Studying Art Crime in Italy

/ by Chris Falcone

A year ago, in April of 2016, The Independent published a jarring report detailing the state of cultural heritage in ISIS-occupied Palmyra. The article contains a hefty slideshow, replete with before and after photographs of devastated temples, leveled archways, defaced statues, and many other wounded monuments. As these photographs make all too clear, Palmyra has endured some of the most reckless annihilation that we have seen since World War II – so much so that the United Nations has identified the ancient Syrian city’s destruction as a war crime in and of itself.


The release of this article emerged coevally with another kind of visual reportage that has saturated media accounts of Middle Eastern conflict. Aerial photographs of ransacked archaeological sites have figured quite ubiquitously in news coverage of ISIS. Many news stories, particularly exposés that address the terrorist group’s suspect funding sources, mobilize these satellite pictures in order to evince the rapacious looting activity to which whole sites in Iraq, Jordan, and Syria have fallen prey. Some experts estimate that ISIS grosses anywhere from $150-200 million annually from smuggling and trading antiquities in the black market (while other sources suggest it is far higher than this). Whether or not this approximation holds water, the mere fact that the group has been hastily purging archaeological sites of their rich treasures is tragic in its own right.


These, of course, are not the only high-profile news stories dealing with art and conflict. From the 2015 heist at Verona’s Castelvecchio museum to Arne Birkenstock’s documentary on distinguished forger Wolfgang Beltracchi to repatriation claims over Nazi-looted paintings, disputes over art and heritage have snatched all sorts of news headlines in recent years. The International Criminal Court’s 2016 prosecution of jihadi iconoclast, Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi—notorious for obliterating mausoleums and mosques in Mali—has certainly landed itself as one of the most historically groundbreaking episodes in international law.


These developments in popular media signal the ascension of a new academic and professional field: Art crime studies and cultural heritage protection. Enter the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA), a research organization operating out of Italy that aims to cultivate this niche sector and build intelligence around art theft, antiquities trafficking, heritage protection, and museum security.


Though still in its infancy stages, ARCA has grown drastically since its founding back in 2006. Originally stationed in Rome, the organization has migrated a bit north of the Italian capital, and has established its headquarters in a small Umbrian town called Amelia. Whereas the organization once relied primarily on the input of art historians and security officials, present-day ARCA hinges on the expertise of archaeologists, anthropologists, and museologists; lawyers, judges, and criminologists; conservators, restorers, and preservationists; gallerists, auctioneers, and collectors; and still many others. ARCA’s pool of contributors is ever-widening and its following is enlarging pretty quickly too.


ARCA’s programming has also evolved quite a bit since its initial conception. The organization publishes a print journal twice-yearly, hosts an annual summer conference in Amelia, invites writers-in-residence to carry out research projects, provides counselling to security forces, and participates in major international symposia organized around art crime. A large part of ARCA’s mission has been to encourage healthy intellectual cross-pollination amongst its diverse pool of experts—a goal that might sound a lot easier than it is.


One way that the organization accomplishes this task is through its intensive postgraduate program. ARCA’s multidisciplinary course, held every May through August, assembles a select group of scholars and professionals to learn about art and heritage crime from a number of practical and theoretical vantage points. The curriculum involves conference lectures, seminar discussions, presentations, field visits, and site surveys of museums and archaeological sites.


It is not an exaggeration to say that ARCA’s postgraduate course is unlike any program one might encounter in a traditional collegiate setting. For starters, the course attracts one of the most geographically, professionally, and generationally diverse groups of thinkers possible. Each year ARCA selects around twenty students to participate in its postgraduate program, and each year seems to convene a more eclectic bunch than the previous one. This past summer’s roster includes members hailing from Australia, New Zealand, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, India, the Netherlands, Canada, and the United States. Some participants have served as museum directors for decades while others have provided security advising in post-conflict nations. The youngest student to attend the course was 21. The oldest was 81.


Though students arrive in Amelia with radically different educational and professional experiences, everyone who chooses to join the program shares a fervent commitment to cultural heritage and its ongoing protection. This means that despite major differences in disciplinary thinking or professional outlook, the various contingents who opt into the program co-develop an intense synergy with one another. Art historians enjoy the rich expertise of their lawyer peers while the lawyers learn from the archaeologists. The flow of knowledge is boundless and abundant in an environment like ARCA’s.


The association’s administrators have strategically planted the organization in Amelia, a tiny medieval town nestled in the rolling Umbrian hills. This location enables program participants to live and learn with one another in a uniquely intimate setting. Amelia’s small-town atmosphere provides the perfect grounds for students to commune on both personal and intellectual levels. The town’s enchanting centro storico, surrounded by ancient Etruscan and Roman walls, is patterned around serpentine cobblestone alleyways and medieval buildings. That students embark on an intensive journey into the world of cultural heritage while living in such close proximity to ancient art and architecture is no small mistake. ARCA is designed to join students to the very objects and environments that they encounter in the classroom. Fortunately, Rome is just a short train ride away and can provide a secondary location for field classes.


Throughout their time in Amelia students enjoy instruction from some of the most esteemed practitioners in the field. The venerable archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis covers a course on the illicit antiquities trade while former member of Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiquities Squad, Dick Ellis, reviews the high stakes of art world policing. The program touches on everything from heritage law to art insurance, from museum security to forgery, and from criminology to provenance studies. By the time the program finishes it’s safe to say that students are well-equipped to execute a major museum heist.


Before conferring certificates to its participants, ARCA requires students to complete a thesis that contributes to the emerging discipline of art crime and cultural heritage protection. This provides a special opportunity for members of the program to develop vital knowledge in a still undeveloped field. Past participants have written on connoisseurship in court systems, underwater cultural property, and the state of archaeology in Nazi-occupied Greece among other fascinating studies.


Words like “provenance” and “antiquities trafficking” are still relatively new terms even to professionals working in the fine arts. Nevertheless, art crime and cultural heritage protection continue to edge away from the periphery and into the center of our collective focus. ARCA has successfully laid the foundation for long-term development in this field. But it needs the participation and support of those who value its mission and ethos. Picasso notoriously claimed that “bad artists copy but good artists steal.”

For anyone keen on the learning the depths of that quote, ARCA might be a perfect place to start.  

Chris Falcone

is a 2017 graduate of the ARCA Program on the Study of Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection.