An Art World Awash in Crime

The revelation of two more high-profile crimes suggests that the art world is deeply infested with a criminal element emboldened by the millions of dollars routinely spent at auctions and in galleries.

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Open a newspaper these days, and you might think that the best way to make a dishonest dollar is not to proffer shaky mortgages (very 2005) or concoct Ponzi schemes (totally 2008) but forge or outright steal paintings.

When the bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he famously supplied the following infallible reason: "That's where the money is." Well, today the money is in museums and galleries because, for all the talk of an art world bubble, paintings are selling for millions.

Sometimes, those paintings are fake. Sometimes, they are stolen. Regardless, they fetch seven, eight, or even nine figures from unwitting patrons who seek status above all else.

Today, for example, comes news that the assistant to Jasper Johns — he of the famous flag paintings (as pictured above) — stands credibly accused of stealing more than 20 paintings that he subsequently sold to a New York gallery. Reports The Wall Street Journal:

[51-year-old James] Meyer, an artist himself, had worked as Mr. Johns's studio assistant since 1985. According to the indictment, one of his responsibilities was maintaining a file drawer containing pieces of Mr. Johns's unfinished artwork.

From at least September 2006 through February 2012, it is alleged Mr. Meyers removed at least 22 art pieces from Mr. Johns's studio in Sharon, Conn., and brought them to an art gallery in Manhattan, which is not named in the indictment.

Meyer may well be heading to prison, though he has pleaded not guilty. It must have been tempting to steal from the octogenarian Johns, one of whose flag paintings fetched nearly $30 million at auction three years ago.

That, by the way, was the same year that a Picasso fetched $106 million and Christie's. Two years later, buyout king Leon Black shattered the record for auction-bought art when he purchased Edvard Munch's "The Scream" for $120 million. The pastel is now on display at the Museum of Modern Art, a security guard keeping the eternal crowds at bay. Stand with them, then go read about how the art market bubble is about to burst. Not yet, it isn't.

The spoils to be gotten were also behind another art world crime reported today — that of a forger based in New York who sold fake masterpieces for as much as $17 million for one of the works. The story in today's New York Times reads like a movie script:

[F]ederal prosecutors say that most, if not all, of the 63 ballyhooed works — which fetched more than $80 million in sales — were painted in a home and garage in Queens by one unusually talented but unknown artist who was paid only a few thousand dollars apiece for his handiworks.

Authorities did not name or charge the painter and provided few identifying details except to say he had trained at a Manhattan art school in a variety of disciplines including painting, drawing and lithography. He was selling his work on the streets of New York in the early 1990s, they said, when he was spotted by a Chelsea art dealer who helped convert his work into one of the most audacious art frauds in recent memory.

Not all art thieves are this clever. Several Romanians simply walked out of the Kunsthal in Rotterdam with $24 million worth of art by the likes of Gauguin, Monet and Matisse. The men were thought to have burned the works; they appear to still have some of them, according to Bloomberg, and are working something out with lawyers.

There is no excuse for any of this idiocy — but there are reasons for it. As Forbes has noted, "art investment is a big business," on par with other global commodities. And as has been the case with financial instruments, high-stakes dishonesty inevitably sets in. Art forgery and thievery is an ancient business, nearly as old as art itself. It has just never been quite so lucrative as it is today.

Johns "Flag" and "Scream" auction by AP Photo.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.