Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Noah Charney

Noah Charney is the author of The Art Thief.

From a Q & A at the author's website:

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 challenges 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.
Read more of the Q & A.

The Page 69 Test: The Art Thief.

--Marshal Zeringue