art crime

Book Review: “The Thefts of the Mona Lisa”

Charney, "The Thefts of the Mona Lisa," published by ARCA (2011)

If you are looking for a book this holiday season (either to give as a gift or to read yourself), I heartily recommend Noah Charney’s new book, The Thefts of the Mona Lisa. I read the book over Thanksgiving break (which was easy to do, since the book is just a little over 100 pages). Like Charney’s book Stealing the Mystic Lamb, this book on the Mona Lisa was informative, thought-provoking, engaging, and entertaining.

In some ways, I think that Charney presents books in the same way that I like to deliver art history lectures. He even includes the same kind of anecdotes that I think students would find interesting. I even laughed out loud when I read Charney’s musings on what Leonardo da Vinci might have accomplished if Ritalin was available in the 15th century.1

This book not only discusses the infamous 1911 theft of the statue by handyman Vincenzo Peruggia,  but other crimes involving the famous portrait. I particularly enjoyed reading about Picasso’s indirect involvement with the Mona Lisa: the artist was accused of stealing the Mona Lisa, but in reality was (only!) guilty of owning some Iberian statuettes which were stolen from the Louvre in 1906 or 1907. Charney even convincingly discusses how Picasso, as a criminal collector, may have hired the thief in the affaire des statuettes.2

Anyhow, you should read the book. It’s a lot of fun, and I enjoyed just about everything in it. In some ways, I’m a little surprised that I liked the book so much, because I don’t particularly love the Mona Lisa (Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1506) as a work of art. Oh, I think the painting looks alright, but I’m a little repelled by the varnish and greenish-tint of the painting. And the crowd in front of the painting at the Louvre is off-putting, to say the least. I had a much more meaningful experience at the Louvre with one of Leonardo’s other paintings, The Virgin of the Rocks (c. 1483-1486).

But back to the Mona Lisa. I have to admit that I am much more impressed with this painting when I look at some of the digital restorations that have been proposed over the past few years. This one by Lumiere Technology is especially appealing to me. I like the bluish tint to the landscape and the delicacy (and visibility) of Lisa’s veil. I also like the digital reconstruction created by Naoko Gunji and Jane Vadnal (no link – I have yet to find a digital copy of the reconstruction online). Gunji and Vadnal sought to suggest the original colors, but also restore the original proportions of the painting. The reconstruction includes more of the columns which have been cropped off the sides of the original panel.3 On the flip side, some other suggested restorations available online seem a little too, uh, fanciful.

What are your thoughts on the Mona Lisa? Have you read Charney’s book yet? One other last plug for the book – proceeds from the book sales go to support ARCA, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art. ARCA is an international nonprofit research group. If you love art crime, you should buy this book to support a very worthy cause!

Many thanks to Noah Charney and ARCA press for supplying a review copy of this book.

1 Charney, The Thefts of the Mona Lisa, (ARCA: 2011), 12. Leonardo da Vinci was famous for starting projects, but never seeing them through. Consequently, a lot of the extant paintings by Leonardo are unfinished. Vasari even writes that Leonardo left the “Mona Lisa” unfinished. Although the painting seems to be finished today, it could be that Leonardo was never completely satisfied with the final product. See Charney, 21.

2 Charney, 55-59.

3 A reproduction of the Gungi and Vadnal reconstruction is found in David G. Wilkins, Bernard Schultz, Katheryn M. Linduff, Art Past Art Present, 6th edition, (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2009), 311.


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?


The Scream!

I’ve had Edvard Munch’s The Scream (right, 1893 version, also known as The Cry) keep popping into my mind lately. This week I’m getting ready for an extremely busy spring quarter, which will start next Monday. Although I know that the workload will be manageable (I’m too organized to let things become unmanageable!), this image keeps coming to mind when I look at my upcoming calendar. There’s so much work to be done!

I thought I’d share my two favorite things about this painting (well, I should say that there are four versions of this painting, but I especially like the 1893 version). My favorite art historical argument about The Scream was put forth in 1978 by Robert Rosenblum.1 Rosenblum argued is that the screaming figure was inspired by a Peruvian Mummy, which Munch would have seen on view at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. This mummy, called the “momie trépanée,” is now located in the Musee de l’Homme in Paris (see an additional image of the mummy here). It is thought that Gauguin also saw this mummy on display; the old woman in his painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897) bears a strong resemblance to the mummy’s features and fetal position.

I also love that The Scream has quite a history when it comes to art crime. Versions of The Scream have been stolen from the National Gallery in Norway (in 1994) and the Munch Museum (in 2004 – Wikipedia even has a photo of the thieves with their loot!). I think the 1994 story is especially interesting; a few years ago I read The Rescue Artist by Edward Dolnick, which discusses the theft and recovery in detail. If you’re interested in art crime, I’d recommend this book. Essentially, two thieves simply propped a ladder against the window of the museum, shattered the glass, and stole the painting around 6:30 in the morning. The crime occurred on quite a historic day, 12 February 1994, the opening day for the Olympic Games held in Lillehammer. The painting was recovered in May of that same year.

On a side note, I wanted to point out that The Scream was originally titled Despair. (This original title doesn’t surprise me, since it seems like Munch experienced a lot of despair and turmoil in his personal life.) I have to say, though, that I don’t feel despair when I think about the upcoming spring quarter. Actually, I’m quite excited about it, even though I know it will be very busy.

1 Robert Rosenblum, “Symbols and Images of Edvard Munch,” (National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1978).


"Priceless" by Robert K. Wittman

I recently finished reading Robert K. Wittman’s book Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures. I had waited several weeks (months?) to get my hands on a library copy of this book, and became even more anxious after reading this great review of the book on Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Books.

The wait paid off, though. Not only is this book entertaining and informative, but it also gives a really interesting perspective on art. As an undercover FBI agent, Wittman has to be informed about the historical significance of the art in his cases, but it is also clear that he views art as objects and historical artifacts. There definitely is nothing wrong with this perspective, and it is a logical perspective for Wittman (since he’s interested in recovering a physical object that has been stolen).

Anyhow, it was interesting to think about Wittman’s apparent “art as object” perspective, since art historians sometimes forget that a work of art is, in its essence, an object: art is paint on a canvas, a block of marble, or metal. I think art historians often “mysticize” or elevate works of art to the point that the objects are exempt from their actual physical properties. Gombrich, for example, tried to humanize art by comparing it to the complexity of “real human beings” (see here). In some ways, I don’t have issue with this perspective either, but it’s interesting to think about how art historians sometimes divorce themselves from the physicality of the art they discuss. But I digress. The point is: it was interesting to see Wittman approach art from a different (more practical?) perspective than I usually encounter among art historians and critics.

Although I would have enjoyed reading more about the historical background for some of the art pieces, Wittman provided a decent amount of information. (Also on a side note, Wittman also works to recover historical artifacts, such as an original copy of the Bill of Rights. These cases are also interesting, but I assumed beforehand that I would only be reading about stolen fine art.)

I especially was interested in reading about the theft of Norman Rockwell’s Spirit of ’76 (1976, shown right).1 This painting was stolen from a gallery in 1978 and was never recovered. The FBI closed the case a few years after the theft, but the case resurfaced in the mid-to-late 1990s, when it became known that the painting had was in the possession of an art dealer in Rio de Janeiro. Wittman was deeply involved in this case by the time of 9/11. Unsurprisingly, the interest in Rockwell and Americana surged after 9/11, due to the rise of patriotism in the American people. Therefore, a whole new dimension and meaning was added to this case, given the 9/11 happenings and interest in Rockwell. And, even more interestingly, Rockwell’s Spirit of ’76 includes an image of the “Twin Towers” (shown in the bottom right corner of the painting). In fact, the inclusion of the “Twin Towers” helped give impetus to finishing this case and recover the artwork from Brazil: officials realized it would be a great public relations move.2

I’d recommend this book to anyone who likes art crime. I think Americans will find the cases especially interesting and meaningful, since Wittman recovered many objects that are significant to American history. However, there are several European pieces that Wittman also recovers/mentions. Really, though, I think that this book would appeal to most people who are interested in art and art crime.

1 I can’t help but add that Rockwell’s composition was inspired by Archibald Willard’s classic Spirit of ’76 (“Yankee Doodle,” the linked version dates c. 1875)

2 Robert K. Wittman, Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures (New York: Crown Publishers, 2010), 174.


Museum for Forgeries

If there was a museum for art forgeries, would you go to it? What would be the appeal of seeing such forgeries? The underhanded element of crime and mystery? The sheer historical interest?

Or, on the other hand, would you consider such art to be “second rate” and unimportant? Would you find forgeries to be uninteresting from a historical perspective, since the works of art are not deemed authentic and perhaps not as old as once supposed?

I’ve been thinking about all of the artistic forgeries that exist in the world. Many of them have been relegated to the storage of museums, since the authenticity for most of these works were questioned after the museum acquired the forged piece. Today I’ve been reading about the Minoan “Statuette of a Boy-God” at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), a supposedly forged work of art which Kenneth D. S. Lapatin discussed in his 2001 article, “Snake Goddesses, Fake Goddesses.”Although the SAM no longer displays the “Boy-God,” they still claim its historical provenance, as indicated on the museum website. (The museum is justified, for the most part. At this point, “Carbon-14 tests [on the SAM statue] were inconclusive because of contamination from earlier restorations. Even is contamination could be ruled out, however, science would not necessarily resolve the issue, for forgers are reported to have employed ancient materials.”1)

Wouldn’t it be nice to relieve the SAM of such a problematic and questionable statue? I think it would be fun to take these works of art out of storage and put them on display. Although I know that some temporary museum exhibitions have been dedicated to forgeries (earlier this year the National Gallery in London held the exhibition “Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries” (see a related Telegraph article here)), I don’t know of a museum that boasts a permanent collection of forgeries.

Of course, if there was one museum dedicated to forgeries, what would that imply for the rest of the museum world? Would a museum of forgeries make other art museums seem more approachable? In other words, would a forgery museum undermine the cultural snobbery (and authoritative voice) associated with the art world? Or do you think that a museum of forgeries would perpetuate the incorrect voice of authority with the remaining “legit” museums, especially if the latter was no longer associated with forgeries (and by extension, mistakes)? Does anyone think that existing museums should embrace (and exhibit) the forgeries that are currently in storage – perhaps a museum for forgeries is unnecessary?

What forgeries would you be interested in seeing in a museum? I know that I’d like to see works by Han Van Meegeren, the infamous Vermeer forger.

1 Kenneth D. S. Lapatin, “Snake Goddess, Fake Goddess,” in Archaeology 54, no. 1 (January/February 2001): 36. Abstract of the article is available here.


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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.