Crime and the Art Market by Riah Pryor brings together the author’s direct experience from both fields to present an accessible, informative, and realistic overview of art crimes in today’s society.
Art-related crime is a busy book genre these days. Most of these books are very specific—one case, one career, one theme—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a huge topic. What’s rare is a general survey of art-related crime that’s both serious and accessible.
That’s where Riah Pryor’s newish book Crime and the Art Market comes in. It delves into the underpinnings of the collision between, yes, crime and the art market, looking at the assumptions we’ve come to be comfortable with and asking sometimes sticky questions about the whos, whys, and hows.
Pryor casts a wide net when she describes art-related crime. She defines four broad categories:
- Crimes targeting art (such as theft or forgery)
- Crimes using art (for example, to launder money or as collateral in drug deals)
- Crimes against art (vandalism, destruction)
- Art as crime (artworks that violate laws against pornography, blasphemy, or lèse majesté)
This covers a lot of ground, from illicitly excavated Iraqi artifacts to destroyed Banksy street art and everything in between.
The earliest questions are potentially impertinent: who does art crime affect, and why is that a problem? Most people think that art theft or forgery only hits the 1%, who can certainly afford to be proven careless or foolish. As Dennis Leary’s detective says in The Thomas Crown Affair, “If some Houdini wants to snatch a couple swirls of paint that are really only important to some very silly rich people, I don't really give a damn.” Repeated headlines about absurd prices paid at auction for big-name artwork (especially for contemporary art, which puzzles if not repels most civilians) reinforce this view among police and the public.
But the author drills deeper than that, showing that the most common victims of art theft are old people or small-business owners—as art dealers tend to be once you get beyond the handful of megadealers. Thieves usually take the heirloom portrait or the coin collection or the dead husband’s medals through simple burglary, strong-arm robbery, or fraud, rather than by rappelling through the skylights in ninja costumes as they do in movies.
The pool of victims grows as you expand your view of art crime. The small- or medium-sized museum that exists on donations and the occasional grant (Thomas Crown aside, it’s been a long time since someone knocked over the Met); the people whose culture and history are dug out of their backyards at midnight and sold to foreigners; the places of worship stripped of their relics; the descendants of families dispossessed by murderous, iconoclastic regimes (Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, the Khmer Rouge’s Cambodia, Mao’s China); all these and more have been victims of crimes against art. The 1%, as it turns out, are a minority among the victims, not least because they can afford the help of security and art experts to avoid being victimized.
The question that begins and ends the book is whether the art market itself breeds crime with its opacity and perceived lack of regulation. The answer: possibly but not to the extent popularly believed. Yes, there are still vestiges of the old days, such as the obsessive secrecy, the resistance to using technical means to establish authenticity (like those described in Jehane Ragai’s The Scientist and the Forger), and buyers’ continued attraction to antiquities they know are looted.
However, the industry now has actual standards and benchmark practices. Professional societies set codes of conduct and (occasionally) censure or expel members for misdeeds. Various parts of the art industry are subject to national laws, such as those dealing with financial disclosure and money laundering. The international auction houses and world-class museums have come to understand the need for clean and verifiable provenances for the objects that flow through their doors. Even so, if the art market is only as respectable as the financial industry as a whole, that still leaves a huge arena for villains to play in.
Pryor is both an investigative journalist and head of development for a gallery; her previous gigs include an editorship at The Art Newspaper and a post as researcher for the (London) Metropolitan Police’s Art and Antiquities Unit. She knows her stuff.
The author splits the book into two parts: the first describes the problem (what art crime is, who does it, who it hurts), and the second discusses the solutions (who’s fighting the crime, what laws are in place, and where the field is headed). A useful tool she employs at the start of the book is describing a general problem, then using a more specific case study to illustrate the point. Unfortunately, she doesn’t do this enough.
Being a journalist rather than an academic, Pryor’s able to write in a way that a normal person can understand what she’s saying. This is definitely a textbook, though; there’s no plot or action or character arcs. Thankfully, it’s also largely free of five-dollar words, MFA-speak, and untranslated French adages. Although it’s short (160 pages), you won’t want to try to read it on the beach—but it won’t break your brain either. Sorry, no pictures; but there are lots of endnotes, a useful index, and an extensive bibliography.
Crime and the Art Market is a serious, solid introduction to the broad issues surrounding art-related crime that also happens to be reasonably readable. It’s not so much reportage as is it truth-seeking. Don’t come in expecting James Patterson and you won’t be disappointed.
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Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. His new art-crime novel The Collection involves a disgraced gallerist’s search for a cache of stolen paintings that may be in the hands of the Calabrian mafia. His Facebook author page features spies, shipwrecks, art crime and archaeology, among other things.