Bio & Pics
Noah 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:
I 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.
I 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.