Art investigator Noah Charney talks art crime

Noah Charney, an historian and novelist who taught a class on art crime at Yale last year, has come out with a new art crime nonfiction book titled “Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece.” He sat down with contributing reporter Clarissa Marzán to discuss the world of art crime and his new book, which was published on Oct. 5.

Q: What is your new book about?

A: It’s a nonfiction book called “Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece.” It’s about the history of Jan van Eyck’s “Ghent Altarpiece.” This painting is so important in so many ways. It’s the most famous painting in Europe and the most frequently stolen artwork in history. It’s been stolen 13 times since 1432. It’s the first monumental oil painting and a point of pilgrimage in Europe for art scholars because oil was the primary medium for painting up until World War II. I would say it’s the single most desired object in the world — like the Holy Grail or the Fountain of Youth. Except that it’s the most concrete desired object. I was also able to talk about the history of art crime because pretty much anything bad that could have happened to a painting has happened to this one.

Q: How did you get involved with art crime?

A: I used to be a straight up historian and I wrote plays, but then I decided to try writing a novel [titled “The Art Thief,” published in 2008]. In the process, I did research to have a scholarly background on real art crime. I realized how few books there were in art crime. I think that if it were a well-developed field I probably wouldn’t have gotten into it. Part of the intrigue was that every work I did would make a contribution. I organized a conference in 2006 to bring together the few art crime scholars to try to establish this field of study and how scholars might help police in the future in the historical and international analysis of art crime. There was a big New York Times Magazine article about it at the same time “The Art Thief” came out, so the momentum allowed me to establish the ARCA, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art. It creates a bridge between academics and police by teaching police about art crime strategy with theory and practical knowledge.

Q: What kind of research did you do for your book? Is it any different from researching for your novel?

A: It was easier to do research with art crime because it is more contained. ARCA has established the first library with books published in the field of art crime and there are about 250 books in the collection, which is surprisingly small since art theft goes back to Egypt and the tomb raiders. I ended up using half primary sources and half secondary sources to put it into context for the reader. For the reader it should be interesting and enlightening, but the primary goal is to educate people in a way that is so entertaining that they don’t realize they are learning.

Q: In the spring of 2009, you taught a seminar at Yale on art crime. How do you go about teaching an art crime class?

A: I think part of the intrigue about my art crime class is that I haven’t been shy about the fact that there is not as much data as criminologists would feel comfortable with. I used the art history side and anecdotal history — I would lecture on crime during the iconoclasm, during war, during antiquity, and art forgery. We can use the knowledge from anecdotes and case studies to find better ways to protect art in the future. It was also funny that it was the first time in Yale history that three members of the same family were teaching in the same semester. [Charney’s mother is a professor in the French department and his father is a professor of psychiatry.]

Q: You also teach at the American University of Rome. How does teaching art crime at Yale differ from teaching the class in Europe?

A: There is a different mentality about art and art crime. There are 400 cases of art crime in the US whereas in Italy there are 20-30,000 cases of art crime. Different TV production companies have considered creating a documentary of art crimes, but production had gotten stalled because it wasn’t American-centered enough to intrigue American viewers. For Americans, art is a curiosity that is other, distinct from their everyday lives, but in Europe it is assumed that art and antiquities are always around. Churches are victimized far more in Europe than museums because art insurance is very expensive, and there is a laissez-faire attitude.

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