Who doesn’t love a good art heist? They are a beloved Hollywood genre these days, filled with twists and turns. Television shows like Hustle and Sherlock, and films like Ocean’s 8 (2018), The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), and The Monuments Men (2014) continually destroy the box office. The criminal genius decides what they want to steal, when they’ll steal it, and exactly how they’re going to do it. They breeze past iron-clad security systems, crack unbreakable safes, and cleverly sneak away with priceless artworks. And we’re completely, and utterly fascinated with it.

Yet, for many art lovers, an art heist film is a way to see their favorite artworks on the big screen for the first – or only – time. It’s no question, these debonair dealers wearing expensive suits, peering over their glasses at a Van Gogh to proclaim its beauty, appeal to us. The witty and clever nature of this genre appeals to our lush and opulent fantasies.

One of my favourite – albeit perplexing – art heist tales was an episode of Hustle. The team snatched a painting in plain sight, in the middle of the day. They simply erected a curtain in front of the actual gallery wall from which the painting hung. So seamlessly did they overcome the extreme measures put in place by the gallery that prided itself on its “maximum security.” To be fair, these people are a sophisticated and trained band of con artists who could do these kinds of tricks in their sleep. Yet, it’s important to remember this is simply a television show. Writers can make their characters as suave as they want and can clearly forgo any sense of reality.

But, instead of watching this genre with popcorn and a soda, these films and television shows can have the power to do so much more. Despite seeming like a devastating blow to the field by glamorizing the idea of cultural heritage loss, they can actually educate the fine art world and benefit the global art market.

Hear me out.

These movies allow for the consideration of how to secure and display art for the future. They force us to confront why we appreciate art, and how we value it. We appreciate the forger and the manipulator, as much as the master painter. When it comes to discussing art, both the figurative and literal meaning and value can vary greatly from person to person. Yet, once a piece of art is stolen, it’s gone for everyone, no matter your opinion on it.

As such, museums and art galleries have a duty to maintain whatever culture they hold for generations of visitors to come. Sure, some museums appeal to us because it’s a way to get out of the house, or even skip a class. But on a more serious note, they force us to consider authenticity. Pieces of art stolen from galleries are often replaced with a forged replica. It begs us to question, what if what we’re seeing in galleries is in fact inauthentic? What if I told you that 20% of art in major galleries in the United Kingdom are fake? Does that change your perspective on the art gallery? Does it change your relationship to art?

This isn’t just a trend in the film or museum world. Educational programs are being developed to study this field, such as the University of Glasgow’s online postgraduate certificate in Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime. ARCA, or the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, boasts a postgraduate course in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection in Italy every summer. With both programs, students have the opportunity to study important theoretical and practical elements related to art and heritage crime, learning new skills to prevent such crimes from occurring in the future.

On the legal side, in 2004 the Federal Bureau of Investigation established a widely popular Art Crime Team. The unit is composed of 20 special agents, who are each responsible for addressing art and cultural property cases in an assigned geographic location. Since its inception, the team has recovered more than 15,000 items valued at over $800 million.

Ultimately, we can use art heist movies as a means to start a significant movement. We can use them to advocate for the return of stolen works of art, the security of art, and the prevention of future art crime – or else there may be no art left to enjoy.

This piece was written by Julia Ranney for issue XX, check it out here

Next Post

The Conservator as the Storyteller of Art