Hot Art

By Joshua Knelman

In Hot Art journalist Joshua Knelman expands on an award-winning essay he wrote for the Walrus magazine to take an in-depth look at the big business of art theft. His method is straightforward, interviewing art crime investigators and experts in various major markets (New York, Los Angeles, London, Montreal, and at home in Toronto) in order to describe the complex subculture of stolen art.

Knelman opposes the reality of art crime to the Hollywood-constructed Myth of the dashing art thief, most memorably expressed in the film The Thomas Crown Affair. This Myth, however, is so obviously a myth it scarcely needs much exploding. As it turns out, and as one might expect, art theft is much like any other criminal enterprise, with most of the dirty work, as well as the risk, undertaken by break-and-enter types who then pass the goods up the food chain. Knelman’s interviewees, including a talkative English player named “Paul” who is now retired from the game, fill in the details of how the system – a totally unregulated market that profits from looking the other way – takes it from there.

Though the reality of hot art may not be like Hollywood’s version, it still makes for an entertaining story (complete with a bizarre and unexpected twist at the end). Despite the fact that what is mainly going on is a form of money laundering, with art being traded as currency, there is still something glamorous about it all. And while art theft, especially the high-profile theft of what Paul calls “headache art,” is not a victimless crime, it is one whose well-insured victims – typically either institutions or the very, very rich – are hard to feel sorry for. The art theft market tracks the art market, which in turn is a bubble that has been blown by a flood of new money increasingly concentrated at the top of the global financial pyramid. And as a pair of Canadians discover when they try and fence their own hot property, it’s not a game for punters.

A fault in Knelman’s approach is his over-reliance on interviews. Much of the book reads like a transcription, as he simply lets his various interview subjects talk without interjecting much in the way of his own thoughts or opinions. One even comes away unsure of what general conclusions he has drawn. This does not, however, prevent readers from drawing their own, and enjoying the work on display.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, December 2011.

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