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Art of the Heist
The TV Series:
Produced for cable television's Ovation channel in the mid-2000s, the series Art of the Heist rounds up a battery of art history experts, police investigators, reporters and other witnesses to recall some of the greatest art-related crimes ever committed. Athena's four-DVD set assembles 14 episodes of this American-produced series - a good, not great watch for art history buffs or fans of puzzling True Crime stories past and present.
Each Art of the Heist allots an hour for a narrator to supply an overview of a specific subject, while interviews, tight editing and low-budget reenactments fill out the details - a format pretty familiar to cable TV subscribers. The resulting shows are mildly interesting, overall, although the editing and blandly straightforward presentation call to mind turn-of-the-millennium fare like Cold Case Files ("I'm Bill Kurtis.") or the ever-reliable scare fest Forensic Files ("She found her husband, lying in a pool of blood."). The heists and forgeries they relate certainly have enough dramatic impact, although the added running time results in most of these episodes seeming like they'll never end - padded out with cheesy recreations and endlessly reused stock footage (say hello to the pigeon taking flight in front of London's Big Ben - several times!). My verdict - it's good, could have been much better (say, in a tidy half-hour format).
Athena's Art of the Heist DVD set contains 14 episodes spread across 4 discs, with each episode concentrating on a single, famous art heist:
1. The Big Sting follows the 2004 theft of two Rembrandts and a Renoir from Stockholm's National Museum. The resulting sting operation took investigators to a Los Angeles-based smuggling operation, resulting in the artworks' eventual recovery.
2. The World's Biggest Heist recounts the 1990 theft of 500 million dollars' worth of art from Boston's Isabella Steward Gardner Museum - the largest in U.S. history. The two criminals weren't all that sophisticated, crudely cutting paintings right out of their frames, yet this case has yet to be resolved.
3. The Forger and the Con Man visits with John Myatt, a British songwriter-turned-painter who was involved in shady dealings with an art dealer who passed off his expert forgeries as the real thing to a few unwitting museums.
4. The Search for The Scream details the 2004 theft of two paintings by Expressionist art icon Edvard Munch, The Scream and Madonna, stolen in broad daylight from the Munch Museum in Oslo. This particular episode goes into tighter security measures museums must use to avoid crimes like this (since this program's airing, the art has been recovered).
5. Chasing Cézanne goes into a unique example where valuable art was stolen from a private collector's home, with the stolen goods having no security or insurance. The stolen paintings, including a valuable Cézanne still life, ended up in the possession of a shifty lawyer for 28 years before they were recovered and returned.
6. Plundered Mosaics examines the case of Indianapolis-based art dealer Peg Goldberg, found guilty of plundering ancient mosaics from Cyprus and attempting to sell them to the Getty museum for millions. Although the mosaics were badly damaged while being removed and transported from their original sites, they were eventually returned safely to a museum in Cyprus.
7. The Lady in Gold relates the tangled ownership of Gustave Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II. The famous painting was seized by Nazis in World War II, passing through several hands, then eventually returned to the heirs of the Austrian family from whom it was looted (after a protracted, nearly decade-long struggle). The story was recently dramatized in a film with Helen Mirren.
8. Pharoah's Head concentrates on British smuggler Jonathan Tokeley-Parry, who snuck a valuable ancient sculpture of pharaoh Amenhotep III out of Egypt by creatively disguising it as a common souvenir (the head was returned to Egypt in 2008, after this episode aired).
9. The Miami Sting details the 2001 theft of two sketches by Peter Paul Rubens from a Spanish museum. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's subsequent sting operation involved putting an art historian's life at risk, attempting to convince the suspects that they were dealing in a covert sale to a prestigious museum (the art resurfaced in 2011, after this episode aired).
10. The Man Who Stole The Mona Lisa delves into the one time Da Vinci's masterpiece was stolen, in 1911. An Italian, Vincenzo Peruggia, managed to abscond with the painting just before the Louvre closed for the day, hiding it in his Paris apartment for a time. The art was recovered shortly thereafter and kept under tighter security.
11. The Russian Conspiracy derives from a 2006 announcement from St. Petersberg's Hermitage Museum that many of the museum's most valuable holdings were pilfered and placed on the black market from the inside - by their own employees. A web of corruption with shady connections to Russia's mafia is revealed as the cause.
12. On the Trail of Moche Gold examines the 1988 looting of an archeology site on the northern coast of Peru. The tomb of La Mina was robbed of all its precious artifacts, one of which (a gold headdress) caused so much collateral damage on its travels that many believed it was cursed.
13. The Disappeared deals with the theft of several European masterpieces from a Buenos Aires, Argentina museum in 1980, when the country was in the grips of a civil war. Some of the missing art was eventually traced to Taiwan, several years later, resulting in three of the 13 stolen pieces (including a Gaugin) being safely shipped back to Argentina.
14. The Thieving Don Juan goes into the 2003 theft of Cellini's iconic baroque-era Salt Cellar gold sculpture. Taken from Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum while the building was closed for renovations, the theft resulted in an investigation which pointed to an inside job by one security officer with a seductive way with women. The thief gave himself up in 2006, after the piece was found and returned.
Athena has provided a good transfer for Art of the Heist. The 16:9 widescreen image sports solid, well-saturated color and a nice amount of detail for a TV-on-DVD release. The series' digital photography is nothing to write home about, but at least it's given a good, professional luster on these discs.
The stereo sound is given a pleasant, nondescript mix with clean-sounding voices and a music track that doesn't overpower the narration. Optional English SDH subtitles are provided on all 14 episodes.
As with other education-focused Athena releases, this set contains a 12-page booklet containing descriptions of other well-known art heists not included in the series. Sorely lacking is a separate episode guide - one has to insert each disc to get episode-by-episode descriptions.
The series Art of the Heist supplies portraits of some of the world's most notorious art thefts and forgeries, a cozy, somewhat dated program with a few decent stories to tell. Each hour-long episode is too broadly padded-out with filler, providing a mildly interesting diversion for True Crime buffs - were it a painting, the show would be something harmless like a landscape by Bob "Happy Trees" Ross. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.