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Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives Through the Secret World of Stolen Art based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
One of the main problems with nonfiction is that it can read like…well, like nonfiction. Given that the real world is stranger and more random than anything we can think up in a novel, there’s no good reason for this. Hot Art doesn’t have this problem. The opening chapter – with the author riding along with LAPD detectives en route to an antique-store burglary in West Hollywood – reads like the start of a detective novel, and I fully expected Harry Bosch or Elvis Cole to be waiting at the scene. If later on the book settles into some talking-head action, the colorful characterizations of those heads keeps things from lapsing into textbookism. Canadian journalist Joshua Knelman spent several years putting this book together, traveling as far afield as Los Angeles and Cairo to see the various gears of the art-crime machine grind away. While he stops in some of the expected places – both Dick Ellis and Robert Wittman make appearances – Knelman does something not very many other art-crime writers do: he also talks to the thieves themselves. Some of the liveliest chapters are those we spend in the company of Paul, a one-time Brighton “knocker” (door-to-door recon for art thieves) who became a central figure in the British art black market before retiring to more genteel pastimes, such as benefits fraud. Another refreshing change is that Knelman doesn’t spend a lot of time on the marquee art thefts, the ones that get big headlines worldwide. His interviewees emphasize that the $6 billion annual illicit art market revolves around lesser-known artworks stolen from living rooms or offices, not the multimillion-dollar masterpieces that Paul calls “headache art.” So if you’re fed up with reading about the Gardner heist or Martin Cahill, you won’t have to lose much time on them here. This is a solid 4.5 stars, but I’ve rounded down for a few minor reasons. For one, there tends to be general agreement about the outlines of the art-crime world among both the cops and the crooks Knelman interviews; this means some of the same points get repeated, over and over. Auction houses and galleries take a drubbing from most every talking head here, but there’s little time devoted to their side of the story. Knelman uses space implying there’s more information rather than just giving it to us; for instance, more than once I wished he’d just give Paul the mike and let the man talk, or at least share more of the info from those interviews. Also, while he emphasizes the role played by growing Internet-accessible stolen-art databases, he doesn’t close the loop by demonstrating that all that data-gathering is actually helping recovery or closure rates. Finally, Knelman falls into the common trap of constantly name-checking The Thomas Crown Affair, which has become the standard whipping boy among art-crime specialists for what art crime isn’t. Point taken, but does nearly every interview need to say this? Despite these petty cavils, Hot Art is a good way to catch up with current doings in the art-crime arena, particularly if you’re not a specialist. Knelman’s prose goes down easy, and his characters are vivid and make good company. Like Chasing Aphrodite, it takes a large and complicated subject and makes it sound like pulp fiction. If you’d like to know more about art theft than just Rene Russo’s transparent dress, check this out.