The first compliment I will pay to the new art heist movie, The Art of the Steal (2013), written and directed by Jonathan Sobol, is that it did not annoy me. That may sound like damning with faint praise, but I’ve got a good deal more praise to give, and this was its first major hurdle. There are benefits and burdens to possessing an expertise in a subject. I am a professor of art history specializing in the study of art crime – I write books on the subject, teach postgraduate courses, and lecture on the topic regularly. In short, I know too much to enjoy entertainments that get things wrong, or at least ostentatiously wrong. This does not. Jonathan Sobol’s latest film, which opened this weekend, is joyous, clever, and fun – everything an art heist movie should be.
Crunch Calhoun (Kurt Russell) and Nicky (Matt Dillon) play half-brothers who regularly stole art, their preferred scheme being to swap in a forgery for an original, often preferring to steal from criminals who already stole paintings, but know nothing about them, rather than trying to breach museums themselves. While swindling a Polish gangster out of a stolen Gauguin, Nicky got caught and offered up his brother Crunch to the police so he could get off. Crunch served five and a half years in a Polish prison, and is none too happy about it. When he gets out, he makes a meager living as a stunt motorcyclist, until he sees an opportunity, crystallized through the lens of being threatened by a goon who is actually after Nicky. Nicky invites him back into the game, and they plot a seemingly straightforward heist, recovering a rare book on behalf of its owner. They are pursued by an ingeniously comic Interpol agent and his assistant, a stone-faced Terence Stamp, a veteran art thief who is obliged to assist this investigation in order to get out of prison himself. Ticking all the boxes of the art heist genre, they assemble a team of crooks with special talents and punchy nicknames and set to work. But, as can be expected with such films, not all is as it seems, and there is a satisfying and surprising twist at the end that turns everything we thought (including some things that raised suspicions that the film-maker was being sloppy), on its head.
Whether you consider this film to be an homage to the Ocean’s Eleven series or a rip-off of it is really down to personal taste. It is safe to say that this film would not exist, certainly not in its present form, without the lucrative Clooney-Pitt-Damon franchise. On-screen graphics, the font on on-screen text, narrative voice-over, choice of lively music, split screen, colorful nicknames, heists and double-crosses are all nicked straight from the three Ocean’s movies. This style works well with the genre, a cross between caper and heist (capers being largely comical, heist films largely dramatic, but both about the mechanics and sleight of hand of the criminals). But the tone is fun, the film genuinely funny at time, and the plotline sufficiently well-researched as to raise no hackles on this audience member, who is notoriously annoyed when film, fiction and the media get things wrong, as they so often do, about art crime.
In putting The Art of the Steal to the test, let us consider what it gets wrong about real art thefts, but also praise what it gets right. Writer-director Jonathan Sobol clearly did his homework, and what it gets wrong it appears to choose to get wrong, for the sake of the plot and in the name of artistic license, while what it gets right shows an intelligence and research behind a light entertainment that this occasionally-curmudgeonly professor appreciates.
Ten Things It Got Wrong (But Forgivably So)
1. There is no such thing as an Interpol agent, in the sense of a detective out in the field, investigating and chasing bad guys. Interpol is an administrative body that coordinates data from world police departments. Police do the investigating, Interpol files their reports. So to have an “Interpol agent” as adversary of our band of crooks is like having an air traffic controller who is also flying a plane. Police, likewise, do not work alone, especially not with a convicted criminal in tow. It is true that most major stolen art recoveries are thanks to information gleaned from paid criminal informants who are on police payroll, but these informants do not reveal themselves and do not accompany police on their investigations, as Terence Stamp’s dour convict does here.
2. There is likewise, with very few exceptions throughout the history of art crime, no such thing as a professional art thief. There have been some criminals who have stolen art more than once, but the idea that there are career specialists who earn their illicit living by stealing art is largely fictitious. There are career art forgers and tombaroli, tomb raiders, who are professional robbers of antiquities buried in the earth, but not so for thieves of art from museums and private collections.
3. The opening heist, in Poland, is very kind to Polish museum practices – kinder than fact. A character comments that all of the paintings in a Polish museum are alarmed. When last I heard, there was actually only one artwork in all of Poland’s rich museums that had its own, individual alarm system (as opposed to a general security system for the museum itself) – Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine. It is generous of the film-maker to credit a random Warsaw museum with elaborate security measures for every one of its paintings.
4. When Nicky is arrested, he is threatened with 20 years in prison. Art thieves get off far lighter than that, with sentences of 2-4 years far more normal. The largest sentence ever given out to someone involved in stolen and looted art was the ten year sentence Giacomo Medici received for trafficking in hundreds of looted antiquities – and he was no small-time thief, but the head of an elaborate criminal ring with its tentacles in many nations, selling looted works to world-renowned museums.
5. The opening heist is predicated on the fact that a Polish gangster would bother bringing a freshly-stolen Gauguin to a museum conservation department to be authenticated. Criminals involved in art almost never know anything about art, nor have any interest in it, but they likewise would not bother to get a work authenticated. The moment a theft hits the news, the media does the authenticating on the criminal’s behalf, publishing a detailed description of exactly what was stolen and how valuable it is.
6. Most criminals know nothing about art. There is a running joke that all but one of the characters mispronounce the name of the French pointillist painter, Georges Seurat. There is likewise confusion (intentionally sewn, it turns out) over a book supposedly printed by Gutenberg. The band of thieves tell the story of Valfierno and the theft of the Mona Lisa as if it is real, which bothered me until it was revealed as a plot device. A 1932 article in The Saturday Evening Post by Karl Decker purported to convey the story of an Argentine count, Valfierno, who hired Vincenzo Peruggia to steal the Mona Lisa not to own it himself or sell the original, but to trick six dumb American millionaires into buying forgeries of the Mona Lisa, each thinking that they secretly had purchased the stolen original. That entire story was fabricated, but it infected the popular imagination and perpetuated many myths about art theft, including…
7. The myth of the stolen art collector. The film includes characters who regularly buy stolen art and have secret collections of it. This is another common misconception, perpetuated by fiction, film, and sloppy journalism. In reality we know of only around two dozen “criminal art collectors” in history – a negligible number, when you consider that there are tens of thousands of art thefts reported every year.
8. It is a fun idea to pair forgers with thieves, but this does not happen in real life. Art forgers tend to work alone or in pairs (with a con man), and are rarely involved in organized crime. Art theft is largely the realm of organized crime, from small local gangs (like Calhoun’s) to large international syndicates. The closest that forgery comes to involvement in art theft took place in Poland – thieves swapped a framed poster of a Monet, bought at the gift shop, for the real thing, which they lifted from the museum’s wall. So much for well-alarmed Polish collections.
9. The characters use the terms “fake” and “forgery” interchangeably, but they are actually two different things. A fake is an original object that is altered in some way to increase its value in a fraudulent manner. A forgery is a whole new object, made from scratch, in fraudulent imitation of something more valuable. But that is truly splitting hairs – which I only do because the film got so much right.
10. The criminals in this gang are more worldly, witty, and clever than their real-life counterparts. This is fair enough, because it is more fun to watch a movie featuring smart, interesting protagonists. They show a great sense of humor in their choice of modern sculpture in which to hide a forged Gutenberg book (it is a giant, cubic replica of the female anatomy). Our gang has watched their share of art heist movies, and suggest schemes borrowed from them: a “Trojan horse” object, as seen in The Thomas Crown Affair, and “cat suits,” as seen in Entrapment, for instance.
The Art of the Steal is great fun, and unlike in most films of this sort, knowing more about the subject offers some rewards, rather than limiting its entertainment value because of mistakes it might make. An art expert in the film has the surname Panofsky, a reference to Irwin Panofsky, one of the greatest twentieth century art historians. And it gets a lot right. An enraged gangster who threatens Crunch demands either a stolen Seurat that Nicky lifted off him, or $30,000. That sounds about right – stolen art seems to have a value of around 7-10% of its legitimate auction value, a fact we know because that is the amount that desperate criminals have asked undercover cops to pay them for stolen art. $30,000 might just be around 7% of the legitimate value of a small Seurat. Hat’s off to Jonathan Sobol and his team of art thieves. They got a surprising amount of detail correct, and that which they got wrong was either volitional or meant to facilitate plot, and forgivable in the context of artistic license. Why they chose to give their film the same title as a critically-acclaimed documentary is another question, but perhaps in this case, stealing titles is as apt as paintings?
Noah Charney is a professor of art history specializing in the history of art crime. His next book is an illustrated history of forgery, to be published by Phaidon in 2015. This October in London he will be teaching a Guardian Masterclass called “How to write about art.”