Faith in fakes

Everything went according to plan, the art thieves made off with an incredibly valuable Brueghel. Only it wasn’t.

Italian police reveal ‘€3m painting’ stolen from church was a copy
The town’s mayor, Daniele Montebello, was among the few people privy to the subterfuge, and had to keep up the pretence in the hours after the heist, telling journalists that losing the painting was “a hard blow for the community”.

“Rumours were circulating that someone could steal the work, and so the police decided to put it in a safe place, replacing it with a copy and installing some cameras,” Montebello said on Wednesday night. “I thank the police but also some of the churchgoers, who noticed that the painting on display wasn’t the original but kept up the secret.”

It seems nobody’s updated ArtNet News yet, even though they’re referencing this Guardian article.

Thieves just used a hammer to steal a $3.4 million Pieter Bruegel the Younger painting from a remote Italian church
Using a hammer to break the case, the thieves lifted the picture—worth an estimated $3.4 million, according to press reports—and made off in Peugeot car. Police believe two people were involved in the heist. They are now are investigating CCTV footage from around the town and the province for clues.

Morbid streaks

Two fascinating documentaries on how we respond to mortality.

To Tibetan Buddhists, sky burials are sacred. To tourists, they’re a morbid curiosity
Filmed in 2011, the US director Russell O Bush’s short documentary Vultures of Tibet offers a small window on to cultural tensions on the Tibetan Plateau. Set in the historically Buddhist town of Taktsang Lhamo, home to two monasteries, the film is centred on the practice of sky burials, in which the bodies of the Tibetan dead are fed to wild griffon vultures. For the town’s Tibetan Buddhist population, it is a sacred means of helping the dead’s spirit transition to the next life – a final earthly offering to creatures believed to have the wisdom of deities. However, for much of the rest of the world, the tradition is a morbid curiosity, and increasingly attracts unwelcome tourists, whose pictures end up in all corners of the internet.

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“If a group of Tibetans were to surround a Chinese funeral and watch, laugh, and take pictures, it wouldn’t be tolerated.”

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From the mountains of Tibet, to the miniatures of the US.

Dieorama
Abigail Goldman spends her work days as an investigator for a public defender’s office in Washington state, helping people who are seriously in trouble—which can mean hours of staring at grisly pictures of crime scenes, visiting morgues, even observing autopsies. By night, she dreams up gruesome events, which she then turns into tiny, precise dioramas. Rife with scenes of imminent death and brutal dismemberment, the fruits of Goldman’s painstaking labor would be adorable … if they weren’t so disturbing.

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Art theft and protection

What starts off as a celebration or glamorisation, almost, of theft soon dissolves into quite a sad character study.

The Secrets of the world’s greatest art thief
“Don’t worry about parking the car,” says the art thief. “Anywhere near the museum is fine.” When it comes to stealing from museums, Stéphane Breitwieser is virtually peerless. He is one of the most prolific and successful art thieves who have ever lived. Done right, his technique—daytime, no violence, performed like a magic trick, sometimes with guards in the room—never involves a dash to a getaway car. And done wrong, a parking spot is the least of his worries.

[…]

Breitwieser and Kleinklaus, though, have no friends. “I’ve always been a loner,” he says. “I don’t want any friends.” Kleinklaus, he claims, feels the same. They occasionally spend time with acquaintances but never invite anyone over. If repairs are needed in his room, he does them himself. Nobody is allowed to enter, ever, except him and his girlfriend. “We lived in a closed universe,” Breitwieser says.

They’re both nearing 30 years old when their universe starts to crumble. A notion had been building in Kleinklaus ever since the night they spent in police custody in Switzerland—that perhaps there’s something more fulfilling than life as an outlaw and rooms filled with riches. She’d like to start a family. But not, she realizes, with the man she’s been dating for almost a decade. There is no option for a child in their conscribed existence. They could be arrested at any minute; they can’t even entertain visitors. She begins to feel suffocated.

Quite the cult figure – the art thief becoming the art subject, as well as the inspiration for a movie.

He seemed not to be in it for the money. But Banksy, on the other hand …?

The fascinating legal conundrum facing Banksy
Although the court confirmed that Pest Control trademark registrations were valid, the judge noted that the documents filed in the proceedings showed just limited use of Banksy brand. Basically, the Banksy logo is only used on certificates of authenticity released on Pest Control letterhead, and on some canvas frames. This is a clear weak point in Banksy and Pest Control’s legal strategy going forward. If Banksy wants to keep enforcing any of his trademarks in courts around the world, and avoid the risk of them being canceled for lack of use, he will need to show judges stronger evidence of his brands being used in the market. This probably means he needs to start regularly producing and selling his own branded merchandise through a specialized commercial vehicle, which so far has not really happened–and may be considered by Banksy himself as antithetical to the very anti-capitalistic message he wants to convey through his art.

Amateur art thieves

I’m not really one for true crime stories, but this one’s too strange to pass by.

The great Rikers Island art heist
For forty years, an original Salvador Dalí painting went unnoticed inside New York City’s massive jail complex. Then a gang of thieves decided it might be worth something.

It’s a great story but I don’t think this one will get the Hollywood treatment. We’re not talking Ocean’s Eleven here.

After the drill began and the jail’s lobby was deserted, the thieves got to work. One stood watch. Another slipped off the painting case’s locks. The third kept tabs on the fire drill’s progress. Within a few minutes, a replica of the Dalí hung in its place. The substitute was far from a perfect match, and the thief standing guard wasn’t convinced. “That looks ridiculous,” he said.

A few hours later, in the early morning, two prison guards stationed next to the jail’s lobby noticed that something about the painting was off. It seemed markedly smaller, and in place of its carved mahogany wood frame, a brown frame had been painted around the edge of the canvas. A fake.

They painted the frame onto the canvas? Turned out to be an inside job.

What’s a bird in the hand worth?

This makes for a strange follow-up to that post about the move to a cashless society.

The strange reason owl theft may be on the rise
But as contactless credit cards, mobile phone payments and online transactions grow, the amount of cash being carried by people and kept by retailers is decreasing. For criminals, this creates a problem. Cash is the thieves’ best friend – it has instant value, can be carried easily, is relatively untraceable and can be quickly disposed of.

So with societies around the world becoming increasingly cashless, thieves are having to find alternatives to help them make a quick, illegal profit. Here we look at some of the more unusual things that criminals have had their eye on.

Glasses wearers really are smarter after all?

I always thought so.

Wearing glasses may really mean you’re smarter, major study finds
In the study, the largest of its kind ever conducted, researchers from the University of Edinburgh analyzed cognitive and genetic data from over 300,000 people aged between 16 and 102 that had been gathered by the UK Biobank and the Charge and Cogent consortia. Their analysis found “significant genetic overlap between general cognitive function, reaction time, and many health variables including eyesight, hypertension, and longevity”. Specifically, people who were more intelligent were almost 30% more likely to have genes which might indicate they’d need to wear glasses.

The usual caveat about correlation not implying causation applies, obviously. Just make sure you wear them for your day in court.

Forget genetics though – there’s plenty of empirical evidence that wearing glasses, whether you need them or not, makes people think you are more intelligent. A number of studies have found people who wear glasses are perceived as smarter, more dependable, industrious and honest. Which is why a lot of defense lawyers get their clients to wear glasses at trial. As lawyer Harvey Slovis explained to New York magazine: “Glasses soften their appearance so that they don’t look capable of committing a crime. I’ve tried cases where there’s been a tremendous amount of evidence, but my client wore glasses and got acquitted. The glasses create a kind of unspoken nerd defense.”

I like how the webpage then shows a link to this article, though.

Why does it seem like serial killers all wear the same glasses?
The list of serial killers who wore glasses is long and bloody, from Dahmer to BTK to Harold Shipman and his professorial frames; even the Zodiac Killer, never caught, wears a thick-rimmed pair in a police sketch. The aesthetic of “serial killer glasses” is so pervasive that it pops up everywhere from Urban Dictionary (“Eyeglasses with heavy or severe frames that live somewhere between fashionable and creepy”) to TV Tropes (where “a guy who is cold, emotionless … or even a soulless monster” is given glasses “to quickly tip off the audience to his personality”), and countless Tumblr posts in between.

Weaponized classical music?

An interesting but ultimately depressing essay from the LA Review of Books about the uses classical music is being put to these days.

Whereas Japanese train stations are attempting to move on undesirables by playing ugly sounds only the young can hear, in other parts of the world it’s the wonderfully uplifting (to me, anyway) music of Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart that’s being used instead.

Bach at the Burger King
The inspiration for the Burger King plan, a CMCBD official commented, came from the London Underground. In 2005, the metro system started playing orchestral soundtracks in 65 tube stations as part of a scheme to deter “anti-social” behavior, after the surprising success of a 2003 pilot program. The pilot’s remarkable results — seeing train robberies fall 33 percent, verbal assaults on staff drop 25 percent, and vandalism decrease 37 percent after just 18 months of classical music — caught the eye of the global law-enforcement community. Thus, an international phenomenon was born. Since then, weaponized classical music has spread throughout England and the world: police units across the planet now deploy the string quartet as the latest addition to their crime-fighting arsenal, recruiting Officer Johann Sebastian as the newest member of the force.

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It is crucial to remember that the tactic does not aim to stop or even necessarily reduce crime — but to relocate it. Moreover, such mercenary measures most often target minor infractions like vandalism and loitering — crimes that damage property, not people, and usually the property of the powerful. “[B]usiness and government leaders,” Lily Hirsch observes in Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment, “are seizing on classical music not as a positive moralizing force, but as a marker of space.” In a strange mutation, classical music devolves from a “universal language of mankind” reminding all people of their common humanity into a sonic border fence protecting privileged areas from common crowds, telling the plebes in auditory code that “you’re not welcome here.”

So our metaphor for music’s power must change from panacea to punishment, from unifying to separating force, as its purpose slips from aesthetic or spiritual ennoblement into economic relocation. Mozart has traded in a career as doctor for the soul to become an eviction agent for the poor.

And as if that’s not bad enough, the essay goes on to examine how classical music is being further reduced by advertising and our ‘sound-bite culture’.

Extended musical forms allow the listener to appreciate the subtle interplay of motif and movement — and it is exactly this nuanced appreciation that quote-clipping nullifies. There is a two-part mechanism to extract and transplant a tune: detach a 15-second theme from a 45-minute symphony (where it functioned as an integrated part in an organic whole) and attach it to an alien subject. Uproot “O Fortuna” from a Latin cantata, so it can be grafted onto a Domino’s Super Bowl spot. These transplants produce jarring mashups that trigger another insidious side effect: by always quoting works out of the context the public forgets that they have a context. The spectator forgets that “O Fortuna” could be glorious in its original context because it’s absurd hyping Domino’s Pizza. In sum, in the remix media ecosystem, famous compositions degenerate from serious music into decorative sound, applied like wallpaper to lay a poignant surface over banal intentions.