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Books: Hot Art

A first-person investigative look at stolen art, the world's fourth-largest black market.

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Photo: Natalie Castellino

HOT ART : Chasing Thieves and Detectives Through the Secret World of Stolen Art
(Douglas & McIntyre)
Joshua Knelman

“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.” Intrigued, former Walrus staffer Knelman spent much of the eight years following this conversation digging into an illegal industry that treats the world’s cultural heritage like “one big department store.”

Both Interpol and UNESCO peg art as the world’s fourth-largest black market, one with a value well into the multimillions and exceeded only by the markets for drugs, money-laundering and weapons. And the deeper Knelman digs into the industry, via this first-person investigative narrative, the truer the thief’s words ring. Biker gangs and the Mafia own galleries and move stolen paintings and forgeries to one another through auction houses, which turn a blind eye to the proceedings and quietly pocket their commissions. And because so few people understand the art market, rigging the value of paintings is a simple way to launder money. As one expert tells Knelman, “If the legitimate business of art were to suddenly be made transparent, the entire industry would simply collapse.”

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