April 2012

Bonnie B. Lee


The Art of the Heist: Valuing Art through Its Theft

In November 2010, a Chinese porcelain vase that had been languishing for decades in a suburban London "bungalow" sold for an astonishing 69 million dollars. It catapulted into the ranks of established brand names like Picasso, Van Gogh, and Renoir as one of the all-time highest bids at auction. It was a first for a Chinese artwork, and not even a painting at that. The sale made headlines all over the world, and no wonder: who wouldn't, in economically grim times, warm to a color piece of unsuspecting suburbanites rummaging through Granny's old clutter and stumbling upon a musty old thing that turned out to be worth millions?

The vase was found by the relatives of one Patricia Newman as they were sorting through her modest property in Pinner, England, after her death. A regional auction house in neighboring West Ruislip had sent out a flyer asking for inventory from just such house clearances, and so in September 2010 some of Mrs. Newman's old belongings, including a colorful sixteen-inch vase with lively goldfish decorations, ended up at Bainbridge's. While the most recent haul was being sorted, a consulting appraiser walked by the vase shelved unceremoniously in storage and remarked that if real, the extraordinary piece could easily fetch "1.5 million pounds." After further archival investigation, the appraiser, Luan Grocholski, concluded that the vase was the genuine article: an imperial porcelain fired in the famous Jingdezhen kilns, created for the pleasure of Emperor Qianlong (r. 1735-1796), fourth Qing Dynasty ruler to control China, and likely situated in the fine rooms of either the Forbidden City or the Summer Palace in the capital city Beijing.

Peter Bainbridge, the auctioneer, advertised "a superb and very rare yang cai reticulated double-walled vase" just in time for the season when collectors and dealers of Asian art would be in London. The steady stream of Western and Chinese experts who came to the pre-sale viewing murmured in appreciation and disbelief. But nothing could prepare Bainbridge or Grocholski for how the vase's value would take off during auction. Bidding began for lot 800 at a not insignificant 500,000 pounds, but fifteen breathless minutes later, seven bidders were still raising paddles at 20 million. Just before 6:30pm, the gavel fell at 43 million pounds, and Bainbridge declared, "We have the most wonderful, wonderful sum of money." 

Almost immediately, the seeming fairytale began to crack. Dark mutterings trickled into the media, grumblings of a conspiracy: that dealers were artificially creating a bubble to drive up prices of their own Asian artworks, that the bid was staged by the Chinese government as a protest against Western sellers seeking to profit off stolen national treasures, that it could actually be a fake (a respected New York Chinese antiquities dealer had publicly doubted the vase's authenticity). Meanwhile, the successful bidder was still anonymous five months after the sale and had yet to pay a penny. Perhaps he had gotten cold feet.

The story of the fish vase illustrates much of the wild speculation, murky dealings, and profound uncertainty that characterize the art world. From the vase's origins, its entry to the market, and its subsequent (non)sale, the story raises a few seemingly basic questions of this deceptively glamorous world: where does art come from? Who owns it? And how and why do we value it?

Many recent books seek to answer these questions, often through the intrigue of art crime -- so many, in fact, that one of them ruefully notes, "It is fair to say [non-fiction titles on art crime] have become a genre, if not an industry." They thrill to the illegitimate side of art, with a particular love of "heists," and position their works as exposés of a seedy criminal underworld populated with black-turtlenecked thieves and cat-stroking villains. Inside the pages, though, these same books will point out that such sensationalizing is largely constructed to grab the public's attention and in fact does a disservice to the majority of art and antiques that isn't by a recognized artist, isn't worth millions of dollars, and wasn't stolen from a world-famous museum.

Museum thefts are the rare exceptions in art crime but nevertheless continue to fascinate anyone with even a passing interest in art, and new releases on the subject reliably appear on bookstore shelves. One recent book claims to refute the Dr. No hypothesis while its very premise seems to coyly acknowledge it. Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists focuses exclusively on stolen works from one of the most recognized artists in the world. Widely renowned during the seventeenth century Dutch Golden Age, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was also hugely prolific, producing some 300 paintings and 700 drawings, not including the innumerable prints made off his etched metal plates. The depth of his catalogue means that "every major museum, and many smaller ones, has at least one Rembrandt" -- and that opportunities abound for them to be stolen. Each chapter recounts a different Rembrandt heist, mostly from the 1960s and '70s, in which a few adequately competent thieves had very little trouble hauling out priceless paintings from grand fine arts institutions with nearly non-existent security systems.

Museums may be built to look like temples and fortresses, but inside they're veritable "warehouses" of six-, seven-, and eight-figure valuables watched over by a lone, unarmed guard.

Authors Anthony M. Amore, head of security at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, itself a victim of a 500-million dollar heist, and Tom Mashberg, a veteran journalist and editor at the Boston Herald, want you to believe that these thefts were committed by fairly crude low-level thugs. Their own research shows, though, that these alleged lunkheads actually spent many hours "casing" their target -- observing guards' schedules, determining the necessary removal tools, perhaps obtaining costumes or disguises -- and had a meticulous plan for entry and escape. Often the thefts were only discovered early the next morning when someone found broken glass and forlornly empty walls. Though there is no billionaire mastermind "shopping" museums to augment his illicit private collection, the thieves at least show cunning and no small amount of derring-do.

Amore and Mashberg put together an entertaining book that doesn't venture beyond the anecdotal, try as they might to make a larger point: that stealing art doesn't pay. In fact, it can pay reasonably well. Their narrow focus on masterpiece thefts from museums neglects the vast majority of the six billion dollar black market for stolen art, let alone the various other furiously grinding cogs and gears in the art world. 

"Art" is a term that covers all manner of shiny baubles; in the Western tradition, it is almost exclusively equated with paintings. In non-Western cultures, however, two-dimensional representational images are not necessarily privileged above, say, porcelain, jade, ivory, bronze, sculpture, calligraphy, mosaics, or textiles, not to mention the many objects associated with ritual worship. "Antiquities" technically refers to any object of cultural value over 150 years old, though they often refer to a class of artifacts so old they need to be dug out of archaeological sites and come from cultures with no longer extant gods or languages. "Antiques" can include all kinds of furniture, a silver tea service, lamps, a mantel clock, a set of andirons... the whole range of Grandma's musty drawing room can potentially qualify. Which is to say, not all art and antiques had to pass through Hades to end up in your home. 

Books like the debut effort by Joshua Knelman call into question whether we can really know for sure. The elaborate network along which shady art travels is the subject of his far-ranging and well-researched Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives Through the Secret World of Stolen Art. Through a number of revealing interviews mainly with those who try to police it, Knelman is astonished at the ease with which art can move largely unchecked from private to public, from cultural heritage to commodity, from black market to legitimate market, from country to country to country. According to Knelman's research, stolen art constitutes the fourth largest black market in the world (behind drugs, weapons, and money-laundering). The numbers point to a discomfiting conclusion: a lot of art held both publicly and privately, in fact, more than we care to admit, had to see the darkness of a hayloft, a bike shed, or a stolen vehicle's trunk before it saw the daylight of a SoHo gallery.

After all, how did a porcelain vase from the imperial courts of the Celestial Kingdom end up atop a wardrobe in Pinner, England? "My aunt got it in the 1930s, from her husband's side of the family," they said. And before then? "From a dealer, I suppose." And how did he get it? Fewer and fewer answers can satisfy the further one goes back, while uncomfortable questions come to the fore. (Only one of the several articles I read on the morning of November 12, 2010 baldly stated the most obvious possibility: that the fish vase was plunder from the Opium Wars of 1860, when British and French troops looted the palaces of Beijing.) Though visions of nimble thieves with sleuthing gadgetry stealing into museums under cover of night may make headlines and lend a sheen of dark intrigue to the art world, they are certainly the exceptions. Because not everything in a museum is worth stealing, and most everything that's stolen isn't from a museum.

Where art comes from may be a complicated question, but first, where art ends up is usually one and the same place: at an auction house. The two heavyweights, Sotheby's and Christie's, have become centralized clearinghouses for all sorts of art and antiques from around the world. It is at the auction block where an ostensibly priceless act of creative expression becomes a commodity -- and where its "value" is determined in hard figures. As one dealer tells author Sarah Thornton in Seven Days in the Art World, "Only two professions come to mind where the building in which transactions take place is referred to as a house." Thornton argues that the art craze of the past fifty years has been largely fanned by, if not set alight by, the public theatrics of auction houses. The fish vase sale is a prime example: Peter Bainbridge's gavel shattered as it banged down at 43 million pounds and the whole room gasped and cheered -- pure drama. Crucially, auctions give art "the illusion of liquidity," even if they are less like cash or drugs than like real estate; just because something is "worth" 10 million dollars doesn't mean there is always a buyer ready at any time to pay that amount.

Not all of an auction house's dealings are dirty; to be fair, Knelman reports several instances of auction houses doing their due diligence and turning in to authorities works that were reported stolen. Before international databases of stolen art such as Art Loss Registrar or International Foundation of Art Research's were compiled (and whose existence has only very slightly made a thief's life harder), anyone who could lift a painting uncaught could pass it off to middlemen, then slip it over from the dark to the bright side into the hands of dealers, and eventually, to an auction house, where it would recycle back again to another dealer, gallery, private collector, or even a museum. Every step of the way, money would change hands. With every transaction, legitimate or not, the value would go up and up. Save for perhaps contemporary art, where the sums are largest but definitive value is most uncertain, art continues unceasingly to appreciate. Stocks and bonds never had such good returns.

It was the promise of a large payout -- moderate risk, huge rewards -- that got thieves to start eyeing comely artwork in the first place. And they didn't even need to make much of a smash to grab them. Knelman interviews a former art thief named Paul who got his start as a "knocker." Going from door to door in the English resort town of Brighton, Paul charmed his way into the homes of creaky retirees, ostensibly to exchange an old item or two (a pair of candlesticks, a string of glass beads) for quick cash. Once inside, he would stake out the real valuables and later send a crew of thieves after them. Not everything was a Cézanne or a Gainsborough or a Qianlong imperial vase. In fact, most of it was mid-level artwork and antiques, worth a few thousands dollars at the final transaction, and the bulk of the illicit art trade is made up of such items that the local police don't have the information, time, or resources to track down. Your mahogany side table, Louis XVI marble urns, and great-aunt's landscape oil painting are therefore left to circulate in the vast underground network of art peddlers, never to be seen again.

There is another, darker method of getting art and artifacts, one as old as civilization itself. This, too, has spawned a subgenre of not only art books but legal texts. Two weeks ago, I opened my laptop one more time before sleeping to read this New York Times headline: "Sotheby's Caught in Dispute Over Prized Cambodian Statue." A thousand-year-old Khmer sandstone figure of a warrior was pulled last minute from the major Asian art sale at Sotheby's New York last March. The Cambodian government is appealing to the US State Department and Department of Homeland Security for its return and, barring that, for an exclusive opportunity to buy it back. The previous owner, "a noble European lady," claims she rightfully acquired it in 1975 from a respected London dealer. She is probably indignant, too, that she's not up a couple million dollars from its sale as expected.

I remember that statue. I work for an Asian art gallery in New York, and business spikes every March when Asian art collectors and dealers from all over the world come to town for exhibitions, events, and most importantly, sales. I find the day-to-day routine of my job about as glamorous as working in publishing (that is, far less than what outsiders may think), but when there is a cocktail reception or a gallery opening, many of the beautiful and bejeweled come out to play. I wandered around Sotheby's multi-level showroom so large it has escalators, like a suburban mall. Dealers and collectors were upstairs getting on their third drink, from the sound of it, and I had had my fill of inane small talk for the day. Empty glasses were abandoned carelessly atop vitrines. I was left alone to look at the art, and I soon came across a large warrior figure, five feet tall, with a lively expression, thin curving mustache, elaborately carved headdress, posed in an animated stance. Oh look, I remember thinking. This one also has no feet.

I was recalling another footless Khmer sandstone sculpture I had seen elsewhere, an elegant deity suspended on broken stumps with deep, almost brutal cuts along the inner calves and shins. The feet of the sparring warrior at Sotheby's were later found in the Koh Ker temple complex, sixty miles north of Angkor Wat. The looters must have hacked it off its base during the chaos of bloody political upheaval in Cambodia in the 1970s, when the footless warrior trekked unnoticed across borders and into the hands of eager buyers.

As it remains in legal limbo, both sides are appealing to archaic statutes, historical precedence, and -- dare we imagine? -- ethics to claim ownership. There is a strong precedence for its removal and sale. Historically, plundering has been synonymous with war. No less than Cicero lamented the pillaging of ancient Greece when its sculptures, paintings, tapestries, and even pantheon of gods were brought back to Rome. But that doesn't mean we can't continue to be outraged about it, or ambivalent, or both. What is notable this time around is the high possibility of its return. The Khmer sculpture dispute follows in the wake of other landmark cases for repatriation. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York agreed to return a prized Etruscan krater to Italy in 2006, suspected as a tomb looting from the start, and then nineteen artifacts to Egypt in 2011, which were taken from King Tut's tomb. The Getty Museum of Los Angeles returned a statue of the goddess Aphrodite and forty other artifacts to Italy in 2007. Other institutions have been under pressure to return presumed-loot-turned-museum-property, to say nothing of the most contentious case, the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum. Who can really say that they own all this art anyway? Does a nation's heritage necessarily belong within its borders?

Knelman gets a hold of Matthew Bogdanos, a Marine and lawyer who led the search for art stolen from the Baghdad National Museum after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (and who was also interviewed for the Cambodia sculpture article). Maintaining a fully functioning museum complete with security guards and queuing ticket holders was hardly possible within an active combat zone, but Bogdanos hoped he could at least secure and control the potential flood of inventory into black market. But by the time Bogdanos got to the museum site and saw the empty display cases, and the opened vault, many of human civilization's earliest artifacts had already been squirreled away by museum staff or locals for safekeeping -- or for quick profit. Who knows how much of it was already on its way to London, Paris, Geneva, Zurich, New York, and Los Angeles. Americans and their coalition allies suddenly found themselves charged with the responsibility of managing and protecting huge quantities of art that by the time boots hit the ground had already vanished into the yawning chasm rent by war.

As demonstrated by the fish vase sale, the Chinese approach to such historic grievances is more pragmatic, or at least more economical. Perhaps there is some equation of possession with power going on at a macro level, as James Cuno claims in Who Owns Antiquity? He rails against UNESCO's laws policing the sale and acquisition of antiquities and dismisses them as nationalist bluster, a kind of politicking he believes museums mustn't be sullied with. Cuno's slipshod argument and astonishing presumptuousness doesn't take into account many things, one of which is the deep historical reasons for why countries like China may want to (re)own stolen cultural property. The Chinese are like the goblins in the Harry Potter series, I once tried to explain to friends. A work of art ultimately belongs to its creator, not to whatever wizard paid good galleons for it. And not even, that is, to a specific goblin -- what matters is that it is "goblin-made" and rightfully belongs in the hands of goblins. Unlike the exalted and inviolable individualism of Western art's most celebrated practitioners, who are hailed by that overused epithet, "genius," and who have whole museums dedicated to their lives and works, Chinese vases and sculptures are not always emblazoned with the name of the artist on every base or backside. He (or she) may be one of a series of craftsmen involved in producing a single exquisitely rendered object.

Granted some porcelains, mirrors, silver, cabinets, and dinner services were made specifically for the export market of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, designed to cater to European tastes, and were shipped halfway round the world for huge profits. Those were never meant to stay in China, were foreign commodities from the beginning, and hold little interest to the Chinese collector. Everything else was made by, and more importantly, for China, and those bearing an imperial mark were made for the Heavenly Ruler himself. How one of the Celestial Emperor's personal effects ended up in Pinner is not much of a mystery to those who recognize its origins.

The prevailing attitude is that if it's Chinese, it's ours. Reported from the fish vase sale: "This is a very, very important, rare and splendid item. We have never seen such a beautiful thing outside China and it is good that a Chinese buyer has bought it." (One does not hear the French similarly claiming that all eighteenth century mahogany and marble furniture stamped by maître menuisiers belong back in France.) Chinese collectors are buying their way out of the past's humiliations. No moral outrage like the Koreans foot-stamping at the Japanese. No prolonged legal proceedings like the recovery of Nazi-stolen paintings. No post-colonial guilting like everyone piling up against the British. We know this game, the Chinese are saying. We may have lost the last round. But now that we have money, we're ready to play. Like the Cambodian government, private and public Chinese collectors now find themselves paying for the very things that they believe belong in their "homeland." 

The extraordinary sale of the fish vase once again called into question how and why we value art. It made headlines because it was, by most people's reckoning, an exorbitant amount of money for a single object, no matter how beautiful. "Could it really be worth so much?" everyone inevitably asked. One could ask the same about much of Western contemporary art -- an animal suspended in formaldehyde, an enormous monochromatic canvas, a neon sign -- that regularly goes for millions. In another recent Times article, this one about possible art forgeries sold through an esteemed New York gallery, comments took on two major strains (aside from the outpouring of schadenfreude that extremely rich people were duped out of millions): the first was, who-cares-if-it's-by-the-stated-artist-or-someone-pretending-to-be-that-artist-isn't-it-enough-that-you-still-have-a-pretty-picture? The second refrain was the tiresome "Big deal, I could've done that" (or worse, "My ten-year-old could've done that"). Well, you didn't. Artistic products, and not just visual ones, are expression with intention. Even the same artist will not produce the same painting in exactly the same way twice: Leonardo da Vinci's two versions of Virgin of the Rocks are composed and colored in nearly the exact same way but are two totally different experiences. One could argue his intention was also different with each one.

The police officer in charge of LA's Art Theft Detail, Donald Hrycyk, identifies for Knelman the unique difficulties of his patrol, mainly, that art is not like VCRs, flat screen TVs, or Toyota Camrys. They don't have a serial number. They're not interchangeable. And they're each one of a kind. That's why forgery, like plagiarism, offends our moral sensibilities. Fakes might go so far as to be pretty, but they're not art -- intention but no real expression, form without content. There is a reason why we so fiercely value the real thing. The first claim is countered by art's irreplaceablility and the second by art's irreducibility.

Not surprisingly, then, did Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose art-filled home stands today as a museum in Boston, compare her impeccably curated collection to her children. "Art is like a comfortable old friend," one collector tells Knelman. Sarah Thornton finds the same reaction; watching her parents' estate packed up for sale at auction, one woman says, "It was like children leaving home." In his research, Knelman stumbles again and again upon the equation of art to human relationship. It is not a dead, lifeless thing hanging on the wall or holding down the fireplace mantel. Its loss is therefore felt much more acutely than a misplaced iPhone.

The value of art shouldn't be confused with the price tag on art, but it often is. There is an extreme, and extremely seductive, argument that art is not and never should be a commodity. Rather, it is a gift, both to the artist from whom it sprang and to the community who receives it, and therefore belongs to everyone and no one. I'd like to hold onto this ideal but it can be too easily manipulated to suit political expediency, or to subvert the enforcement of the few laws that are trying desperately to regulate a freewheeling market. And it leaves artists penniless.

Still, one cannot talk about art and not talk about how its unique properties as cultural products set it apart from other objects. Amore and Mashberg understand this. They emphatically state that art theft is not a victimless crime. Stealing art, especially when held in the public's trust, is to remove a piece of shared beauty and of history. They know that a glossy photo in an exhibition catalog or textbook can never substitute for the interactive experience of viewing the real thing. Thornton understands this. She lingers on collectors who after the first or second hour will liken their art to extensions of their selves, their families, and their beliefs. Art, she finds, has become "a religion for atheists."

Unfortunately, Knelman does not get this. He may not be much of a prose stylist (whole chapters read like a typed-up transcript of his notes), but even more dissatisfying is that despite the great deal of information he has assembled from extensive travels in Cairo, London, Los Angeles, Toronto, and New York, he hasn't built much of a scaffolding from it all on which to hang some ideas. His investigation started when he reported on a local art gallery theft in Toronto in 2003, but nowhere in 350 pages does he reveal any deeper connection, either intellectual or emotional, to his subject matter. One begins to wonder why he spent five years on this subject if he was seemingly so uninterested. The closest he may come is to the people he interviews who work in art law enforcement, but their commitment to this marginal subfield also goes unquestioned. He never asks himself why art might be special, or at least different, why the black market for laptops or Honda Civics isn't multibillions of dollars. His distance from art's particularities renders his subject, unwittingly, as interchangeable as any another commodity.

This is a hugely missed opportunity to connect the dots of why people of all stripes may want beautiful things, and if they can't have them, why they would fake them or steal them. Business done on a handshake, with virtually no paperwork, and transactions based on trust... he likens it to the drug trade, but fails to see how it importantly diverges. Knelman would probably concede that an art dealer may be in it for more than just the money, that art might hold some value above the cold balance sheet of sums and figures, but this isn't readily apparent after reading his book. Knelman did an admirable good deal of chasing, as his title declares, but perhaps a little more reflection could have illuminated the world he sought to understand. 

Knelman is right in that the art market, if not necessarily the entire art world, is undeniably driven by business interests. By May 2011, the successful bidder on the Chinese vase was rumored to have paid a two-million-dollar deposit, with the rest to follow soon after. But in February 2012, The Telegraph reported that the relatives of Patricia Newman still hadn't received any proceeds from the sale. The vase was supposedly bought by mainland Chinese art collector and billionaire real estate developer Wang Jianlin, though he publicly denies it because of the subsequent bad press. The payment was purportedly stalled because he balked at the twenty percent commission typically given to auction houses on every sale, which would have totaled 8.6 million pounds and made Peter Bainbridge an overnight multimillionaire. Bainbridge now admits he will get something over one million pounds, which is still a pretty sweet deal for a man who clears out granny attics for a living. For now, the vase is still with Bainbridge's auction house, though perhaps no longer stored as before in a grocery cardboard box.

To enter into the art world at any level is to experience firsthand the appeal of exclusivity and exclusion unknown to most since the seventh grade lunch table. The specialists, critics, curators, dealers, and gallery assistants in black dresses are all selling symbols of culture and erudition to those who are willing to pay for it; those who can't are left on the outside. A clubby world where large sums of money freely circulate inevitably conjures up images of urbane sophisticates in the mold of James Bond and his eccentric nemeses. But even those apparently on the inside don't always know what they're getting into, or how deep they're in it. A video of the November 2010 auction shows Grocholski standing calmly behind the fish vase like a chaperone as the bid numbers spin higher and higher, well beyond his estimate. "Of course it was a lot of money," he later told a journalist, "but as it goes up, it's only figures. It becomes less and less, it's... It's a game, really."