An Interview with ARCA Founder, Noah Charney
By Edgar Tijhuis
Noah Charney is the founder of ARCA, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art. What started out as a one-man initiative back in 2006 eventually developed into the first and leading organization for research into art crime, bringing together experts, police, scholars, provenance researchers, museum professionals, and security specialists from around the world who focus their research onto cultural heritage protection and recovery. Since its founding, other organizations have followed suit and it is now no longer surprising to find research groups interested in exploring aspects of this field. But back when it all began, while Noah was still a postgraduate student at Cambridge University, it was so unique and innovative that it was enough to be the focus of a New York Times Magazine article. We spoke with Noah, who is also the founding editor of The Journal of Art Crime, about his latest work in this field.
Since you first conceived the idea of an association dedicated to the study of art crime many things have changed. Most importantly, how both police and the public look at art and antiquities crimes. How would you describe the changes?
When I first founded ARCA, I did so because there was nothing of its kind in existence. And there were also relatively few books or academic publications that explored the phenomenon of art crime and its impact on the world’s heritage. This was largely because most criminologists who would study crime require extensive empirical data sets in order to feel comfortable analyzing trends and these did not exist when it came to art and antiquities crime. Or rather, they were difficult to gather.
Most police departments filed stolen artworks with general stolen property, which means that a Rembrandt painting or a DVD player would be filed in the same pile. At best thefts back then were divided into petty theft or grand theft. Many local police agencies didn’t (or still don’t) have a national agency to follow up with in national registries, and without those having the information fed into their National Central Bureau, their country’s focal point for all INTERPOL activities doesn’t always happen. At each one of those steps, the person filing the paperwork has to note that the incident deals with cultural property or cultural heritage objects and realise that this type of criminality is a transnational crime. Too often things don’t get filed, and when they do, sometimes what is logged is incomplete or without sufficient supporting data.
This didn’t pose such a problem for me because I am trained as an art historian. Art historians are used to working with little tidbits that we find in archives, or information gleaned from looking at works of art. From these anecdotes or brief references in archival material, we have to reconstruct historical narratives. I took the same approach, first beginning with the most famous art crime incidents, like the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa, about which the most was written and available. I slowly gathered a few dozen and then a few hundred case studies and looked at them as tips of the iceberg. Seeing what trends could be spotted. The idea was to take anecdotal historical information when it was available and try to make a science out of it.
That’s essentially been my contribution to the academic field. I’m not the first one to do this, but I was the first one to gain a lot of media attention doing so. I hope that I’ve helped encourage other experts to come forward and discuss their finding and I see ARCA as a forum where those new to the field can learn from others in a comprehensive and multidisciplinary way.
One of the main things that I see is that, when we were first beginning, there was a lot of misinformation spread by media reports about art crime, and there still is unfortunately. So many articles, even from the most reliable of publications, would begin with hypotheticals about criminal art collectors of the sort you see at the movies being behind thefts, when in fact the vast majority of art crime is perpetrated by or on behalf of connected individuals collaboratively laundering material, and sometimes larger criminal gangs or syndicates. It is easy to say that the majority of art crime involves organized crime because the criminal logical definition of organized crime is any group of three or more individuals involved in a variety of criminal enterprises for collective long-term gain. So part of what I was doing was trying to make a science out of what was not really a scientific field of study yet, but it was also trying to inform the media, and through the media of the public that art crime is indeed something to take seriously, even if you’re not an art lover. The reason is that it funds and fuels other crime types that people do take more seriously, such as arms and drug trades, and even terrorism occasionally.
Today, there are quite a few organizations and quite a lot of people writing books in the field. Do you see this as a sign of success and what are your primary interests today?
Yes, this is absolutely great for the field. I have no proprietary sense about it. It’s something that I hope helped get the ball rolling, but then the more people engaged in it, the better because the more information that becomes available, the better we will be able to combat this type of criminality.
My personal interest is in the history of the field. I look at the history and see what it can tell us about contemporary or future events. There are very few people who look at the history of art crime specifically, whereas most of the people coming to it are either coming from a journalistic perspective, writing engaging books and articles about individual past events, but not always putting it in an international and deeply historical context, or they’re experts is specific skill sets looking at specific subsets with the field of art crime or contemporary phenomenon. Some make passing references to history but most are more dealing with the here and now. That is great, and a good sign that the field has ripened and developed into something of import. One of the best signs of this is that media or shall I say some media, has begun reporting facts as opposed to romantic or exaggerated hypotheses. The media has begun to understand that organized crime can be involved in the connections between art and other types of crime. In 2015, with ISIS as a terrorist organization, governments also followed suit and began to dedicate more resources looking at the linkage between organised crime and terrorism actors and their links to cultural property crime.
As a writer, your work expands beyond the field of art crime alone, and you’ve become more of a general public figure writing about art and culture more broadly. Tell us about that.
At a certain point, I had published and taught about art crime so much that I began to get interested in writing on other parallel fields. Before I turned to the study of art crime, my focus was on iconography in 16th century Florentine painting, and 17th century Roman sculpture. So in fact, this is going back to what initially interested me.
I guess I was interested in the true history and scholarship behind the ideas that inspired fiction like The Da Vinci Code. That was a book that was inspirational for me, because I enjoyed reading it, but I was bothered by the myriad historical inaccuracies that appeared in it and misinformed the reader. I once wrote an article for The Daily Beast looking for historical inaccuracies in another book by Dan Brown, called Inferno. Incidentally, that book refers to ARCA and also quoted from our website. That was a moment where I thought, “Okay, we’ve really made a splash in the literary sphere. If we are referenced in one of the biggest selling books in the world.”
Unfortunately, I found too many historical inaccuracies in this book. That is not inherently a problem, except that outside the fanciful tail of the protagonist, people might assume the art historical information is accurate and it isn’t it can misinform readers. So tone of the key goals of my work, which is primarily in the field of trade nonfiction, meaning true story books, but that are written to have the widest possible audience, is to try to tell factual stories in an engaging way, bringing even complicated ideas to the general public, helping them to understand them in a way that makes them feel smart and informed and is based on true scholarship, even when it reads like a novel. That is fun, and essentially lets you learn without feeling like you’re learning in the negative sense of the term.
I’ve now published 21 books and only one of them is a novel. Most of them are trade nonfiction, some heavily illustrated with art presses, and others text driven, but still primarily about art.
Outside of your commitment to ARCA, what are some of the new projects you’re working on?
One of the things that I enjoy is diversifying my activities. I feel like writing about one subject in my pyjamas is not enough. And while I like writing in my pyjamas, I also like doing other things. So I enjoy doing TV and radio presenting, which is a good way to reach a larger audience. This past year I presented a BBC series called “China’s Stolen Treasures” and I am recording a course of mine on Lost Art for Wondrium, as part of their Great Courses video lecture series. They were the first company to record university courses and make them available to the general public and I’m proud to be a part of that. I also consulted recently with Samsung for their Missing Masterpieces project, highlighting still missing artworks from a variety of thefts. I also do things like write scripts for TED videos, which is another way to reach a lot of people. There have been millions of views of these videos, and each one is someone who was informed in a new way.
In terms of writing, my recent books include The Devil in the Gallery: How Scandal, Shock and Rivalry Shaped the Art World and Making It: The Artist’s Survival Guide. My newest is The 12-Hour Art Expert: Everything You Need To Know About Art in a Dozen Masterpieces.
Being incredibly busy, I don’t do very much archival research myself these days but thankfully there is a world full of professors who do that and I really admire them because they are the basis of the work that I draw creativity and inspiration from. In my own way, I see myself essentially like a translator. I read hundreds of academic sources and then work to distill these complex topics into the key takeaways in a way that is easy to understand and is engaging for the general public, whether or not they have a background in the field. This is what I enjoy reading most and I like having the widest possible public outreach.
What are some of your most recent writing projects?
I recently published a book on wine called Gold Wine, which is outside my area of expertise, of course, but that is the point. It’s the sort of book where the reader can follow my own journey trying to learn a new field. Part of it is a memoir component where I’m making fun of myself for how little I know, but the reader can learn along with me and engage on this journey. That’s the kind of book I most enjoy reading.
I’ve also just finished a book manuscript that is the story of women in art. It’s a subject that hasn’t yet appeared in a book yet, though it certainly should have. There are good books about women artists, although fewer than there should be. But my book is a 360-degree view of how women have shaped art history from all different sides, not only as artists but also as collectors, patrons, curators, critics, scholars, muses, models and beyond. That book will come out next year.
I’ve also just completed a book on NFTs, which are a relatively new technology that is shaking the foundations of the art world that I think is fascinating.
Is it difficult to balance the many things you do?
I often feel like an octopus with tentacles all over the place. I do wear a lot of hats. But one of the key things that I got out of my liberal arts education is learning how to teach myself things. That’s something that people often overlook when they say that liberal arts education doesn’t really prepare you for anything in particular. That’s true from the perspective of technical development for a specific profession. But what it does do is teach you how to learn things, so I can teach myself anything that I don’t know. And that’s very powerful.
What are you looking forward to in the near future?
I’m so delighted and proud that ARCA continues to thrive and meeting the new batch of participants interested in Forgery each summer is a special treat. It feels very gratifying that I’ve been able to contribute something lasting beyond just my books. I’m looking forward to new writing projects in the new year. And many of them are outside of the field of art crime. But I think I will always be known as the “art crime guy.” And that’s absolutely fine with me.