BIG-TIME art crime is always fun, whether fact or fiction. It has its own genre, small but perfectly deformed. So I thought I’d love this book, but it’s the worst I’ve reviewed in 30 years. A jumbled pastiche of lecture notes and undigested factoids, it was rapidly executed, as indeed the author should be.
The Art Thief is a lexicon of literary incompetence. It should be cherished by every creative writing student. The plot is a tangled, confused mess. The humour is excruciating. Repetitious and didactic, the book reads like what it is, art history 101. Characterisation is banal, consisting of archaic national stereotypes derived from old television soaps such as Coronation Street, then misapplied in ignorance to the wrong characters. But there’s more. Great claims have been made that require investigation. Noah Charney, 29, is an American who studied art history at the postgraduate level in England and lives in Europe. The blurb tells us “Charney is considered the world’s leading expert on the history and study of crime”. (That presumably should read art crime.) We have here a severe case of premature apotheosis, a self-propelled ascension. On his website the author says he’s “the first person to study art crime through history”. Charney also “realised there was almost no literature of any kind on art crime”. At that point my credulity, which normally lands catlike on muscled legs, strained a ligament. What about the academic journals and shedloads of books on art crime? Don’t they even rate Old Testament status, presaging the utterances of this new messiah of art?
Let’s look at the said utterances. “All the facts (in the book) are correct and thoroughly researched,” the author says. They aren’t and they weren’t. Charney doesn’t realise, for instance, that black light and ultraviolet light (used to detect anomalies in art materials) are the same thing. He also claims that all Christie’s London sales are tagged as important. Few are. Regarding attribution, he states that “circle of” means “the style approximates” that of the artist. It does not: it means the work is by an unknown artist who was a contemporary of and influenced by the named artist. Charney also wrongly defines “attributed to” to mean that a work was once unequivocally accepted as autograph but is no longer. In fact it means that the cataloguer thinks that the work is autograph but cannot be certain. Paintings often have a history of multiple attributions. Likewise, “style of” does not mean that a work (in his words) “looks and smells” like an X but “who the hell knows?” It means the cataloguer is certain it is not by the artist, but it is in the artist’s style. Charney’s lack of auction experience is also exposed by his description of the sale of the star lot in a big-ticket sale. An auctioneer would not take bids of $2 million for a cover-lot painting with a lower estimate of $10 million.
Far more seriously, Charney misunderstands authentication. Gatekeepers are (supposedly) specialists who guard the authenticity of an artist. Many are corrupt and/or consist of relatives and friends of the artist. Some gatekeepers are unimpeachable scholars. Whichever, auction houses know that without gatekeeper authentication, the market will resist definite attribution.
In the novel, Charney has Christie’s rudely rejecting the (scholarly) gatekeeper’s assessment of the star picture as a fake. Charney seems unaware that the leading auction houses have no choice but to check high-end artworks with gatekeepers regardless of cataloguers’ opinions. To do otherwise would be to court disaster. We are witnessing the manufacture of a celebrity. There’s the book, a conference on art crime, a think tank (little more than a list of names) and a couple of mooted television programs. Yet Charney is a student who has never worked in the art business. His naivety is such that he fails to grasp that art theft is insignificant compared with art fraud or that the 300 art police in Italy rarely pursue stolen paintings. They’re after stolen antiquities, a much bigger international trade.
This book deserves all the bad reviews it has received. Beware of the few good ones: “A thrilling, literary page-turner. This exciting debut establishes young Noah Charney as the curator of crime,” says professor Jennifer Boylan. She notes in an unrelated internet post that “Noah was a student of mine eight years ago”.
Provenance is everything.
Once a serial victim of art fraud, Frank Campbell now authenticates paintings.