Professor Erin Thompson’s New Book Ferrets Out Stolen-Art Collectors

Professor Erin Thompson’s New Book Ferrets Out Stolen-Art Collectors

Professor Erin Thompson’s New Book Ferrets Out Stolen-Art Collectors

John Jay Assistant Professor Erin Thompson, known as “America’s only professor of art crime,” is back on the trail of those who steal priceless artworks and antiquities, in her latest book Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors.

Published in May by Yale University Press, Possession examines what is described by the publisher as “the dark history of looting, smuggling, and forgery that lies at the heart of many private art collections and many of the world’s most renowned museums.” From the looting of museums by Nazis to the plundering of archeological sites by warring factions in the Middle East, Thompson brings the insight of an art historian and the skills of a lawyer (she holds both Ph.D. and J.D. degrees) to the pursuit of those who steal and collect art and antiquities.

Much of the theft and smuggling problem, Thompson has noted, stems from the market itself. “Antiquities are worth millions on the black market,” she said. “There have been some successes in Europe and the U.S. in shifting buyers’ markets [away from antiquities], “but leadership has to come, and does to a certain extent, from UNESCO.”

Thompson’s new book looks at the lengths to which some collectors go, the diverse justifications they give, even the politics that surround and ensue from their illicit actions. Examples are cited from across an extensive timeline: ancient Roman emperors, Roman Catholic popes, members of European royal or noble families, and 20th century titans of business and industry. Museums, too, are identified by Thompson as collecting culprits.

Thompson and her faculty colleague Professor Thalia Vrachopoulos co-curated an exhibition titled “The Missing: Rebuilding the Past,” which was mounted in the College’s Shiva Gallery earlier this year, and included a symposium on emerging techniques that could be used to prevent future attacks on priceless art, antiquities, and world heritage sites. The exhibition was subsequently installed at the Jessica Carlisle Gallery in London.

Possession has been described by one reviewer as “no-nonsense prose [that] doesn’t let anyone off the hook,” and “a savvy history of passion as politics.” Thompson is a frequent discussant of art crime topics in The New York Times and on CNN, NPR, Al Jazeera America, and the Freakonomics podcast.  

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