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Plundering Beauty: A History of Art Crime during War

29 March 2018

By Judge Arthur Tompkins
Reviewed by Louisa Gommans  

Wellington solicitor and founding co-trustee of the New Zealand Art Crime Research Trust Louise Gommans talks to Judge Arthur Tompkins, author of the recently published Plundering Beauty: A History of Art Crime during War.

Tell me how you became involved in the study of art crime during war?

“As with so much else in life, it’s a tale of serendipitous coincidence, or rather a series of them. Back in 2009 I was doing some work with Interpol relating to, of all things, forensic DNA, and I was at a conference at Interpol’s General Secretariat in Lyon, France. At a meet and greet drinks function on the first night, I introduced myself to a guy standing at the bar, thinking he was attending the conference, but he told me he was just popping in for a free glass of wine on his way home, and that he worked in Interpol’s Stolen Art Unit. I had no idea Interpol had such a thing, but was fascinated by the stories he told.

The cover of Plundering Beauty by Arthur Tompkins

Thinking about it on the flight back to New Zealand, I realised that a number of the issues I was working with Interpol on – cross-border criminal jurisprudence, the interaction between different countries’ legal systems, and the like – were directly relevant to stolen art. Art is often stolen in one country, travels through several different countries, and then re-emerges, often years and continents removed from the original crime, after passing through many hands in a wide variety of transactions. When I got home I found out about a conference in Madrid to celebrate the return of some stolen maps, one of which had been to the New World with Columbus. I emailed one of the conference organisers, Noah Charney.

Noah didn’t have any space for another speaker at that conference, but he invited me to write a chapter for a book of art crime essays he was editing. I did that, sent it to Noah, and the following year, by another coincidence, I was in England the week before the book was being launched, at the first Art Crime Conference, in a small hilltop town in Umbria, Italy. I went to Umbria for the conference and whilst there, Noah invited me to return the following year, in 2010, to teach the Art in War course. And I’ve been back each year since then. It’s a tough thing, having to abandon a New Zealand winter for an Umbrian summer each June.”

Do you have a favourite artwork that has been stolen, or story about one?

“My favourite stolen art work is probably the Four Horses of the Basilica San Marco – the Four Horses is the artwork with the longest history of larceny, probably now reaching back more than 1500 years, give or take a century or two, and spanning two continents and some of history’s most savage wars.

They were taken from Rome to Constantinople around 400-500BCE, then from there to Venice by the Fourth Crusade in the opening years of the 13th century, then to Paris by Napoleon, but back again to Venice after a mere 17 years. They are the only surviving cast quadriga from the Classical World, and it’s extraordinary that they’ve survived at all.

Four statues of horses
The Four Horses of the Basilica San Marco, Venice, Italy

In terms of paintings, Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer is a real favourite. The recent Helen Mirren film, Lady in Gold, got most of the history right (unlike George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, which got much of the art right, but the rest badly wrong).

The Portrait’s history, right from the time it was painted in Vienna in the early 20th century, through to its theft by the Nazis at the beginning of World War II, its ending up in the Belvedere in Vienna after the war, the long obstruction of its return to Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer’s heirs by the Austrian state and the Viennese art establishment, the final recognition of the injustice done by its theft, and its ending up back on public display in New York, is a remarkable tale that encapsulates so much of the history of art crime during war.

Rose Valland is a particular heroine of the fight against art crime. She was an unpaid volunteer curator at the Louvre at the outbreak of World War II, and worked tirelessly to safeguard the French national collections, both before the Nazi occupation and afterwards. After the Nazis established their stolen art clearing house at the Jeu de Paume museum she was sent to work there. Indeed, you can still go there and see the memorial plaque attesting to her work.

For four years Rose eavesdropped on the Nazi art thieves, and meticulously recorded the stolen art at the Jeu de Paume and where it was sent to in Germany. She was very nearly shot as a collaborator in the chaotic days of the Liberation of Paris, but the information she eventually provided to the Monuments Men was vital in the astounding work they did as the Allies fought their way into Germany following the D-Day landings.

You’ve just had a book published in London, Plundering Beauty: A History of Art Crime During War

It was an engrossing project, taking the historical section of the course I teach in Italy each year and working it up into book form. Covering 2,000 years in under 200 pages was a bit of a challenge, and there’s a lot I had to leave out. But the remarkable thing is that the artworks survive at all – these fragile, vulnerable things of lasting beauty, testaments to centuries of creative genius, get tossed and battered and lost and stolen and displaced during wartime, but somehow manage to survive it all.

Plundering Beauty is published by a specialist art publishing house in London, so we’ve taken special care with the quality of the binding and paper stock, the printing, and with the colour and black and white illustrations, over 50 of them. Getting the images right was itself a lengthy but fascinating learning curve: finding and then getting in touch with the institutions who now own the artworks or the copyright and getting reproduction permission, sourcing images of high enough quality so they’d print well, and making sure the printed colours match as closely as possible to the original. And the cover – that went through about a dozen iterations, with mock-ups going back and forth to London.”

Tell me about the actual writing of Plundering Beauty?

“Over the years, first as a lawyer and then as a judge, I’ve written a lot. And in the art crime area I’ve contributed chapters to two books of collected art crime essays, and in 2016 I edited a book called Art Crime and Its Prevention. So when I started on Plundering Beauty, I knew what I was getting myself in for.

I had a lot of the material already assembled, in the form of the extensive lecture notes prepared for the course I teach. But I knew that to transform that material into a book would require a front to back re-write, and that every word would need to be carefully considered and thought about. And I had a deadline to meet.

I had agreed a chapter structure with the commissioning editor at the London publishers; I knew how many chapters I needed to write and what each would cover, and how long each chapter would be. I set myself a goal of finishing one chapter a month for a year. I work best in the early morning, so I got into the habit of getting up very early, and writing before my day really started. I managed to stick reasonably closely to my timetable, so in the end the manuscript went to the publishers by the agreed deadline.

Once a manuscript is submitted, you have to turn around and go through the whole thing word by word again. I did this first with the editor in London, and then with a wonderful French-based freelance editor and translator, Abigail Grater. She not only corrected my many typographical, grammatical and syntactical errors and infelicities, but also cast a critical and all-seeing eye over it, suggesting changes in pacing and sequencing, reworking passages to promote greater clarity, and correcting factual mistakes or ambiguities.

The physical arrival of the books into the stores in March was delayed, first by some unspecified problem at the Suez Canal in January, then by the major snowstorm that hit the United Kingdom. But it has finally arrived.”

And what about art crime here in New Zealand?

“There is a surprising amount of art crime in New Zealand. A few years back I co-founded the New Zealand Art Crime Research Trust, and annually we run a day-long Art Crime Symposium, in Wellington. One of my fellow trustees, Penelope Jackson, recently published Art Thieves, Fakes and Fraudsters: The New Zealand Story (Awa Press, 2016), and I know there’s a lot more out there than she could include in her book. And another of the trustees, Ngarino Ellis, from Auckland University’s Art History department, teaches every second year what I think is the only university-level course in art crime available at an Australasian university, focusing on art theft, fraud, forgery, smuggling and vandalism.”

The fourth annual Art Crime Symposium will happen on Saturday, 22 September, at the City Gallery, Wellington. This year the theme is, “Provenance matters” and will feature a wide range of researchers, practitioners, art world professionals and others.


Louise Gommans is a solicitor at Wellington law firm Rainey Collins.

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Last updated on the 29th March 2018