Art Crime and Textbooks

I was surprised to learn recently that Monet’s famous painting Impression: Sunrise (dated 1872, shown right) was stolen from the Marmottan Museum on October 27, 1985. Seven armed men forced museums visitors and a guard to lie on the floor while they stole this painting and eight other works. Impression: Sunrise was recovered in December of 1990 and went back on display at the Marmottan in April 1991.

Although the actual theft doesn’t surprise me that much, I was taken back that I wasn’t aware of this aspect of the painting’s history. I feel like I know this painting pretty well – it is the work of art that is often seen as the “kickoff” point to the Impressionist movement. The title of this painting, Impression: Sunrise led hostile critic Louis Leroy to first use the term “Impressionists.”

As I’ve thought my surprised reaction, I’ve realized that much of my knowledge about Monet’s painting comes from art history textbooks. And, on the flip side, I’ve realized that most of my knowledge about art crime doesn’t come from standard art history textbooks. I usually learn about art crime from online sources (like the blog “Art Theft Central”) and popular history books like Lopez’s The Man Who Made Vermeers or Charney’s Stealing the Mystic Lamb. (And, speaking of Charney, I look forward to reading his new book on the thefts of the Mona Lisa).

So, why does art crime not get included in art history textbooks very much? Undoubtedly, such crime (theft or otherwise) becomes part of an art piece’s history. Here are some related questions that have been muddling about in my brain:

  • Is there something about art crime that doesn’t appeal to academia at large? 
  • Is art crime too closely related to popular history? (Perhaps this topic is really an issue of popular history and academia, an idea that will be explored in an upcoming conference by The Historical Society.)
  • Is art crime too base of a topic for art historians? Will a work of art be demystified if it is connected with crime? Isn’t it okay if a work of art is demystified?
  • Art crime is intrinsically linked to the art market. Does art history want to disassociate itself from the art market?
  • Do scholars (and their book editors) feel like there isn’t room for a discussion of art crime in survey texts?
  • Am I just looking at the wrong kinds of art history textbooks? Are there textbooks out there that incorporate a good discussion of crime along with other general aspects of art history?

I feel like there are a lot of art historians and art history students that are interested in art crime, but I don’t feel like there are enough academic publications to support my hunch. I definitely feel like there is a place for art crime in the classroom, though. I get very positive feedback from class lectures that include some information about theft, forgery and looting.

Maybe art crime is like crime itself – it needs to be learned “on the street” or by word of mouth! From what I can tell, it looks like Noah Charney’s program for a Master’s in Art Crime involves a lot of classroom discussion and lectures from experts on the topic, not a lot of textbook reading.

Thoughts, anyone?

  • GermyB says:

    My guess would be that scholars/editors/people who write the Canon might think that art crime has little to do with the flow of art history. Sure, Impression: Sunrise was stolen, but the fact that it was stolen has nothing to do with its influence on the course of art. The act of stealing a work of art is after the fact, so-to-speak.

    Also, as you say, talking about art theft is intrinsically linked to art value, which also has little to do with a works historical significance and is therefore avoided. Maybe.

    Maybe art value is a product of art history? Historically significant = $$$?

  • Anonymous says:

    I think it also has to do with the trouble art history (at least at the survey level) has talking about the history of taste, which art crime often has the most bearing on. Maybe it has something to do with the idea of The Artist as Divinely-Inspired Genius?

  • kelsey cook says:

    Another incredibly interesting post!
    So excited to learn more on this subject as my education continues.
    It was always so fun to learn about in class. Although that was partly because you always got so excited about it yourself.
    Thanks so much professor!

  • heidenkind says:

    Is it because art history surveys feed on one another?

    I'd never heard about Impression: Sunrise being stolen, either. I think there's an established "story" about a work of art and survey texts rarely deviate from that because 1. they don't have time; and 2. a survey isn't really the place to be questioning the established literature (or so they think).

    I've also had really positive responses from students including details about art crime and looting in classes. I think it's because it gives them something in the "real world" to relate what they're learning in class to.

  • Benjamin (Ben) says:

    Very interesting post on a fascinating topic.

    "Is art crime too base of a topic for [some!] art historians?"

    Of the various possibilities you raise, this one seems to make the most sense to me. After all, audiences LOVE the topic. Witness the success of art heist films, whether fictional (Thomas Crown…) or real (Stolen). There was a nice piece in The Guardian recently about the theft of Goya's Duke of Wellington Portrait from the National Gallery (London): apparently, there's even an allusion to this event in the first Bond film, Dr. No.

    It's perhaps also worth mentioning that provenance in general is overlooked in AH survey texts. The main exceptions being acts of patronage and examples of influence (e.g. artists seeing a particular work in a particular collection).

    Apart from a general sense that talking about money, theft, etc. is somehow "vulgar," the (ever weakening, but still important) connection between art historians and the museum world may be partly to blame. For obvious reasons (security, insurance etc.) and less obvious reasons (ideology!), museums don't like to present their objects as simple commodities with a market value.

  • alli says:

    I kept thinking about "White Collar" while I was reading this post. Art crime (theft and forgery) has been the key theme of this past summer season on the show and I think the reason we, as the audience, find it fascinating is Neal's reverence for the "treasure". Especially when that reverence is juxtaposed by Keller's (bad guy) greed.
    I believe that the story of art continues long after the piece is completed. Where the art has been/ currently is displayed, who has/ who currently owns it are important questions in understanding a work of art. Historians often look at the event and art trends that lead up to the creation of a work but rarely do we look forward after the creation of a work. Would the Mona Lisa be famous today and kept under bullet-proof glass in the Louvre if it had not been stolen several times? I'm not sure it would. The tragedy of the Mona Lisa viewing experience is that much better examples of Da Vinci's brilliance are passed over while waiting in a line to see a mediocre portrait.

  • Jay Ell says:

    Individual art crime is perhaps not well covered in art history, but art crime on a grand scale, such as the theft by the Nazis of works of art have received widespread publicity and debate. Similarly, the Elgin Marbles remain disputed and well-documented.

  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone! For those of you who have commented for the first time, welcome! It's interesting to see the variety of comments and opinions on this topic. I suppose this indicates that the reason for the exclusion of art crime in textbooks is multi-faceted.

    GermyB: You have brought up some good points, and I can see what you mean about how the theft of a work of art may not have an influence on the history of art as a whole. However, I do think that art history and production can be impacted by theft. I'm particularly reminded of how artists in Paris would study the Ghent altarpiece (when it was in the Louvre). I also wonder if Marcel Duchamp's "LHOOQ" (1919) was perhaps influenced by the theft and recovery of the "Mona Lisa" (stolen in 1911 and recovered in 1913).

    Anonymous: Good observation about the idea of taste! I remember having a hard time understanding taste as a student, since it wasn't addressed in textbooks. I agree that the topic of taste might be connected with art crime.

    heidenkind: So true! Survey texts often feed off of each other. Perhaps if there was a seminal survey text that incorporated more discussion on art crime (among other things), then other textbooks would follow suit?

    Ben: This "base" argument makes a lot of sense to me, too. I feel like scholars sometimes are reticent to "get their hands dirty" or explore topics that are popular. And, I'm glad that you brought up the point that a museum is an ideological institution. Obviously, a museum doesn't want to have its works of art (and, by extension, the museum-as-institution) seen as vulnerable.

    alli: I'm glad you brought up "White Collar!" I've been watching the second season over the past few weeks. (I'm a little behind, so I'm glad that you didn't leave any spoilers). The popularity of "White Collar" is another testament to how art crime appeals to the general public. Also, I like that you brought up the idea of fame. I do think that art crime can propel a work of art into fame, and that history is worth exploring.

    Jay Ell: You're right! There is a lot of art crime that receives a lot of publicity (and continues to spark debate). Given the publicity for some of these topics (like Nazi looting), I think it's surprising that art history texts are relatively silent on the topic. Even the Elgin Marbles, which continues to spark controversy, usually only gets a sentence or two in art history texts (if that).

  • Hels says:

    I am not sure that looting during war formally counts as art crime. But for the people/galleries whose art was looted – it does count.

    This type of art theft is very well discussed in the literature because it is relatively clean. "Those miserable buggers (German, Russian, Napoleonic armies…. fill in the space yourself) did it; not ordinary tax paying citizens of my own nation".

    Thus a book like "The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History" by Robert M. Edsel is very well read. We come off smelling like roses.

  • Val S. says:

    All of these comments raise good points. Art history as a study follows a timeline of development, so it's understandable that crime and provenance haven't been the focus. However, given the popularity of books on real-life art crime, it seems there would be some enthusiasm for courses that include crime, provenance, and even collections (isn't it interesting to find out that Jack Nicholson owned a couple Alma Tadema paintings?).

  • M says:

    Hels, you bring up an interesting point about looting and the idea of blame. Thanks for the "Monuments Men" book recommendation! I wryly noted that the book is another popular history book (and not an art historical textbook). It's so interesting that popular history books are the best resources for this subject!

    Val S., good point about how art crime doesn't fit with the Darwinian approach to art historical textbooks. I think GermyB feels the same way, since I think the "flow of art history" that he mentioned basically boils down to this idea of development (ahem, "evolution"). And I didn't know that about Jack Nicholson! Interesting! I used to work with an expert on Alma Tadema. I'm sure my friend was aware of that fact, but he never mentioned that to me.

  • Val S. says:

    I don't mean to hijack your post and take the comments off in a different direction, but do you mean Vern G. Swanson? I emailed him when I was writing about Alma Tadema and Allen Funt's collection. Researching Funt's collection, and subsequent dispersal, was a lot of fun. Although academic art history stops at the creation and flow of artistic development, I find it fascinating to learn where individual works have been during their existence. Maybe it's not exactly art history, but more like "art anthropology."

  • M says:

    Val S., why yes! I was talking about Vern! He is one of the most vivacious people I have ever met. I'm glad that you had a chance to interact with him. What a small world!

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.