled. But, if you know that it's a forgery, then it's something that's very exciting. I think people like that, as relics of crimes, they get to tell the story through it. We're a story-based species, we're used to telling stories about other humans going back tens of thousands of years of sitting around campfires in caves.
If there are objects related to it, and if there's this illusionist aspect, then it's like a real magic trick when a forger gets away with something. And they're fooling what the general public categorizes as a sort of pretentious elite— so, there's an element of schadenfreude, and there's a delight in the emperor being shown to have no clothes.
All those things come together, particularly in forgery cases, because they are usually not related to organized crime—so they're the least threatening, and the least criminally problematic of the different types of art crime.
AA: It’s been documented that guns, drugs, and art are the most heavily trafficked and highest grossing criminal trades worldwide every year, but who actually buys a stolen painting? How does that work in high-profile art thefts?
NC: It's my most frequently asked question and it's a complicated answer. The short version is that, for famous works of art, there's no market for them at all. What happens is that they're usually subsumed within a closed criminal network, and traded between criminal groups in order to barter or as collateral.
Picture a famous artwork like a check that you have no intention of cashing. You probably could cash it if you needed to, but—as long as you don't try to—there's no risk of being caught. Then the object is traded for an equivalent value of other illicit goods, particularly drugs and arms.
The most frequently cited case study—because it's the most complete demonstration—is the case of gangster Martin Cahill, known as “The General” in Ireland. In 1986, he and his gang broke into the Alfred Beit art collection at the Russborough House in Wicklow and stole 18 artworks, among them a Vermeer painting, a Goya, and a Gabriël Metsu.
These were traceable because the objects were recovered within the circuit, in two separate sting operations. Martin Cahill smuggled the Vermeer to Antwerp and used it as collateral for a loan for a million pounds. That loan was meant to buy drugs, which he was going to sell on the street. When he made a profit, he was going to pay back the million pound loan, retrieve the Vermeer, and it would go on to work as collateral and other such deals.
So that was the plan, but the guy who he gave it to as collateral decided that he was going to sell it, because it was worth—you know—100 million pounds, and he had only given up a million for it. The guy he sold it to was Charley Hill (who passed away last year), who was Scotland Yard’s lead undercover detective for art cases.
Then, there was a Turkish police raid of a warehouse in Istanbul and they caught criminal groups trading the Gabriël Metsu painting for a shipment of drugs. So, within one single crime, you have an example of the art being used as collateral and also to barter.
We have an understanding that such cases happen frequently, but it's very periodic that these cases actually appear on the radar and the police are actually aware of them. So, we’re extrapolating that it's happening much more often than it does—because there is no market for recognizable stolen art. We say it's among the highest grossing criminal trades, but nobody really knows because we don't know the true extent of it.
Among the highest grossing most of that is illicit trade in antiquities, which is coming directly out of the earth. And it's much harder to police and you can usually get full value or something like it—a lot of it is sold on places like eBay where the sellers are just using falsified papers to make it appear as though the object was excavated and exported decades ago.
AA: So, what you're saying is that eBay is probably not the best place to source authentic art or antiquities.
NC: There's potential for manipulation—let's say that you don't necessarily know what you're getting or who you're getting it from. If you search for antiquities, ancient coins, or pre-Columbian artifacts, you're going to find stuff, but most of it is going to be either copies or forgeries, or illicit, because the sellers get more for it.
It’s always more legit to go through a proper gallery or an auction house.
AA: Do the major auction houses have entire teams dedicated solely to vetting provenance?
NC: I worked for Christie's for a while and they are definitely looking for provenance—the more of a foundation story they can pack under an object, the more reliable it will appear and they can sell it for more. Of course, they can also be fooled, because they're trying to gather as many components of the history as possible. And the more the better.
I founded ARCA more than a decade ago, which established the first academic program in the world where you could actually study this subject and it's still ongoing. It's in every summer in Italy (we’re on a pandemic-hiatus at the moment) and it’s lovely. Students spend 10 weeks in the summer in Umbria with 10 different professors, and we have people of all ages, from 21 up to 80.
The first year of the program, one of the students said, “Does the job exist where someone who runs an independent objective firm that just checks provenance?” And I said, “I don't think so.” And she started a company where she was an objective source that you could hire to check that the provenance was both authentic and matches the objects in question.
Noah's recent publications.
AA: In addition to teaching at universities and running ARCA, you’re first and foremost a writer—and you have two new books out. What can readers expect from your latest titles?
NC: Yes, I have two books out now. One is called The Devil in the Gallery: How Scandal, Shock, and Rivalry Helped Shape the Art World. The idea is to tell the story of art through these inherently negative things that, in most fields, would be ruinous to someone's career. But, in fact, I can argue that in the art world they were beneficial.
Part of that has to do with capitalist competition—with artists trying to outdo each other, and the quality of the output getting better. And a lot of it has to do with promotion, where scandal is when you get talked about, but you weren't trying to—you’re just doing your thing. Shock is where you're really trying to make a scandal proactively in order to get publicity. (Just the other day, I was told that it's number one on Amazon in its category, which really delighted me.)
The other book is entitled Making It: The Artist’s Survival Guide and I'm really excited about it because I wrote it together with my best friend, the contemporary Slovenian conceptual artist Jaša. It's a behind-the-scenes sort of Gonzo memoir, no holds barred, talking about all of the things that nobody wants to talk about—and how to ‘make it’ as an artist.
Jaša has exhibited in the Venice Biennale, he's been at Frieze in New York and London, and he's checked all the boxes of being a ‘successful artist.’ It's his memoir, told through questions that pretty much any art student or aspiring artists would have, but which they're maybe afraid to ask, like: "Do I have to sleep with people in order to advance my career," etc. It was a really fun, collaborative project to do with him. Both books are out now.
To learn more about Noah, visit his website.