The Art Thief

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Overview

Rome: In the small Baroque church of Santa Giuliana, a magnificent Caravaggio altarpiece disappears without a trace in the middle of the night.

Paris: In the basement vault of the Malevich Society, curator Geneviéve Delacloche is shocked to discover the disappearance of the Society's greatest treasure, White-on-White by Suprematist painter Kasimir Malevich.

London: At the National Gallery of Modern Art, the ...

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The Art Thief: A Novel

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Overview

Rome: In the small Baroque church of Santa Giuliana, a magnificent Caravaggio altarpiece disappears without a trace in the middle of the night.

Paris: In the basement vault of the Malevich Society, curator Geneviéve Delacloche is shocked to discover the disappearance of the Society's greatest treasure, White-on-White by Suprematist painter Kasimir Malevich.

London: At the National Gallery of Modern Art, the museum's latest acquisition is stolen just hours after it was purchased for more than six million pounds.

In The Art Thief, three thefts are simultaneously investigated in three cities, but these apparently isolated crimes have much more in common than anyone imagines. In Rome, the police enlist the help of renowned art investigator Gabriel Coffin when tracking down the stolen masterpiece. In Paris, Geneviéve Delacloche is aided by Police Inspector Jean-Jacques Bizot, who finds a trail of bizarre clues and puzzles that leads him ever deeper into a baffling conspiracy. In London, Inspector Harry Wickenden of Scotland Yard oversees the museum's attempts to ransom back its stolen painting, only to have the masterpiece's recovery deepen the mystery even further.

A dizzying array of forgeries, overpaintings, and double-crosses unfolds as the story races through auction houses, museums, and private galleries — and the secret places where priceless works of art are made available to collectors who will stop at nothing to satisfy their hearts' desires.

Full of fascinating art-historical detail, crackling dialogue, and a brain-teasing plot, Noah Charney's debut novel is a sophisticated, stylish thriller, as irresistible and multifaceted as a great work of art.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A vivid, marvelously readable look at the world of stolen art. The fascinating tale keeps you constantly wondering — does this really happen? Noah Charney knows his stuff." — Steve Berry, New York Times bestselling author of The Alexandria Link

"Noah Charney offers us a masterful thriller filled with revelations." — Javier Sierra, New York Times bestselling author of The Lady in Blue

"A thrilling, literary page-turner, The Art Thief paints portraits of lovers, frauds, innocents, and scholars, all presented in Charney's sharp, fresh voice. This exciting debut establishes young Noah Charney as the curator of crime." — Jennifer Finney Boylan, author of She's Not There

"Charney constructs an intricate web of crime, bolstering a sensational plot with well-crafted characters and extensive research. Eventful and exciting, The Art Thief is an enthralling novel." — Vernon Rapley, head of the Art & Antiques Unit, New Scotland Yard

"Sleek, sharp, and sophisticated, The Art Thief will steal your spare time — and you'll be happy you were robbed." — Don Winslow, author of The Winter of Frankie Machine

Publishers Weekly

With its flat characters, overly technical exposition and a plot implausible even in the wake of The Da Vinci Code, art historian Charney's debut disappoints. When a priceless Caravaggio altarpiece disappears from Rome's Santa Giuliana church, the police call in renowned art historian Gabriel Coffin to investigate. Coffin detects a pattern after a rare Kasimir Malevich Suprematist painting disappears in Paris and another Malevich is stolen from London's National Gallery soon after being purchased at Christie's. As potential forgeries are uncovered and the thieves taunt those on the trail of the missing art with riddles and ransom demands, Coffin and his fellow art experts must race to recover the stolen masterpieces before they disappear forever. Despite his extensive knowledge of the art world's criminal underbelly, Charney delivers a story so bogged down with minutiae that even the most dedicated reader will get stuck. (Sept.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
A novel about stolen paintings and forgeries by a student of art crime. Two paintings-one an altarpiece by Caravaggio, the other a canvas by the Russian Suprematist Kasimir Malevich-go missing, and an eclectic team of detectives and art historians must find them in Charney's debut. A Cambridge-trained scholar and the founding director of a consulting group on art-crime prevention, Charney is a pioneer in the use of art history to solve art mysteries. He is not, however, a natural storyteller or a gifted writer. The plot is an unwieldy, exasperating mess. There are too many principle characters for any of them to be fully developed, and the ostensibly comic characters-including a fat French inspector who is constantly eating or getting himself wedged into tight spots-are simply embarrassing. The author's self-conscious attempts to gussy up this flaccid thriller are painfully heavy-handed. There is a surfeit of ugly, unilluminating metaphors-Charney often chooses two or three when one would have been enough. The smattering of French dialogue spoken by his Gallic characters is arbitrary and off-putting, serving to underscore the novel's general pretentiousness. The book will no doubt earn comparisons to The Da Vinci Code, and such comparisons will be apt, up to a point. Like Dan Brown, Charney presents superficial windbaggery as up-market erudition. But Brown's hero is a made-up scholar in a fictional field, while Charney is a real-life practitioner and-according to his press materials-genuine innovator in the world in which his novel is set. A pseudo-intellectual mystery: If this is the best story Charney can build from his experiences, he is advised to keep his day job. Agent: LoisWallace/Wallace Literary Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416550310
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press
  • Publication date: 9/2/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 378,108
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Noah Charney, twenty-seven years old, holds degrees in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art and Cambridge University. He is the founding director of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA), the first international think tank on art crime. He divides his time between New Haven, Connecticut; Cambridge, England; and Rome, Italy.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

It was almost as if she were waiting, hanging there, in the painted darkness.

The small Baroque church of Santa Giuliana in Trastevere huddled in a corner of the warm Roman night. The streets were blue and motionless, illuminated only by the hushed light of a streetlamp from the square nearby.

Then there was a sound. Inside the church.

It was the faintest scream of metal on metal, barely perceptible in daylight, but now like a shriek of white against black. Then it stopped. The sound had been only momentary, but it echoed.

From out of the belly of the sealed church, a bird rose. A pigeon fluttered frantically along the shadowy chapel walls and swooped through the vaults and down the transept, carving a path blindly through the inky cavernous interior.

Then the alarm went off.

Father Amoroso woke with a start. Sweat clung to his receded hairline.

He looked at his bedside clock. Three fifteen. Night still clung outside his bedroom window. But the ringing in his ear would not stop. Then he noticed that it was not only in his ear.

He threw a robe over his nightshirt and slipped on his sandals. In a moment he was down the stairs, and he ran the few paces across the square to Santa Giuliana in Trastevere, which squatted, like an armadillo, he had once thought, but now vibrated with sound.

Father Amoroso fumbled with his keys and finally pulled open the ancient door, swollen in the humidity. He turned to the anachronism just inside, switching off the alarm. He looked around for a moment. Then he picked up the telephone.

"Scusi, signore. I'm here, yes...I don't know. Probably a malfunction with the alarm system, but I...just a moment..."

Father Amoroso put the police on hold as he surveyed the interior. Nothing moved. The darkness sat politely around the edges of the church and the moonlight on the nave cast shadows through the pews. He took a step forward, then thought better of it. He turned on the lights.

The Baroque hulk slowly sprang to life. Spotlights on its various alcoves and treasures illuminated the empty spaces vicariously. Father Amoroso stepped forward into the center of the nave and scanned. There was the chapel of Santa Giuliana, the Domenichino painting of Santa Giuliana, the confessional, the white marble basin of holy water, the prayer candelabra with the OFFERTE sign, the statue of Sant'Agnese by Maderno, the Byzantine icon and chalices within the vitrine, the Caravaggio painting of the Annunciation above the altar, the reliquary that buried the shinbone of Santa Giuliana beneath a sea of gold and glass.... Nothing seemed out of place.

Father Amoroso returned to the telephone.

"Non vedo niente...must be a problem with the system. Please excuse me. Thank you...good night...yes...yes, thank you."

He cradled the phone and switched off the lights. The momentarily enlivened church now slept once more. He reset the alarm, then pulled heavily shut the door, locked it, and returned to his apartment to sleep.

Father Amoroso bolted upright in bed, eyes wide. He'd had a horrible dream in which he could not cease the ringing in his ears. He attributed it to the zuppa di frutti di mare from dinner at Da Saverio, but then realized once again that the ringing was not in his ears alone. Everyone must have eaten at Da Saverio, he thought for a moment, and then awoke more thoroughly.

It was the alarm, once again ringing violently. He looked at his bedside clock. Three fifty. The sun was still sound asleep. Why not he? He put on his robe and sandals and tripped down once more into the sleepless Roman night.

Father Amoroso, though rarely a profane man, muttered minor curses under his breath, as he fumbled with his keys, rammed them into the heavy wooden door, and pulled it open, leaning back on his heels for proper leverage.

This is supposed to be a church, not an alarm clock, he thought.

Inside, he spun toward the alarm on the wall, accidentally knocking the telephone out of its cradle. "Dio!" he muttered, then thought better of it, and pointed up to the sky with a whispered "scusa, signore. I'm a little tired. Scusa."

He switched off the alarm, then turned to the church interior. The shadows seemed to mock him. He flicked on the lights with relish. The church yawned into illumination. Father Amoroso picked up the telephone.

"Si? Si, mi dispiace. I don't know...no, that shouldn't be necessary...just a moment, please..."

He put down the phone, and moved once more to the center of the nave. The tiny church gaped, huge and vacant, within the early morning darkness.

Nothing seemed amiss. This time Father Amoroso walked round the inside walls of the church. He moved along the worn slate paving, past rows of extinguished candles, carved wooden pews, and still shadowy alcoves hiding the figures of saints in relief or in oil. Everything was sound. He returned to the telephone.

"Niente. Niente di niente. Mi dispiace, ma...right, now it's four ten in the morning...yes, probably a malfunction...yes...later in the morning, yes. Nothing to be done until then. Thank you, good night...I mean, good morning. Night ended some time ago....Ciao."

Father Amoroso looked with disdain at the alarm that had twice sounded for no reason, merely to mock him. Perhaps he should not have looked so longingly at Signora Materassi at Mass last Sunday. God has his ways. He would call to have the alarm system checked for faults later on. Perhaps he could still get a little sleep.

Father Amoroso switched off the lights. He ignored the smug alarm as he brushed out the door, locked it, and returned home to capture what precious moments of sleep he still could.

An alarm went off.

Father Amoroso jackknifed out of bed. But then he calmed. It was his bedside alarm. The time was seven, on a Monday morning. That's better, he thought.

The sun was present on the horizon and the day promised its usual Roman iridescence through the humidity of summer. He yawned thoughtlessly and stretched his fatigued arms cruciform. Throwing off his nightshirt, Father Amoroso waddled into the bathroom and emerged a new man, clean and fresh for a new day. He donned his clerical garments and made his way down to Santa Giuliana.

He was still ten minutes early. He was not required to open the door until the stroke of eight. The day was not yet too hot, and Father Amoroso decided to steal away for a moment. He slipped into the bar nearby and ordered a caffè. He admired the sunshine on the ancient paving as he sipped his espresso, standing at the bar. Locals passed in the street outside. The occasional tourist bumbled by, map in hand and camera at the ready.

He checked his watch. Seven fifty-seven. He drank up and crossed the square to his church.

With a pleasurable sense of leisure, Father Amoroso fumbled slowly at his keys and, finding the right one, twisted and tugged at the great wooden door. When he had it yawned sufficiently, he looped the metal catch to prop it open and allowed the still air trapped within to cool down in the morning breeze that flowed without.

He entered the church and threw a look of disdain upon the alarm system as he passed. God, I'll have to have it fixed today, he thought, then realized his blasphemy and glanced up to Heaven for pardon. He shuffled across the floor to the church office, pushed aside the curtain that hid the door, and unlocked it. He turned and crossed to the center of the nave, stopping briefly to genuflect in front of the altar as he passed.

He was about to continue, when he saw it. He couldn't believe his eyes. Perhaps he was still asleep, he hoped. Then it sank in, and he stumbled backward, as he cried out "Dio mio!"

The Caravaggio altarpiece was gone.

Copyright © 2007 by Noah Charney

Chapter 2

"But it's a fake."

Geneviève Delacloche pinched the phone between shoulder and ear, and fumbled with the cord, which she had somehow managed to tangle round her wrists.

Her small office overlooked the Seine, with the yellow-gray stone medieval majesty of riverside Paris arched up on either side of the coral water. Her desk was overcome with papers that had, at one time, been put in precise order. Delacloche was of the hybrid sort of obsessive- compulsive who need a correct place for everything, but never actually keep anything in that place.

The prints on the wall were all the work of the same artist: Kasimir Malevich. They were of the abstract variety that drove mad those uneducated in art, with explicative titles such as Black Square, Suprematism with Blue Triangle and Black Rectangle, and Red Square: Realism in Paint of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions, the latter consisting, in its entirety, of a slightly obtuse red square on a white background. Wood-framed diplomas told of degrees in painting conservation and arts administration. On her desk lay a stack of monogrammed, cream-colored paper, with the elegant Copperplate-font words malevich society printed along the top.

Open on her lap, Delacloche held a catalogue for an upcoming sale of "Important Russian and Eastern European Paintings and Drawings," at Christie's in London. The catalogue was open to page 46, lot 39:

Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935)
Suprematist Composition White on White
oil on canvas
54.6 x 36.6 in. (140 x 94 cm.)
Estimate: £4,000,000-6,000,000

PROVENANCE:
Abraham Steingarten, 1919-39
Josef Kleinert, 1939-44
Galerie Gmurzynska, Zug, 1944-52
Otto Metzinger, 1952-69
Luc Sallenave, 1969
Anon. sale, Sotheby's London, 1 October 1969, lot 55, when acquired by present owner

EXHIBITED:
Liebling Galerie, Berlin, 1929, Suprematist Works and Their
Influence on Russian Spirituality, no. 82
Galerie Gmurzynska, Zug, 1946, no. 22

LITERATURE:
Art Journal, 1920, p.181

This painting is believed to be the first of Malevich's renowned and controversial series of Suprematist White on White compositions. It is considered the most important of the series...

"Jeffrey, I'm telling you it's a fake. Don't you tell me that I'm being severely French! I am severely French, but that doesn't make the issue go away. You're about to auction off a fake Malevich. I have the catalogue right here, yes. How am I so sure? I'll tell you how. Because the painting that you're planning to auction off is here. It's owned by the Malevich Society. I'm telling you, it's in the vault in the basement right now. Yes, that's right, three floors beneath my ass..."

• *

Malevich strikes a balance between whiteness and nothingness, and he magnificently transforms this tense contrast in a contemplative meditation on inner tension. These works are wholly about feeling. Malevich has divorced himself from depictions of the everyday, of life and objects, and has honed his abilities into the projection of emotion. There is no right or wrong answer to the question "What is this painting about?" The question is "What does this make you feel?"

"...Look, the painting has been in the vault for months now. I saw it there last week. We only very rarely lend it out for exhibition, so it's been locked away for ages. I don't know why you didn't contact us immediately ...because of the provenance, well...I know you think that you are looking at it in your office right this minute, but I'm telling you, it has to be a fake..."

It is both revolution and ideology, abstract forms that may be appropriated by any viewer to his or her own end. Malevich frees his viewers from the shackles of iconography, and liberates them into a world of concentrated feeling. He did so long before such abstract works were popularized.

"...of course he did multiple versions of White on White, but I've only ever heard of two that are this large. All the extant versions of the painting are smaller, except for ours and one in a private collection in the U.K. But I recognize the image in the catalogue as ours. The provenance is all different, but if you're telling me that your own photographers took this catalogue photo from the original that's in your office, then it's a fake.

"Jeffrey, the Malevich Society's job is to protect the name of the artist. Just like if some fellow off the street wrote a symphony and called it a lost Beethoven, people would object, and the artist's oeuvre would be damaged. The same goes for this painting that must be forged, or at least misattributed.

"I recognize the painting, Jeffrey! How do I recognize it? I recognize it the way you'd know your wife if you passed her on the street. You're not married? Well, Jeffrey, I really don't care, but you know what I mean. When you've seen enough of these, especially of this particular painting, you get to know it intrinsically. It's my job to locate and protect every extant piece of art by Malevich. That's why I want you to withdraw this lot from the auction. I have my hands full hunting down forgeries, and it doesn't help when a high-profile institution such as yours is claiming that fakes are real..."

It is objective art, in that it does not rely on specialized knowledge for interpretation, as might a painting of a scene from classical mythology, which requires a recognition of the story in order to understand the action and glean the moral. It is a liberation from the excess clutter that impedes the path to pure emotion. It is an almost Buddhist focus, pushing aside the trappings of traditional paintings of things. It provokes.
For Malevich, the reaction was one of transcendental meditation and peace. But the painting is equally successful if it provokes anger in the viewer, who may say, outraged, "How is this art? I could paint that!" In answer to this exclamation, if one actually sat down and tried to paint exactly this, one would find that it is impossible. The textures and tones, despite the monochromatic palette, are deep and subtle. Painting such a work is easier said than done. But in one's outrage, the painting has succeeded. It provokes emotion. Suprematist art reaches for the stars and thereby creates a new emotional constellation that hangs in the sky for all to see and interpret as they will.

"Well, thank you, Jeffrey. Your English is very good, too. Yes, I know that you're English. It's a joke. Yes. Well, I had four years in...look, we're getting sidetracked here. I know the provenance looks good, I'm looking at it now. Well, I've not heard of all...no. But have you checked them all out? Well, what are you waiting for? I know you're busy, but if you sell a fake for six million you're going to be in a lot worse trouble than if you.... Can't you just delay a bit, and I'll do the research for you? Well, if you don't have the authority, can I speak with Lord...it's not going to do any good. No, it's not my time of the month, I...but, I...yeah, well I hope you get royally fucked in the..."

"And this is the man we have to thank for the recovery of the stolen and ransomed portrait of our dearly beloved foundress, Lady Margaret Beaufort," said the dean of St John's College, Cambridge.

He gestured to the elegant, trimmed, and gray-templed Gabriel Coffin, a smile in his eyes. The room in which he stood was a wide wood-paneled corridor, brightened only by candlelight bounced off polished silver sconces. The Fellows of the college assembled before him, each clasping tight a glass of preprandial sherry. They look like the cast of a Daumier cartoon, thought Coffin. He stroked his close-cropped bearded chin, black speckled white.

"A renowned scholar and consultant to police on art theft, and a graduate of our own institution, he kindly volunteered his investigative services, when Lady Margaret went missing from the Great Hall. Of course, we'd all thought that those cads over at Trinity had had their way with her, but when it proved more serious, Dr. Coffin came to our rescue. Let us give him a hearty thanks, and then adjourn to dinner."

The shudder din of voices and clinking cutlery whirled up from the long wooden tables and spun toward the dark-wood ceiling of the formal dining hall at St John's College.

Coffin stared out from the Fellows' Table, perpendicular to the long rows of students. Above his head, the large sixteenth-century portrait of the college foundress, Lady Margaret Beaufort, knelt in prayer. Was she relieved at her rescue? Back in her place, hung high on the wall. Coffin floated alone, adrift in a sea of conversation and laughter.

Waiters wove round the medieval benches full of students in suit-and-tie and academic robes. William Wordsworth, among other illustrious graduates, stared down inert from pendulous portraits on the wall, and donors proclaimed their gifts from coats-of-arms melted into the stained glass and branded onto the rafters.

Suddenly, Coffin heard a clink. What do I have that clinks? he thought. Then he felt his ribs nudged by a neighboring elbow.

He turned to the Fellow seated to his right, a toothless, red-faced old goat with a beard like a white sneeze. He was clearly on the losing side of the war for sobriety.

"You've been pennied, my boy!"

Coffin could feel the man's breath. "I beg your pardon?"

"You've got to save the Queen from drowning. Bottoms up!" The Fellow gestured to Coffin's wineglass, at the bottom of which lay a one-pence coin.

Coffin rolled his eyes and downed his glass. The Fellow laughed and gave him an old-boy smack on the shoulder. When he had turned away, Coffin dropped the recently saved penny onto the Fellow's plate of bread-and-butter pudding. The Fellow spun around and his smile faded.

"Now you have to eat your dessert hands-free," said Coffin, coolly. "You know the rules. If I penny your plate without your noticing..."

The sounds of the hall nearly masked the ring of his mobile phone. Coffin lifted it to his ear.

"Pronto? Buona sera. I didn't expect to hear from you. What can I...Really? No, I can...I'll be on the earliest flight back to Rome tomorrow morning..."

Something had been stolen.

Copyright © 2007 by Noah Charney

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Introduction

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. In Chapter 4, the author spends a great deal of time detailing Gabriel Coffin, "one of the art world's strangest characters." What are some of the most pertinent characteristics that we learn about Coffin when he is first introduced? Were you to use one word to describe him, what would it be? Do you consider him good or bad?

2. Coffin's "job was to protect art from the wicked, the criminal. To hunt down thieves. But could there be a good thief?" (p. 53) How would you answer this question? Did your answer change during the course of reading this book? If so, why?

3. "Nothing an author could contrive is half as bizarre as events that have truly happened." (p. 122) Do you agree with this sentiment? Could this story have happened?

4. Malevich's painting White on White, when compared to Caravaggio's work, brings up a number of questions regarding the nature of art. Elizabeth Van Der Mier notes of the thieves, "They want us to conclude that money should be better spent than on a piece of canvas painted white." (p. 215) Is she correct? Could stealing art be another form of art criticism?

5. Gabriel says, "There is no vengeance which may be inflicted, as biting and as limitless as regret." (p. 263) Do you think that he is right?

6. After solving their end of the case, Bizot and Lesgourges have a meaningful conversation about art and their treasure hunt. Bizot says, "For thoughtful people, there is a reason for everything....It's not solving the philosophical puzzle. This is about solving the literal puzzle: what we see on the surface, not how we read what we see. These people think only skin deep." (p. 268) How do you view art?Are you attracted to the deeper meaning of a painting or to its physical beauty? Do your views change depending on the painting itself? When and why?

7. Who is the hero and who is the villain of this story? Or does this novel have a hero or a villain? Why or why not?

8. In the Epilogue, Coffin asks Vallombroso which painting she would rather own, the Caravaggio or the Malevich? What does her answer reveal about her? Were the value of each to be the same, which would you rather own? Or would you insist that they both be in a museum so that they can be shared with others?

9. Which character goes through the greatest transformation from the beginning of the story to the end? What is that change and how do they go through it? What do you think was the greatest catalyst for that change?

10. When did you realize the scheme that had been played out on the parties involved? What was the major clue or tipping point for your realization? Whom did you first suspect? Why?

Enhance Your Book Group

1. Take a tour of your local art museum with your book group. For a full list of fine art collections in your local area, visit artcyclopedia.com/museums.html.

2. Learn more about Malevich and Caravaggio. Some great books include Caravaggio: The Art of Realism, by John Varriano; Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism, by Nina Gurianova, Jean-Claude Marcade, Tatyana Mikhienko, and Yevgenia Petrova; and Kasimir Malevich and the Art of Geometry, by John Milner.

3. To learn more about art theft, read The Art Stealers by Milton Esterow or The Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece by Edward Dolnick.

4. Watch Ocean's Twelve, Topkapi, The Score, or the modern version of The Thomas Crown Affair — just for fun!

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Interviews & Essays

An Interview with Noah Charney

How did you get interested in the art theft field? What attracts you to the subject? How do you think you can bring improvement to this field?

Research to write my novel, The Art Thief, is what led me to the field. I realized there was no field, and that surprised me. I am most interested in the field from a practical standpoint—how the academic study can help to inform contemporary law enforcement and art protection.

I was attracted to the field for the same reason that it fascinates a popular audience: the intrigue of unsolved mystery, crime, and the art world. As an art historian, this dark side of the art world, and the mixture of crime and mystery with art history was irresistable, from an entertainment and superficial perspective. But in greater depth the field proved even more interesting, and there are elements of psychology to art crime that make it unique. Finally, the absence of scholarly material, mixed with the immediate practical applicability of the field of study, made it an easy choice.

Treating art theft as a scholarly discipline: what challanges does it pose?

The greatest difficulty has been the lack of standard primary sources which would be used for solid scholarly research. In science, compiled statistics and in humanities, primary source documents, often manuscripts, would provide the backbone for research and theses. These do not exist, or at least not in their standard forms, in art crime studies. Most police departments have never, and still do not, file art crime cases in a distinct manner from other cases. Art thefts are compiled with general stolen goods. However art crime is drastically different in all ways from general stolen goods, and is actually more akin to kidnapping than to general theft of reproduceable goods, such as a car or a DVD player. Artworks are unique and irreplaceable and owners develop strong personal attachments to them, which a cash equivalent will not satisfy.

To do a really proper study of art crime, we would need to go through every police file of every department worldwide and first separate stolen art from general stolen goods, then identify based on the files alone which thefts featured art as the primary target, and which saw it as a secondary target (for instance when a house is burgled, and anything of obvious value is taken). This is a first, impossibly daunting step. But we can stop the bleeding if police departments from now on file stolen art separately from other stolen goods.

Only the Carabinieri take art crime seriously and only the bureacracy behind the Carabinieri Division for the Protection of Cultural Heritage provides praise-worthy support. While the Carabinieri has over 300 art agents full time, Scotland Yard has only 6 and the FBI has only 8. Both the FBI and Scotland Yard have achieved success through the efforts of one man at a time, the art squad directors (now Robert Wittman and Vernon Rapley, respectively), who have achieved great successes with virtually no support from administrators and their own governments.

Is there a common profile of the art thief today? And if not, what are the main profiles?

Art thieves themselves cannot be profiled. They are mercenary. You could hire them to steal a car, or a television, or a work of art. I estimate (but again, no good statistics exist worldwide) that about 80% of all art crime today is perpetrated either by, or on behalf of, international organized crime syndicates. They have a division for stealing cars, another for drug trafficking, another for art crime, functioning like a huge multinational corporation. They steal art for use on a closed black market, usually for barter of illicit goods of equivalent value, such as arms or drugs. They subcontract out, hiring thieves for specific thefts organized by some administrator within the crime syndicate, while the thieves themselves are either peripheral syndicate members, or one-time hires.

Profiling is very useful, but only if it can be determined with some certainty that there is a collector who prompted the theft. This happens very rarely, perhaps 10% of the time. It used to be much more common, but in the 1960s organized crime syndicates got interested in art crime, and the age of the solitary thief all but ended. There is a highly specific, and also profile-able psychology to art collecting, and this can be extended, and the profile further tightened, when criminal collecting is considered. So the first step of an investgation is to determine whether it is a crime of passion (collecting) or of business (organized crime, theft for resale or trade). Only the former category is useful for profiling.

Say that I want to steal a very important painting in a European Museum, like Leonardo's La vergine delle rocce at the Louvre.. What would I have to do?

Unfortunately it is not very difficult to steal a work of art. The almost impossible step is converting stolen art to cash. Most illicit art brings in about 7-10% of what its legitimate auction value might be. But the moment criminals try to convert stolen goods to cash is the most they are most often caught. Organized crime syndicates have elaborate laundering and smuggling methods at their disposal and are most capable of cashing in. But they have developed an internal bartering method where they never try to cash in and sell to a collector, and risk being caught, but simply trade the artworks for equivalent values of other illicit goods.

Museums are typically very well protected. Most vulnerable are institutions like churches, who must keep their art accessible to the public, who use it on a daily basis for worship and meditation, but who can rarely afford good security and insurance.

The new trend, like the 2004 Munch Museum theft, of quick strike violent thefts has been the most successful theft method lately. Stealthy night thefts are no longer a popular method, as museums are too well secured, particularly at night. But by day, their purpose is to grant access to the public, and yet they have to protect the art, too. But some museums have excellent security which makes quick strike thefts, like that at the Munch Museum, impossible. The Prado in Madrid or the Uffizi in Florence, for instance, employ airline-style single file security lines, with guards and x-ray machines and metal detectors. This is a hassle to get through initially, but no one can burst in, and museum-goers are free to wander without further delay once they are past the security measures. I think this is the safest museum defense available today, for daytime hours. The other good, organic defense is to have the museum’s art collection on a different floor from the one through which visitors enter. If thieves have to climb a staircase just to get to the art, and back down to get out of the building, it slows them down sufficiently to lessen the chance of quick strike theft.

Criminals will come up with a way to defeat any technology presented as an impediment to them, given a chance. Another key to security is to use a variety of very different security methods, employed for different objects and rooms in a collection. One overall security measure, if defeated, renders the entire collection helpless. A variety of methods, which should be changed at irregular intervals, provides the maximum protection and also counteracts hostile surveillance, which would seek to determine which defenses must be surmounted.

Who are the people who commission these theft. What are their motivations and menthalities?

Most thefts are commissioned as a business venture by members of organized crime syndicates. An administrator within the syndicate would choose what to steal, and determine how, and hire the thieves and anyone else necessary. They would choose what to steal based on what is useful. If there is a specific buyer in mind, that is one potential motivation. But more often, they will choose objects of known value which they can trade internally to other syndicates. Or they might steal an object as a thank you gift for political favors (one suggestion for the destination of the Caravaggio Palermo Nativity), or to use for blackmail. Least effective is ransom, which is usually a last resort when some other enterprise has fallen through. The motivation for almost all art crime is financial or political or both. The rarest cases are the ones we tend to hear most about—private collectors or individuals who become obsessed with the act of stealing or with a personal relationship with an artwork. Those make for the best films, but happen least frequently in real life.

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Reading Group Guide

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. In Chapter 4, the author spends a great deal of time detailing Gabriel Coffin, "one of the art world's strangest characters." What are some of the most pertinent characteristics that we learn about Coffin when he is first introduced? Were you to use one word to describe him, what would it be? Do you consider him good or bad?

2. Coffin's "job was to protect art from the wicked, the criminal. To hunt down thieves. But could there be a good thief?" (p. 53) How would you answer this question? Did your answer change during the course of reading this book? If so, why?

3. "Nothing an author could contrive is half as bizarre as events that have truly happened." (p. 122) Do you agree with this sentiment? Could this story have happened?

4. Malevich's painting White on White, when compared to Caravaggio's work, brings up a number of questions regarding the nature of art. Elizabeth Van Der Mier notes of the thieves, "They want us to conclude that money should be better spent than on a piece of canvas painted white." (p. 215) Is she correct? Could stealing art be another form of art criticism?

5. Gabriel says, "There is no vengeance which may be inflicted, as biting and as limitless as regret." (p. 263) Do you think that he is right?

6. After solving their end of the case, Bizot and Lesgourges have a meaningful conversation about art and their treasure hunt. Bizot says, "For thoughtful people, there is a reason for everything....It's not solving the philosophical puzzle. This is about solving the literal puzzle: what we see on the surface, not how we read what we see. These people think only skin deep." (p. 268) How do you view art? Are you attracted to the deeper meaning of a painting or to its physical beauty? Do your views change depending on the painting itself? When and why?

7. Who is the hero and who is the villain of this story? Or does this novel have a hero or a villain? Why or why not?

8. In the Epilogue, Coffin asks Vallombroso which painting she would rather own, the Caravaggio or the Malevich? What does her answer reveal about her? Were the value of each to be the same, which would you rather own? Or would you insist that they both be in a museum so that they can be shared with others?

9. Which character goes through the greatest transformation from the beginning of the story to the end? What is that change and how do they go through it? What do you think was the greatest catalyst for that change?

10. When did you realize the scheme that had been played out on the parties involved? What was the major clue or tipping point for your realization? Whom did you first suspect? Why?

Enhance Your Book Group

1. Take a tour of your local art museum with your book group. For a full list of fine art collections in your local area, visit artcyclopedia.com/museums.html.

2. Learn more about Malevich and Caravaggio. Some great books include Caravaggio: The Art of Realism, by John Varriano; Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism, by Nina Gurianova, Jean-Claude Marcade, Tatyana Mikhienko, and Yevgenia Petrova; and Kasimir Malevich and the Art of Geometry, by John Milner.

3. To learn more about art theft, read The Art Stealers by Milton Esterow or The Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece by Edward Dolnick.

4. Watch Ocean's Twelve, Topkapi, The Score, or the modern version of The Thomas Crown Affair — just for fun!

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 23 )
Rating Distribution

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(9)

4 Star

(5)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 24 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 13, 2008

    Yikes.

    Not worth your time. I started off liking the book as it was very reminiscent of Angels and Demons/Da Vinci Code/The Thomas Crown Affair movie. It seemed clever at first but sadly the whole thing began to go down hill. The writer would go off on these tangents giving you different histories of the art world. At first I was not bothered by this but coupled with his constant jumping around from scene to scene involving seemingly unrelated characters and the quickly dissolving plot, I just got bored. The writer kept trying to be clever and it became obvious that he was failing at that task before long. For example, he kept describing these two detectives who are always eating and I guess that is supposed to be funny and entertaining, well it wasn't. I was sure that if I heard one more description of the overweight detective, I was going to hurt myself. Sheesh...what a waste of time. I wanted to like the book, I really did, I went in with no preconceived notions but by the end I did not care who had committed what crime, I just wanted it to be over so I could go read something else. The book was repetitive, became boring and quite frankly the end did not in anyway justify the means. A thriller is suppose to be thrilling, something that never happened here. I would definitely not recommend.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 2, 2008

    Poorly written....

    I began this book expecting a wonderful story full of mystery, art history, and colorful characters. I was disappointed in all three categories. Not much mystery, very little history, and pale, underdeveloped characters all plague this book. I wouldn't waste my time reading this book...

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 28, 2008

    Don't see what all fuss is about

    I tend to buy books based on reading the reviews and I think this book is over rated by other reviews. I thought it was ok. Yes, it had a good ending but I probably wouldn't recommend this as a book you have to read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 21, 2007

    Not to be missed

    I was first drawn to this book by the cover, but as the saying goes, you can't judge a book that way. Not to fear, this is one exciting tale. I returned to the book store the next day to get another copy for a friend who read it in a single sitting -- it's that good. A stylish, fun story, and informative at the same time. Highly recommended.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2012

    Art historian's viewpoint

    Ehh the book was ok, i liked the detective spin on the art world but it dragged and then suddenly all the pieces randimly came together at the very end with no elaboration. Didnt hate it, but i dont love it

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    The best book i have ever read!

    I think everything was beautiful in this book. I love art, so I learn a lot. You will learn all about artist paintings and how much they are worth. Also I learn one of my coaches was related to Vermeer. I like the mystery, it was confusing which I like. I am only thirdteen and I could read it so I would recomend it to anyone.

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  • Posted September 12, 2009

    Great Book!

    I LOVED this book! It has 3 great elements: a complicated mystery, humor, and fascinating art history. And it all sews up in a delightful conclusion. Anyone who likes art and mystery should enjoy this book. Highly recommended!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 3, 2008

    Parlez vous francais?

    I'm half way through this book but I find myself a tad disappointed. I feel as though I'm missing out on some of the greater aspects of the book (wit, passion, anger, mystery) becuase many of the characters tend to speak in French. Which is authentic in relation to the setting of the plot, but what about all us non-French speaking readers? It's been a VERY long time since I've practiced my French and I'm certainly not fluent enough to fully comprehend what the author is trying to get across.

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  • Posted February 2, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    AN AMAZING VOICE PERFORMANCE

    British born actor Simon Vance gives an amazing performance of this multi-layered, multi character audio book. The slightest hint of a British accent provides wonderful listening, while he easily and convincingly becomes a stout French police inspector, an older rather cantankeous yet persistent London based detective, an astounded Italian priest, and more. Vance has won a number of Earphone Awards plus an Audie - this reading is another prize! Another prize winner in my estimation is the story. Every once in a great while a debut novel comes along that's head and shoulders above the rest. My response to Noah Charney's initial work is 'Eureka! It's the mother lode!' The Art Thief is an intellectual, witty, absorbing tale of three art thefts which take place in the most fascinating-to-hear-about settings - Rome, Paris, and London. Mr. Charney has an amazing ability to describe his characters so originally, so memorably that you feel you actually know them. Surely, if I saw a man wearing 'his smile like a crown of thorns,' I'd immediately recognize Professor Barrow. Or, should I spy on a London street a fellow with a coat that revealed a 'coffee colored lining, which hung, a corner ripped out and dragging,' I'd want to say good day to Harry Wickenden - even if he was not consulting 'his ten-pound gold Rolex watch.' Should I have the good fortune to be dining in Paris and see the porcine Inspector Jean-Jacques Bizot, he'd be quickly placed as 'His brambly peppered beard was a tangle of chin and leftovers, and bounced of its own volition, revealing his gummy smile.' It's sheer pleasure to follow each of their adventures. Our story opens in Italy, in a small church, Santa Giulana. The church's pride is a Caravagio altarpiece, which disappears in the dark of night. No clues, no trace, only a distraught Father Amoroso. The Malevich Society in Paris, overseen by the erudite, chain smoking Genevieve Delacloche, is in a turmoil as its prime painting, White on White, by Kasimir Malevich has disappeared from the impenetrable vault in the Society's basement. In London the National Gallery of Art pays an astounding 6.3 million pounds for what is to be the centerpiece of an upcoming exhibit. But, despite tight security odd things are occurring at the Gallery. Closed-circuit television screens reveal movement in the basement utility room but the screens don't show anyone. Those monitoring the screens can't communicate with other security personnel they cannot call the police as their phones are dead. Their latest acquisition is gone, and a hefty ransom demanded. To perplex further the thieves leave notes, clues, if you will, that tease. How any of these thefts could be connected will both confound and enthrall readers. Mr. Charney's novel is rich in art history and abounds with detail regarding art thievery. Information of this sort springs easily from this author as he is the founding director of the first consulting group on art crime prevention and solution. It's clear that he is passionate about art and all its facets. However, the appeal of The Art Thief is not limited to art lovers, Francophiles, Anglophiles, or Italophiles as it stands alone as a story of compelling suspense. Highly recommended. - Gail Cooke

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 2, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    WITTY, SOPHISTICATED, INTRIGUING

    Every once in a great while a debut novel comes along that's head and shoulders above the rest. My response to Noah Charney's initial work is 'Eureka! It's the mother lode!' The Art Thief is an intellectual, witty, page-turning tale of three art thefts which take place in the most fascinating-to-read-about settings - Rome, Paris, and London. Mr. Charney has an amazing ability to describe his characters so originally, so memorably that you feel you actually know them. Surely, if I saw a man wearing 'his smile like a crown of thorns,' I'd immediately recognize Professor Barrow. Or, should I spy on a London street a fellow with a coat that revealed a 'coffee colored lining, which hung, a corner ripped out and dragging,' I'd want to say good day to Harry Wickenden - even if he was not consulting 'his ten-pound gold Rolex watch.' Should I have the good fortune to be dining in Paris and see the porcine Inspector Jean-Jacques Bizot, he'd be quickly placed as 'His brambly peppered beard was a tangle of chin and leftovers, and bounced of its own volition, revealing his gummy smile.' It's sheer pleasure to follow each of their adventures. Our story opens in Italy, in a small church, Santa Giulana. The church's pride is a Caravagio altarpiece, which disappears in the dark of night. No clues, no trace, only a distraught Father Amoroso. The Malevich Society in Paris, overseen by the erudite, chain smoking Genevieve Delacloche, is in a turmoil as its prime painting, White on White, by Kasimir Malevich has disappeared from the impenetrable vault in the Society's basement. In London the National Gallery of Art pays an astounding 6.3 million pounds for what is to be the centerpiece of an upcoming exhibit. But, despite tight security odd things are occurring at the Gallery. Closed-circuit television screens reveal movement in the basement utility room but the screens don't show anyone. Those monitoring the screens can't communicate with other security personnel they cannot call the police as their phones are dead. Their latest acquisition is gone, and a hefty ransom demanded. To perplex further the thieves leave notes, clues, if you will, that tease. How any of these thefts could be connected will both confound and enthrall readers. Mr. Charney's novel is rich in art history and abounds with detail regarding art thievery, such as the fact that '90% of all criminal collectors of art are people of wealth and society.' Most often they are men who have amassed art quite legitimately through auctions and galleries. Information of this sort springs easily from Mr. Charney as he is the founding director of the first consulting group on art crime prevention and solution. It's clear that he is passionate about art and all its facets. However, the appeal of The Art Thief is not limited to art lovers, Francophiles, Anglophiles, or Italophiles as it stands alone as a story of compelling suspense. My one caveat would be that the art lectures delivered by one of his characters tended to run on for a bit, while this reader wanted to get to the bottom of all the intriguing double dealing going on. Nonetheless, that was a small price to pay for such an absorbing, sophisticated page-turner. - Gail Cooke

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 19, 2007

    A great read

    A very entertaining crime drama, and also extremely informative about the goings-on behind today's art scene. The characters are colorful and realistic, and the plot moves along at a nice clip. A nicely done job by an author who clearly knows his field, and who is generous with that knowledge.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 15, 2007

    A reviewer

    I always wondered what goes on behind the doors of places like Christie's, and thanks to this page-turner, I have a better idea. My favorite scenes (Chapters8- 13) were at the auction, but throughout, I liked the snappy dialogue and energy. A great future movie?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 15, 2007

    Art Thief: A Novel

    I quickly became engrossed and found myself turning the pages, eager for the next plot turn. The lessons about the inside world of art and museums that others found digressive and pedantic, I found interesting and informative. 'The Art Thief' is not 'War and Peace,' nor did I read it with that expectation. But it is a good tale entertainingly told, with unforeseen developments and happy surprises. I read this book in one sitting on a long plane ride and it carried me through the hours I read it and stayed with me afterwards. I recommend it to all.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 15, 2007

    Art Thief: A Novel

    This literary thriller is well written, witty, and absorbing. With a plot that keeps you pleasantly puzzled. The behind-the-scenes portraits of the world of auctions and art galleries are fascinating--especially a high-tension auction. You learn a lot about art I especially enjoyed the walk through the National Gallery in London with the curmudgeonly professor--a funny scene but full of art history lore. I don't understand the comments criticizing the writing--except for the occasional excess, I find the writing sharp and often elegant. And the story really moves. A few characters are thin and there is a bit too much about the eating habits of the French detective. But the book delivers--a plot full of unexpected developments and interesting characters in a setting few of us know--the international world of art.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 15, 2007

    An exciting thriller with much adventure - very highly recommended

    I found myself excited and engaged by Noah Charney¿s debut novel. The sophisticated plot skillfully transports the reader through Europe with many exciting twists and turns upon the journey to discover the missing priceless artwork. I thoroughly enjoyed the diverse and unique character development used in ¿The Art Thief.¿ Many times it would bring a smile to my face. Finally, I was most appreciative of Mr. Charney¿s gentle education of the art world and the crimes that can occur. Having read ¿The Art Thief¿ I not only enjoyed myself, but I expanded my knowledge as well. It was a wonderful adventure! I enjoy Dan Brown's writing and I believe Noah Charney offers this level and quality of writing, if not higher. Mr. Charney's first novel is definitely 'a thriller.' I can hardly wait to see the sequel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 14, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 14, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 24 Customer Reviews

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