Douglas & McIntyre

Interviews with author(s) of “Hot Art”

Joshua  Knelman

Joshua Knelman

August 2011

What prompted you to start researching and writing about international art theft?

I was sent to investigate and write a short feature on a Toronto art gallery burglary. The owner was told by the police that chances were slim he’d ever see his art again. He consulted with colleagues, and most told him not to alert the media, and to be discreet. When I met with him, he gave me the phone number of a cultural lawyer who had given him opposite advice: go to the media, and do everything you can to publicize those stolen artworks. Her name was Bonnie Czegledi, and we struck up what turned out to be a seven-year conversation about the state of international art theft. Czegledi encouraged me to investigate and write the story. She also convinced me that it wasn’t just a local story, but one with international tentacles. I contacted the FBI, and Scotland Yard, and began searching for a small group of specialists around the globe who track the black market, and in some cases, use it to make a living.

Who are some of the favourite people you met during your investigation?

Many of the people I interviewed for the book are obsessed with understanding the black market for stolen art, and obsession is always attractive in an interview subject.

At the core of Hot Art are two opposing narrative poles— Detective Donald Hrycyk, a dedicated LAPD art-theft detective, and Paul Hendry, a retired art thief based in the U.K. Though they have never met, and live on two separate continents, Detective Hrycyk and Hendry both spent their lives learning how the same black market evolved. Although they were uncovering the same patterns, each was using the knowledge to forward a different goal. Detective Hrycyk was learning the various paths that artwork could take after being stolen, and watching as his suspicions were confirmed when some artworks stolen from L.A. appeared in Europe, and further afield. Paul Hendry, on the other hand, was using his knowledge to build a larger network of dealers, and to find more efficient ways to earn a profit from the material items that he drained from houses across England. What I found remarkable was how similar their descriptions of their learning experiences were. Needless to say, they both were absolutely dedicated to their causes.

You infiltrated a complex, mysterious and often inscrutable industry. What were the greatest challenges you faced when investigating the world of international art theft?

One challenge was finding reliable sources of knowledge and information, and then building a relationship with those sources. When I first interviewed Paul Hendry, he told me he had never stolen art from major museums. If, for example, I had not met Rick St. Hilaire, a county prosecutor from New Hampshire with a passion for art theft cases, I think I would have been disappointed by Hendry’s admission. But because I’d learned about the black market from cultural lawyers, and others, when Hendry told me he’d earned a living from laundering stolen art back into the legitimate market, and that he’d done so by “staying under the radar” and dealing in less famous artworks, I knew I was talking to precisely the right person—a seasoned pro. In fact, St. Hilaire had advised me to seek out, and build, a profile of a thief who made a living in just this way.

In your experience, do most detectives (and thieves) in the stolen art world have a particular passion for visual art? Or, is art viewed as another ‘currency’?

Most thieves steal art for money. Every detective I interviewed agreed on this point: The FBI, Scotland Yard, the LAPD, The Surete du Quebec, and Interpol. Stealing is a way of making a living, and of supporting a lifestyle. That said, the higher up the criminal chain a person is, the more knowledge they tend to have of the art itself. So, for example, one of Hendry’s advantages was the knowledge he had about the product that he was dealing with. In his case, I came to know that he does love and appreciate art. Most thieves who steal art, though, do not care about the art, or where it goes. They want to sell what they have stolen, and move on.

With this in mind, are criminal organizations that deal with art theft usually involved in other crimes, too, such as drug smuggling, extortion, etc.?

Some of the patterns indicate that some organized crime groups have developed a sophisticated understanding of the art market, and know how to exploit it. Alain Lacoursiere, the detective who founded the Quebec art crime unit, discovered that the Hells Angels were using art as a way to launder money. Lacoursiere said that organized crime now owned auction houses and art galleries. He also found evidence that thieves were stealing art from houses or galleries to pay off drug debts owed to more powerful criminals. The FBI and Scotland Yard both indicated that because the legitimate art market is one of the largest unregulated businesses in the Western world, it is a perfect arena for criminals to exploit.

Many film depictions of art theft – The Thomas Crown Affair, Oceans Twelve, How to Steal a Million – portray the business as sleek, sexy and a ‘victimless crime’. Is this the case in real life?

A big challenge in researching this book was getting beyond the myth of The Thomas Crown Affair. The idea of a rogue-billionaire who steals art to enjoy it in the privacy of his living room, or vault, has captured the imagination of Hollywood, and, in many instances, the media, and has informed the ways in which art thefts are covered in the news. One theme throughout the book is the great disconnect between the myth (The Thomas Crown Affair version of art theft), and the reality of the problem (an international black market that requires many levels of criminal behaviour to operate with efficiency). Almost every lawyer, detective, or special agent I interviewed dismissed the myth and pointed to the reality.

Bonnie Czegledi noted that the best way to erase a culture is to destroy its cultural heritage, and that, for example, the Nazis understood that very well. LAPD Detective Hrycyk pointed out that most people set aside money to buy art or objects, in an effort to make their life more beautiful and meaningful— it is often those items that people value most among their material possessions. A television can be replaced. A painting that has hung on a wall in your home for the past twenty years cannot.

In the first scenario, stealing or destroying art and antiquities can strike straight at the heart of a culture. For example, when the Iraqi National Museum was looted, everyone understood that this wasn’t just about stealing material value. It was about robbing a culture of its historical touchstones, and, in this case, stealing items that gave us clues about how we, as human beings, lived thousands of years ago. On the other end of the spectrum, when thieves break into a person’s home and steal artworks, often they are inflicting deep emotional losses. In both cases, the value of what has been stolen goes far beyond the monetary value, to the victims of those crimes, be they nations or families. These two points are, for me, the extremes of the spectrum of damage that art theft can inflict.

How did this understanding of the damage art theft can cause affect your relationship with Paul Hendry, and your opinion of him?

Hendry was a guide, in the same way that Bonnie Czegledi and Rick St. Hilaire were teachers for learning about how the international black market works. Rather than judge, I wanted to show how the black-market for stolen art functions, and how it has evolved. In the academic world, there’s a method of research called “Triangulation.” Most simply described, this means that a pattern is discerned by using different sources to confirm it. If I’d only interviewed Detective Donald Hrycyk, or any of the detectives or lawyers in the book, one piece of that pattern would have emerged, but by spending time discussing the black market with Paul, and hearing about his life and career, a similar pattern was revealed from the other side of the equation—the criminal world.

Hendry was a gentlemen from the moment we began our discussions, and took the time to teach and discuss the problem of art theft from a variety of angles. He is not just a former art thief; he is a source of intelligence, and analysis. For me, his perspective provided critical insight in understanding the scope of international art theft.

Are there any particularly clever heists that you were told of during your research?

Here are a few: entering a museum by stealth through a skylight, disarming the security guards, and then vanishing without a trace with 12 famous paintings (Montreal Musee des beaux arts, 1972). Stealing a small work of art, but also stealing the name-plaque beside it so there is no visible indication that a painting was ever there (a university in Australia, 2007). Taking a photograph of a painting, paying a photo-lab to create a perfectly-sized copy of the painting, and then framing that photograph in the original frame and placing it on the wall in place of the original painting (Los Angeles, 1987). Storming a museum during visiting hours, and using a getaway boat parked on a river behind the museum as the escape, while detonating bombs in other parts of the city to distract law enforcement (Sweden, 2000).

There are so many ways to steal art that are clever and make for spectacular headlines, but the story that captured me wasn’t a Hollywood-worthy choreographed event, but rather a much quieter and efficient system. This is the one Hendry used, and in some ways, perfected, and the one that Hrycyk came to see as the most insidious form of art theft: stealing art that is lesser known (don’t steal a Van Gogh), and using a network of contacts to sell that stolen artwork back into the legitimate art market, and then circulating those stolen items to hot spots around the world.

D&M Marketing, Aug 16, 2011
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