Wednesday, October 24, 2007

It Takes a Thief

Art crime is “the only serious crime for which the public tended to root for the criminals,” complains one of the characters in Noah Charney’s The Art Thief: A Novel, a fictional examination of the world of art theft, forgery, and various and sundry art-related indiscretions. In real life, Charney founded the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA), a think tank dedicated to dealing with the growing worldwide epidemic of art crime. Brandishing his art history degrees from The Courtauld Institute and Cambridge University, Charney uses his powers for good rather than evil, essentially inventing the academic subspecialty of art theft. The Art Thief entertainingly wraps up this tangled web into an easily understood package, laying out all the issues for buyers, sellers, museums, and the police with charm and erudition.

Charney selects two very different works as the objects of criminal desire of his fictional felons: Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition White on White (above) and Caravaggio’s Annunciation (below). Once those works go missing, Charney populates the stage with an array of characters representing every strata of the art world: Genevieve Delacloche, the director of the Malevich Society and sworn protector of the artist’s reputation against fakes; Gabriel Coffin, bespoke British gentleman scholar, police consultant on art theft, and seeker of the lost Caravaggio; Inspector Jean-Jaques Bizot, the fussy French inspector hot on the Malevich’s tail; Harry Wickenden, the Scotland Yard inspector who just can’t learn how to pronounce “Malevich”; Professor Simon Barrow, lecturer in art history continually dismayed by the underwhelming students before him. A series of false leads, double-crosses, and even triple-crosses pulls the reader along a dizzying trail. Charney’s characters seem more two-dimensional than the paintings at times, mouthpieces for the art history and art crime editorials at the heart of his message, but Charney manages to inject enough humor and color to maintain interest. The fellows of a college “look like the cast of a Daumier cartoon.” Two characters “exude the color red, as if they were Titian-underpainted.” Charney peppers his prose with art history tidbits like that, as well as knowing pronouncements such as the sad fact that “for many tweed-and-bow-tied scholars, a vicarious life in 1598 in Rome, or in any other period for that matter, was safer and softer than the now.” Fortunately, Charney eludes that safe, soft trap and writes for the here and now.

In The Art Thief, Noah Charney does for the art history and art theft field what David Lodge’s novels Changing Places and Small World did for the literary criticism field, namely entertainingly and memorably educate the general public of the issues at hand and how those issues effect them. Works of art stolen from collectors and museums easily become the currency of organized crime and terrorism, making the world unsafe for more than just art lovers. Charney channels through Professor Barrow a bravura lecture on how Jan Van Eyck’s The Marriage Contract (aka, The Arnolfini Portrait) may be “the most influential painting in the history of the universe.” However, Charney never gets ponderously serious over art, joking at one point about sneezes caught on paper commanding huge prices at auction and how someone “should preempt Damien Hirst and corner the market on sneeze-related art.” By choosing a classic, religious Caravaggio and a blank, modern Malevich, Charney brings the two poles of art in the mainstream mind together—the unforgettably iconic and the minimalist iconoclastic—and, hopefully, converts a few casual art fans into devoted protectors themselves. The Art Thief won’t deter criminals, but it may steal your heart and enlist you in its cause.

[Many thanks to Atria Books for providing me with a review copy of this book.]

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