Lance Charnes's Reviews > Museum of the Missing: The High Stakes of Art Crime

Museum of the Missing by Simon Houpt
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bookshelves: nonfiction-crime-espionage, nonfiction-art-culture, reviewed
Recommended for: Readers who want true crime with pretty pictures

Museum of the Missing is a fast, solid introduction to and survey of art theft over the past century.

Houpt – a Canadian arts columnist for The Globe and Mail – writes as if the reader knows a painting from a statue and has at least heard of the big names in art, but has no specialized knowledge of either art or the art market. By and large this works well; he doesn’t bother explaining who Rembrandt or Picasso are, but will spend a line identifying some of the less-famous names he mentions.

Likewise, he assumes all you know about art theft is The Thomas Crown Affair, which he name-checks several times. (It appears he has a thing for Rene Russo; I totally understand.) So you meet the top good guys (Robert Wittman, Charley Hill) and the top bad guys (Martin Cahill, Stephane Breitwieser) and get stories about how they did the things they did.

And there are pictures. I can’t discount this; a book about art has to have pictures. It’s one thing to read about a painting called Storm on the Sea of Galilee, quite another to see the power and drama of Rembrandt’s masterpiece with your own eyes. This is a very handsomely produced book, with page after thick, glossy page of full-color artwork. The appendix is a gallery of major paintings still missing after having been stolen. This volume could be a coffee-table book if it was bigger.

Despite a couple pages devoted to Napoleon’s looting rampage across Europe and Africa (the Louvre is stuffed with the spoils of Napoleon’s many campaigns), Houpt’s focus is squarely on modern-day art crime starting for all intents and purposes in the early 1930s. He mentions antiquities looting and smuggling only in passing, even though by all rights it’s a much larger segment of the overall art-crime enterprise. He doesn’t explain the process of laundering an artwork’s provenance (its archaeological and collecting history), even though it’s pretty interesting even for a layman and would take only a couple pages, nor does he place enough blame on the major auction houses for their role in abetting the sale of artworks with shady histories. Stolen statues and decorative arts get short shrift in his gallery of the missing.

Like I said, this is a survey for a newcomer. If you follow the ARCA or Looting Matters blogs, or you’ve already read Wittman’s memoir or Chasing Aphrodite, you’re past the text in this book. But if Pierce Brosnan’s shoulders or Rene Russo’s transparent dress inspired you to dip your toe into the real world of art crime, Museum of the Missing is a pretty good place to start.
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