The “Art Crime” Professor And The State Of The Art

Erin L. Thompson has one of the more unusual job titles in the art world and academia.

As a professor of art crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Thompson uses her law degree and a PhD in art history—both from Columbia University—to teach and report on looted antiquities, art forgery techniques, museum thefts, repatriation efforts, art made by Guantánamo Bay detainees, collections of human remains, and, most recently, the melting of notable Civil War monuments.

In addition to her books, Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments (Norton 2022) and Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors from Antiquity to the Present (Yale 2016), Thompson has published in Art in America, Hyperallergic, the New York Times, and Smithsonian Magazine. She is also a prolific commentator on repatriation and restitution on the social media platform X, with nearly 37,000 followers.

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A collage depicting the US courthouse and several Nepalese artifacts.

Thompson recently spoke with ARTnews about her thoughts on art crime, repatriation efforts, and her upcoming book on forgeries.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

ARTnews: What surprised you about the general activity and interest in art crimes last year?

Erin Thompson: I don’t think there’s more art crime. I think there’s more reporting on art crime. Art reporters have been mainly critics until the last couple of years. So, the idea that there are investigative reporters is very new. You can see it in a couple of ways, not just in art crime stories appearing in the news, but also that museums are starting to talk.

I’ve been a professor of art crime since 2013. When I started, the standard for museums was to just stonewall these inquiries. Either they would put out a press release about doing a repatriation, or there would be nothing. Thefts for museums: not reported on. Solely internal matter. And now you have museums still putting out the self-congratulatory press releases, but they know that people are going to be skeptical of them.

The way that the [American Museum of Natural History] or even the Metropolitan Museum blew my mind last year by talking about provenance. Museums are now admitting they have problems, rather than only talking about the problem to congratulate themselves for having solved one aspect of it that accidentally became public. Museums are also … putting more information out there on what they’re doing, because people are asking questions, finally.

What do you think of the rise of in-house provenance teams at museums?

In-house provenance researchers are not created alike. I am worried that there’s a potential for a museum to say, “Look, we have hired someone, or even a team of people. Sit down and wait until it’s your turn.” And that gives them cover like “provenance washing” for the problems in their collections.

Museums for many years have been saying, “Trust us, we will take care of any issues in our collections. We don’t need outside assistance or attention drawn to these issues.” I am skeptical, cynical, and think that this might be what is happening so that a museum can say “We’re working on it” in a slightly more convincing way. Just because you’re researching provenance does not indicate what final decisions will be made with that information. I’ve also seen provenance research be used as a delaying technique, like “We’re not going to repatriate something until our provenance research is complete.” That often can seem silly to me, when there is clear evidence of theft from the country of origin. Just give it back, and then you can figure out what went wrong in the chain of custody in market countries later on.

I’ve also seen in-house provenance researchers be incredibly helpful, incredibly responsive, work with communities of origin, reach out to them, etc. So, I don’t know; my crystal ball does not have a prediction for how this is going to work out quite yet.

There’s such a lack of transparency. We don’t know what internal provenance research has found. And there’s so much to do. The Met has millions of objects, I’m just guessing, hundreds of thousands at least. So even though the Met is hiring a team, it would still take forever. Also, there are a lot of objects where the information is just lost. What are you going to do about those cases? Are you only going to return things where there’s evidence that would hold up in court that something was stolen?

Some countries have been very specific in their efforts to get items repatriated, such as the ones in Southeast Asia, as well as Italy and Greece and even Mexico. Those have been in the news a lot, especially in the last year. Were there any trends that you observed in your research about specific government officials and the persistence of their inquiries for the repatriation of items?

There are hundreds of thousands of objects, thousands of collections, and thousands of private collectors. It’s taken hundreds of years to form these collections. It’s going to take probably hundreds of years to resolve these questions of provenance. It’s not going to be quickly resolved.

I think that what we are seeing in terms of these very active repatriation clusters is not so much governmental action, but private sector action. If there are 5 to 10 people who are super committed to repatriation of a particular category of objects, it’s going to move.

What I see is people who are committed and not afraid of pestering both museums and source country officials. I’ve learned why this makes sense for a lot of countries that I’ve seen because, in many source countries, cultural officials are political appointees. It’s just how it works. They may not have any training or passion in art. And they have to be educated sometimes about the importance of these objects, in addition to everybody else. And they’re also afraid to make a big stink about something or to make work for other people by making a repatriation claim that can be risky.

If you have been appointed … the head of whatever museums and you don’t feel a particular passion, and you’re worried that if it goes wrong, you’re going to get blamed, you’re just not going to push for repatriation, unless there’s some private sector activist who is providing the stick and the carrot. That’s why I think it’s gained so much momentum.

In Nepal, once the first sculpture went back—the Lakshmi-Narayana that was in the Dallas Museum of Art—it was reinstalled in its shrine. That became proof of concept that a repatriation could succeed. And that the proof gathered by these private actors and provided to government officials was reliable and that the officials would get praised for carrying out this repatriation.

I don’t want to sound like it’s lazy government being driven by activists. It’s just everybody working together. And working together in an atmosphere of success and in support from not just within the community, but within the [United States], is something that I hear from my Nepali colleagues a lot. It made a huge difference to see stories in the US saying, “why does the Dallas Museum have this piece?” Because they had assumed that all Americans would be like, “It’s ours. Too bad. So sad. We’re keeping this.” Instead, they found out there are a lot of museum-going audiences and museum employees who also want repatriations to happen.

When it comes to your work, now that it’s been over a decade, what do you feel is the line between activism and academia? There are very clear values that you espouse regarding the issue of art crime, and the legal issues regarding theft. I’m also thinking of your exhibition of work by Guantánamo Bay detainees. What are your personal definitions or feelings regarding the line between activism and academia?

Oh, my God.

Is there even a line? I ask because you do a mix of reporting, curation, and cultural criticism.

To me, there’s a huge difference between what I personally think should happen and the publications and curatorship that I do. To me, what I think I do is put out information into the world that I think can be used by people making up their minds about a particular topic. I feel like I am not saying “this is what should happen.” I’m saying here’s the information that we need to have to come to a decision.

That’s a bit disingenuous, I guess, because even saying, “hey, we need to come to a decision about the human remains in the Natural History Museum.” That is not a thing that was on very many people’s minds. So amplifying what a smaller number of people had been thinking and saying—“Hey, everybody, this is also our problem as New Yorkers, as Americans”—is maybe an activist position, but I don’t know.

Do you not see the work you do as activism?

[Deep sigh.] I advocate for people paying attention to certain questions. But do I have a very strong opinion about what should happen to all the human remains? I don’t know. This is complicated.

I also think this line is important to draw—weirdly, from an activist point of view. Sometimes I do have a strong opinion about what should happen. Like, I think that Guantánamo should be closed and that the men detained there should either be tried or released instead of being indefinitely detained. I think that is the obvious conclusion from looking at the information that I am hoping to share. But I think that people will come to that conclusion on their own more easily than they would be persuaded by me hectoring them about it.

You also work at a college focused on criminal justice.

It makes a big difference that where I work, I think, in large part, the administration is majority people of color. It’s just a different place from Harvard or something. But because of this type of scrutiny of academia, I think that just for me, writing about the destruction of monuments, there will be people who assume that I am advocating for that in all cases.

We’re so divided in America these days. Somebody criticized my book for capitalizing [the word] Black. “How can you take her seriously when she’s such an activist for capitalizing Black?” I can’t appear neutral if these are the lines you’re going to draw.

This is clearly something you’ve thought about a lot—the line between activism and academia. Do you feel those two things are separable? Or if that’s a line that exists in art?

No, because I think nothing in the world is neutral. But I don’t want to be seen as an activist by people who assume that that means I am biased or will never change my mind or have come to a position based on something other than information. Or that I should be discounted. I think of myself as doing all of those things.

Even if there are people who think that I am biased in the positions I take, or that I lean toward one side over another, I want people to think that I fight fair, right, that I’m not just throwing out accusations—that I’m backed by facts and research.

You are incredibly vocal about all this on social media. After doing this for more than a decade, what is your approach to talking about your work, and how has it grown over time?

It’s weird. [Laughs] Today was the first day of classes. For the first time ever, a student was like, “Oh, I heard you’re a controversial professor, that’s why I wanted to take this class.” What they had read about was my Guantánamo exhibition and asked, “why did you display art by terrorists?” And I said, “Well, first of all, they’re detained without charge. I wouldn’t call them terrorists.” I was trying to be gentle about it. And he’s like, “Oh, I thought they were all terrorists, okay.” And it immediately changed his mind. Speaking out about things is important.

It’s weird to think of myself as outspoken.

Two people wearing masks sit on grand stairs in front of a Neo-Classical building. It's a bright day.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in August of 2020. The museum’s collection has often been in the cross-hairs of Thompson, as well as the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, in recent years.

Getty Images

In terms of your activity on social media, it has been described as “notably active” in terms of naming and shaming. And I was curious about how …

Really? Because I feel like I name and shame museums because … museum[s are not people. I have very different approaches for individual employees of a museum because I am all the time talking to employees of museums who want things to change or [who are] giving me information to share in order to change things. They tell me things like, “thank you for writing that thread, because I showed it to my boss to convince them that we can’t get away with this anymore.”

I think museums are talking to themselves, and sometimes you need an outsider to channel that conversation through. It is important to me to communicate these issues in a way that the public will pay attention to, which doesn’t mean that I think the public is stupid.

I think the public is busy. There are so many issues to attend to. And arts, world issues, decolonization, they’re very complicated. I think the essence of my work, in many different topics and areas, is trying to capture elusive public attention for questions [for which] the public needs answers for the world to be a better place. Sometimes I do that with humor, sometimes I do that with interesting pictures, I try it all. I talk about emotions; I tell individual stories. If it were up to me, I would be talking about like law and percentages the whole time, but not everybody responds to that.

What I like about social media is I can put up a whole bunch of different approaches and then one will go viral [laughs], and I look like I captured the zeitgeist when really I’m just throwing spaghetti at the feed.

You have brought a lot of attention to things like bad and fake antiquities on eBay on your platform. But people also notice when you post and delete things and do not make a correction in your “spaghetti throwing” approach. In addition to the work that you do for your research and writing, how do you manage that attention on social media?

I delete things all the time.

What is your approach to that?

Seventy-five percent of my tweets are me asking questions to help me with research. I don’t want to leave it up because I keep getting answers. And then I see it’s rude to solicit answers once I already got them. I’ll announce an event and then the event passes, then delete the tweet. Or I try and make a joke, and nobody thinks it’s funny, so I delete the tweet.

I do think about this question of, like, if I tweet something that is wrong, and somebody corrects me on it, what do I do? I can only think of a handful of times that that has happened, because I’m usually not a big statement maker when I have not done a shit-ton of research.

I have read about how you deal with false information … I have figured out that it is a better idea just to delete. Often, it’ll be a case where somebody has replied to me to say, “this is wrong.” I will reply and thank them, and I will delete the original tweet, but leave up that reply, in case somebody wants to go back and see what the correct information is.

It does seem like what you’re constantly doing is highlighting misconceptions about modern art crime. A lot of art crime is not glamorous and doesn’t get reported, like the small, looted items that are sold on eBay all the time. Does that come up in your research or in your social media posts, like, is it a frequent source of frustration even after 10 years of doing this work?

I am frustrated by how often repatriation activists have to reinvent the wheel, which is another reason that I think social media has been so important. I’m really mourning the death of X, because it means that somebody in a country that has not dealt with this museum before, can [no longer] see how some other country is dealing with the repatriation claim[, or] see the strategies.

I’m a little bit obsessed with transparency and sharing information because of all the lack of transparency on the other side of the equation. Museums have been talking together for so long about how to keep objects that it seems only fair for source communities to also get together.

My favorite thing about social media or just emailing is … connecting people together. Sometimes even within Nepal, there’ll be people who did not know each other who are working on the same issues and could be connected.

I see my social media presence as visibility of art crime, as an art crime news clearinghouse. It’s not very much me at all.

In the time that you’ve been doing this, what would you say are the biggest changes besides greater awareness of art crime? Are there more people in academia making this the topic of PhD theses or is it becoming recognized as an important part of art history and area of legal research?

When I was in grad school, for art history—a fucking PhD in ancient art history—we did not talk about repatriation at all for 10 years.

I think the biggest change came 5 years ago, when I was teaching a graduate seminar at the CUNY graduate center. It was on ethical issues in museums or something. During the fourth class session, one of the students had a little breakdown in the middle of class. He interrupted a totally unrelated discussion to say, “you know what, before I took your class, I thought museums, were just good, neutral places, and now …” and his voice trailed off in horror, and I thought “success!”

Now, I don’t see that realization, because students come in not necessarily thinking that museums are evil, but knowing that they’re institutions and, like every other institution in the world, they have good parts and bad parts. Like any other institution formed from the collision of different cultures, societies, and time periods, there’s stuff that’s retained from the past that we don’t necessarily want to keep and have to figure out how to change.

Am I going to say that now people understand museums are problematic? Apparently, that’s where I’m going. Sorry.

I’m thinking of that scene in Black Panther.

Yeah! That has done more for the field than anything I’ve done.

Or comedian James Acaster’s viral jokes about the British Museum.

“We’re not done looking at it yet.”

Both of those things happened within the 10 years that you’ve been doing this research. It felt like those were two big indications that the conversation had changed.

I think that is in part because museums have been trying to change, right? They’ve been trying to welcome bigger and more diverse audiences. And now you have to deal with the questions that people are having: “It’s great to see stuff from my community in here. But how exactly did you get this?”

As a white person who grew up in America, I did not have those questions when I was going to museums growing up. I felt very welcome.

I love museums, I would not be alive without museums, I would not be who I am, that’s for sure. I was growing up in this very Evangelical, Christian, misogynist, anti-gay, super-conservative community. It was going to museums, by myself, like sneaking away to go to museums that showed me there are different ways of living in the world.

I don’t want to burn down the museums, I want everybody to be as welcome in museums as I was.

Most people who love museums, for professional and personal reasons, do not develop an affinity for various methods of forging things.


What has been your favorite discovery, or favorite methods for forging items?

Oh, my God, how could I have a favorite when they’re all so good? It’s a hard question, because, like, I love but in very different ways, the very complex, ingenious methods of forgery. Also, the very simple, just depending on human psychology, methods of forgery.

For example, late 19th-century biblical archaeologists descending into the Middle East to dig sites in Iraq to prove the truth of the Bible. They hire local workmen and pay them by the find. If you’re digging and you bring them something, you get paid a reward for bringing [it].

I think huge amounts of stuff in the British Museum were just carved on-site by some Iraqi dude being like, “what the fuck is wrong with these people?”

I like that kind of “exploiting the colonizer” forgery. I like the complexities of forgers who create a whole document trail. The guy who is sneaking into Tate’s archives to add documentation describing paintings he had hired somebody to make in the style of modern artists to the inventory books of a gallery in London, so that he could point to those documents to authenticate them.

Or the German forger who had his wife dress up as her own grandmother and then pose for a photograph that he took with, like, a camera from the 1910s that they had bought at a flea market. With the painting hung on the wall, … they were presenting data as evidence that it had been in their family for forever. All that shit is so fun.

It all requires knowing how the market works—which is why I am interested in forgeries. Forgery is telling you how the market works. They tell you what desire is better than actual objects, because you can make them to fit the desire rather than having to just find something.

The real problem with writing this book about forgeries is, I have to narrow down all my favorite stories. I have way too many.

What is the most memorable thing that you’ve learned about this long history of forgeries in your research so far?

A very successful way of selling forgeries is to find places where people want to think they’re not the only one, and then provide that. Erotic forgeries are very successful. Especially those that are kinky or queer. Same-sex scenes purporting to be ancient are all over the place in collections. I think they’re often bought by people who want to feel connected to a longer history of people feeling the same desires [they do]. And it’s also kind of perfect for the forger because often those people are closeted, and so they aren’t going to show off their art collection to visitors.

This is what I mean about forgeries revealing desire even much more clearly than actual pieces. There are similar forgeries for religious stuff like fake Mormon [objects] purporting to be about Mormon angels from pre-contact, Native American mounds.

People want connection. That is the strength of art and that’s the success of art forgeries.

That’s also really sad. The resources are not going to people who are making real art.

Which is part of what makes me so mad about repatriation cases, like, why are you buying a stolen or smuggled Buddha? If you are feeling like you want to explore Buddhism, or Eastern spirituality, just like, go the fuck to Nepal, or Cambodia, or wherever and like, talk to actual people.

How much of what you have learned about forgery, and art crime is about colonialism and a kind of narcissism of Western institutions?

Another huge category of fakes I see are fake ancient Roman medical instruments, of which there are some sets preserved from Pompeii and tombs, but so many forgeries based on that. Why? Because they’re sold to surgeons, doctors, and people who are used to trusting their own judgment and being the person who knows the most about something in a room. That’s really your sweet spot when you’re a forger, to find somebody who will trust themselves and not ask any more questions.

You’re making me think this is very similar to buying looted objects for people who think like, “I’m the best qualified to have this thing. I’m going to appreciate it the most. Oh, if they lost it, they must not care for it enough.”

It’s a very narcissistic field. And as someone who was raised by narcissists, you know I love to fight the narcissistic, hypocritical attitudes in the world.

Is there anything else about repatriation and art crime, or about shifts among institutions that encourages you?

I am encouraged. There are artists doing institutional critique, there’s increasingly more and more people within museums who are advocating for change. I focus mainly on American museums. Whenever I look at museums elsewhere, it’s like, this is super depressing. Awesome museums elsewhere that are setting the examples.

I guess the most depressing thing that I think about is that my branding can still be that “I’m America’s Only Professor of Art Crime.” That should not be. That’s like saying I’m the only professor of English or something. There should be more people who are making a living from and are in a position where they can openly critique. Because if you’re employed by a museum, there’s only so much you can do. If you’re employed by an auction house, if you’re a government official, whatever. I don’t want to be the only loudmouth. Nor am I the only one. I’m one of the few loudmouths, let’s say.

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