Kevin Van Aelst
By VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN
Published: May 31, 2010
On Friday, May 21, the day after five paintings worth roughly $125 million, including works by Braque, Matisse, Modigliani and Picasso, were discovered stolen from the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, an ebullient scandalmonger known as Turbo Paul, who runs two art-theft blogs, sent me an e-mail message: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
Cheers, Turbo Paul. You scare me.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by Turbo Paul’s giddiness. I have read his faintly evil blogs, Art Hostage and Stolen Vermeer, almost since they started in September 2006. Where Art Hostage is a general-interest chronicle of art heists, Stolen Vermeer is about the nefarious heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. “I read Paul’s stuff,” Robert K. Wittman, the former senior investigator of the F.B.I.’s art-crime team, told me by telephone. “But I never read it for ideas or tips. I always read it because it is entertaining.”
The minute I saw the Paris heist in the news, I knew Turbo Paul would be psyched: traffic to Art Hostage would spike, his brain would rev high and he would get to peddle innuendo and what he presents as underworld intelligence. When news of big heists break, “I am at my toxic best,” he told me. A self-described former dealer in stolen antiques, he says he now actively works “to recover the art.”
This lifted-eyebrow, if-you-know-what-I’m-saying voice makes his blogs irresistible, as does the fact that Turbo Paul knows everything about cops and robbers — or seems to. Sure enough, by May 22, he was proposing what the Paris heist meant; who was sending signals to whom; who was humiliated by the heist and who had the last laugh. He said his blog was besieged by visitors with prestigious IP addresses, and when I asked, he passed on the routing information of his readers: Justice Department, State Department and F.B.I.
After the Paris heist, Turbo Paul had also, evidently, conversed with all kinds of unusual suspects, giving intelligence, getting it, pretending he knew more or less than he did.
On his blog, he dispensed some unsolicited advice to the French authorities at the Banditry Repression Brigade of Paris (B.R.B.-P.P.), warning them that their covert strategies to recover the art had been compromised: “Undercover B.R.B. have been made, so your presence is hindering the quick return. Stand down and don’t make the arrest as this will not guarantee the safe return of the art. They won’t fall for the same sting used to get back the two Picassos stolen in 2007 from Picasso’s granddaughter.”
Undercover B.R.B. have been made! They won’t fall for that 2007 nonsense. This sounded more like a ransom note than a blog post. That effect is vintage Turbo Paul, who told me by e-mail: “I regard myself as a firewall between the underworld and law enforcement.” I admire the way Art Hostage sends half-coded signals to disparate populations. I further appreciate how, like a good airport thriller, the blog hints to those of us who know nothing about $100 million heists that we’re missing something — potentially everything — about this great big world of good and evil.
Were you really a crook? I asked Turbo Paul, emboldened by the speedy and anonymous Skype chat, his favored means of communication. “Of course,” he wrote back quickly. “I was good as an organizer, tried to be a burglar but was too noisy, so better to sit at a hotel waiting for the stolen art to arrive.” Turbo Paul sees himself as Fagin, the “receiver of stolen goods” in “Oliver Twist” ; he even named his son Oliver.
For his authority and his notoriety, Turbo Paul says he is grateful above all to Google, which, as he sees it, has given a onetime truant a place at the front of the class. For his blogs themselves, he uses Blogspot, which is Google’s blogging platform. He said he trusts Google’s secure servers and privacy policies to protect him from snooping, censorship and interference. “I will always stick with Google blogs,” he wrote, “because I come under the Goggle security, and it stops hackers, govt ones mainly, trying to disrupt my blogs.”
Dickensian Web characters have every reason to love Google. It stokes and protects the intricate ecosystem that is their habitat. (I doubt there will ever be a Turbo Paul iPad app.) By supporting his blog and clocking its page views, Google inserts Turbo Paul into history — the history of art-theft investigation, that is, which is the only history he cares about.
And sometimes Turbo Paul really does seem to be at the center of the action. Consider one of Turbo Paul’s recent stories. In April, he told me by Skype chat, Art Hostage received a number of visitors who came to the site after conducting Google searches about a valuable clock that was stolen in September 2009 (a theft that Turbo Paul blogged about). Among the visitors, to judge from the IP addresses, was the police in Yorkshire, England. Turbo Paul realized that an investigation was heating up. When a blog reader came to him with questions about the clock and whether there were any efforts to recover it, he didn’t respond. A short while later, the clock was recovered and a man was arrested.
What happened, exactly? Turbo Paul directed me to an April news story: a man named Graham Harkin had indeed been arrested and charged for the theft of a 17th-century Thomas Tompion ebony clock, valued at $292,000, from a historic home in the northwest of England. Turbo Paul connected some dots: the reader who asked about the investigation, he claimed, was Harkin himself. “Now transpires, Harkin was trying to get advice from Art Hostage before he was caught with the clock,” he wrote. Turbo Paul could have scuppered the undercover operations by replying to Harkin, he stressed, but he hadn’t.
Maybe I’m just a sucker for Dickens and silver-tongued nutters, but it’s people like Turbo Paul who, to me, exemplify the possibilities of the open Web. Turbo Paul’s blogs have opened my eyes and mind to new ways of seeing the world and new vocabularies for discussing it. Do these blogs solve crimes? I don’t know, just as I don’t know whether the Web has been “good for democracy,” as some assert or deny. I tend to believe Turbo Paul, however, when he says that the “Web has been a wonderful tool for forensics as both sides talk in a back-channel manner and issues can be resolved that otherwise would fester in an Internet-free world.”
But I especially believe Turbo Paul when he describes the sensory-emotional experience of his work, which is like the sensory-emotional experience of fantasy and fiction and novels. After talking me through his work, Turbo Paul wanted to make sure I understood his napalm excitement, which I originally balked at. “Virginia, now can you understand the napalm quote and what context I make it in? I so love this Web weaving, its gives such a rush when things are fluid, let alone if a result is obtained!”
Turbo Paul, I get it. I so love this Web weaving, too.
Points of Entry: This Week’s Recommendations
Robert K. Wittman founded the F.B.I.’s national art-crime team. Now, with John Shiffman, he has just published a riveting account of his work: “Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures.”
The Web is fundamentally an 18th-century place. Turbo Paul himself claims inspiration from Jonathan Wild, the London criminal who passed as a superhero policeman in the 1700s. Henry Fielding’s rollicking novel “Jonathan Wild” conjures the scene.
“The Italian Job,” “Topkapi,” “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “The Sting,” “The Good Thief” and “Dog Day Afternoon.” If you missed any of these superb heist movies, take the summer to catch up on Netflix.