NAZIS, CON MEN, FORGERS, AND THIEVES: ART CRIME IN POSTWAR CINEMA

artthefts

On August 21, 1961, Francisco Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington (1812–14) was stolen from the National Gallery in London. The British government had purchased the painting 19 days earlier for £140,000, matching the bid of New York collector Charles Wrightsman so as to prevent the painting from leaving the U.K. It was recovered four years later, when a retired bus driver named Kempton Bunton returned the painting and confessed to the crime. Portrayed in the media as an unassuming and repentant Robin Hood, Bunton was acquitted of all charges except for the theft of the frame, for which he served three months in prison. In actuality, the painting was stolen by Bunton’s son John, who confessed upon his arrest for an unrelated offense in 1969. The Portrait of the Duke of Wellington has hung in the National Gallery ever since its return in 1965.

But it was while hidden in a cupboard in Bunton’s Newcastle flat, and not in the National Gallery, that Goya’s portrait made its film debut. In Dr. No (1962), the first adaptation of Ian Fleming’s 007 novels, the painting can be seen mounted in the den of the film’s eponymous villain, subject to the raised eyebrow of Sean Connery’s James Bond. Despite the film’s suggestion otherwise, Dr. No’s Goya is not stolen, but forged: hearing the news of the recent theft of the painting, the film’s production designer, Ken Adam, who passed away earlier this year, ordered a slide of the work from the National Gallery and reproduced it himself. A clever wink typical of Bond-movie camp, the portrait symbolically inaugurates the cinema of art crime, a distinctly postwar phenomenon whose forgeries and thefts have less to say about art than they do about Hollywood conventions. Like everything in show business, art is money. The Goya helps in depicting Dr. No as a bad guy, but his possession of a hot painting pales in comparison to his plans of world domination.Art crime existed before the Second World War, but Hitler’s systematic theft and destruction of Europe’s great collections serves as a kind of year zero for its representation in popular culture. This subgenre persists to this day, evidence of the perception by Hollywood—not to mention the wider public—that the art world is largely a criminal operation, populated with white-collar crooks and shallow victims.It is estimated that as few as 5 to 10 percent of stolen artworks are ever recovered, and the grand scale of the Nazis’ crime has left a vast space for speculation about what may have happened to great paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and van Gogh—an imaginative gap which Hollywood has taken upon itself to fill. As in the case of Dr. No, cinema provides stolen masterpieces a fictional afterlife, assigning them to an array of filthy rich villains: Modigliani’s Woman with a Fan (1919) and Picasso’s Le pigeon aux petits pois (1911), both unrecovered, make appearances in the collection of Bond nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) in Sam Mendes’s Spectre (2015). Cinema theorizes the lives and motives of a brand of criminals so rarely brought to justice, alternately glorifying and vilifying the forgers, thieves, and black marketeers who operate in the shadows of the art market.

Read the full article at ARTNews

Advertisements