Check it out: Seemingly genteel world of art has ugly dark side

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Review

“Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives Through the Secret World of Stolen Art”

By Joshua Knelman; Tin House Books, 342 pages

Have you been following the recent story of the woman who allegedly purchased a Renoir painting for $7 at a West Virginia flea market?

Finding a work by the famous French Impressionist at a second-hand shopping venue is truly newsworthy, but throw in the Baltimore Museum of Art, which reported the painting stolen in 1951, the Fireman's Fund that paid a $2,500 claim on the theft, and the seizure of the "flea market find" by the FBI, and this simple story takes on all of the elements of a drama-filled soap opera.

According to "Hot Art," an engaging look into the high-stakes world of collectible art and antiques, drama is not uncommon. Paintings may not make much noise on their own, but when the bad guys take valuable pieces from museums and galleries and sell them to the black market, this normally refined and cultured community turns dark and sinister.

Author Joshua Knelman takes the reader on a fascinating journey through the world of black market art, following detectives as they search for clues to missing artwork, and even interviewing a former art thief named Paul Hendry. The author learns early on that researching and writing about crime in the art world can be a dangerous pursuit. One of his first writing assignments concerns the burglary of a small art gallery. When he is contacted by an art thief — a person he has been looking for in connection with the burglary — the thief agrees to meet with him, then ominously threatens Knelman with bodily harm if he in any way associates him with the crime.

While criminal acts in the art world may not trigger the same level of emotional response that other more heinous crimes do, their impact is no less traumatic to the people involved.

If you've seen the movie "The Thomas Crown Affair" with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo, you'll recall how art theft — the primary plot point of the film — comes across as a rich man's glamorous hobby, a game of thrills. In the big-screen version of "art appreciation gone bad," the bad guy, thief Pierce Brosnan, is really a good guy who ultimately returns what he has stolen. But in Joshua Knelman's compelling nonfiction title, you'll soon discover that art theft — and art forgery — are heinous acts involving the expected shady characters of thieves, black marketeers, and forgers as well as some unexpected players — gallery owners, art dealers and collectors.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a stolen Renoir just might cost you an arm and a leg.

Jan Johnston is the Collection Development Coordinator for the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District. Email her at readingforfun@fvrl.org