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Thursday, 21 February 2008

Dr No strikes again?

First the good news - those nice boys at Crimesquad have named me as one of their top ten books for 2007 (click here). Last year's news you may (quite accurately say) but they only just told me!

Secondly the bad news - another set of priceless paintings has gone missing, this time in Zurich. Four thieves broke into the Emil Buehrle Collection, threatened a guard (with a gun) and walked out with $160 million dollars of Impressionist art including a Monet, a Degas a Van Gogh and, most valuable of all, Boy in a Red Jacket, by Cezanne (pictured). This only a few days after two Picassos were stolen from an exhibition, also near Zurich.

Is this a blip or part of a long term trend? According to one survey, the value of contemporary art has risen by 55% in the past year alone. The record price paid for a painting in 2004, $104 million, has been surpassed four times in the last year, with Jackson Pollock's No 5, 1949, topping the list at $140 million. At the contemporary art sales in New York in 2007, a total of $837 million of sales was achieved by the main auction houses, with more than 120 artists' records broken. The comparative total last November was a mere $550 million.

The Zurich thefts are a potent reminder that the inexorable rise in art prices over the last ten years has come at a cost - As the expression goes, where there’s brass, there’s muck. Often called the world’s second oldest profession, art crime is believed by the FBI to be the world’s fourth largest area of criminal activity after drug smuggling, arms dealing and money laundering, and to be worth some $6bn a year. 90 to 95 percent of stolen art is never recovered.

The question I am asked most often is who might be behind the thefts, given the well documented difficulties in selling them on the open market. Well there are four main theories which I thought I'd share with you now:

1. Dr No - Many claim that these priceless works are stolen to order, with visions of criminal masterminds bent on world domination decking out their hollowed-out volcanoes with Vermeers and Renoirs looming large in people’s imaginations. While there seems little doubt some of this goes on, it is probably not as prevalent as people (like me) would like it to be.

2. Funny Money - More likely, is that they are taken as a form of currency with which to sweeten a drugs deal or to pay for something, then circulating for years in the criminal underworld – in 1986, for example, the IRA leader Martin Cahill stole 18 paintings worth £30 million from Russborough House in the hope of exchanging them for weapons.

3. Ransom - You'll never get the police or the insurance companies to admit to it, but thieves often try to ransom whatever they've taken back to the original owners and money does change hands in the form of finder’s fees and “legal costs.” Some have said, although it's wrong I'm sure, that the Tate went down this path when it successfully recovered its two stolen Turners

4. Laurel and Hardy - The rather more prosaic, but altogether more likely answer is that most of these thefts are entirely opportunistic, the thief only belatedly realizing the value of what they have taken and the difficulty of shifting it. This certainly appears to be the case with the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, found last year.

The early signs are that the Zurich heist was a Laurel and Hardy affair - two of the paintings have been recovered already, dumped in a car. The question is, when will the other two turn up? Assuming the panicked thieves haven't already burnt them ...

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Damned if I do...

So here's the thing.

My editor, Bruce, has given me a manuscript to read, in the hope that I will provide a quote. It's by an American writer that Harper Collins are planning to publish here, and they want to stick a line from me on the back. Something like "If you read one thriller this year, make it this one", or "A new and thrilling voice", or "A roller-coaster ride that left me breathless and dying for more." You get the cut of my jibe.

I have to admit, I was actually quite flattered to be asked in a 'well, they must think someone out there values my opinion' sort of way. And I have to admit that I've benefited from this myself in the past so felt like I should return the favour to someone else - Christopher Reich and Jack Higgins "blurbed" (that's the technical term, I'm told) my first two books and it definitely helped provide a bit of credibility for an otherwise unknown writer that the reviewers had (predictably) passed over in favour of [insert title of a biography of inconsequential person drawn from the bowels of history or some such rubbish] that only went on to sell five copies - bitter, moi?

So I agreed. Big mistake. You see the problem is, this book is utterly pony (US translation: pony trap = crap). I barely made it through the first five pages before giving up, my eyes bleeding. The pity is the premise is actually quite good, but this seemed to be an example of the type of book that gives thriller writers a bad name - nice idea, but (in my humble opinion) shit writing.

What's worrying me now, is whether Messers Reich and Higgins thought the same when they read The Double Eagle and The Black Sun, but said nice things because that's how the way the game is played. Is there some sort of prisoner's dilemma for writers - henceforth known as a writer's dilemma? - where faced with the choice of slagging another writer off, and risking them returning the favour in some public and humiliating way, everyone stays schtum in the hope that everyone will roll over so their tummies can be tickled?

Of course I could just blurb it now and be done with it - the three I wrote above without even opening it would do - but then if I'm right and it really is pants, then by association, it'll drag me and my books down too.

So what should I do?

1. Refuse to blurb it, piss off Bruce, break the unwritten writer code and make a mortal enemy, should he ever find out, of the snubbed writer? Or,

2. Swallow my few remaining vestiges of pride (and anything I ever held dear about the innate beauty of the English language), blurb the bloody thing and take one for the team?

Answers on a POSTcard please.


P.S. Diz, thanks for your comments on my Roman Holiday post - I agree, sometimes I feel like I'm sitting here sending fireworks into the air without ever knowing if anyone's reading it! But then maybe that is a blogger's burden ... after all, no-one is forcing me to write the bloody thing!