I’ve been reading Simon Houpt’s Museum of the Missing, an attractive coffee table book about stolen art (thanks, Victor). It is the first book I’ve read about art crimes since finishing my own book, The Picasso Ransom. I read several others before and during writing. Submitting a manuscript to publishers involves reviewing similar books. Publishers will always ask what books are similar. If your book or art is unique, it isn’t marketable; what people want is its unique aspects not a unique product.
Most often, I would mention Gabriella Coslovich Whiteley On Trial (Melbourne University Press, 2017), which will be the basis of a soon-to-be-released, two-part documentary to be shown on the ABC. Coslovich’s unique aspect is her focus on one recent art forgery trial.
Houpt’s unique aspect is plenty of images of stolen art. Finding images, getting copyright permission, and labelling them is a difficult job in itself. One I found so stressful with my first book, Sculptures of Melbourne, was that I was determined my next book would be without any pictures.
Houpt starts with the driving factors for crime in the development art market and war before getting down to the messy business of art theft. The problem with writing about art theft is that stories are only complete if the theft has been solved, and most art thefts aren’t. Searching for a satisfying conclusion drives Houpt to the messier business of art detectives and private investigators and the non-reveal of current museum security systems. If only he had stuck to his war and pillage thesis, he could have moved on to the FBI’s art crimes unit (established after the looting during the criminal Iraq War), Tamil Nadu state’s Idol Wing (established post-colonial) and the academics and bloggers working to repatriate stolen gods from national galleries and museums.
Although Houpt is primarily focused on Europe and North America, it is worth remembering that India and Asia have been the primary sites for looting antiquities in the later half of the 20th Century.
Some of Houpt’s stories are well known, and two have been turned into Hollywood movies, The General (1998) and American Animals. The General is about Dublin criminal Martin Cahill, played by Brendan Gleeson, who stole seventeen old masters. And American Animals is about four university students’ theft of rare books. Another story that Houpt tells is that of Rose Dugdale, which is covered in depth by Anthony M. Amore in The Woman Who Stole Vermeer (Pegasus Crime, 2020).
Other books on art and crime that I reviewed and posted on this blog include:
Gideon Haigh A Scandal in Bohemia, the life and death of Mollie Dean (Hamish Hamilton, 2018)
Riah Pryor Crime and the Art Market (Lund Humphries, 2016)
Noah Charney’s The Art of Forgery (Phaidon, 2015) has many true crime stories of art forgeries. Forgers are examined and grouped in chapters by motivation: genius, pride, revenge, fame, crime, opportunism, money and power. This works well. However, it is the usual lineup of art forgers: Lothar Malskat, Alceo Dossena, Han Van Meegeren, Elmyr de Hory, Eric Hebborn, Tom Keating etc.
I’ve also read Eric Hebborn’s The Art Forgers Handbook (1997) and Tom Keeating’s The Fakes Progress (1977). The Art Forgers Handbook is a charming book with many recipes and advice, enough to understand why someone would want Eric Hebborn dead in an alley in Rome in 1996. The Fakes Progress is the authorised biography of Tom Keating, who enjoys portraying himself as a loveable Cockney rogue.
As well as I’ve also reviewed Marc Fennell’s tv series about the Picasso theft, Framed. Fennell’s other series, Stuff the British Stole, is also relevant, even though the British stole more than just art and antiquities.