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Crime and the Art Market

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Riah Pryor Crime and the Art Market (Lund Humphries, 2016)

How corrupt is the art market?

Riah Pryor is an art history graduate who worked as a researcher at New Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiques Unit. Her experience should have provided more  to the reader. Instead there is a tiny dab of narrative at the start of chapters to suggest something of the author’s experience.

It is difficult to define art crimes; Pryor mentions a Nth Ireland police report where a stolen tube of paint was classed as an art theft. Pryor’s focus is on the economic side of art crimes: stolen art, illegally exported antiquities, art forgery and art fraud rather than art vandalism, art censorship and art as criminalised protests. However, in this did introduce me to other ways that art can be used in crime; one of these is ‘elegant bribery’.

‘Elegant bribery’ where an official is given a fake of little value, the official then puts the fake up for auction, where it is sold at a high price that a genuine work would attract to another member of syndicate acting as if he mistook the fake as a genuine. In this way all the transactions appear legitimate. I can only assume that elegant bribery was detected only through data matching because Pryor doesn’t give many details about this or other the crimes.

No particular crimes are looked at in any depth in the book. The lack of detail might be deliberate in order not to assist in crimes, as attested in an anecdote from an art authentication lab expert but the lack of details makes the book read like a colourless report about art crime from the perspective of law enforcement. It is as dry as a policy paper and her conclusions, although reasonable, are not particularly useful nor informative.

“There is no ‘correct’ reason to care about art crime, or at least no reason which all will agree on. However, determining why someone does or does not care is probably the most effective way to go about working with them to agree on future ways of tackling it.” (p.88)

Dividing the book into “Villains” and “Heroes” is a simplistic strategy and shows Pryor’s police mind set from time her New Scotland Yard. It also fails to work with Pryor’s own solution to get all sectors of the arts industry involved with stopping art crime for their own benefit. 

Art crime is a hot topic, at least for publishers, art historians and the general public, although not for the police who seem to prefer their criminals violent, stupid and intoxicated. Only if you are obsessed with the subject should you read Pryor’s Crime and the Art Market as it is simply the most boring book on the subject. If this has whet your appetite for more about art and crime then please read some of my other posts on the subject.

The theft of La belle Hollandaise

Forgery Trial Book

The Forgery Trial

The Case of Art Forgeries

True Crime and Art

Whaley’s Stolen Paintings

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About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

2 responses to “Crime and the Art Market

  • Rodney Scherer

    I see art crime it appears all the time! All, that trashy eye candy trundled out by Saatchi and Saatchi, Not another art fair! Proofread before publishing is a good idea! How, can somebody be an Art History? ‘Elegant Bribery’ sounds like a well-conceived money laundering process. I wondered how long it would be before organized crime became visible in the fine art market. As you correctly point out the police are disinterested Not like Villians to contemplating the juxtaposition of form and colour, is it?

    • Mark Holsworth

      What you are referring to are crimes of taste.
      I need a copyeditor but I can’t afford to pay anything.
      Organised crime has long been a force in the fine art market.

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