All my novels in the Nara series, including the newest one, deal in some way with crimes involving art. Hotel Saint Clare refers to the art collection of the hotel owner for whom Nara works after leaving her teaching job. In The Gate House, centuries old pieces, including stained glass windows stolen from local churches, are hidden in the basement of the bed and breakfast where Nara lives with her family. In Lydia’s Story, we go back to World War II when Nara’s great-grandmother Lydia Roberts helped smuggle Jewish children across the border from France to safety in Spain. And pieces of art belonging to Jewish families, stolen by the Germans, are still being returned to their rightful owners.
In my newest novel, tentatively titled Sacrifice, Nara and Alex travel to Spain to bring back notebooks belonging to artist Felicia Browne, who died in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. They also discover an art smuggling operation going on in the Spanish town where they visit.
I love reading about art crimes, whether they are true accounts or fictionalized. One of my favorite non-fiction books is I Was Vermeer: The Rise and Fall of the Twentieth Century’s Greatest Forger by Frank Wynne. This remarkable book tells the story of Han van Meegeren, a second rate Dutch painter who became a hero of the art world when he painted fake Vermeers which he then passed on to the Germans as the real thing. Ordinarily, the Dutch people would be horrified at someone created fake Vermeers, but when it was done to put one over on the Nazis, van Meegeren was sentenced to just a year in prison for forgery.
An excellent novel about art theft is Pictures at an Exhibition by Sarah Houghteling. This fascinating story, based on fact, is set in Paris during World War II, and tells the story of a son’s quest to recover his family’s treasures which were looted by the Nazis during the occupation. It also brings to light the story of Rose Valland, a French art historian and member of the French Resistance. She secretly recorded details of the Nazi thefts of national French and private Jewish-owned art from France, saving thousands of works of art. As she listed the paintings for the meticulous, record-keeping Nazis, she hid from them the fact that she understood German and kept copies of the lists for herself.
Another great non-fiction book about art crimes is Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures by Robert K. Wittman and John Schiffman. Wittman is the founder of the FBI’s Art Crime Team, and had an amazing career recovering millions of dollars’ worth of stolen art and artifacts from around the world. His recoveries run the gamut from Rembrandts to a lock of George Washington’s hair, stolen by a janitor who thought no one would miss it.
While we are unable to visit art museums right now, although some in Europe have reopened with special tour protocols, reading about the art world can at least keep up our interest level and increase our knowledge. Art is a precious part of culture, from whatever part of the world it originates. It reflects our history, and how creative people of the past and present have seen our world.