When you watch “White Collar,” USA’s successful show about master forger and art thief Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer) and the FBI agent tasked with criminal-sitting him, it’s easy to get drawn in by Caffrey’s charm, wit and disarming good looks.
In fact, that’s the point. Sure, Caffrey’s a criminal — but he’s not violent, his crimes don’t really seem to hurt anyone and when he does commit them, it’s for the right reasons, no? Besides, how awful can he be? He’s a criminal informant, tracking down and foiling lesser thieves with bigger guns and smaller brains.
“White Collar” makes for entertaining television. But in the real world, stealing and forging art amounts to big, big business with a small, overstretched group of people tasked with policing a black market trailing only weapons and drug dealing in the amount of money it nets.
A new Newsweek piece by Kris Hollington examines the world of art crime and the people fighting it with a look at a recent conference called “Fakes, Forgeries, and Looted and Stolen Art.”
Among the revelations? There’s a 63-year-old Max Ernst forger named Wolfgang Beltracchi who doesn’t sound much different from Caffrey. He spent 35 years ripping off Ernst and convincing experts his fakes were the real deal — fakes that sold for millions. After fooling an Ernst authenticator and expert with 58 forgeries, Beltracchi eventually ended up in prison — if you can call it that. It’s more like camp; he gets to go home during the day. Art detectives still haven’t tracked down all of the ersatz Ernst works, and Beltracchi claims hundreds of them are on display the world over.
What really casts a shadow over the art world though — much more than tales like the one of the Middle Eastern aristocrat who coughed up $60 million for a collection Fabergé eggs that all turned out to be Fauxbergés — is the breathtaking amount of art stolen by the Nazis during World War II. It is next to impossible to communicate the scale of just how much Adolph Hitler’s minions pilfered. Much still hasn’t been recovered, let alone returned to its rightful owners.
Instead, art was hoarded by people like Cornelius Gurlitt, who died in May, leaving investigators to discover a trove of more than 1,400 works in his Munich apartment worth in excess of $1 billion. Gurlitt’s father was an art collector with Nazi ties held and questioned by the Monuments Men, U.S. military art detectives charged with hunting down what the Nazis stole from Jews. Gurlitt, who never paid taxes or registered with the German healthcare system, was unemployed. He lived off the sale of the paintings, thanks to dealers unconcerned with his collection’s provenance.
In Gurlitt’s possession was at least one painting that had been part of the collection of Paul Rosenberg, a Paris art dealer forced to flee to New York. His collection was stolen by the Nazis, and he spent his life trying to track down his possessions–a mission that has been continued by his granddaughter.
She was able to find one of her grandfather’s paintings, Matisse’s “Seated Woman/Woman Sitting in Armchair.” They finally got Gurlitt, who initially tried to sell it to them, to agree to return the painting, but he died. When Gurlitt and his billion-dollar stash were discovered, he signed an agreement with the German government agreeing the stolen work would be returned to descendants of the Nazis’ victims. However, Gurlitt’s will conflicts with the government agreement — and left the art, including Rosenberg’s, to the Kunstmuseum in Switzerland, which apparently has the right of first refusal. The museum has not publicized its decision yet.
The Nazis would have deemed one of the works Rosenberg was able to flee with “degenerate.” Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” which Rosenberg sold to the Museum of Modern Art, where it still hangs — across from one of four versions of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” “The Scream” was never returned to Rafael Cardoso, great-grandson of Hugo Simon, the painting’s original owner. Simon consigned the painting to a Swiss gallery because of Nazi persecution, Cardoso said.
Cardoso refused compensation offers from the consignor, Norwegian shipping magnate Petter Olsen, stating that his only issue was a moral one: ‘That the legacy of those who were wronged should be remembered and respected.’
The sale went ahead regardless, and The Scream was sold for a record-breaking $119.9m to New York billionaire Leon Black, buying it for New York’s Museum of Modern Art in May 2012 – which has yet to add the painting’s full history to the display.