Thursday, June 26, 2014

Not-Very-Rapid-At-All Book Club, Rejected Ninja Turtle Edition

This was a book I actually picked up prior to the World Cup at the Milwaukee Art Museum, which should go towards explaining the delay in talking about it. But then, this time I've actually been able to complete the book before I mention it. Which by now seems like a pretty good way to go; the original intent was that listing off what I've been buying lately gives you a better insight into how I think. Well, it's been four years now, and that ought to be pretty well established by this point. So we might as well focus more on actually reviewing these things.

The book is 'Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists' by Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg. Amore is the head of security at Boston's chief art museum, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and his chief task since joining the museum in 2005 has been to try and recover 13 works of art that were stolen from it in 1990, works that have yet to be recovered. Three of those works are by Rembrandt, and this is the crux of the book: Rembrandt is an unusually popular target for art theft, which the book details through the stories of previous Rembrandt heists. Mashberg is an investigative reporter on the art beat working with Amore, who can be found milling about for various publications; right now it looks like he's with the New York Times.

More importantly, you find out what kind of people steal art, how, and how- or if- it was recovered. That's what you need to be here for. If you want a Rembrandt biography, I didn't see an overly large amount of time spent on that; it mainly came up only to note the significance of a particular stolen piece. The most important factors as to why Rembrandt is the one getting stolen all the time comes down to two very simple factors:

*First, Rembrandt pumped out a lot of art. The guy was a factory. It's noted in the introduction that there are thousands of works of his out there, likely somewhere between 2,000-2,500, and there are thousands more that may or may not have been his, as Rembrandt did some etching work and it's not certain in some cases if a piece is an original or if it came off an etching plate, or even if the work was actually done by one of his apprentices. Grand total, there are as many as 6,000 pieces that MIGHT be his. What this means is that it's pretty easy to find a Rembrandt near you; most every art museum of note or semi-note has managed to snag at least one. That said, he is a dead artist, and dead artists aren't making any new stuff, so there is a rarity aspect even with him.
*Second, Rembrandt is really famous. Famous artists get swiped more often because the thieves more easily recognize them as valuable. The thinking is, they swipe a Rembrandt and someone's sure to line up to buy it and then they're set for life. Art directors often comment on this right after a heist when they make note of what the thief would have taken if they knew what it was they were taking.

They think this because most art thieves are stupid like that. There's a myth that art thieves grab a work and then take it away and admire it privately forever. That does not happen. At all. And Amore and Mashberg go out of their way to show this again and again and again some more. Uber-rich collectors, as it's explained, actually appreciate their art, and want to show it off as a status symbol. And they're going to buy their art legitimately, because why in the hell would they needlessly get themselves mixed up in that business? A stolen piece, particularly by someone as known as Rembrandt, quickly becomes too hot to sell at any price to anyone; after all, every piece is unique. You might be able to pass along ill-gotten money, but not if the cops made note of the serial numbers of the bills beforehand. Art is mostly all serial numbers. You know what the Mona Lisa looks like, and you know Mona Lisas are in short supply these days.

The people who steal art typically don't realize this until it's too late; more often than not they're low-level career criminals who think of an art museum as little more than a bank where it's a million times easier to grab the money (as museums are loathe to place their art behind physical barriers, leaving patrons less able to observe a work's little quirks). Most heists are not these cat-burglar gymnast acts over laser beams followed by the liberal use of various whiz-bang gizmos. No, no.

Your average heist consists of marching right through the front door, walking straight up to the art, grabbing it off the wall wholesale and walking back out the front door with it. Maybe you have to subdue a guard or flash a gun in front of any tourists who happen to be inside. That's it. That's how easy and brazen it generally is. Your average thief also has no clue how to actually handle the art they have on hand; while museums go all out to baby their pieces and make sure they retain as much of their look as possible from the time they were created (pieces are often rotated in and out of display to the public just because the atmosphere itself can mess with the work's integrity over time), thieves often just chuck a work under their bed or in an attic or leave it in a barn for authorities to recover.

And that's if you're lucky. Sometimes they go in the river. Or get cut out of their frames and stuffed in a tube during the heist; heavily damaging them right then and there. Or get burned when their demanded ransom isn't paid, ransoms that are sometimes more than the museum actually has to hand over even if they were inclined to do so, which they sometimes are and sometimes aren't. How much they have is reflected in the reward they offer for its return. Or- and this is part of the reason works remain stolen for so long- if they don't get the ransom and can't find a buyer, they might just keep it.

I've seen a somewhat mixed bag on how the play-by-play on each of the heists was conveyed; some think of it as compelling and fast-paced, while other reviewers found the telling on the dry side. Personally, I'm closer to the former; I could see how someone would get a dry read out of it, but to me it was just easy to follow along. I could see what was there, how the area was laid out, the action going on during the heist and the investigation and hopefully recovery process.

If you're actually looking to see the works mentioned, you'll come up disappointed; the gallery they usually put in the middle of these nonfiction titles is very thin, only 8 pages, especially considering this is a book about art. I think it should have been at least doubled. It's moderate consolation that at the back, there's a list of Rembrandts known to be stolen from 1920 up to the 2011 copyright (key phrase 'known to be'; a lot of the time thefts aren't publicized).

It's not a perfect outing; there is a missed step or two. But it's a nice introduction into the art-theft world; a good first book but definitely not a last word.

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