Noah’s Art

I had heard about Noah Charney long before I met him.  His mother, Diane—known, to her French students at Yale, as Madame Char-nay—often tells stories about her son, the novelist, the founder and director of a non-profit think tank, and, she says, the expert on art crime.  I thought, based on our limited email interaction and a ubiquitous picture from a New York Times article, I would be able to recognize Noah when we met at a local New Haven bookstore.

I arrived at Atticus slightly early for our meeting at half past noon.  At 12:37, a tall man in his late-twenties with a shaved head and silver sunglasses walked in and asked for a dry cappuccino. His unbuttoned navy canvas blazer and slim, designer jeans gave him a distinctly European look—too trendy for the average American out for Sunday brunch. He added a packet of turbinado sugar to his coffee and walked to the bookshelf labeled “Art History.”

In the pictures I’d seen, Charney had chin length black hair tucked behind his ears revealing a high forehead and a short, reddish beard, but, I imagined, if he were clean-shaven, he would look something like this man.  I walked towards him, “Professor Charney?” He looked down at me over his sunglasses.  “Sorry, no,” said the fraud, and exited onto the street. Five minutes later, with still no trace of the real professor, I too headed home.

Noah Charney specializes in look-alikes and things that are missing. When we finally meet one week later, he is alternately sipping cappuccino and tugging at his beard as he tells me how he stumbled upon the field of art crime. In 2003, he was working on his first Master’s degree and studying seventeenth-century Roman sculpture at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art. At the same time, for fun, he began writing his first novel, The Art Thief, a mystery-thriller that begins with the disappearance of three paintings. While researching for the book, which is based on historical thefts and has been criticized for being bogged down by facts, Charney says,  “I found that the field was just wide open.”

With the exception of looting during the Second World War and illicit trade in antiquities, the subject is underdeveloped, especially in the subfields Charney focuses on: fine art theft, theft from exigency, and forgery.  Since it is interdisciplinary—equal parts art history and criminology—scholars in related fields occasionally publish articles in the respected Journal of the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR).  Although the organization began in 1969 with the mission to prevent the circulation of forged and misappropriated art, today its research and articles focus more legal and ethical issues concerning the field, like what should happen to the innocent collector who accidently purchases a stolen painting or sculpture.  Work that intersects Noah’s field are usually only crime or piece-specific.  The same is true even for larger projects, such as Urich Boser’s book The Gardner Heist or Rebecca Dryfus’s documentary “The Stolen” which examine the still unsolved 1990 theft of twelve paintings from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Although the legendary Gardner theft is considered one of the worst in history, its outcome is anything but rare.  Only about 10 percent of stolen art is recovered due to poor documentation of heists, an under-regulated market, and a lack of coordination between owners, dealers, and enforcement agencies. Charney, for his part, faults governments who do not take art crime seriously.  While both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Scotland Yard have dedicated teams, they are quite small—thirteen and six respectively.  Additionally, neither agency files art crimes separately from other stolen goods such as cars or electronics, which makes compiling data on such crimes onerous.  According to Charney, “only the bureaucracy behind the Carabinieri Division for the Protection of Cultural Heritage provides praise-worthy support.”  Italy’s preeminent team of over 300 agents is also the busiest; more than 20,000 thefts are reported annually; Russia, with 2000, is a distant second.

Charney trumpets sustained institutional support and research because, for this type of crime, he explains, “there is no inspector Clouseau…” He pauses. “No, not him. I  mean inspector Poirot,” Agatha Christie’s masterful detective.  Instead, most stolen art is recovered through sting operations and obtaining information from criminal informants. Noah temporarily considered taking part in these operations.  “It lasted two minutes,” he laughs explaining that most of the work is done undercover and requires working within a bureaucracy, having a boss, and doing as you are told.

Following orders has never been one of Charney’s strengths.   When Noah was two he took violin lessons at a Suzuki studio, which, says his mother, was “a fiasco.”  His parents, Jim and Diane Charney, had enrolled him in the class shortly after the day he took two sticks, rubbed them together furiously, and proclaimed “I’m violinning.”  But, explained Diane, “Suzuki is made for kids who want to do what everyone else is doing, so Noah’s sitting on the floor saying, ‘I hate music’” and refusing to play.  Two years later, in a bid at reverse-psychology, his parents told him they wanted him to study piano in order to con him into taking cello.  It worked.

The elder Charneys, Diane and Jim, were serious musicians in their own right—he studied at Interlochen and Julliard and she at Eastman.  The two met on a blind date arranged by Diane’s roommate and Jim’s chief competition in high school in 1968 and, eleven years later, gave birth to Noah on November 27.  Although the family lived in New Haven, Noah describes his parents as Europhiles who delighted in “Euro-style imports—farmers markets, restaurants, and certain types of furniture”—and travelled across the Atlantic whenever possible.  Beginning when Noah was four, the family made an annual summer pilgrimage to a chateau in the Loire Valley, where his mother taught a Choate Rosemary Hall summer course. Twelve years later, after Diane began teaching at Yale, Noah, then a student at Choate, was a participant on the same trip and decided he wanted to live in Europe forever.  “It was just a matter of how to do it logistically,” he says.

At Colby College, Noah spent two semesters in Europe, one in Paris and one in London.  In England, he studied playwriting and formed a punk-rock band for which he wrote the songs and lyrics, did vocals, and played rhythm guitar. They recorded albums in their dorm rooms, played bars and called themselves The Jump Into (“Into what?” he asked the friend who came up with the name.  “She said, ‘That’s exactly the point.’”).

The band fell apart as its members graduated, which, in 2002, drove Charney back to England and towards his childhood dream of becoming Indiana Jones (the topic, incidentally, of his college application essay), solving historical mysteries and making fantastic discoveries.  Archeology, however, required too much dirty work, “brushing off,” and “attention to the nitty-gritty”, and had not enough potential to make discoveries.  He looked instead to art.  To Noah, works of art are giant visual puzzles that he delights in trying to solve. For his second Master’s thesis, Noah wrote an interpretation of Bronzino’s An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, his favorite painting.  It is one of the approximately forty works still considered mysteries because there is little consensus among art historians about their underlying meaning.

His own mystery, The Art Thief, sold in 2006, two years after Charney began work on a doctorate in art crime (the first of its kind, he says) at Cambridge.  Along with a new television show currently in development, Noah believes the book portrays art crime in a way that makes it “something both a taxi driver and a professor would find interesting.”  Noah emphasizes the importance of accessibility of information about art crime, explaining that its portrayal in popular media, especially film, is inaccurate.  Movies often portray the criminal art collector—“the man in a three piece suit with a pink bowtie, a monocle, the Planters peanut guy” —which, Charney says, has not existed outside of dramatic cliché (or the undercover policeman), since World War II. “Ordinary art thieves are unglamorous.”  They are mostly “thugs” hired on a one-time contract and told what and how to steal,  mostly “street criminals who would steal a car one day and mug someone the next,” and mostly rather dim.  The problem is, “criminals learn about crime at the movies.”

Instead of a Doctor No, most art crime is carried out by or on behalf of organized crime syndicates who use the paintings as barter or collateral, or for ransom.  The industry, the third largest black market behind narcotics and arms trafficking, has been valued at $6 billion, an estimate Charney thinks is conservative. Most stolen art, however, is sold on the open market, often on Ebay.  Antiquities, which, according to Charney, make up about 75 percent of the stolen art market, and other little known pieces can be easily sold by “doctoring the provenance, which is just a fancy way of saying, changing the paperwork.”

Art is also often swapped directly for drugs, as were the paintings lifted from the Joseph Slifka Center and New Haven City Hall in March.  Over the course of a less than a month, the thief, a 53-year-old heroin addict, stole 39 pieces of art from New Haven businesses, galleries, and the New Haven Free Public Library by hiding them under his clothes.  Much of the art was unsecured (just hanging on the wall according to police reports), which Charney notes is common in spaces that, unlike museums, are not primarily concerned with displaying art.  According to him, churches are especially vulnerable due to limited security budgets and an unwillingness to display art in less accessible parts of the building or erect barriers, like glass cases, between viewers and the art.  It is estimated that thefts from churches occur three times more often than thefts from museums, galleries, and art dealers combined.  Charney’s organization, the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA), which provides free security consultations, emphasizes low-cost, minimally invasive technology.   “Something as simple as a motion sensor and a length of fishing line” or a video surveillance system will work, says Charney citing the security camera footage that played a crucial role in the recovery of the New Haven paintings.  (They were found, in prime condition in the thief’s home, along with five firearms, marijuana and heroin packaged for sale, and nearly one thousand dollars in cash).

Charney’s work has gained attention from media outlets worldwide, while the emerging nature of the general field has allowed him to deviate from the traditional path of the academic.  In large part, these prospects for fame and freedom drew him to art crime more than the subject itself.  “There is a certain route one takes: you do your undergraduate, Master’s, Ph.D. and publish an article, then publish another during your post-doc” he explains, “and you are not supposed claim or accept commendations of authority.”  Noah, who admits he has “unsubstantiated self-confidence,” has no qualms accepting such commendations; at 29, he considers himself an expert—in fact, “the world expert”—in the field.

He enjoys having relative fame in his field without the rigor and discipline of working towards tenure, choosing to teach only as a guest lecturer or adjunct professor so he can also have time to write and to travel.  Over the past seven years, he has lived in twelve different cities.  Noah speaks “4.5 languages,” English, French, Italian, Slovene, and some Spanish.  He contends, “I sound like a three year old; every sentence has a grammatical error,” but, according to his mother, “even when he is saying gibberish, he does it in a perfect accent.”  In his native English, his voice is deep and enunciated, and changes when he says words with the letter L; he doesn’t “like” going anywhere as a tourist; he “l-eye-kes” being in foreign countries where he cannot understand everything precisely—it creates “a cocoon of thoughts,” which helps him be creative.

Charney’s latest exploit brought him to Ljubljana and the Julian Alps, which he had chosen, on a whim, as the setting for his second novel, To Catch the Devil, and to Urška Jeran, whom he married last September.  Jeran comes from Tunjice, a small Slovenian village and, unlike Noah, is meticulous, daring, and dexterous.  She does, however, share his zeal for adventure; after working in mattress and electric fuse factories and digging potatoes, Jeran left her village—a rarity —for China, Peru, and Bolivia.  Currently, she works as a translator, graphic designer, and helps manage ARCA, jobs Noah emphasizes are portable.

During the spring of 2008, however, Noah and Urška lived with his parents. The Charneys temporarily ceded a floor of their home because the newlyweds are, according to Diane, “ homeless and pretty penniless, so to speak.” Diane and Jim also just finished renovating a house in Umbria, Italy that is now Noah and Urška’s primary residence while the couple is in Europe to oversee the Noah’s Master’s program in Rome. “He is the be-all and end-all only child,” Diane told me.   They are the, self-described, “proud, hovering parents” who have little qualms supporting their nearly thirty year-old son.  In lieu a small framed photo of her son on her desk, Diane has a three-page story recounting Noah and Urška’s Slovene wedding complete with inlaid photographs of the couple plastered to the outside of her office door.  Jim often stopped by the course his son is taught last semester through Yale’s college seminar program. Noah designed the course to be a survey in art crime, focusing jointly on theory, history, and practical issues, like how to design a security scheme or even how to forge painting.

Forgers says Charney, are unlike other art criminals.  Often con-men make-up the fringe of the art community:  talented artists whose work is not selling.  “So they give the middle finger to the art world by tricking them,” says Charney.  The art world, however, abets in these acts. “Everyone benefits if a new object enters onto the market—the owner has something of value, the middleman receives a profit, the collector—to whom money is not an issue—gets a trophy, the scholar something to study, the journalist” Noah says motioning towards me, “gets something to write about.”  If something is a fake, everyone loses and only for some abstract sense of justice. Though most forgers go to jail for a few years, “they are seen as lovable crooks,” says Charney.  Once released, forgers often become famous in their own right by selling copies of famous artists’ works, but with their signature instead.

While theft and forgery lead to the loss of billions of dollars each year, for the individual artist, the loss of a painting can be good thing.  “If it is good enough to steal, it must be great, ” Charney explained.  “The Mona Lisa was never more famous than it was right after its theft.”  Moreover, crime begets crime.  Shortly after its return, the Mona Lisa twice became the target of vandals, and the work of Edvard Munch was stolen three times in ten years.  Jan Van Eyk’s Ghent Altarpiece holds the record; the twelve-part panel the size of a wall in a small room has been the victim of thirteen crimes and seven separate thefts. It is the subject of Charney’s next book, a non-fiction work titled Stealing the Mystic Lamb.

Over the next year, Charney also plans to publish a collection of academic essays in addition to his second novel, and a series of art history guides commissioned by museums in Spain.  Though he will be based in Umbria, he plans to travel extensively in Europe promoting his book and continue to “dabble in lots of little fields.”  Ultimately, he feels a multifaceted approach—novels, television, documentary, and academic research—makes the subject accessible to the largest number of people and gives him the best chance for recognition. Plus, he says recalling stories of famous thefts, the black market, and the now famous forgers, “truth can be so much more unbelievable than fiction.”

The same is true of the story of Charney’s own life—an American Europhile, for whom the study of art crime became a path to fame.