An art thief named Paul (no last name, yet) provided Joshua Knelman with an overview of art theft during a three-year period beginning in early 2008 in Brighton, England. Paul's thieving ways present a knowledgeable link to this shadowy subject that Knelman relates in the thief's deadpan, quirky Brit humour spiked occasionally with crude street talk.
Paul learned his trade as a teenager in Brighton from "knockers." Born poor in England's vacation spot of the wealthy, he had only one chance to live like them, and that was to steal from them. Hence he "joined the fraternity of knockers," petty thieves who knock on doors offering a pound or two for granny's old glass beads, or a thief may con his way inside and snag a painting off the wall. He then scurries off to one of the numerous antique dealers on Brighton's famous Lanes where a dealer buys the stolen loot and sells it to an unsuspecting collector.
Soon Paul was paying knockers to steal for him, which after 15 years ranked him as a "major handler of millions of dollars of stolen art and antiquities."
In 2008, the art world was rocked by two spectacular heists, both in Switzerland, five days apart. On Feb. 6, two Pablo Picasso paintings valued at $10-million were stolen from a small Swiss art gallery. And on Feb. 11, a famous Impressionist museum in Zurich was hit by armed thieves who stormed off with four major works by Cezanne, Degas, Monet and Van Gogh.
Whether art is stolen by petty thugs or armed professionals, the cycle is consistent. The thief steals a painting, fences it to a dealer who sells it, and with that transaction the case goes cold. A stolen $6,000 Rolex watch is traceable, but a million-dollar painting is not; it has no serial number. One of the world's most famous stolen works of art, a priceless Vermeer taken from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990, is still missing.
Knelman asked Paul if he had ever "stolen any famous paintings from a museum." Paul laughed. "Do you think I'm a … moron?" The big stuff is what he called "headache art," because it gives everyone involved a headache. It is easy to steal, but hard to unload. Paul dealt in the $10,000 art range, which does not attract attention from the police or the media.
In the 1980s, stolen art grew to an estimated $4-billion to $6-billion, the fourth-largest black market in the world after drugs, money laundering and weapons, according to Interpol and UNESCO. The Art Loss Register, founded in London in the 1990s, lists more than 100,000 works of stolen art. Only 2 per cent have been recovered. In 2001, the register listed as missing or stolen 659 Picassos, 397 Miros, 347 Chagalls, 313 Salvador Dalis, 216 Warhols and 199 Rembrandts. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation's National Stolen Art File is small by comparison, with only 6,500 listings.
Toronto lawyer Bonnie Czegledi became one of the early investigators into stolen art. In 2006, she said, "There are only a handful of detectives who have the experience to investigate art theft properly." Yet countries worldwide were being looted of their art for markets in New York and London. FBI agent Robert K. Whitman estimated that art market in New York alone is worth an estimated $200-billion annually. "That's everything – antique markets, art fairs, auction house revenue, gallery sales." And he added, "That market is totally unregulated."
Organized crime has entered the lucrative field of stolen art. Knelman covers Montreal's Hells Angels' involvement with stolen art in the style of a detective novel. He is at his best reporting work done by the FBI, Interpol, Scotland Yard, the RCMP and U.S. and Canadian city police forces in their efforts to recover stolen art. Too often, however, Knelman assumes a novelistic tone in which extraneous detail slows the pace. And, periodically, his narrative takes on the thug vernacular, which undermines his authority.
Disappointing for me, Knelman gives short shrift to historic stolen art and wartime plunder. There is nothing about a notorious shipment of looted treasures from Cuba that came to Toronto after the Cuban revolution. And, significantly, nothing about art that goes missing, lost or stolen when left with an art dealer, auction house or art patron at the time of the artist's death.
A final note. Knelman lost contact for a time with Paul, a.k.a. Paul Walsh and Paul Hendry. Sure enough, he had been nicked. Knelman last saw him when he was on parole, writing a blog, cracking jokes, driving a Mercedes – not too inconvenienced by his electronic anklet.
Iris Nowell is author of three art books, most recently Painters Eleven: The Wild Ones of Canadian Art.