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  • Caroline Cassin

Dr Noah Charney, international best-selling author, professor of art history on Missing Masterpieces

Today, I interview Dr Noah Charney, international best-selling author & professor of art history on “Missing Masterpieces”, Art and Crime. Many thanks Professor!

“Imagine a museum of lost art. It would contain more masterpieces than all the world’s museums combined” - Dr Noah Charney, Profession of Art History & Art Crime

What's the idea behind “Missing Masterpieces”?

Well, the idea is that during this time where whether we like it or not, we can't attend museum exhibitions in person, I decided to try to create a virtual exhibition that could only exist virtually. And the idea is that we include works that you could not see in person, even if you wanted to, because… there are missing. Some of them were stolen, but some were missing for other reasons as well. And we selected 12 objects. We had an initial list of nearly 100 objects that we have considered. And the collaboration with Samsung is to have them in High-Definition TV called The Frame, which I use regularly when I'm doing research and want to examine works of Art on a big screen.

But the idea is also to try to spread the word about art that is lost. This was inspired by my Museum of Lost Art book, which came out with five in 2018 and trying to highlight the works of art that we tend to overlook simply because we can't visit them in person.

Copyright Dr Noah

How did you make your Art selection for this digital exhibition?

Well, this was a collaborative process because this was meant to be showcased primarily on a horizontally oriented TV. I aimed for landscape format paintings as the things that would look best of vertical paintings. So horizontally oriented paintings were preference. And we put this together rather quickly. It was a question on one hand of what we could get rights to and on the other, which made for good stories. And we also tried to pick pieces for which there was a reasonable possibility that the pieces could be recovered.

The idea is that people can participate a little bit like the Netflix series and New York Times magazine column diagnosis where we present stories. In that case, they present stories about medical mysteries that patients had not had a correct diagnosis for whatever they were suffering from. And they opened it up to the crowd and asked people around the world to write in with suggestions. And we had the same idea. So, on the website, which anyone can access or through the TVs, you can examine these pieces and get the stories about them in brief.

And then if you have some ideas about where they might be, you can write into a special email address and give us some tips. And we've received quite a lot of these.

So, you asked particularly about Chloe and Emma. That's, of course, was made famous by this documentary film. It's a very interesting story. It's one of the real exceptions to the general rule that art thieves have no interest in art at all. In this case, the thief didn't know about art, but seems to have really fallen in love with the paintings, this one in particular, and stole it in order to keep it to hang onto it. And, you know, he says he doesn't know where it is now, that may be true. It remains a mystery, but it is a very striking piece. Photorealism is really a beautiful type of art that exhibits to the maximum the skill of the artist in a way that many other genres don't.

So it's easier for someone who is not an art fan in general to be impressed by it. And, you know, the quest remains. Maybe the work can be found again. One hopes that it will be. It's just a matter of time. It's extremely unlikely that artworks are ever destroyed. That happens almost never. And so it can largely be discounted, at least intentionally, that someone would destroy an artwork to hide evidence happens very rarely. So hopefully it will be found again.

I should clarify that through the history of art crime, almost never has there been a thief who has stolen art on multiple occasions, just a few times. So the idea of an art thief sort of professional who focuses on that is largely the realm of fiction and film. And the vast majority have no interest in or specialized knowledge about art or about stealing art. They are just criminals, usually linked to organized crime groups who you could hire to steal anything. And they happen to steal art, usually just on one occasion.

Is there a chance to discover some clues as the exhibition is interactive and encourage people to contact you?

yes, in fact, there is most of these works, you know, aside from the one token ancient statue that we included, the colossus of Rhodes, which was dismantled, but the parts scattered to the winds with some of them were reused in a castle on the island of Rhodes, for example. That's probably the only one that definitely cannot be found again, although fragments could.

The others, we tried to choose pictures that there was a decent chance that they could be found again. And most stolen art will come back to the surface at some point. That is the case for just about anything on the art market legally that doesn't get absorbed into a museum's permanent collection. These things tend to come up but may take some generations for it to do so, but it's especially the case with stolen art, unless there's special circumstances. Usually, they do resurface. And in fact, insider information tells us that one of the works featured is very likely to be recovered and in the near future. So fingers crossed and we'll keep a pulse on that.

Art and Crime: how many stolen artworks per year, how did Art crime evolve since the 2d World War? How do we track stolen paintings?

All these statistics? The short answer is nobody knows. There is no complete statistics at all. There are tens of thousands of art thefts reported every year, as many as 20000 per year in Italy alone. But what gets reported to Interpol's stolen works of art unit, for example, is just a fraction of what is happening because information can be lost on the path up to Interpol. First, you must have local police report that stolen works of art, cultural property was stolen and not just to general property theft. And if they do not specify that there was cultural property involved, which most local police are not trained to do, then we will have lost information at the local point.

The locals must submit to the regional office, the regional office, to the national one. The national must think to submit it to Interpol. And so just a fraction of what is happening each year makes it that far. There have been statistics bandied about that we are not sure where they come from and they cannot be firmly confirmed. We simply do not know. So, it is safe to say that art crime is among the highest grossing criminal traits worldwide every year. But we cannot say that it is third or seventh or, you know, we just don't know. But those statistics are only useful to help people understand that art crime is pervasive and very serious.

In fact, it is a much bigger problem. But nobody knows exactly how much.

In my Art gallery by Samsung, what artworks might I be able to see and select?

There are 12 works of art in the missing masterpieces collection. Several of them are by Van Gogh. Maybe I would highlight those. His portrait of Dr. Gachet is an interesting one because it may have been buried along with its owner. That's the worry, because it hasn't been seen since the owner died. And the owner said that he loved it so much he wanted to be buried with it. Another one was stolen as one of the relatively few art thefts reported during the pandemic lockdown last March. And, you know, hopefully that will be found again. But Van Gogh's are popular.

Can you suggest four books to our art lover about Art Crime?

Well, I'm going to shamelessly promote my own books. I think they're pretty good.

Any of them, if you want a novel that has real facts in it, then you can have my only novel that came out is called “The Art Thief”. All my other books are non-fiction.

If you're interested in forgery, “The art of Forgery” is a good one.

If you're interested in lost art in general. “The Museum of Lost Art” is good and they're both beautifully illustrated.

And then Arca (the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, an international research group) has just started releasing our own books. We have our own imprint. And the first book is “Context Matters” by David Gill, which is a collection of essays on antiquities, looting and archaeology.

I have an essay collection called “The Art Thief's Handbook”. And Edgar Telehouse, the academic director of the Arca program, has a book called “Transnational Art Crime”. And we have three more forthcoming. So, I would point you to any of those.

And also, you know, people want to keep a pulse on the latest art crime news subscribing to our academic journal, “the Journal of Art Crime”, which comes out twice a year and has done for 11 years now. That's the best way to keep in touch with a pulse on everything new that's happening.

What are the next events you recommend for our Art law Lovers?

While I am stuck in pandemic, our summer long academic program, which has been very popular and we have run for ten years, is on pause. It is in Italy in person and it is completely wonderful. And it is a great way to spend the summer if you are interested in this. But it is on pause for now, hopefully back in 2022 summer.

In the meantime, we are going to launch some online learning options probably as early as the spring. So stay posted on the website “” and people are also well, welcome to get in touch with me directly.

Best wishes. Thanks for interviewing me.

Many thanks Professor! The Art Thief, Noah’s debut novel, was an international best-selling thriller that follows the theft of three paintings, and the hunt to recover them across Europe.

Art & Crime: Exploring the Dark Side of the Art World is a collection of essays, published in 2009 by Praeger Press.

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