Yesterday’s New York Times Magazine discusses Cambridge PhD candidate Noah Charney, who is using art history, psychology, and criminal investigation scholarship to form a composite picture of who art thieves are and why they steal. The article gives a good overview of some of the biggest art thefts in recent history, including the theft in 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, in which $300 million worth of art was stolen.
Apparently, Charney wants to use criminal profiling and forensic psychology to solve art thefts, or even predict which objects are likely to be stolen in the future. He’s also hired a professional fund-raiser to begin a stolen art consultancy in Rome which will use this inter-disciplinary approach to solving art crimes.
It’s certainly an interesting idea, and one that I’m sure will likely take off for him. Stolen art is a topic everyone is interested in. However, one question I have, apart from how exactly a PhD student gets a write-up in the NYT, is whether this even can work. The article is pretty slim on the details for how exactly his research tackles the problem. It certainly sounds interesting, and I’d love to read more about his work. 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. His new consultancy is headquartered in Rome, which currently seems a great place to see how increased enforcement resources can impact the illicit trade. I will be particularly interested to learn more about who buys stolen art.
This increase will certainly impact the illicit trade in cultural property, but to what extent? The illicit trade in cultural property shares many characteristics with the illegal narcotics trade. In fact, many of the same “source” nations for art and antiquities are also narcotics cultivation areas, including both Afghanistan and a number of areas in South America. An increase in police resources in that illicit trade seems to have brought about the opposite of the intended effect.
William Burroughs wrote a particularly poignant work on this subject, Naked Lunch, which satirizes modern society and its many addictions. Burroughs speaks explicitly about drugs, but he is using that trade as a starting point for any kind of addiction. He talks about a pyramid of junk, which can be analogized to any illegal trade I think. As Burroughs says, “The pyramid of junk, one level eating the level below right up to the top or tops as there are many junk pyramids feeding on peoples of the world and all built on the basic principles of monopoly”. In Burrough’s view, the only way to stop a pyramid like this is at the consumer end. For the drug trade, that’s the user, but for the illicit trade in art, it’s the purchaser of a work.
The likely result of these increased interdiction efforts in the cultural property market will be to lead to a greater number of arrests, but will only force the illicit trade further underground. As long as there are individuals who want to buy and possess these objects, the trade will remain robust. Perhaps Charney’s work will reveal more about who the purchasers of stolen art are.