The best art theft books

8 authors have picked their favorite books about art theft and why they recommend each book.

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

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.

The Duke of Wellington, Kidnapped!

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.


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.

Book cover of Stealing the Mystic Lamb

All should know more about the sublime work of Jan van Eyck, and his Ghent Altarpiece, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, one of the most masterful works of art ever conceived, was cherished by some, despised by others, and at times highlighted and hidden. Some parts of this work read like a thriller, particularly on somehow survived the end of WWII in an Austrian salt mine, while others read like a mystery, such as when one panel was stolen in 1934 and remains lost to this day.

Stealing the Mystic Lamb

By Noah Charney,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Stealing the Mystic Lamb as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Jan van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece is on any art historian's list of the ten most important paintings ever made. It is also the most frequently stolen artwork of all time. Since its completion in 1432, this twelve-panel oil painting has been looted in three different wars, burned, dismembered, forged, smuggled, censored, hidden, attacked by iconoclasts, hunted by the Nazis and Napoleon, used as a diplomatic tool, ransomed, rescued by Austrian double-agents, and stolen a total of thirteen times. In this fast-paced, real-life thriller, art historian Noah Charney unravels the fascinating stories of each of these thefts. Charney also explores psychological…

Who am I?

I have been fascinated with history in general, and the history of Japan, since I was in junior high when I read a book on the samurai. After attending summer school at Harvard in 1985, I resolved to devote myself to the study of Japan. Since then, I have studied at Michigan, Stanford, and Kyoto before teaching Japanese history at first Bowdoin College and now, Princeton University. Although I primarily research Japanese history, I find scholarship pertaining to medieval and early modern Europe to be fascinating as well. 


I wrote...

Weapons & Fighting Techniques of the Samurai Warrior 1200-1877 AD

By Thomas D. Conlan,

Book cover of Weapons & Fighting Techniques of the Samurai Warrior 1200-1877 AD

What is my book about?

This volume provides an overview of Japanese battles, weapons, and fighting techniques and reveals that much of what we had assumed to be true of the samurai has been misremembered or misunderstood. Covering centuries, and exploring the significance of bows, swords, guns, and cannons, this book should be of interest to scholars, students, and those curious about the samurai.

Museum of the Missing

By Simon Houpt,

Book cover of Museum of the Missing

This book looks at thieves, liars, manipulators and of course the art itself. There’s a section on damaged goods, which taps into one of my obsessions about the difference in time and effort creation versus destruction takes. 

It’s full of pictures, ironic given that most of the pieces depicted are lost, never to be found. The Gallery of Missing Art is beautifully reproduced, and includes such masterpieces as Strindberg’s “Night of Jealousy”, so we can look at the works and marvel. But knowing that these pieces are…somewhere? Hidden away for a small audience, or perhaps destroyed? That’s heart-breaking.  

Museum of the Missing

By Simon Houpt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Museum of the Missing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

Shirley Jackson award-winner Kaaron Warren published her first short story in 1993 and has had fiction in print every year since. She was recently given the Peter McNamara Lifetime Achievement Award and was Guest of Honour at World Fantasy 2018, Stokercon 2019 and Geysercon 2019.  She has also been Guest of Honour at Conflux in Canberra and Genrecon in Brisbane.

She has published five multi-award winning novels (Slights, Walking the Tree, Mistification, The Grief Hole and Tide of Stone) and seven short story collections, including the multi-award winning Through Splintered Walls. Her most recent short story collection is A Primer to Kaaron Warren from Dark Moon Books. Her most recent novella, Into Bones Like Oil (Meerkat Press), was shortlisted for a Shirley Jackson Award and the Bram Stoker Award, winning the Aurealis Award. Her stories have appeared in both Ellen Datlow’s and Paula Guran’s Year’s Best anthologies.


I wrote...

The Grief Hole

By Kaaron Warren,

Book cover of The Grief Hole

What is my book about?

When I was writing The Grief Hole, a novel about a woman who knows how you’re going to die by the ghosts who haunt you, and her battle with Sol Evictus, a charismatic singer and art collector, I visited the New Jersey State Museum with family. There were a number of artworks on show there that resonated within the novel, and with the choices Sol Evictus makes. He only collects paintings and sculptures with dark inspiration, such as The Sempstress, by Richard Redgrave, Bruegel’s Massacre of the Innocents, and the photographs of Dina Gottleibson.

There I saw Adolph Konrad’s “Summer Afternoon’, where a large, white house dominated the painting. It seemed to loom over the people sitting, stone-faced, at a table in the overgrown garden in the foreground. Around them, behind them, between them, were ghosts; pale, transparent figures. Being Sol Evictus, most of his pieces are stolen, and I loved researching art theft as I wrote.

The Monuments Men

By Robert M. Edsel,

Book cover of The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History

Robert Edsel became fascinated by the story of art looting and preservation during WWII after living for a period in Florence. Being a wealthy businessman from Texas, he used his money to bring attention to the story of the men and women who fought to preserve art during WWII. He has written four books on the subject, but The Monuments Men is the most well-rounded and suitable for someone who is beginning to investigate this riveting slice of history. His book was made into a movie starring George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, and Matt Damon in 2014. 

The Monuments Men

By Robert M. Edsel,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Now a major film starring GEORGE CLOONEY, MATT DAMON, CATE BLANCHETT, BILL MURRAY, JOHN GOODMAN, HUGH BONNEVILLE, BOB BALABAN, JEAN DUJARDIN and DIMITRI LEONIDAS.
What if I told you that there was an epic story about World War II that has not been told, involving the most unlikely group of heroes?
What if I told you there was a group of men on the front lines who didn't carry machine guns or drive tanks; a new kind of soldier, one charged with saving, not destroying.
From caves to castles in a thrilling race against time, these men risked their lives…


Who am I?

My interest in this topic began because of a trip to a museum in 2008. I noticed that a painting had been removed from view and a small piece of paper was hanging on the wall where the painting had been. The paper explained that this piece was involved in a court case revolving around whether or not it had been stolen from its Jewish owner by the Nazis during World War II. Nazi cultural appropriation, looting, suppression, and destruction turned out to be one of the most fascinating stories of the entire war. The research for my historical novel took several years, but it allowed me to write a book based on the facts.


I wrote...

The Altarpiece

By Lauren Fogle Boyd,

Book cover of The Altarpiece

What is my book about?

In the suffocating atmosphere of the Third Reich, art becomes a political issue. When the renowned modern artist Dietrich Junger is condemned by Hitler's puritanical artistic purge, his daughter Anke finds herself abandoned by the two men she loved most. An expert on the object of Nazi obsession, the medieval Ghent Altarpiece, Anke must walk a tightrope between her desire to rebel and her instinct to survive. 

Erik Brossler, a young Jewish art historian, was Anke’s childhood sweetheart who escaped to America. He is haunted by their separation and the imminent danger to Europe's priceless art. When America enters the war, Erik's new journey takes him into the heart of the inferno as he searches for art and the great love of his life. 

The Venus Fixers

By Ilaria Dagnini Brey,

Book cover of The Venus Fixers: The Remarkable Story of the Allied Monuments Officers Who Saved Italy's Art During World War II

Dagnini’s book focuses specifically on Italy and the amazing stories of Rome, Naples, Florence, and Pisa among others. If you love Italian art and architecture, you will not be able to put this book down. Descriptions of the damage, but also how it was fixed and avoided in some cases, are truly inspiring. Without these Allied personnel, so much more could have been lost.

The Venus Fixers

By Ilaria Dagnini Brey,

Why should I read it?

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


Who am I?

My interest in this topic began because of a trip to a museum in 2008. I noticed that a painting had been removed from view and a small piece of paper was hanging on the wall where the painting had been. The paper explained that this piece was involved in a court case revolving around whether or not it had been stolen from its Jewish owner by the Nazis during World War II. Nazi cultural appropriation, looting, suppression, and destruction turned out to be one of the most fascinating stories of the entire war. The research for my historical novel took several years, but it allowed me to write a book based on the facts.


I wrote...

The Altarpiece

By Lauren Fogle Boyd,

Book cover of The Altarpiece

What is my book about?

In the suffocating atmosphere of the Third Reich, art becomes a political issue. When the renowned modern artist Dietrich Junger is condemned by Hitler's puritanical artistic purge, his daughter Anke finds herself abandoned by the two men she loved most. An expert on the object of Nazi obsession, the medieval Ghent Altarpiece, Anke must walk a tightrope between her desire to rebel and her instinct to survive. 

Erik Brossler, a young Jewish art historian, was Anke’s childhood sweetheart who escaped to America. He is haunted by their separation and the imminent danger to Europe's priceless art. When America enters the war, Erik's new journey takes him into the heart of the inferno as he searches for art and the great love of his life. 

Book cover of Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World's Most Coveted Masterpiece

Noah Charney is an art historian and has written several interesting books that I have read. Even though this book, Stealing the Mystic Lamb, came out too late for my novel, the “altarpiece” of my book is in fact the “Mystic Lamb” otherwise known as the Ghent Altarpiece. My quasi-obsession with this monumental piece of art is matched by Charney and he describes how often it has been stolen and nearly destroyed. No other piece of art has had a history quite like this one. 

Stealing the Mystic Lamb

By Noah Charney,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Stealing the Mystic Lamb as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Jan van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece is on any art historian's list of the ten most important paintings ever made. Often referred to by the subject of its central panel, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, it represents the fulcrum between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It is also the most frequently stolen artwork of all time. Since its completion in 1432, this twelve-panel oil painting has been looted in three different wars, burned, dismembered, forged, smuggled, illegally sold, censored, hidden, attacked by iconoclasts, hunted by the Nazis and Napoleon, used as a diplomatic tool, ransomed, rescued by Austrian double-agents,…

Who am I?

My interest in this topic began because of a trip to a museum in 2008. I noticed that a painting had been removed from view and a small piece of paper was hanging on the wall where the painting had been. The paper explained that this piece was involved in a court case revolving around whether or not it had been stolen from its Jewish owner by the Nazis during World War II. Nazi cultural appropriation, looting, suppression, and destruction turned out to be one of the most fascinating stories of the entire war. The research for my historical novel took several years, but it allowed me to write a book based on the facts.


I wrote...

The Altarpiece

By Lauren Fogle Boyd,

Book cover of The Altarpiece

What is my book about?

In the suffocating atmosphere of the Third Reich, art becomes a political issue. When the renowned modern artist Dietrich Junger is condemned by Hitler's puritanical artistic purge, his daughter Anke finds herself abandoned by the two men she loved most. An expert on the object of Nazi obsession, the medieval Ghent Altarpiece, Anke must walk a tightrope between her desire to rebel and her instinct to survive. 

Erik Brossler, a young Jewish art historian, was Anke’s childhood sweetheart who escaped to America. He is haunted by their separation and the imminent danger to Europe's priceless art. When America enters the war, Erik's new journey takes him into the heart of the inferno as he searches for art and the great love of his life. 

Headhunters

By Jo Nesbo, Don Bartlett (translator),

Book cover of Headhunters

As one of Norway’s top recruitment specialists, Roger Brown views himself as a ‘headhunter’ extraordinaire. The fact that he moonlights as an art thief, is simply a way of dealing with his own inadequacies and his reckless spending habits. Unfortunately, his next heist goes horribly wrong. The story unfolds evenly and cleverly, with blunt bursts of murder and mayhem around every corner.

What makes this such a fun read, is the duplicitous nature of the protagonist. The absurdity of his circumstances is directly caused by his inability to refrain from committing other criminal acts. This internal struggle is brilliantly depicted throughout and creates a palpable tension for readers.

Headhunters

By Jo Nesbo, Don Bartlett (translator),

Why should I read it?

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


Who am I?

As a crime author and screenwriter, I’m fascinated by the consequences of crime and how it impacts feasible characters. I try to illustrate this obsession by creating realistic stress situations for my characters, then showcasing how it affects their decision-making process. In writing the protagonist for Jack Hanger, I consulted two different psychologists to research the protagonist and to capture the severity of his circumstances in detail. For King of Sorrow, I created an unconventional antagonist, with the aim of showing readers how ambition and greed can corrupt the most rational mind. I believe it is my job to challenge conventions and entertain readers from the opening page.


I wrote...

Jack Hanger

By James Fouche,

Book cover of Jack Hanger

What is my book about?

When a criminal mastermind called Joe Taxi kills his brother, Dave Matters is forced to revisit the gritty Cape Town drug scene. However, he is no longer the ruthless Dave who ran drugs for the Wallace brothers. After a botched drug deal Dave wrestles with bouts of memory loss and an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Now, to avenge his brother and uncover a mystery, he must abandon the safety of his mundane life. As the anticipation of a mass city riot mounts, Dave inches closer to a climactic confrontation with an old nemesis, as well as the pains from his past.

Rescuing Da Vinci

By Robert M. Edsel,

Book cover of Rescuing Da Vinci: Hitler and the Nazis Stole Europe's Great Art - America and Her Allies Recovered It

I chose photo books for my list because I often use photos to help me as I write—either to construct a scene or to provide detail. Because my books are set against the backdrop of the Monuments Men’s work, this book was really the starting point for my writing the trilogy.  

Edsel presents a methodical overview of the vast scope of Nazi art theft in Europe, the destruction wrought on its monuments, and the enormous task of restitution and rebuilding. Seeing the sheer quantity of looted art stacked ceiling-high in endless rows and the faces of the men and women charged with making it right helped me put their work into my fictional work.

Rescuing Da Vinci

By Robert M. Edsel,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rescuing Da Vinci as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

In my “day job” I write about architecture, which means I often write about things I see in photos. When I began writing fiction, I continued using photos as inspiration and research. My novels are inspired by my family’s circumstances at the end of World War II and my fascination with the work of the Monuments Men. Photos show me details like a little girl playing with her doll under a sign that declares her building to be at risk of collapse, or a woman using the ruins of a building to hang out the wash. I love finding ways to use these elements in my writing.


I wrote...

The Roses Underneath

By C.F. Yetmen,

Book cover of The Roses Underneath

What is my book about?

It is August 1945 in Wiesbaden, Germany. With the country in ruins, Anna Klein, displaced and separated from her beloved husband, struggles to support herself and her six-year-old daughter. As a typist at the Collecting Point for the US Army’s Monuments Men she barely has her head above water. When the easy-going American Captain Henry Cooper recruits her as his translator, they stumble on a mysterious stash of art, and Anna finds she has a bigger gift for sleuthing than for typing. And Cooper’s penchant for breaking the rules provides an enticing taste of a newfound freedom that might change the future she thought she had planned.

The Dante Connection

By Estelle Ryan,

Book cover of The Dante Connection

Estelle Ryan writes mysteries set in France with a most unusual sleuth: autistic insurance investigator Dr. Genevieve Lenard. I am fascinated by how Lenard, a world-renowned expert on nonverbal communication, navigates both her personal and professional lives as she tracks down art thieves. She is a human lie detector who can’t bear to be touched and who, when upset, goes into autistic meltdowns in which she writes classical music in her head. I go to Ryan’s website to see the artwork and listen to the music featured in each book. Lenard also has a quirky team of sidekicks that I adore and that bring humanity to Lenard’s sheltered life: a former art thief, a hacker, a cop, and a tough guy.

The Dante Connection

By Estelle Ryan,

Why should I read it?

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


Who am I?

Some people read mysteries to figure out who did it. Not me. I read mysteries (several a week) because they are full of contradictions, lies and truths, and humans making hard and sometimes stupid decisions. I lean toward mysteries that are literary in writing quality with quirky, complicated characters; a good sense of humor; and diverse settings. In my cozy Minnesota mystery series featuring Maya Skye, I am interested in the contradiction of a yoga teacher who is dedicated to seeking inner peace and yet drawn to mayhem. As Maya says, “We may try to follow the path, but life isn’t all Minnesota nice.” 


I wrote...

Down Dog Diary

By Sherry Roberts,

Book cover of Down Dog Diary

What is my book about?

Maya Skye inherits a diary filled with mysterious secrets and startling scents that change with the turn of the page. Someone has killed her mentor, a former Hell’s Angel turned shaman, for the book and now they are coming after her. But they will find this yoga teacher isn’t afraid to fight—when it comes to finding justice for her old friend and protecting the Down Dog Diary.

Set in small Gabriel’s Garden, Minnesota, this is a cozy mystery told with humor, drama, and a cast of quirky characters. It’s a Midwest Book Awards Finalist and a Library Journal Indie Author Project Select Title. Other books in the series: Warrior’s Revenge and Crow Calling.

Loot

By Barnaby Phillips,

Book cover of Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes

This is far more than a colonial era whodunit, a recounting of yet another colonial atrocity – though it is that in spades.  Yes, in 1897 the British occupation army reacted to the killing of a a few colonial officials by razing an empire to the ground, careless of its causes and its effects. So much, so commonplace. But what an empire! The Benin artworks the army looted, subsequently dispersed to museums around the globe, were and still are a revelation to those whose notions of African art were to that point limited to masks and fetishes. A mere catalogue of the pieces would be enough to explain why Picasso, among other artists, was captivated by the art of Africa, but Philips has done more than that – he puts the looted artifacts into their context and into their culture. There is nothing didactic or preachy about this book, but…

Loot

By Barnaby Phillips,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A Prospect Best Book of 2021

'A fascinating and timely book.' William Boyd

'Gripping...a must read.' FT

'Compelling...humane, reasonable, and ultimately optimistic.' Evening Standard

'[A] valuable guide to a complex narrative.' The Times

In 1897, Britain sent a punitive expedition to the Kingdom of Benin, in what is today Nigeria, in retaliation for the killing of seven British officials and traders. British soldiers and sailors captured Benin, exiled its king and annexed the territory. They also made off with some of Africa's greatest works of art.

The 'Benin Bronzes' are now amongst the most admired and valuable artworks in the…


Who am I?

I was born in Africa and have been infatuated with its history and cultures all my life. Of the 48 countries sharing the African mainland, I have spent time in all but four. True, a few only for a laughably brief stay (I wandered across the Cameroon-Equatorial Guinea border once by mistake, not knowing I had crossed; there was no sign of a border post or any guards. I stayed only for the rest of the day, never leaving the beach, before wading back to Cameroon.) But others I have lived in for years, and have travelled extensively to famous and obscure regions alike, especially in the Sahel


I wrote...

Timbuktu: The Sahara's Fabled City of Gold

By Marq de Villiers, Sheila Hirtle,

Book cover of Timbuktu: The Sahara's Fabled City of Gold

What is my book about?

Perhaps no other city in the world has been as golden—and as deeply tarnished—as Timbuktu. Founded in the early 1100s by Tuareg nomads, it became a wealthy metropolis and a nexus of the trans-Saharan trade. Salt from the deep Sahara, gold from Ghana, and money from slave markets made it rich. In part because of its wealth, Timbuktu also became a center of Islamic learning and religion, boasting impressive schools and libraries that attracted scholars from Alexandria, Baghdad, Mecca, and Marrakech.

The arts flourished, and Timbuktu gained near-mythic stature around the world, capturing the imagination of outsiders and ultimately attracting the attention of hostile sovereigns who sacked the city three times and plundered it half a dozen more. The ancient city was invaded by a Moroccan army in 1600, which began its long decline; since then it has been seized by Tuareg nomads and a sad variety of jihadists, in addition to enduring a severe earthquake, several epidemics, and numerous famines. Why does this faded metropolis matter now? Timbuktu’s relaxed, inclusive and cosmopolitan version of Islam still has lessons to teach the world about tolerance and accommodation.

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