A WORLD CLASS THIEF. A PRICELESS TREASURE. A CHASE THAT SPANS THE CONTINENTS.
The Thomas Crown Affair, Entrapment, Ocean’s 11 – we all love a good heist movie. I myself can trace my own fascination with art and art theft to a scene in Dr No where Bond stares disbelievingly at a portrait of Wellington by Goya.The inside joke, as my father explained to me when we first watched it together, was that it had been stolen from the National Gallery only a few weeks before filming had begun in 1962, thereby triggering decades of conspiracy theories about criminal masterminds lining the walls of their lairs with stolen masterpieces.
When I tell people about the basic premise of The Double Eagle – James Bond meets The Thomas Crown Affair is the verbal shorthand that I normally use – their reactions tell me that many of them seem to share my own fascination with art and art crime. But where does this interest come from?
Maybe it is the slightly romanticised view of the art thief, who uses guile and ingenuity rather than force, to ply his trade. Or perhaps the beautiful objects they steal appeals to our aesthetic sensibilities and somehow suggests that an art thief must be cultured and erudite as compared to the thuggish types who steal more mundane objects, such as cars and wallets.
What seems certain is that once stolen or lost, works acquire a special significance and mystique. The very fact of being invisible turns its viewing and appreciation into a matter of imagination, where it never has to submit itself to the cold light of critical scrutiny.
It is not for nothing that the most celebrated works are the ones that don’t exist any more – as in love, we most want what we can’t have. For example, Renaissance artists and critics agreed that the greatest work by Michelangelo was not his David or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but his lost picture of The Battle of Cascina, the last traces torn up by artists craving souvenirs. Its loss has elevated it to a plane that its earthly survivors could never hope to inhabit.
In my opinion, however, the real reason for people’s fascination with art theft and the inspiration for The Double Eagle, lies with an inescapable paradox. How is it that works that through their soul-searching inspiration, genius and flawless execution elevate their creators close to the divine, bring out everything that is most base in human nature – envy, theft, murder, betrayal and greed?
In that sense, at least, great art is positioned at the heart of man’s age old struggle between the forces of light and darkness. And you don’t need a painting to tell you that that’s the greatest story of them all!
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