Monday, December 18, 2006

“The art trade is the least transparent and least regulated commercial activity in the world”

Interesting piece in the New York Times Magazine yesterday on Noah Charney, who's getting a doctorate at Cambridge University "in a field he appears to have invented: the use of art history, combined with the more conventional tools of criminology, psychology and deductive logic, to help solve modern-day art thefts and to prevent future art crimes."

The story reports that "the stolen-art trade is now an international industry valued as high as $6 billion per year, the third-largest black market behind drugs and arms trafficking. Yet the solution rate in art crime is reported to be a startlingly low 10 percent. Investigations are hampered by the cult of secrecy within the art world itself — museums sometimes don’t report thefts, fearing to reveal their vulnerability to future crimes and thereby hurt their chances of receiving new donations."

Charney's idea is "to apply to art thefts the techniques of criminal profiling that forensic psychologists use to help solve serial rapes and murders. To supply the necessary raw materials for this analysis, he has begun to compile a database of art thefts that records salient details: the way the work was stolen, for instance, along with biographical information about everyone involved, including thieves, fences and the collectors who eventually bought the purloined artwork." He wants to "establish a clearer, more empirically rigorous understanding of art crime."

The article gives his views on several high-profile art thefts: the 1990 roberry at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (arranged by a wealthy connoisseur with his eye on specific works); the 2004 theft of “Scream” from the Munch Museum in Oslo ( “Russian Mafia types”); and the December 2005 theft of Henry Moore’s 2-ton bronze “Reclining Figure,” which was accomplished using a flatbed Mercedes truck with a crane attached (melted down to make small forged antiquities).

The next step for Charney is the establishment of a "nonprofit consultancy based in Rome that will employ the same international, interdisciplinary approach to art crime that he has used in his scholarship, with a staff trained in criminology, statistics, museum security and art history." He has applied to the Getty and Ford Foundations to raise the $1.7 million he thinks he'll need for the first three years.

Derek Fincham thinks it's an interesting idea, but wonders how effective it will be: "The article is pretty slim on the details for how exactly his research tackles the problem. .... At the end of the day, the driving force behind art theft is the high value of these objects, and the expense of providing adequate security, especially in museums and houses which receive fewer visitors, and cannot afford adequate security."