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Professor Edgar Tijhuis, a criminologist at VU University in Amsterdam, stands in front of a classroom in Amelia, Italy. “What’s the resemblance between the illegal art trade, the funding of terrorism by charities and smoking pot in a coffee bar?”
Tijhuis, who also practices international art law in Amsterdam, explains that the activities showed how illegal transactions can be transformed into legal ones, and vice versa.
Tijhuis has come to this walled town in Umbria to lecture strudents enrolled in what is billed as the first master’s program in international art crime studies.
According to a NY Times article by Elisabetta Povoledo, his class focuses on organized crime, touching on money laundering and cigarette smuggling as well.
Other courses include art history, criminology, museum security and forgery.
The courses are all part of a three-month master’s program established here to capitalize on growing interest in this field. There have been great amounts of attention provided through news media reports about restitution of looted art. Popular literature abounds in fictional and nonfictional stories. In addition, police forces around the world are creating special squads to combat the problem.
The director of the program is Noah Charney, the founding director of the group that sponsors it, the Association for Research Into Crimes Against Art (which also consults on what it calls art protection and recovery cases).
Charney says the time is ripe “for academic study to help inform future police enforcement.”
Italy has by far the most art crime, with approximately 20,000 art thefts reported each year, according to the association’s Web site, artcrime.info.
(Mr. Charney cites Interpol, saying art crime is the third-highest-grossing illegal worldwide business, after drugs and weapons. However, Interpol’s Web site, interpol.int, says that it knows of no figures to substantiate that claim.)
Mr Charney has transformed himself into a 360-degree specialist. He teaches at the school, but also at other universities. He also writes fiction and nonfiction books on the subject. He’s developing two TV programs, one a documentary and the other a fictional drama based on his own experiences.
Student Harasyn Sandell, 22, said she had long wanted to work with the FBI Art Crime Team. The program, she says, is “seriously the best thing ever” — partly because it puts students in contact with experts like Virginia Curry, a retired FBI special agent who has dealt with art crimes.
Ms. Curry was present at a conference, giving a lecture on unexpected thieves.
“This is what happens when good people go bad,” said Ms Curry in her lecture. She then Power-Pointed through case studies of graduate students, museum directors and professors who succumbed to temptation. She notes that “you can make more money working for McDonald’s than as a museum intern” — though this is no reason to engage in criminal activity.
Around the world, universities offer individual classes on art crime and related subjects: fakes and forgeries, intellectual and cultural property protection, looting. But Charney maintains that his program is the first to provide an interdisciplinary approach.
Several scholars of art crime agree. Ngarino Ellis at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, says the group “could make some important contributions to the awareness of art crime internationally.”
Although the degree, which costs about $7,000, is not formally recognized by an accredited university, Mr Charney says he is in discussion with various institutions.
The first class includes art historians, lawyers, museum professionals, art conservators, a private investigator, and even a retired US Secret Service agent. This array of people suggests that the subject has a broad appeal.
John Vezeris, the retired Secret Service agent, says “I was always interested in art, and now I can incorporate that interest into my business.” He has opened a strategic security and risk management firm.
For his thesis he will apply an analytical approach to structures at risk, like churches; he plans to find the best and cheapest ways to keep them secure. He feels this is an area with a lot of business potential.
Security is one of the program’s themes, says Charney.
“In one assignment I ask the students how they would steal from Amelia’s archaeological museum; what would they steal; and how would they profit from it.”
But at Saturday’s conference, Vernon Rapley, director of the Art and Antiques Unit of Scotland Yard, dashed illusions when he told the audience that real art criminals bear little resemblance to Hollywood’s glamorous depictions.
“You don’t get a lot of people lowering themselves from the ceiling on wires,” he says. “It’s more likely that they’re going to just walk out the door with a painting under their arm.”
A few students were there to learn how to protect the art they are responsible for. Julia Brennan, who has led conservation workshops in Madagascar, Algeria and Bhutan, says she has enrolled because art thefts are on the rise in such countries. “I’m building my bag of tools,” she says, for caring for the national partimonies under her care.
Catherine Sezgin is planning to write books with art crime themes. “I’m getting tired of the murder genre. Art crimes give you that mystery element without the dead body and the DNA and whole forensics element” that’s so popular now.
She came to the course to get background information; so far she is pleased. She lives in Pasadena, she says; “How else am I going to meet the head of the Scotland Yard art squad?”
sole source: NY Times article by Elisabetta Povoledo on 7/22/09. www.nytimes.com
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