Noah Charney hasn’t stolen a major artwork, as far as is known, but he gives it lots of thought. I met him one day last spring in Rome, in a cool, shadowy side chapel of the church of San Francesco a Ripa on the west bank of the Tiber. He stood with his hands clasped reverently before him, gazing at Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s statue of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni. Bernini seems to have caught the pious mystic just as she passes to her great reward; she lies prostrate on a tousled bed of marble and jasper, her back arched, her eyes slitted, her lips parted and her right hand pressed to her breast in an ecstasy of divine transport that, as more than one critic has observed, resembles a far earthier kind of ecstasy. “I’ve spent hundreds of hours here with Ludovica,” Charney said, less to me than to the statue, about which he wrote his master’s thesis in art history in 2003. “We have a special relationship. I want her in my living room!”
Charney, a slender, courtly 27-year-old from New Haven with a back-swept mane of jet black hair, pointed out details in the statue and the ormolu molding around it that suggest an inner meaning few observers have perceived: a pomegranate and a flaming heart, which signify Ludovica’s passionate love of God, and her shoes, which prove that she isn’t on her deathbed, as most people have assumed, but is experiencing the fierce, heart-melting heat of divine rapture. “A lot of art history is detective work,” Charney told me. “Instead of just staring at a piece, you’re studying it and gathering information.”
Then, with the same probing eye, he noted what for him were even more essential qualities of the statue: how it might be stolen and by whom. The nearby window, the old-model motion sensors and the doubtless un-manned surveillance cameras would all facilitate theft. Yet the stature of the Blessed Ludovica herself, a cool ton or so of stone, would give any thief pause. “To get her out of here, you’d really have to be obsessed,” he said. Then again, he reckoned someone who was truly smitten with the work could find a way to pinch it. “And if Ludovica were ever stolen,” he said, “I’d be the first suspect.”
Charney is completing a doctorate at Cambridge University in a field he appears to have invented: the use of art history, combined with the more conventional tools of criminology, psychology and deductive logic, to help solve modern-day art thefts and to prevent future art crimes. The stolen-art trade is now an international industry valued as high as $6 billion per year, the third-largest black market behind drugs and arms trafficking. Yet the solution rate in art crime is reported to be a startlingly low 10 percent. Investigations are hampered by the cult of secrecy within the art world itself — museums sometimes don’t report thefts, fearing to reveal their vulnerability to future crimes and thereby hurt their chances of receiving new donations. “The art trade is the least transparent and least regulated commercial activity in the world,” says Julian Radcliffe, chairman of the Art Loss Register, a London-based company that maintains a leading database of stolen artworks.
Charney wants to cut through this murk by treating art theft as a scholarly discipline, drawing on a wide range of sources in an attempt to reach the first unbiased, statistically based conclusions about the nature of the crime. He has reviewed police files of art crimes in Europe and the United States from the 19th and early 20th centuries, looking for ways that past thefts might illuminate current trends, and he has questioned investigators from the F.B.I., Scotland Yard, the Spanish Policía and the Italian Carabinieri about their often distinctive attitudes and crime-solving methods and about the different cultural and bureaucratic barriers that each force encounters. Charney has explored the legal aspects of art ownership, sale and copyright by consulting with lawyers, federal prosecutors and art insurers, seeking to chart the complex currents in the flow of stolen art worldwide and to understand how laws in certain countries smooth the passage of stolen pieces into the legitimate market.
More than anything, Charney is interested in understanding the motivation and mentality of art criminals, an area that has traditionally received little attention from the police. He has scrutinized the biographies of famous collectors like the financier J. P. Morgan, as well as legendary art thieves like the Victorian-era burglar Adam Worth, looking for ways that the details of their emotionally charged, obsessive psyches might help investigators understand the criminal mind — and, specifically, the art-criminal mind. He has also studied Hermann Göring, commander of the Luftwaffe, whose conception of Aryan supremacy, according to Charney, led him to loot even second-rate works by northern European painters rather than genuine masterpieces by “degenerate” artists like the French Impressionists. Both collectors and collector-thieves sometimes form a bond with an artwork that is as intense as a love affair. According to Charney, several owners of Ghirlandaio’s “Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni,” the famous profile portrait of Lorenzo Tornabuoni’s young wife who died soon after she sat for the painting, have said that she reminded them of their own deceased wives. And Stéphane Breitwieser, the French waiter arrested in 2002 for stealing some $1.5 billion in art from museums and galleries in seven European countries, declared that he was fascinated by the eyes and the beauty of the woman in the first painting he stole, who reminded him of his grandmother.
In a more contemporary approach to the criminal mind, Charney wants to apply to art thefts the techniques of criminal profiling that forensic psychologists use to help solve serial rapes and murders. To supply the necessary raw materials for this analysis, he has begun to compile a database of art thefts that records salient details: the way the work was stolen, for instance, along with biographical information about everyone involved, including thieves, fences and the collectors who eventually bought the purloined artwork. This is an arduous, time-consuming task, which is complicated both by the limited number of cases in the public domain and by the police files themselves, which typically have no separate category for art theft and lump the crimes together with other burglaries. Eventually, however, Charney says he hopes this project, along with his other initiatives, will establish a clearer, more empirically rigorous understanding of art crime.
Major thefts often result in a number of contradictory theories about the identity and intentions of the culprit. Consider, for example, the robbery that took place in 1990 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the largest art theft in American history, the solution to which is currently the holy grail of the art-crime world. At 1:24 a.m. on March 18, 1990, while Boston slept off its St. Patrick’s Day excesses, two men in police uniforms and fake black mustaches knocked on the side door of the museum and said they were investigating a disturbance. Once inside, without using weapons, they subdued the guards, duct-taped their hands, feet and mouths and stowed them in the cellar. For a leisurely 80 minutes, they had the run of the place. In the end they made off with $300 million in art, including a Manet, three Rembrandts and Vermeer’s “Concert,” one of only 35 or so extant paintings by the enigmatic Dutch genius. Surprisingly, however, they left behind works by Raphael and Fra Angelico, as well as Titian’s “Rape of Europa,” one of the greatest masterpieces in any American museum collection. Instead, the thieves took five comparatively insignificant Degas pastels, a Chinese beaker and the eagle-shaped finial of a Napoleonic battle flag. (They tried to get the flag itself by unscrewing the lid to the glass-fronted case that held it; when this failed, they didn’t smash the glass as most criminals would have done, but contented themselves with the unprotected finial.)
The wide range of explanations proposed for this crime, which remains unsolved despite a $5 million reward offered by the museum, suggests the equally wide range of criminals who steal art, as well as the uncertainties that plague law enforcers. Experts have variously blamed the Irish Republican Army, South American drug traffickers and gangsters like James (Whitey) Bulger, the widely feared head of organized crime in Boston when the Gardner theft occurred. Others maintain that it was the work of thieves who intended to use the art as a bargaining chip — to negotiate immunity for another crime, perhaps. Still others, noting that paintings like the Vermeer and the Rembrandt are too famous ever to be resold on the open market, argue that an obsessed collector commissioned the crime in order to procure artworks he could never have acquired legally — works he intends to keep for his own private delectation. In art-theft circles, such a figure, frequently evoked after the disappearance of a masterpiece, is known as a “Dr. No,” after the reclusive criminal genius of the James Bond film, who inhabited a cave on a Caribbean island bedecked with stolen art treasures.
Charney says he believes that the Gardner case has the earmarks of a Dr. No type of thief and that his study of prominent past collectors and their criminal doppelgängers can help narrow the suspect pool. Only a criminal collector, he says, would design a theft of such exaggerated selectivity and delicacy. He speculates that the person who arranged the Gardner theft was a wealthy connoisseur who had seen the works many times before ordering their theft and that a list of past museum patrons, as well as records of previous sales of works by the artists he stole, particularly the Degas pastels, could help to identify the culprit.
Behind other crimes, Charney sees a very different criminal personality. During the 2004 theft of Edvard Munch’s “Scream” from the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway, for example, robbers in black balaclavas ran into the museum in broad daylight, brandishing guns and terrorizing onlookers. They tore the delicate painting off the wall (and later wrenched it from its frame) and roared away two minutes later in a black Audi before the police could intervene. “The Scream” was returned in August; though the Norwegian police have yet to explain the circumstances of the recovery, Charney theorizes that such a violent, thuggish crime, which could easily have damaged or destroyed the painting, was not commissioned by an art lover. Instead he blames “Russian Mafia types,” members of one of the criminal networks that in recent years have been increasingly active in art theft.
A third crime, which Charney has recently discussed with Scotland Yard, was the December 2005 theft of Henry Moore’s “Reclining Figure,” an 11-foot-long, 2-ton bronze sculpture that was taken from the late artist’s home in Hertfordshire, England, by thieves using a flatbed Mercedes truck with a crane mounted on the back. Some observers, citing the work’s bulk, have again blamed a Dr. No, while others, including the British police, have assumed it was sold for scrap. But Charney, who says that the metal itself was worth as little as $3,000, thinks he has a better theory. Recalling numerous precedents in art history in which looted bronze artworks were melted down and used to create new art — Gian Lorenzo Bernini himself stripped bronze from the Pantheon to make the massive canopy over the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican — Charney suggests that the Moore sculpture was actually stolen and melted down to make forged antiquities, small items like statuettes or “Greek” coins that could easily be sold to noncriminal buyers at markets or on eBay. By using stolen bronze rather than buying it, the thieves would eliminate the paper trail of the raw materials, he says, and laments that the police failed to target foundries as well as scrap yards during their investigation.
Though Charney’s work has thus far been largely theoretical, he has plans to put it to active use. “I’ve been a student all my life, but I don’t want these things to remain locked away in the ivory tower,” he told me. He is establishing a nonprofit consultancy based in Rome that will employ the same international, interdisciplinary approach to art crime that he has used in his scholarship, with a staff trained in criminology, statistics, museum security and art history. In June, as something of a trial run of his art-theft enterprise, Charney organized a two-day conference at Cambridge University titled “Art Theft: History, Prevention, Detection, Solution,” attended by the same broad spectrum of art and art-theft authorities with whom he has conferred during his dissertation research. “It’s going to be fun,” he told me a few days before the conference. “Besides the presentations, we’ve laid on lots of social events — teas, formal dinners, punting on the Cam — to get people comfortable talking to each another.”
The Cambridge conference was probably the most eclectic group of people ever assembled to discuss art theft. In fact, at first it seemed almost too eclectic: the art-theft agents from the F.B.I., Scotland Yard and the Italian Carabinieri moved with the spring and swagger of aging Olympic wrestlers, and they stood out like giants among the slender, self-conscious, soft-spoken, tweed-clad academics, in whose company they evidently felt out of place. “The two days of this conference are the longest time I’ve ever spent at university,” Vernon Rapley, head of the art and antiques unit of Scotland Yard, told me. He said it with a laugh, but there was also an edge of working-class angst. Yet the initial tensions and incomprehensions soon melted away, and the value of Charney’s interdisciplinary bridge-building became apparent. The police, in their presentations — punchy PowerPoint slides — taught Charney and his fellow academics some important lessons about how art theft works in the real world. One of the biggest hindrances faced by law enforcers is an enduring public misconception of art theft as the harmless fleecing of a wealthy, well-insured elite. “All too often, the general public sees art theft and the looting of antiquities as victimless crimes,” Col. Giovanni Pastore of the Carabinieri said. As a result, police departments devote far fewer resources to art theft than to crimes like terrorism, drugs, organized crime and street violence, which the public sees as more menacing.
In reality, however, because fine art is safe to steal, easy to transport and extraordinarily valuable, it has become a useful tool in the hands of precisely those criminals whom the public fears most. Bob Wittman, the senior investigator of the F.B.I.’s art-crime team, included in his presentation a slide of Pierce Brosnan in a winning pose, and he asked how many people in the audience had seen “The Thomas Crown Affair” or another of several recent films that portray art thieves as debonair rogues who steal purely for the love of art. Hands went up around the room. His next slide showed the mug shots of several convicted art thieves, a rogue’s gallery of brutish-looking kidnappers, drug dealers, racketeers and murderers. “Here’s what art thieves really look like,” he said. Scotland Yard investigations have revealed that criminal organizations regularly use stolen art as collateral to buy drugs or arms. Gabriel Metsu’s “Woman Reading a Letter,” stolen in 1986 by Martin Cahill, an Irish gangster, from a manor house near Dublin, was recovered four years later in an Istanbul hotel room as it was being swapped for heroin, while Vermeer’s “Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid,” taken in the same burglary, was left with an Amsterdam diamond merchant as collateral for a $1 million loan to buy drugs. Wittman told me that the sale of looted artifacts has also been linked to the financing of terrorism.
The scholars, for their part, appeared to persuade law enforcers of the benefits of collaboration. After watching Danielle Carrabino of the Courtauld Institute describe the seminal importance in art history of a late Caravaggio painting of the nativity stolen from a Baroque chapel in Palermo in 1969, Wittman remarked that such specialized information could be a real asset in his work. “Knowing how important these works are culturally could help people understand the true value of what is being lost,” Wittman said. “Maybe scholars could even help to predict what might be taken next, based on their knowledge of what types of art are popular right now.” Also, the data-analysis groundwork that most police departments now have no time for — collating documents, performing interviews, scrutinizing raw data in search of trends — is a scholar’s bread and butter and appears to offer an ideal opportunity for outsourcing. By the end of the conference, Vernon Rapley said that he would let Charney study his files and also make Charney and other interested academics special constables of Scotland Yard with a brief training course. Giovanni Pastore offered to take Charney to interview art thieves in Italian prisons, and Julian Radcliffe agreed to give him access to the Art Loss Register archives.
Since the conference, the seeds of cooperation Charney helped to sow are taking root. F.B.I. agents and art historians have convened in Philadelphia to talk about art and crime, and Robert Goldman, an attorney who prosecuted a number of important art crimes in the United States (and attended Charney’s conference), has begun advising the British Museum on art thefts. Charney himself is concentrating on his nascent art-theft consultancy. With the help of a professional fund-raiser, he has applied to the Getty Foundation and the Ford Foundation to finance the first three years of the project (he estimates it will cost $1.7 million), and he has persuaded Wittman and Pastore to serve as trustees, together with Dick Ellis, a leading private detective. Charney will probably never wear a gun or chase Dr. No down a dimly lighted alleyway, but his encounters with crooks, which until now have taken place on the comfortably lofty plane of scholarly theory, may soon happen in the grittier realm of the criminal underworld.