Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Organised Crime? Odessa Caravaggio copy recovered in Germany

Back in 2008, a copy of 17th century Italian painter Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ of 1602 was stolen from the Museum of Western and Eastern Art in Odessa, Ukraine (see my earlier blog entries on this in 2008 here and here). Back then, I hinted that this might be another case of organised crime rearing its ugly head. I've subsequently learned that this is unlikely to the be the case.

A little afternoon archaeology in the archives of The Burlington Magazine in 2008 offered enough evidence to show that the Odessa picture was not in fact the autograph work by the artist but rather a copy, albeit a very good one, possibly contemporaneous with the original, and perhaps even by Caravaggio himself. The autograph work is in the National Gallery of Art in Dublin.

Now it seems the stolen Odessa picture has finally turned up in Berlin, reportedly in the possession of three Ukrainians and a German. Some news wires (Reuters here, for example) continue to refer to the painting as the original work by Caravaggio, based on the opinion of "Soviet art experts in the 1950s" (They were referring to research by X. Malitskaja and Victor Lasareff).

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, no mention of the rather more authoritative Burlington article which showed that in 1993, new documentary evidence and thorough archival and technical research by the expert restorer Sergio Benedetti, one of the world's leading Caravaggio scholars, firmly established the Dublin picture as the original autograph work. Something like a dozen copies of the Dublin original exist.

The investigation into the theft is at an early stage (the recovery took place on Friday, June 25th), but already a familiar narrative is taking shape in news reports. According to Ukraine's Interior Ministry, it was carried out by "a gang, which focused on high-value thefts," including more than 20 in Ukraine. It will be interesting to see whether this prompts the usual extrapolation (of which I too have been guilty in the past) which attributes such thefts to organised crime. Stealing a Caravaggio from a museum clearly requires a certain amount of organisation, but whether that makes it an example of 'organised crime' is a moot point.

For an indication of how complex and nebulous is our current understanding of the concept of organised crime, see Klaus von Lampe, 'Definitions of Organized Crime', here (www.organized-crime.de/OCDEF1.htm).

What did the thieves intend to do with the picture? They've had it for two years and clearly haven't moved it on. Perhaps they're using it to gain a better understanding of chiaroscuro, the art historical term denoting the dramatic use of tonal contrasts, of which Caravaggio was the greatest exponent. What other concept so aptly evokes the shadow world of art crime?

I've just spent another enjoyable fortnight teaching a course in art crime studies organised by ARCA — the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art in Umbria, Italy. The two dozen bright, motivated students who had enrolled on this year's course spent a good deal of time beyond the lecture hall meditating on the possible motives behind such high-profile heists as the Odessa theft. A broad consensus was rapidly emerging that ascribing such thefts to 'organised crime' is perhaps too pat and all too often based on assumption rather than scholarly research.

Will this Berlin recovery throw up the sort of hard evidence art crime investigators and criminologists require in order to better understand why thieves target such high-profile pictures? After all, unlike more common or garden works of art, documented masterpieces by Caravaggio or the Caravaggisti are too well known to convert into ready cash, which is what most criminals crave most.

The Berlin recovery may remind us of one thing — that there are few if any reliable general patterns one can apply to art crime. Each case needs to be viewed on its own 'merits' and its circumstances carefully parsed and analyzed.

One thing that is often overlooked is that art historical scholarship benefits when a painting of this importance is recovered. Comparison is everything in art history and we need the Odessa picture if only to remind us that the authentic work is the one in Dublin.

But then how many art thieves subscribe to the Burlington Magazine?

Sergio Benedetti, 'Caravaggio's Taking of Christ, a Masterpiece Rediscovered', Burlington Magazine, Vol. 135, No. 1088 (Nov 1993), pp. 731-741.

Francesca Cappelletti and Sergio Benedetti, 'The Documentary Evidence of the Early History of Caravaggio's Taking of Christ', Burlington Magazine, Vol. 135, No. 1088 (Nov 1993), pp. 742-746.

Sergio Benedetti, 'Caravaggio's Taking of Christ', Burlington Magazine, Vol 137, No. 1102, (Jan. 1995), pp. 37-38.

See also, Jonathan Harr's The Lost Painting (left), an account of how the Dublin picture was discovered in a Jesuit monastery in Ireland and subsequently restored by Sergio Benedetti.

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