I went down to St. Louis a few weeks ago, and on the train (I love trains!) I caught up on a lot of reading and viewing and learning. One of the shows I watched was a documentary called “Inside America’s Money vault”, which wasn’t so much about a specific vault as it was about the way money is created, regulated, and stored in the United States. They talked a bit about the national mint, and the anti-fraud measures it takes on its bills, and the way bills are treated, possessing an intrinsic value above the material.
Then I flipped over to a TEDtalk by Noah Charney; Charney is an art history expert specializing in art crime who runs a fantastic blog on the topic. Having done a bit of studying in the subject myself — and having read Charney’s writing for some time — I found he wasn’t saying anything I personally didn’t already know, but he was saying it in a different context to what I’d had before.
As Charney says, and as most people who study art crime for any length of time know, most art heists aren’t done by clever gentleman thieves or on commission of secretive billionaire collectors. Most stolen art that isn’t stolen for political reasons eventually — sometimes very quickly — ends up in the hands of organized crime, where it is used as collateral, loan, or payment in various illegal financial dealings.
One thing Charney said struck me in particular: the reasoning that art is used because it leaves no cash trail. And it occurred to me that while paintings are a good way to buy and sell cashlessly, the fact that you truly can’t sell them for their full value on the black market (usual black market price is about 10% of their legitimate worth, I believe) and that they are bulky and require specific care — not that I think crooks often bother — makes them more trouble than they’re worth.
Except in some specific cases (most notably Chinese antiquities, at the moment) illegally obtained works of art are like dollar bills: they do not in themselves have the material worth of the value they represent. They are symbols of value.
So I thought, why not simply mint one’s own currency? Be clever enough about it and nobody would even notice what it was, outside of the circles in which it was used. Why shouldn’t some enterprising crook create the national criminal mint?
In real practice, of course, it’s a ridiculous idea. I know that. There’s no way they could keep it under wraps forever, and anti-fraud measures would be more trouble than handling paintings. Besides, it’s not like some crooks haven’t all but done this anyway; reach a certain level of wealth, and you can open your own bank to launder your money. Apparently this happens in Russia a lot. I’ve done research profiles on Russians who used to be “goods importers” of dubious provenance and now own a bank.
Theoretically, however, it’s a damn fine story. You could even make a short-term profit off minting criminal coin: buy up all the stolen paintings you can find with your minted money, which gives the “crime dollars” value, then ransom them all back to their owners. Insurance pays the ransom (this is apparently a relatively common con), the owners get their paintings, and you get a cut more than you paid for them.
Frankly, I’m also a bit worried for Noah Charney. He’s one of the most vocal agents for art crime education, and he’s very prominently pulling the curtain back from the way art theft and organized crime interact. Narratively, if you had some clever, attentive art history professor who assembled all these re-ransomings into a grand theory of art theft and money minting, who knows what organized crime might risk to keep him or her quiet.
It’s a seductive story. I’m not sure I’m up to writing quite such a Dan Brown-esque thriller, but perhaps one day.
So many stories to write, so little time…