February 4, 2007

A history of art crime

Posted at 11:08 am in Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

A new book by Simon Houpt looks at the long & ignominious history of art theft around the world.

The Record (Ontario, Canada)

Imagine an art gallery with only empty spaces
(Feb 3, 2007)
by Simon Houpt
(Key Porter Books, 192 pages, $29.95 hardcover)

Imagine an empty frame on a blank wall in a museum, a wall where a now-stolen work of art used to hang.

Add up the empty spaces on the walls of museums and art galleries around the world and you find yourself in a haunting place, moving through gallery after gallery of wonderful art that is no longer available to you or me. This is Simon Houpt’s Museum of the Missing.

Houpt, who is a New York-based arts writer for The Globe and Mail, presents an engaging story, covering thefts from the art collections of 18th-century aristocratic dilettantes to more recent thefts linked to major drug cartels.

He tells how Lord Elgin bought the marbled friezes of the Parthenon in Greece from the Ottoman occupiers between 1801 and 1805 and installed them in the British Museum in London. We move on to a Europe in the thrall of art-hungry Nazis, who would stop at nothing to inflate their own prestige by means of ill-gotten art collections. And then we find ourselves in Oslo, witnessing the 2004 theft of Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream, later recovered after this book went to press.

The book can be divided into relatively equal parts. The first deals with art that has, in effect, been stolen “into” public museums and art galleries.

Houpt’s stories about the Elgin Marbles and about Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt fit neatly into this narrative. So do the depredations of the Nazis and Stalin’s war reparations.

The second part deals with art that is stolen “out of” those same institutions. It describes the bold, the desperate and the deranged thieves who most vividly conjure up the “museum of the missing.” (A third thread involving insurance fraud, or theft from one’s self, makes an occasional appearance.)

Houpt covers a lot of ground in what is a short, beautifully produced, but occasionally confusing book.

It is written like journalistic non-fiction, designed like a university textbook, and has the feel of a paid-for promotional piece commissioned by the Art Loss Register, a private international firm that works to recover stolen and missing art. Its chair wrote the book’s forward.

It’s a pity Houpt didn’t use his strong narrative skills to spin out his stories about modern heists — those, for example, involving the bold Irish gangster Martin Cahill, or clever art hunters like Charley Hill, a former Scotland Yard investigator.

With only 60 pages to cover almost 100 years of these tales, and several of those pages heavily illustrated, you are left wanting more — and less space devoted to the more well-known spoils of war.

The beautiful reproductions in this book do a good job of highlighting the cultural loss to us all as a result of art theft. Even though we may be thousands of kilometres away from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, for example, we know that we could always fly there to see Rembrandt’s Black Watch if we wanted to.

And the cultural life of Waterloo Region would be dramatically less vibrant, we know, if someone walked into the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery and managed to steal away with, for example, Homer Watson’s painting, Ice Bank on the Grand River.

Matthew Christian is a Toronto writer.

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