Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives through the Secret World of Stolen Art

Hardcover | September 2, 2011

byJoshua Knelman

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Winner of the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime Nonfiction!

The Thomas Crown Affair meets The Devil in the White City in this fast-paced true crime story of the seedy-underbelly of international art theft. A major work of investigative journalism, Hot Art is a globetrotting mystery filled with cunning and eccentric characters.

Joshua Knelman spent four years immersing himself in the mysterious world of international art theft, travelling from Cairo to New York, London, Montreal and Los Angeles. He befriends the slippery Paul, a master art thief; and gets caught up in the world of Donald Hrycyk, a detective working on a shoestring budget to recover stolen art. Through alternating chapters focusing on Paul and an international network of detectives, the story of the thief and the detective unfolds, revealing the dramatic rise of international art theft.

Joshua Knelman's investigation finds there are only a handful of detectives, FBI agents and lawyers fighting a global battle against the thriving black market of international art theft estimated to be one of the largest in the world. Meanwhile, the chain of criminals moves from thugs on the street to multinational organized crime syndicates, to a global network of art dealers who wash the artworks' origins clean again. In a surprise ending, Knelman learns that corruption can appear in the unlikeliest places.

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Winner of the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime Nonfiction!The Thomas Crown Affair meets The Devil in the White City in this fast-paced true crime story of the seedy-underbelly of international art theft. A major work of investigative journalism, Hot Art is a globetrotting mystery filled with cunning and eccentric characters.Joshua Kne...

Josh Knelman is an award-winning arts and investigative journalist and editor. He was a founding member of The Walrus magazine. His writing has appeared in The Walrus, Toronto Life, TORO, Saturday Night, CBCarts.ca, the National Post, Quill & Quire, and The Globe and Mail. Knelman's feature article ""Artful Crimes"" in The Walrus won C...

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Format:HardcoverDimensions:328 pages, 8 × 5 × 1 inPublished:September 2, 2011Publisher:Douglas And McIntyre (2013) Ltd.Language:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:1553658914

ISBN - 13:9781553658917

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Read from the Book

When we met that summer, in 2008, Lazarus was wearing the same uniform as Hrycyk: brown workman's slacks, black running shoes, and a large digital watch. If the two detectives walked into an art gallery opening, I'd peg them as artists not detectives. What they wear is so uncool that it's actually cool.Lazarus has a loud, direct, and confident voice. Her gaze is difficult to read. She has tough, alert eyes and some swagger, but there was something reserved about her posture. Like Hrycyk, she watched and studied: neither detective spoke often. I got the sense that Lazarus, even more than Hrycyk, was content to stay in the background. Rarely was she quoted in articles about the unit's success. Lazarus didn't seem to be about the glory. She was to be Hrycyk's legacy.Hrycyk parked on La Cienega a short distance away from the crime scene. The antique store that had been broken into was on street level, with a large bay window facing the sidewalk and traffic. The window was intact, and featured a few choice pieces of Italian Renaissance furniture. The store itself wasn't a stand-alone building. It was one of two in the same building. The attached store was visibly under construction; its storefront featured a large piece of plywood nailed to the exterior, covering the empty hole where a window should be. There was a shade tree near the sidewalk in front of the store. A small group of construction workers were huddled in the pool of its shadow, their workday frozen because of the burglary next door. The construction site was now part of the crime scene. There was almost no breeze that afternoon, and the heat was stifling. The group of men, between 20 and 30 years of age from a glance, looked slightly nervous as more and more LAPD staff gathered beside them to size up the situation. The workers waited for their foreman, and watched the police from the shadows. Hrycyk and Lazarus stood outside on the sidewalk in the open sunlight as a black- and-white cruiser with the gold insignia "To Protect and To Serve" pulled into the asphalt driveway of the antique store. That driveway led to the antique store's back parking lot. There was a large iron gate that was painted white. The gate, to protect the back lot from intruders, was ajar. Inside the patrol car were two officers from Hollywood Division. Officer Ramirez occupied the driver's seat. He was a sleek-looking man in his early 30s, in perfect athletic shape, with shorn black hair. He wore a pair of aviator shades that reflected back the intense afternoon light. Ramirez was relaxed and smiled often. His teeth were movie-star white. Hrycyk and Lazarus strolled over to the window of the patrol car. On the way, Hrycyk explained to me that Ramirez and his partner had already done a preliminary inspection of the crime scene. The detectives were now taking over, and relied on the notes and first impressions of the officers. "We completely depend on them," said Hrycyk.According to Ramirez, this is what the officers had perceived: The lock on the fence of the parking lot had been opened, and apparently the thieves had known the combination. A large white pick-up truck had been seen driving into the back parking lot. The thieves had entered the building through the plywood exterior of the adjacent building, and then unlocked the back door of that building for the crew in the truck. Once inside the empty store, someone had knocked a hole straight through the wall that led into the antique store. The thieves had then entered the store and carried a number of Italian antiques through the hole, through the construction site, out the back door, and then into the truck in the back parking lot. Ramirez got out of the patrol car and strolled with Hrycyk and Lazarus down the driveway and into the back parking lot. The lot was enclosed by a high fence at the back. The balconies of a large, low-slung apartment complex had a perfect view of the lot. Ramirez and his partner had already canvassed the apartment building. They got lucky. There was a witness who had seen the events unfold from the balcony. The witness had noticed a tattoo on one of the men. "Yeh," said Ramirez. "It was a cobra, or a snake." "Maybe a Marine tattoo? Something like that?" asked Hrycyk."No, I've been a Marine, and it's nothing like that." "So more like a creature?" asked Hrycyk.The problem was that the witness spoke only Russian. "We'll have to find a translator," Hrycyk nodded. "We have a number for someone, right?" "Lost in translation for now," answered Ramirez. "Lost in translation," echoed Hrycyk. Hrycyk walked into the darkness of the back door of the building under construction. The room was dark, long, and narrow. In the process of being gutted, it was mostly empty save for some bundles of plywood. On the wall shared by the two stores, there were two holes smashed through the drywall. One was very small, and the other was very large. Hrycyk walked up to the smaller hole and peered through it. "Come have a look," he said. Through the small hole was the antique store on the other side. "This is what's called a peephole," Hrycyk explained. The thieves had created the smaller hole to look into the store and figure out where the best place was to smash a larger hole. Hryck walked up to the larger hole. It was big, jagged, brutal. The kind of hole the Incredible Hulk would make if he were coming through. From that larger hole was a perfect view of the antique store. It wasn't even a view: the antique store was right there. The hole was a door. Low down, a thick electrical wire stretched across the jagged opening. "Nothing here was finessed," said Hrycyk. On the floor of the construction zone, Hrycyk noticed some broken pieces of porcelain. "Can we bag these?" he said to the room. According to Ramirez, the thieves had also stolen the tools stored from the construction workers, who were still waiting outside in the shade. When Hrycyk entered the actual antique store a few minutes later, Lazarus was already questioning the owner, who had arrived in a silver Porsche, and stood just inside the back door to his shop. The owner was dressed in a pale blue polo top, designer jeans, and brown loafers. He also wore a fresh tan and Calvin Klein-worthy facial stubble. He was in his late 30s, and had just returned from one of his Italian expeditions. He was sporty Euro ultra-cool. He agreed to let me stay and watch the investigation as long as I did not mention his name, or the name of the store. The owner explained that he dealt mostly in Italian Renaissance and French antiques, and served a wealthy clientele across the city. The room was still full of supply: A French 19th- century gilded mirror for $9,000; a neoclassical 19th-century Italian mirror for $13,500; a Tuscan walnut refectory table for $27,000. There was a nail on a wall where a painting once hung. He told Lazarus that he visited Italy often, where he hand-picked the pieces for his shop. A few of those pieces he carried with him on the plane home, and the rest arrived via shipping container.While Hrycyk focused on the scene, Lazarus focused on the owner. I noticed that while Lazarus questioned him, her voice was flat, the questions brief and pointed. She always called him "Sir.""Sir, where were you last night?""Sir, have you noticed anyone unusual around the store lately?""Oh, and sir, do you happen to have the only key to that lock on the fence?"Lazarus kept steady eye contact with the owner as she fired questions off. She was somehow pleasant without being nice. I got the feeling, from the speed of her questions, that she was looking for inconsistencies in any of the owner's answers. She was so direct and at ease while she worked that it was obvious she had done this a thousand times. I also realized that if I were guilty of something, I wouldn't want to be questioned by her.

Editorial Reviews

"…though the reality may not be like Hollywood’s version, It still makes for an entertaining story…" -- Quill & Quire "Hot Art creeps up on you. Wickedly entertaining, it turns out to be informative, unexpected and far more thought-provoking than its cheeky 007-ish cover would suggest. Joshua Knelman's in-depth investigation of the international trade in stolen art may read like a TV crime novel, but it delves deeper than that, deftly allowing art theft to serve as an extended metaphor for exploitive, unregulated, free-for-all global capitalism...No doubt Hot Art will eventually be made into a film. Knelman's subject is a natural for Hollywood. His suspenseful writing has a filmic quality, and his characters could have walked out of a Raymond Chandler or Nathanael West novel." -- Literary Review of Canada  "...Seriously, this book is like eating an entire bowl of cherries. They taste like candy, but they’re good for you!" -- Playboy"The most rewarding aspect of Joshua Knelman's 'Hot Art' is its ability to make the reader dive beyond the oil, the subject and the visionary with brush in hand, illuminating canvas." -- Herald de Paris   "...a colourful, tautly written narrative in the true-crime genre...the narrative veers deliciously into ransoms, raids and other cops-and-robbers-type high jinks...an enjoyable and compelling page-turner in the best true-crime tradition." -- Canadian Jewish News "Journalist Knelman proves an able guide through this labyrinth, introducing readers to both the thieves who specialize in art and antiquities and the detectives who hunt them...This book, which reads like a crime thriller, will be appreciated by readers interested in art and antiquities as well as true crime fans."  -- Library Journal  "Stolen art is a hot topic...from the first chapter when we meet [Knelman] crouched in the back of a police car it's clear that he's hooked -- just as we are -- by the topic in all its complexity…" -- International Architecture & Design "'OK, this is how it works,' a wanted art thief tells Knelman at a clandestine meeting on a Toronto patio. 'It's like a big shell game. All the antique and art dealers, they just pass it around from one to another'...And the deeper Knelman digs into the industry, via this first-person investigative narrative, the truer the thief's words ring." -- Canadian Business "Behind the thrilling headline of an $80-million Rembrandt heist, however, exists a complex network of thieves, dealers, auction houses and galleries. It is this network that Joshua Knelman traces in Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives through the Secret World of Stolen Art." -- Toronto Review of Books "Hot Art jumps continents and centuries to expose what is corrupt about the art market, who is responsible and why it's difficult to prevent and how it's being done." -- Telegraph-Journal "Jumping into the murky world of stolen art, this persuasive, fast-paced book from Toronto-based journalist Joshua Knelman might have you looking sideways at that little watercolour you inherited from your great-aunt… In this major work of detailed, downright investigative journalism, Knelman clearly and coherently sets out the facts. As a comprehensive introduction to an urgent and under-reported issue, Hot Art deserves attention." -- Winnipeg Free Press ["An] outstanding piece of journalism." -- National Post "Fascinating and gripping new book...Knelman, an award-winning Toronto writer with a literary pedigree -- his father Martin writes for this newspaper -- is a very engaging storyteller and seems to have turned over every rock in his quest to make sense of the nonsensical business that is the art world...It makes for fabulous reading." -- Toronto Star "Hot Art is an engrossing and thorough study of the shadow side of art fairs, galleries, museums, auction houses, private and public collectors...outstanding work of journalism..." -- National Post "…persuasive, fast-paced book...In this major work of detailed, downright investigative journalism, Knelman clearly and coherently sets out the facts...As a comprehensive introduction to an urgent and under-reported issue, Hot Art deserves attention." -- Winnipeg Free Press "Joshua Knelman's Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives through the Secret World of Stolen Art explores the evolution of the international black market in stolen canvases, sculptures, and antiquities through alternating stories of crooks and coppers from two continents." -- The Walrus "Hot Art by Joshua Knelman, a mind-blowing investigative book on the world of international art theft." -- Graham Roumieu, co-author with Douglas Coupland of the forthcoming Highly Inappropriate Tales for Young People "Joshua Knelman lucidly details [the world of art theft] in his absorbing new book..." -- TheGrid TO "If Aunt Millie gave you a treasured vase, here is a story that will make you quake with fear. For those of you who have shopped in a flea market and wondered where some of those beautiful objects came from, these pages reveal a dark underbelly, a world of shadowy characters. Buy a digital camera, put a photo of your treasures in your vault, and put extra locks on your door. The world is a dangerous place. This book shows how the stealing is done, and how to protect yourself. It's a handbook to all. For a great read, and a great education, Hot Art." -- David Mirvish, Mirvish Productions "Art theft is one of the largest underground markets in the world, yet very few people know how it works, or how to stop it. Joshua Knelman delves into this uncharted world with an open curiosity, befriending the detectives dedicated to retrieving stolen art, the lawyers struggling to protect cultural property, and the thieves who have their own reasons for doing what they do. These pages are full of shady characters and experts determined to outwit each other; an intriguing look at human lusts and foibles. Hot Art is fascinating, smart, and a page-turner." -- Catherine Osborne, Deputy Editor, Azure magazine “…a fascinating look at the multibillion-dollar business of art theft around the world…This is riveting non-fiction that reads like a novel, with detectives out of central casting and a twist that would make the Coen Brothers proud.” -- Chatelaine “Knelman’s book is The Godfather of investigative journalism. He takes us to places we always wanted to be but didn’t dare to enter, and he makes us fall for people we are not supposed to love—on both sides of the law.” -- Andras Hamori, Executive Producer, The Sweet Hereafter and Crash “With an eye for detail worthy of Rembrandt’s Landscape with cottages (1654, stolen from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1972), Joshua Knelman has painted a luminous picture of the interconnected world of thieves, cops, and lawyers obsessed with stolen art. Whether he's writing about those who covet the art or those who protect it, Knelman's gifts as an investigator and storyteller drip from every page. Hot Art? Hot book.” --Jeremy Keehn, associate editor of Harper’s Magazine “Hot Art has it all: fascinating characters, great stories, and an intriguing subject matter, the world of art crimes. It is totally engrossing. I couldn’t stop reading it.” -- Ted Kotcheff, Executive Producer of Law & Order: SVU “This is a crackerjack of a book – with enough rogues, thieves, and amoral civilians (not all of them on the radar of relentless cops) to people a dozen crime novels. First rate.” -- Giles Blunt, bestselling crime novelist “Now this is investigative reporting. Dogged, fearless, and thrillingly thorough, Joshua Knelman becomes our Virgil through the secret underworld of stolen art. Like legendary muckrakers Bob Woodward, Seymour Hersh, and Barlett and Steele, Knelman relentlessly trails both the bad guys and the slightly less bad guys, looking for truth amidst all the deceit. It’s an astonishing debut.” -- Richard Poplak, author of Ja No Man and Kenk "...Read the book! It's a tour-de-force, alright -- and it comes across, in parts, as the freak love child of Raymond Chandler and Lesley Stahl!" -- National Post