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Theft on Film: the Hollywood trend for art heist movies

11 March 2014

Who doesn’t love a good art heist? They seem to be all the rage in the film world these days, with The Grand Budapest Hotel following hot on the heels of last month’s The Monuments Men. In recent years we’ve had Gambit and American Hustle, not to mention old classics like Entrapment, The Thomas Crown Affair, F for Fake, and How to Steal a Million, as well as episodes of Hustle or Sherlock. And of course, there was the wonderful sub-plot to ‘Allo ‘Allo! concerning multiple copies of the priceless painting, The Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies.

Of course, it is somewhat imprecise to refer to The Monuments Men as an art heist, when it’s about recovering/protecting European art from Nazi theft during the Second World War, a story which continues to be current with the ongoing speculation surrounding art found at the Munich flat of Cornelius Gurlitt. The reason that ‘Allo ‘Allo! was so brilliant was the humour that it created from the act of conning the Nazi occupiers out of the priceless art that they thought they were stealing.

And that is I think, in essence, why such films and stories appeal to us. Yes, they are usually clever and witty, and often involve debonair art specialists wearing implausibly expensive suits, looking over their glasses at a Monet and pronouncing on its beauty (or at least that’s what happens in Gambit). But they also, more seriously, get us to think about authenticity.

Most of these films involve conning someone who thinks they’re a specialist out of a very expensive painting by either claiming alternative expertise, or creating an even better fake, or overcoming impossible security systems. They set up someone obsessed with a beautiful original as the enemy, and ask us to sympathise with a maverick protagonist who wants to undermine that beauty by replacing it with a replica, or calling its status into question.

These films help to make art collections glamorous, and they also, interestingly, often get you to think about the practicalities of displaying and securing art. One of my favourite heist stories was the episode of Hustle when the team ‘stole’ a painting simply by erecting a fake wall in front of the gallery wall on which the painting was displayed, so seemingly overcoming the extreme security system. But they also get us to think about how we value art and why, and to appreciate the expertise of the trickster and the forger as much as the old master.