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Bio & Pics

Photo Credit: Giovanni TroiloNoah Charney holds advanced degrees in art history from The Courtauld Institute and Cambridge University.  He is the founding director of ARCA, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, a non-profit think tank and research group on issues in art crime (www.artcrime.info).  His work in the field of art crime has been praised in such international forums as The New York Times Magazine, Time Magazine, BBC and CBC Radio, National Public Radio, El Pais, Vogue, Vanity Fair, Playboy, Elle, and Tatler among many others.  He has appeared on radio and television as an expert on art history and art crime, including BBC, ITV, CNBC, and MSNBC.  Charney is the author of numerous articles and a novel, The Art Thief (Atria 2007), which is an international best-seller, currently translated into seventeen languages.  He is the editor of an academic essay collection entitled Art & Crime: Exploring the Dark Side of the Art World (Praeger 2009).  Recently a Visiting Lecturer at Yale University, Charney is now Professor of Art History at The American University of Rome.  He lives in Italy with his wife.

 

(Click the pictures for large view.)

Excerpt from an interview with Noah, published in Italy in Ventiquattro magazine, 14 April 2007:


A bit of biographical information: when were you born, where did you grow up, your family background, your studies.

Photo Credit: Giovanni TroiloI was born in New Haven, Connecticut. My father is a psychiatrist.  My mother is a professor of French literature at Yale.  I spent most of my summers growing up in France, and my family is of the socio-economic group of Americans who idealize Europe—spending all holidays in Europe, frequenting the European farmers’ markets and restaurants in America.  I grew up learning that America was an easy and convenient place to live, but in terms of culture, art, history, food, and feeding one’s soul, Europe was the place to be.

I had what I’d consider the best possible education, beginning with a highly progressive pre-school.  I went to Calvin Hill preschool, and The Foote School through elementary school.  Then I went to Choate Rosemary Hall.  During my time there I spent a year abroad in Paris, studying French and art history, and it was my time in Paris that assured me that I wanted my life to be in Europe, and that I wanted its focus to be art history.

I went to university in Maine in the US, at a place called Colby, where I studied art history and english literature.  During my time there, I lived abroad for a year in London studying theater.  I wrote a number of plays during my time at Colby, many of which were performed.  I also won a national playwrighting competition, the Horizons New Young Playwrights Competition (2002).

I then moved to London, in a move to Europe which I knew would be permanent.  I studied for a Masters degree at The Courtauld Institute, which is the best art history institution in the world.  I did my Masters in 17th century Roman art, and wrote on Bernini’s ecstasy sculptures, Ecstasy of St Teresa and Tomb of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni, on sexuality and spirituality in Early Modern art.  During this year in London, for fun, wrote a novel, called The Art Thief.  This novel will be published in the Fall of 2007 by Atria Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, and will be available internationally.

Photo Credit: Giovanni TroiloI then did a second Masters at Cambridge University (there the MA degree is called a Master of Philosophy degree) in 16th century Florentine painting and iconography, and wrote a new interpretation of Bronzino’s London “Allegory of Love and Lust.”  I began teaching art history, as well.  I have taught every spring in Florence for an American university called Miami Dade, and I teach in Cambridge every summer for the Oxbridge Academic programs.  I also edited a book of essays in which authors were encouraged to write about personal experiences with art from any medium, and expound on their own experience to talk about what makes art great for a wider audience.  The book has a neo-humanist agenda, describing how works of art are great when the speak in universal truths about the human condition, but the book uses personal, anecdotal essays to break down any intimidation which readers might feel towards essays that are essentially about art and philosophy.  The book is called Art & Truth.

I was then accepted into two different PhD programs.  One would further examine my work on Bronzino’s Allegory, and look at Venus and Cupid iconography in Mannerist painting.  It would have been at University College London.  I had also developed an interest in art crime doing research for The Art Thief .  I realized there was almost no literature of any sort on art crime—only a few journalistic, general accounts of famous art thefts, aimed at entertaining, not at study and analysis.  There was no available solid scholarly material, so I developed an interest in studying it.  I had a lot of trouble finding a supervisor.  At Cambridge I found one, an historian with no knowledge of, or particular interest in art crime, but who was willing to take me on, and recognized it as an interesting field.  There were no criminologists to call on.  No established professor in the world studies art crime.  I began the PhD at Cambridge in the history of art theft.

In June of 2006 I held a conference in Cambridge entitled “Art Theft: History, Prevention, Detection, Solution.”  It was attended by the heads of the FBI, Scotland Yard, and Carabinieri Art squads (Vernon Rapley, and Col. Giovanni Pastore) as well as academics and art professionals with interest, if not previous experience, in the study of art crime.  I was only able to find people who were interested in art crime, but almost no one who had already worked on the field.  This conference received a lot of media attention, and was the subject of the 17 Dec 2006 New York Times Magazine article by Tom Mueller.  I have forged close friendships and professional relationships with the police and art professionals from the conference.

I’ve been living in Venice, Florence, Rome, Ljubljana and Cambridge over the last three years.  I will be based in Rome from 2008 on, when ARCA begins, and that is where I hope to remain for my career.

After two years of the PhD at Cambridge, my novel sold, and word of my work in art crime studies reached the media.  I am currently taking a leave of absence from Cambridge, as I have had so many other projects which demanded my immediate attention.  In addition to the upcoming publication of the novel, The Art Thief, I have been giving lectures internationally on art history and art crime.  I am writing my second novel, and I am also writing an academic survey history of art crime.  I am developing two television shows.  One is a TV documentary series which I will write and host, on contemporary art crime and how history can inform it.  The other is a new fictional drama series, about a character based on me and my work, traveling the world and helping police solve art crimes.  I have recently been a visiting scholar at the Institute of Criminology, in Ljubljana, Slovenia.  I have also started a second PhD, in art history, at the University of Ljubljana.

I have started a non-profit charity called ARCA (Association for Research into Crimes against Art).  It will be based in Rome, and will be an international think tank and consultancy group on art crime prevention and art protection.  It will be free of charge as a consultancy service available to police or institutions who would like academic research and analysis techniques applied to their issues.  I am also particularly concerned with protecting churches.  There are 600 churches just in the center of Rome and 95,000 in Italy alone, and most have no insurance and little protection, but contain important artworks.  Advising on ways to protect church art collections in a cost-effective manner, as a free of charge charity, is very important to me.

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 feel that academics should always have a strong answer to the question of why one should bother studying any specific field.  If the answer is simply that it is interesting and its study expands our knowledge of a field, that is okay.  But it is much more important to study things with practical ends, and the most important reason to study history is to learn from past mistakes, so as not to repeat them.  I hope that the study of the history of art crime can teach us how better to confront present day problems. 

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. 

So, lack of statistics and the material best suited as the root system for a scholarly study makes this field particularly challenging—too often I have to rely on being told something as a “fact” with no available empirical evidence or statistics to back it up.  This has been most difficult in trying to write a Cambridge PhD, which expects only the most thorough scholarship, in great detail and depth.  I have come up with a wide spectrum of knowledge, but most of it is from opinion and personal experience, with little that is solid to put in my footnotes.  For this reason, I am considering that this field may not yet be ready for a PhD or at least not a Cambridge PhD, and it would be to the benefit of all if I write a general survey history of art crime, instead of a PhD in one specific subsection of the field.  I have yet to decide if I will finish the Cambridge PhD, as too many other, more important tasks are being asked of me, tasks to which I, and this new field of study, am better suited.

How do you work?

Photo Credit: Giovanni TroiloSpeaking with individuals within the art and police worlds is the best source of knowledge, as in this field, long hours in a library (as I’ve been trained to research in my art history work) are not particularly fruitful.  Sorting through old police files is probably the most necessary work, but it is also the least immediately rewarding and most time-consuming, and is far beyond the capacity of one, or even one hundred scholars.  It is an enormous project, and I am trying to encourage as many people as possible with an interest in the field, to take it up, especially other scholars.  I have no interest in being or remaining the world expert in the study of art crime.  What I hope to do is attract as many scholars as possible to the field, the more the better, to get as much work done as possible in helping to curb art crime. 

I think one of the best, most productive things I can do, is to raise both popular and governmental awareness of the severity of art crime, of what is being done, of what has been done, and of what should be done about it.  By being a public spokesperson, and appealing particularly to the popular fascination with the field, I hope to encourage other scholars to take up the field, and encourage governments to fund their own art squads (many countries still have no police dedicated to art crime, and yet art crime is the third largest criminal industry worldwide, bringing in $2-6 billion a year for criminal organizations).  That is why I think writing a popular novel, or presenting television shows is a good way to reach the widest possible audience, to inform them through entertainment, so the learning process is a pleasure, and never feels like work.

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. 

What do you feel when you see the art thief portrayed in movies as an elegant connoisseur?

They do not exist.  Sadly, because the movies are such fun.  Art theft is elegant in that there are very few examples in history in which violence is ever used.  Since organized crime got involved, violence has escalated in art crime, and crimes such as the 2004 Munch theft, with weapons and violence involved, are examples of a new trend. 

There are examples of gentleman thieves, or “scrupulous” thieves in history, but I know of none today.  They tend to be admired by a public which generally feels either an apathy towards art or a genuine anti-pathy, that art is something they will not understand or that is not for them.  So they tend to cheer for those who are “giving the middle finger” to an institution to which they feel that they do not belong and in which they are not welcome.  So people admire thieves like Robert Mang of the Cellini Saliera theft or Stefan Breitweiser.  But I think this is more to do with peoples’ attitude toward art, and their misunderstanding that art crime does not really hurt anybody.  In fact, art crime is a major funding source for terrorism, and funds drugs and arms trade, all of which people get correctly upset about.  But because people don’t know that, and they consider art to be simply the collectibles of the wealthy, they think it is not a “serious” crime and they can cheer for the thieves. 

Fictional portrayals are great fun.  It is important, though, that art crime should generate the outrage in the public eye proportional to its actual devastating effect.  Public would not cheer for, or admire, an elegant terrorist who blew up a bus full of people.  They should know that the art thief they admire or find so entertaining may have provided the funds to pay that terrorist to blow up that bus.

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?

It is unfortunately 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.

Most museums are 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 inside 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.

Is the great criminal art collector a figure that exists, out of movies?

Photo Credit: Giovanni TroiloThey exist, but only in the rarest instances.  And if they are any good, we will never know about them.  That is another problem with studying a crime.  If the criminals are any good at their job, they won’t be caught, and I won’t have any information to study.  So all I can study is failed attempts which were solved, or unsolved crimes which remain open-ended.  More often than not, collectors will be those who collect legitimately and perhaps have one, or a few, illicitly gotten objects.  Someone who collects stolen objects on a large scale, and does so knowlingly, is of the world of fiction.  It is probable that many collectors, especially American collectors from the turn of the 20th century, bought objects which may or may not have had an illicit past, and that the collectors themselves did not know one way or the other.  Most antiquities were looted at some point in their histories, so collectors of antiquities probably have some objects of questionable pedigree.  In short, there are collectors who have objects of questionable, and sometimes illict background.  But I know of no contemporary collectors who amass their collections through criminal means.  If I did, after all, they would be in prison by now!


Which one is the most interesting art theft ever, for you?

The most intriguing unsolved case is that of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, because it is the largest unsolved case in history, and because from my studies I feel certain that is was a commissioned theft perpetrated by an organized crime syndicate on behalf of one or more private collectors.

Historically, I think the interwoven psychologies and personalities of Picasso, Appolinaire, involved with their own thefts from the Louvre, and the mixup that found them implicated in the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa by Vincenzo Peruggia, is an amazing story.