Popularized in all circles of fiction, art theft has been a part of the Western narrative since at least the 1400s. Modern art theft is a crime to which we collectively return; most of us are both fascinated by the procedure of actual theft and at the same time curious about objects valued so abstractly. Romantic heist cat thieves, well-dressed and elegant in fictional depictions (and often advertised as gentleman thieves), are seen less as criminals and more as connoisseurs who steal from imposing museums and often return art to a unique space of solidarity.
The popularity of art theft in the cultural imagination may depend on how valuable we perceive art to be, but its appeal is also enhanced by the sense of mystery surrounding the motivations of the art thief, as well as how complex each turns out to be. given robbery. Streaming services have seen large audiences for art theft documentaries (Netflix’s documentaries This is robbery shot its Top 10 list the day it dropped in 2021). Many of these films offer detailed narratives that literally map the job, quantify how many people it took to commit the crime, and offer a hefty dollar amount.
Aaron Freundshu examines how the 1911 theft of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa from the Louvre became a focal point not only for crime stories of the period but also for understanding everyday urban life in Paris both culturally and in the spatial arena. As Freundschuch points out, Parisians thought of the theft as the “impossible crime”—not because of its irreverence, but because of the logistics of actually taking the painting to and through the city’s streets. For those who walked the sidewalks every day, who knew the spatial and urban order maintained by boulevards and monuments, theft became unimaginable, less related to the picture itself and more to the experience of urban space.
Hilary Kelly details the procedure that art crime investigators follow, and remarkably, her primer is as visual, object-oriented, and labeled as neatly as an investigated crime scene. Her interview with Robert Whitman, who went undercover and returned paintings by Norman Rockwell and Rembrandt, along with original copies of the Bill of Rights, confirms our view of art crime authorities as Poirot, one step ahead of the thief because they can to think as one. This is an interpretation that equates the criminal investigator directly with the thief, framing him as a foul and worthy adversary. The art is priceless (or priceless, depending on when the work is valued and by whom), but the object, whether it is the fictional Maltese Falcon or an authentic Pablo Picasso sketch from a traveling exhibition, has already been put aside and forgotten. , replaced and revalued by how far someone would go to own it and how much someone else might sacrifice to get it back.
The recent documentary The Painter and the Thief speaks to these complex perspectives on art: a young Czech artist, Barbora Kisilkova, confronts and befriends the thief, Karl-Bertil Nordland, who has stolen her paintings from the Galleri Nobel. Little emphasis is placed on the price of the paintings (The stolen works are valued at around €20,000, but the estimate is merely mentioned to emphasize the artist’s financial difficulties as a relatively unknown name). When asked why he took the paintings, the thief replied only that he thought they were beautiful.
There’s also a lyricism to this kind of art theft (or at least that’s how the movie portrays it, and the artist seems to agree). There are no fans to complain about the theft of Kisilkova’s paintings. Her work was unguarded, taken in broad daylight. Nordland’s appreciation of her work, unattached to a price tag, begins a tenuous friendship between the two that leads to Nordland sitting for a portrait. Although the film was received positively by film festivals, it was also maddening for audiences expecting a Hollywood narrative, perhaps a romance, or Kisilkova’s rise as a successful artist. None of this is offered, however, and the questions we encounter at the beginning of the film about the value of art and the invisibility of artists remain unanswered.
Few true accounts of art theft offer neat platitudes about the value of art, and the tension between viewing and owning has become even more palpable with NFTs in the mix, changing the way artists and auction houses talk about art. The difference between owning a single picture and a unique blockchain code involves high stakes, both monetary and philosophical. Walter Benjamin’s 1935 The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility (or The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction as it is better known) foreshadows this problem and identifies the disintegration of the aura. Mass production destroys any authenticity with respect to a work claiming a particular space or time; not necessarily a negative thing, according to Benjamin, but a truth we have to face in technological (and now digital) reproduction. For Benjamin, the museum democratizes art to a degree, opening the doors to the masses. From this perspective, stealing from a gallery can be understood as stealing from the public; NFT theft and its unauthorized replication is more difficult to assess.
While the defining digital art heist is bound to happen, it’s likely that its specifics won’t fit well into traditional narratives. Instead, it will be captured like the impossible theft of the 1911 Mona Lisa or the seemingly illogical theft of an unknown artist—fascinating crimes that weave into our evolving understanding not only of what art is, but how we value it.
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