Wednesday, October 31, 2012

To some, it is just a million-dollar bill

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, art, crime, organized crime

There is an awful lot of art out there. Some we handle frequently: stamps and coins and currency. In the developed world at least, stamp and coin collecting are the two top hobbies. The things we are more likely to call "art"—paintings, sculptures, various tchotchkes, and better grades of furniture or clocks—are nearly universal. Every home I have been in has at least a picture or two on the wall that are something besides family photos, or maybe a small sculpture. Families have "grandpa's dining set" or "great-grandma's quilt". And it is fascinating to watch NPR's Antiques Roadshow, to see what people have inherited, or bought at a garage sale, or picked up on a trip abroad "because it was pretty", that is found to have collectible value.

On Antiques Roadshow, I have noticed that at least half the time the owner of a valuable piece is told its "insurance value". This is a hint: Now that it is known you have something worth $10,000 or $40,000, you'd better have it insured, because you are now a target for thieves. A note to any thieves who might think they know who I am: The only piece in my house worth more than a few bucks is a 100-year-old piano. It might be worth $2,000 because it is a major brand that holds up well (most pianos are no good after 50 years). But be cautious, it weighs twice as much as the usual parlor piano. That is why it still holds its tuning. For $2,000, you can fence a stolen Thomas Kincaid landscape that weighs only a pound or so, even less if removed from its frame.

We have seven levels of currency, $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills. In the art world, the Kincaid is a $2 bill. It isn't on the lowest rung, and its popularity is in a similar mental space to a $2 bill, a quirky taste. The $1 bills in art are seen on the walls of small galleries, local artists hoping to make a buck here or there, with their paintings priced in the $200 range, or their ceramics priced less than $100. Local art fairs are composed of booths that are full of this kind of art. And much of it is surprisingly good.

But a few contemporary artists "make it". I live in Wyeth country. Paintings by any of the three living Wyeths command prices in the $10,000-plus range (sometimes, a lot plus!). These are the $10 and $20 bills of the art world. And just like the real $20 that is the most frequently counterfeited, artworks in this price range are a popular currency of crime worldwide. And the hugely-priced "old Masters" and other works, with inflated "values" equal to the GDP of Mali? These $100 bills are called, by the real pros of art theft, "Headache Art". They get national or international attention if they are stolen, and then where can you sell them?

This concept of art as currency is the core around which Joshua Knelman built his book Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives Through the Secret World of Stolen Art. He didn't start out with this concept. He almost stumbled on his subject, being asked to report on an art theft in Toronto for a local news outlet. If I count right, there are no more than twenty people employed most- or full-time investigating art theft for the FBI, Interpol, and a very few national or city police departments. That is good news for thieves. Another thing thieves like is the handshake-trust nature or art transactions. Who would buy a $5 million Lear Jet without paperwork?

I don't have a count for the number of artworks out there, of course, or even for those whose whereabouts are unknown to their original owners, one database lists more than 200,000. Just in the Headache Art category, there are hundreds of missing Picassos, Van Goghs, Monets and Rembrandts. The bulk of the listings are the "small bills", and it may be that most of these are used as vehicles to launder money from other black market operations such as drugs or prostitution or illegal gambling. That makes art theft and "re-marketing" the fourth largest black market on the planet.

The book skips around, just as its author did, gathering a list of people he could interview and learn from. One key resource was Bonnie Czegledi, now with Interpol, but at the time an investigator whose phone list cracked open the field of art theft investigation, and helped him achieve access few have been granted. Another was the mysterious "Turbo Paul", a former middleman, one who commissioned thefts to order and passed them along into the gray margin of small "don't ask don't tell" galleries and auction houses.

My advice to someone who likes to own art. Buy from the artist. If you want older art, and you have to go to an auction or gallery, it is strictly buyer beware. You'd better know how to authenticate the piece, because oftentimes the gallery owner or auctioneer won't know for sure...and all too frequently, won't care. It's all about the money. The insane inflation in art prices has been good for everyone except the collector.

A second piece of advice is, if someone comes to your door asking to buy your "old junk", don't let the person in. They just want to case the place while paying half what the family silver is worth. The visit will almost certainly be followed up by a break-in. It is the way Turbo Paul started in the business, and it is still going on, in neighborhoods just enough upscale that $5,000 pieces are to be found, but don't think suburbia is exempt.

With very rare exceptions, the police are not on your side if your artworks are burgled. They don't care, even though in Los Angeles, from 1993 to 2008, two art theft detectives recovered $77 million in stolen art, while the rest of the force of 90 detectives recovered $64 million of other kinds of stolen property. It takes a certain kind of detective to work the art field, and they are so rare you can count them all if you take off your shoes.


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