art attack


call me leo Can science help solve art crime?
18 FEB 1999. Purloined paintings recovered in Mexico. Quick police action, helped by sketches of the thieves, ensured the quick return of 12 stolen Rufino Tamayo canvases, intact, to the gallery in Mexico City. But the Jan. 28 robbery made The Why Files curious: How does science help to solve fraud -- the most popular category of art crime?

Art fakery is a peculiar beast. Sometimes driven by pure greed. Sometimes it's driven by misplaced artistic admiration -- these thieves don't steal for profit, but because they covet art objects for their personal enjoyment.

How long has this been going on?
The following tidbits lead us to believe that art crime is one of the older professions.

Ancient Romans adored ancient Greek art, and workshops in the imperial city were cranking out chariot-loads of reproductions. Some of this stuff was good. Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, writes that "Today it's almost impossible to tell what's genuinely ancient Greek and what's Roman fakery." (See his engaging wrap-up of fraud through the ages in "False Impressions..." in the bibliography.)

Art forgery had a rebirth during the Renaissance, which Hoving termed "a watershed for fakes." Now that ancient Rome was cool, Europeans were copying Romans, just as Romans once aped Greeks. The most popular forgeries included gems, coins and ancient inscriptions.

can you say 14th century?It wasn't just art that got faked. The Shroud of Turin, considered by many the cloth that cloaked Christ's body after his crucifixion, was crafted in the 14th century, according to carbon-14 dating. Nonetheless, the faithful still venerate the shroud, arguing for its authenticity against the scientific evidence.

Although their actions were not considered fraud, master painters during the Renaissance had a workshop system, and signed work by employees and apprentices. That practice spawned a whole industry that tries to confirm the actual authorship of many big-name artworks.

In a specialty called document forgery, Mark Hofmann, a rare-documents dealer, made the Mormon Church squirm in the 1980s by threatening to expose damaging documents he'd "uncovered." The case ended in 1987, when Hofmann was convicted of forgery and two murders committed to conceal his crimes (see "Salamander:..." in the bibliography).

Shall we steal?
Ancient artifacts have been a magnet for forgers. And archeological sites have been a magnet for looters.

Perhaps the largest art rip-offs in history occurred in the 1930s and 1940s, when Nazi Germany, and then the Soviet Union, systematically plundered art from their conquered lands. Much of this art remains stolen.

On a slightly smaller scale, the 1990 theft of 13 paintings from the Gardner Museum in Boston, by thieves dressed as police officers, remains unsolved. In 1998, two convicts claimed they could produce the booty, valued at $200 million. But they were apparently just con men trying to get themselves sprung from prison.

For an illuminating look at the long history of art forgery, see "Fake?... " in the bibliography.

So how much stolen or bogus art is really out there?


The Why Files
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