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Non-Fiction Blog

New thinkers, mavericks and mavens

Q and A with Hot Art's Joshua Knelman


5 Questions for Joshua Knelman

What started out as an award-winning piece for The Walrus magazine about an art theft at a local gallery in Toronto became something of an obsession for Joshua Knelman, one that would take him around the world. Knelman wound up spending four years researching art thefts, the criminals behind them, and those who pursue them. From riding in the backseat of an LAPD cop car, to sitting down with a local art thief who threatens to break Knelman's legs if he reveals too much, the cops and criminals interviewed iHot Art are as complex and compelling as Knelman's investigative reporting is far-reaching and engaging.    

The Indigo Blog sat down with Mr. Knelman over lattes at the author’s home to uncover some truths about art theft in Canada and around the world.

Indigo Fiction Blog (IFB):  It seems the Pierce Brosnan remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, the Hollywood movie about a dashing and exceedingly wealthy art thief, has created a sort of myth in the public perception about what art theft is. Can you explain the myth and its implications?

Joshua Knelman (JK): The myth is the idea that you’ve got some rogue billionaires or millionaires out there who are stealing really famous works of art from museums, and then basically whisking them down to an island in the south and cracking open some champagne and enjoying them in the privacy of their private island. If that were the problem then we really wouldn’t have a problem. That would mean that every year we’d have only a couple of paintings missing and a couple of really happy billionaires somewhere on an island in the sun.

The myth, spread first through Hollywood and the media, is beautiful in that it provides a really easy explanation for what has happened when a famous work of art is stolen from a museum. But I don’t bring up The Thomas Crown Affair in the book in any way to be facetious or because I love the movie. I bring it up because it in itself is a challenge currently to anyone who is an art detective, works in the FBI, in Scotland Yard, any serious cultural lawyer, because the myth has become so pervasive that anyone whose trying to gain any political support to battle art theft on an international theft encounters, usually, people who already feel that they know what the problem is and the problem that they are familiar with is the myth not the reality. One of the things I really wanted to do with the books was to turn the myth upside-down and reveal the much larger, much more interesting, much more complex game of international art theft.

IFB: When most of us think of art theft we think of a stolen Picasso or something on that scale. Your book explains that while this type of high value theft occurs, it is rare and problematic, so much so you refer to is as Headache Art. What is this and how does it differ from the reality of most art theft?

JK: Headache Art is a term coined by a former art thief, named Paul, a main character in the book. It’s any story you read in a newspaper or magazine that is about any number of examples of armed men running into museums during opening hours, and forcing patrons onto the ground while they in some cases rip or smash a painting out of the frame and then run out and either scream away in a car, or, in some cases, a boat. What Paul points out and why he calls it a headache, and he’s talking about it from a criminal perspective, is that as an art thief he does not condone stealing from major institutions, he thinks that stealing really famous artwork is unintelligent.

The minute a Picasso is stolen from a museum there are pictures of it in every paper across the world, with the value of the painting, every auction house and art gallery knows this piece has been stolen, every collector knows its been stolen. It’s a headache for the thieves because suddenly everyone is looking for this painting. It’s a headache for the police because if it’s a really famous painting stolen from a cultural institution the police get pressure from the political side.

Headache art cases make up about 5% of what is actually stolen every year. So you’re talking about a very small piece of the art theft pie but it gets probably 95% of the media attention. So again it’s the complete inverse.

IFB: Getting beyond the myth and turning to that 95%, I have to ask you about Paul, the art thief– one of the most fascinating characters in Hot Art. You spent three years in phone conversations with this guy. Can you tell us a bit about his criminal history?

JK: Paul grew up in Brighton, which is on the surface a beautiful and charming sunny resort town on the south coast of England. He grew up on the wrong side of the tracks of that resort town in a housing project and dropped out of school very early and fell in with the criminal crowd. He did have a skill set: people skills. And this, it turned out, was a perfect match for an activity in Brighton then called Knocking, where you spend your days literally walking door to door to strangers houses knocking on the front door and talking your way into homes so you can buy at a discount price what the homeowners might consider to be junk but which you know is worth something. Your entire modus operandi is to buy items that you know are more valuable for a cheaper price. It’s Antiques Roadshow but on the streets. The con version of antiques roadshow.

Paul was quite savvy and ambitious. Which led him from the semi-legal trade of knocking to giving himself a promotion to become an actual thief, an art thief.  What he figured out very quickly was that going into these houses during the day had a value that extended into the night, when thieves could be hired to break into these houses and take these objects that people were not willing to sell.

IFB: On the cover of Hot Art is a blurb from the Executive Producer of Law & Order: SVU that calls your book ‘totally engrossing.’ I have to agree. But I’m curious, who do you see as the audience for this book?

JK: The audience for this book is fairly diverse because it’s true crime. So anyone interested in a multi-character global crime saga will be into following a detective with the LAPD and an art thief growing up on the streets of Brighton, graduating to London as business booms. The books at its core is for anyone who wants to ride along with these characters as they learn how to do their jobs well. One of the amazing things about talking to, for example, the core characters, Paul an art thief in the UK and Don Hrycyk an art detective in the US was realizing that even these two people had never met they’d had to learn many of the same thing in order to forward their own goals, which were very different, but they were both committed to them.

And anyone who is the fan of The Wire or Law & Order and in Paul’s case I think he takes a page from the Sopranos, and when I went to visit him in the UK, he did have the box set next to his couch.

IFB: Your opening chapter quotes a wonderful line from The Thomas Crown Affair, where the detective on the case says he couldn’t care less about the stolen paintings, that he usually deals with guys who beat their kids to death. “So if some Houdini wants to snatch a couple swirls of paint that are only important to some very silly rich people, I don’t really give a damn.” My question is, how serious is art theft as a crime if, as you say in the book, Canada’s largest art market, Toronto, and North America’s, New York, don’t, respectively, have a single detective devoted to the task?

JK: I think it’s a great question. There are so many types of victims in this crime and I’ll name a few of them. In terms of the state of international art theft, there are people, generally all members of the public, who set aside a little bit of their pay check to buy objects to bring into their homes to make their lives more meaningful, and more beautiful. The majority of art thefts of course are from private homes and residences. But they are a step up from stereos and televisions. They are valuable antiques, family heirlooms, and art works that are drained from houses and are used to make profit and of course this is happening all over North America and all over Europe.

Then you have the looting of the world’s cultural heritage, which when you read the book you understand is directly related to this market. From our own Canadian cultural heritage to the looting that’s taken place in Iraq, Afghanistan, in Libiya, in China. At that level you’re talking about looting national cultural heritage in order to feed a criminal market to make a profit. That is another level of victim.

In the end you also have a great criminal enterprise that is possible to patrol. It itself leads to a number of areas: drugs, money laundering, various forms of corruption and the area of international organized crime. This is worth investigating. So there are all these different levels where art theft has its victims but the most important point to make is it takes a few dedicated individuals to make a big, big difference. But in most cities, in most countries, that is not happening.



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