Meet “the Indiana Jones of the art world”

ECOME AS ONE As a child, Arthur Brand was fascinated by art and antiques. Her grandfather went to school with Han van Meegeren, a Dutch painter who forged a painting by Johannes Vermeer and sold it to Hermann Göring. His father had a passion for history and named his son after King Arthur, the mythical British ruler. As a child, Mr. Brand reveled in tales of knights and Vikings, mummies and hidden treasures of gold, silver and jewelry. “The only book I read was Treasure Island,” he says.

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As a young adult, the object of Mr. Brand’s obsession was “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” While studying in Spain, he learned that the spaghetti western had been shot in a nearby village. When he visited the place, people were looking for coins (as in the movie, the plot of which revolves around a cache of Confederate gold). Very quickly, he became an amateur collector, starting with old coins before moving on to works of art. He paid for a piece he believed to be by Paul Madeline, a French post-impressionist painter, but technical analysis revealed that it was a fake, produced decades after the artist’s death. . “Those motherfuckers,” he remembers thinking. “They’re robbing this poor student.

The incident put him on a new path. Angered at being scammed, he set out to understand the extent of fraud and deception in the art world. “If you go to a museum, an auction house, an art dealer,” he said, “the chances are you will be duped.” He estimates that 30% of all items on the market are fake. While reading up on the subject, Mr Brand came across an article about Michel van Rijn, a former art smuggler turned police informant, who ran a website exposing the dark undersides of the industry. Intrigued, Mr. Brand got in touch with Mr. van Rijn and quickly became his apprentice.

The couple worked together as private investigators, not only exposing the fakes, but also posting information about shady dealers and illicit trades. (When works of art are stolen, they go “underground” and are often used as collateral in drug or weapons transactions, rarely remaining in the thief’s possession.) They were able to track down the gospel of Judas. , a manuscript of 280.A D which chronicles conversations between Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot, as well as stolen mosaics and pre-Columbian art. Mr van Rijn introduced Mr Brand both to his criminal contacts and to his associates in the London Metropolitan Police and other forces. “I’ve seen it all,” Mr. Brand recalls. “Spies, looters, forgers, the mafia, guns. ” He smiles. “Ah, what a time.”

In 2011, he went on his own by founding Artiaz, a research and consulting firm specializing in art and antiques. The main activities of the company are to establish the authenticity and provenance of the pieces on behalf of clients and to repatriate the works looted by the Nazis to Jewish families. But it is a third part – finding lost or stolen objects – that has earned Mr. Brand the nickname “the Indiana Jones of the art world”.

Following an advice from Mr van Rijn, in 2015 he recovered two equine sculptures by Josef Thorak, long presumed to have been destroyed, which once stood in front of Adolf Hitler’s office in the Reich Chancellery. In February, Mr. Brand published “Hitler’s Horses,” a book on the investigation; the story involves Russian soldiers, Stasi agents, and modern neo-Nazis. In recent years he has helped recover a ring that belonged to Oscar Wilde and Pablo Picasso’s ‘Bust of a Woman’, a painting stolen from a yacht in 1999 (pictured with Mr Brand, above). He estimates the total value of the items he found to be over $ 300 million.

“They say Indiana Jones, but it really is Detective Clouseau,” jokes Mr. Brand, referring to the hapless detective in the “Pink Panther” stories. No special skills are required to be an art seeker, he insists, just patience, tenacity and a willingness to follow every lead. The epigraph to “Hitler’s Horses”, by Dick Ellis, former head of the art and antiques team at Scotland Yard, reads: “Arthur is an idiot, but a smart one.” Mr van Rijn suggests that Mr Brand is deliberately presenting himself as an affable jerk: “he makes a very innocent impression” so that “people underestimate him”.

Fortune and fame, kid

Whatever his tactics, Mr. Brand’s work draws attention to a widespread problem: the illicit trafficking of cultural objects. In his book, he suggests that it is the fourth most lucrative criminal enterprise in the world, after drugs, money laundering and weapons, with a turnover of around 8.3 billion dollars. dollars per year. Many objects are stolen from museums or private homes and sold on the black market; some are put up for auction. ISIS has used the profits from its looting of Syria to finance its terrorism.

However, it is an illegal enterprise which is not taken particularly seriously, says Corrado Catesi, head of Interpol’s program on crimes against cultural heritage. He oversees the Stolen Works of Art Database, a public record that contains details of 52,000 missing objects in 134 countries. Many places do not have police units specializing in artistic crimes and do not maintain national databases of stolen works of art (on which the Interpol system is based). Customs officers often lack adequate training. In May, Interpol launched username-Art, a mobile application that allows users to search its index using photographs or keywords. Mr Catesi hopes this will encourage buyers to do their due diligence before making any deals.

Private sector operators like Mr Brand play an important role, free to investigate thefts that local police may not have the means to prosecute (although he points out that he is still in contact with competent authorities). Mr. Ellis, who retired from the police force in 1999 and started his own investigative business, worked with Mr. Brand on the “Bust of a Woman” case, among others. “If it hadn’t been for people like Arthur, this photo wouldn’t have been recovered,” Mr. Ellis said. “When I contacted the French police, their file was closed”; the theft “was long past its statute of limitations”. Detectives like them can offer guarantees to sources the police cannot match: they have no power of arrest and are only looking to recover the artwork from the hub that has it. Mr. Brand took delivery of the “Bust of a Woman”, packed in garbage bags, from his apartment in Amsterdam. He was hung on his wall overnight before being picked up by an insurance company.

It’s risky work, which Brand says often goes unpaid. The payoff, he argues, is emotional. The authors of counterfeits or illicit trafficking in art “turn history upside down”. He says he often worries that “a nurse or a doctor or a teacher, they’re doing real jobs, you know, they’re really helping other people.” On the other hand, “what is the thing that I give to the world? His comfort, he says, is to say to himself: “You give [people] beautiful stories, you give them – sometimes – art, which would not have been back without you.

This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the title “Adventurer of Lost Art”

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