The best books on art crime: theft, looting, and forgery

Noah Charney Author Of The Devil in the Gallery: How Scandal, Shock, and Rivalry Shaped the Art World
By Noah Charney

Who am I?

Back in 2006, a New York Times Magazine feature article about me announced that I had essentially founded the field of the study of art crime, while still a postgraduate student. I’m often mentioned as the world’s leading authority on the history of art crime and I’ve been a professor teaching the subject for more than a decade (I’m not actually that old). I also founded ARCA, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, the world’s first think tank and research group on art crime. We launched the first academic journal on the subject, The Journal of Art Crime, as well as the first academic study program, the ARCA Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection, which runs every summer in Italy. I’m also the author of more than a dozen books, many best-sellers, and one a Pulitzer finalist. I write on art crime for TED Ed videos, I host TV programs on the subject, and I recently curated a virtual exhibit of lost art called Missing Masterpieces.

I wrote...

The Devil in the Gallery: How Scandal, Shock, and Rivalry Shaped the Art World

By Noah Charney,

Book cover of The Devil in the Gallery: How Scandal, Shock, and Rivalry Shaped the Art World

What is my book about?

Scandal, shock, and rivalry all have negative connotations, don't they? They can be catastrophic to businesses and individual careers. A whiff of scandal can turn a politician into a smoking ruin.

The Devil in the Gallery is a guided tour of the history of art through its scandals, rivalries, and shocking acts, each of which resulted in a positive step forward for art in general and, in most cases, for the careers of the artists in question. In addition to telling dozens of stories, lavishly illustrated in full color, of such dramatic moments and arguing how they not only affected the history of art but affected it for the better, we will also examine the proactive role of the recipients of these intentionally dramatic actions: The art historians, the critics and even you, the general public.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Duke of Wellington, Kidnapped!: The Incredible True Story of the Art Heist That Shocked a Nation

Why did I love this book?

If you saw the recent film, The Duke, then you’ll know the story of Kempton Bunton and the crazy art heist from London’s National Gallery, when Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington was stolen. This is one of the most interesting and quirkiest of all art heists and this book is the definitive telling of it.

By Alan Hirsch,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Duke of Wellington, Kidnapped! as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1961, a thief broke into the National Gallery in London and committed the most sensational art heist in British history. He stole the museum’s much prized painting, The Duke of Wellington by Francisco Goya. Despite unprecedented international attention and an unflagging investigation, the case was not solved for four years, and even then, only because the culprit came forward voluntarily.

Kempton Bunton, an elderly gentleman, claimed he executed the theft armed with only a toy gun, a disguise purchased for five shillings, and a getaway car inadvertently provided by a drunkard. Shortly after turning himself in, Bunton also invoked…

Book cover of Context Matters: Collating the Past

Why did I love this book?

David Gill is the leading authority on antiquities looting and the legitimate institutions that trade in it. This collection of essays, most published first in The Journal of Art Crime, is as good an introduction as any to the dark side of the antiquities trade.

By David W. J. Gill,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Context Matters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Context Matters is a volume of essays on the illicit trade in antiquities, the ownership of cultural heritage and issues in archaeology. It is based on the twenty essays contributed to the Journal of Art Crime over its first ten years of publication. The contributions are supplemented by articles and review articles that were published alongside them. The chapters were written as museums in Europe and North America were facing a series of claims on recently acquired objects in their collections in the light of the photographic dossiers that had been seized from dealers in Switzerland and Greece. They engage…

Transnational Art Crime

By Edgar Tijhuis,

Book cover of Transnational Art Crime

Why did I love this book?

When I first started out, there were very few books ever written about the study of art crime. Tijhuis was one of the few authorities, approaching it from a criminological perspective. This is a really strong academic survey of the phenomenon, perfect for those interested in the intersection of criminology and art.

By Edgar Tijhuis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Transnational Art Crime as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How does transnational crime interact with legal companies andgovernments? Are legal actors primarily victimized by transnationalcriminals or are the two connected by collaborative relationships? Andhow are these crimes often transformed into legitimate activities?This book seeks to answer these and related questions. Its main topicis the translational illicit art and antiquities trade, based on a thoroughempirical study of data gathered in France, Italy, the Netherlands andother places around the world. The reader will encounter a large numberof case studies, from auction houses selling looted antiquities to violentrobberies of museums and castles, and much more.Added to this is an analysis of the…

Book cover of The Secret Collector: The Lost Art Collection of Erich Šlomovič

Why did I love this book?

This book reads like a novel but tells the true story (one of the authors was personally involved in the adventures) of one of the most famous lost art collections of all-time. Over 400 paintings were once owned by Erich Slomovic, a Serbian Jewish collection based in Paris, who was killed in a concentration camp during the Second World War. Most of his collection remains lost, its whereabouts unknown. This book is unusually written in that it really feels like a Dickensian novel but it’s based on the best available scholarship and research.

By Leon Pogelšek, Slavko Pregl,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Secret Collector as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

There are countless stories of buried, hidden, lost and then “exhumed” artworks, preserved thanks to having been hidden. The Croatian Jew Erich Šlomovič possessed an art collection of around 600 paintings, including works by Picasso, Chagall and Matisse, which he acquired while working in Paris in his early twenties as the protégé of the art dealer Ambroise Vollard. When Šlomovič fled Paris in anticipation of the Nazi invasion, he placed 190 paintings in a bank vault, while the rest were boxed up and smuggled across Nazi-occupied territories with the assistance of the Yugoslav Embassy, eventually to be brought to Belgrade.…

Book cover of Art Forgery: The History of a Modern Obsession

Why did I love this book?

This book is part philosophy, part on art and forgery. Most approaches, my own included, to art forgery are art historical and criminological. This one is readable and thoughtful and fun but focuses on the big ideas behind the scenes.

By Thierry Lenain,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Art Forgery as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The obsession with art forgery appears to be a relatively recent phenomenon. In Art Forgery, the author's aim is not to suggest new methods of detection, but rather to look at the genealogy of faking and to interrogate the anxious, sometimes neurotic, reactions triggered in the modern world of art by these clever frauds. Thierry Lenain considers the idea of authenticity in the Middle Ages, when the issue of false relics and miracles often arose: if a relic gave rise to a cult, it would be considered as genuine even if it had evidently been 'forged'. Similarly, the seventeenth and…

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