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[Best of 2015] The Year in Art Crime

From ISIS's trail of cultural destruction to the Art Basel stabbing, here's the darker side of art.
December 26, 2015, 3:00pm

Image courtesy of #NEWPALMYRA project

Art invites crime, perhaps because it has ever and will always instill greed, outrage and jealousy in the hearts of many. The most classic cultural crimes are thefts and fraud, which, as the FBI’s Art Crime Team tells us, amount to the loss of billions of dollars of art annually. This is despite all efforts by art crime investigators, who take on the task of tracking down precious works in an ever-evolving war against technological advancements in forgery and counterfeiting. And then there are those crimes that shock even the well-seasoned professionals, acts of irrevocable destruction and aggressive censorship.


Art crimes of all calibers and classifications have, for better or for worst, shaped each year in the history of art, and this year was no exception:

+ 2015 started off on a heartwarming note with the accidental recovery of a recently stolen $250,000 George Rodrigue painting (shown below) by Stereo Fire Empire bass player Elliot Newkirk.

+ Subhash Kapoor’s long-standing, hundred million dollar art smuggling enterprise came crashing down around the now-disgraced art dealer’s ears as he awaited trial for theft and smuggling of antiquities in India.

British forger Shaun Greenhalgh claimed that Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th century La Bella Principessa drawing (valued at around 150 million dollars) is actually his 1978 picture Sally from the Co-op. Da Vinci’s inspiration: a lovely young woman in the court of the duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza; Greenhalgh’s muse: Sally, the bossy shop-assistant at his favored grocery store. The forger's claims have yet to be (and most likely will never be) confirmed.

+ Throughout the year, we witnessed ISIS’s lecherous legacy of “industrial scale” looting which feeds a million dollar trafficking racket and their corresponding trail of cultural destruction. To combat these catastrophes, artists and designers are seeking methods of preserving the memory of lost and destroyed sites and objects, like the founders of the #NEWPALMYRA project, whose 3D-models of the ruined Temple of Bel in Palmyra can be seen above.


+ Two dozen missing Dutch masterworks resurfaced when The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, the militia who had stolen the paintings a decade prior, offered to sell the pieces back to the Westfries Museum in Hoorn for a 50 million euro profit.

Painting, Jacob Waben, Vanity, 1622 Oil on canvas, 151 x 131 cm. Courtesy Westfries Museum

+ Ashraf Fayadh, a Palestinian poet, was sentenced to death for apostasy by the Saudi Arabian government. The U.N., activists, and artists have raised their voices in objection against the government’s ruling but any formal appeals have yet to be approved.

+ The crime that rocked Art Basel Miami Beach: Siyuan Zhao, an architecture graduate student in New York, stabbed Shin Seo Young with an X-Acto knife near an installation called The Swamp of Sagittarius. Witnesses' reactions, influenced by the environment, were mixed, from believing the act to be part of a performance to misperceiving the injury as the result of a fallen artwork.

+ After being re-located to Versailles as part of a five-month art exhibition, Anish Kapoor’s Dirty Corner sculpture was vandalized not once (with yellow paint), but again (with anti-Semitic graffiti), and again (by the artist himself, in a layer of gold leaf). Meanwhile, Kapoor also accused the Chinese government of plagiarizing his Chicago-based Cloud Gate sculpture.

Anti-Semitic vandalism on Anish Kapoor's Dirty Corner sculpture

+ Last month, a trio of masked robbers infiltrated the Castelvecchio Museum in Verona and stole 16 million dollars worth of works from artists such as Peter Paul Rubens and Tintoretto.


+ To close on a more positive note, encrypted DNA labels on new works of art hope to combat art fraud’s technology-savvy perpetrators with some equally savvy prevention systems. The project, called i2M Standards by the Global Center of Innovation at the University of Albany, is still in its first phases, but with several artists already signed on to the initiative, the future of fraud-proof art is looking just a little brighter.

One of the pieces scheduled to receive an encrypted DNA label. Eric Fischl, Art Fair: Booth #22, Evil Live, 2013, Oil on Linen, 68 x 82 inches. Courtesy Eric Fischl Studio.


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