True crime as a genre has exploded in popularity in the past few years. Podcasts, documentaries, and even television shows like Only Murders in the Building have filled our eyes and ears. While some media focuses on murder, kidnapping, and sexual violence, some shows explore the wide world of art crimes, which can include anything from outright theft to fraud. The art in question can go back centuries or as recently as yesterday.
Here is a list of six non-fiction documentaries that go deep inside the wide thrilling world of art crime.
This is a Robbery (2021)
The 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist is considered one of the most successful art heists in history. Two men dressed as police officers infiltrated the museum, tied up the guards, and made off with $500 million of paintings including works by Vermeer and Rembrandt. To this day, the art remains missing. This four-part mini-series gives an in-depth look at the heist from the crime itself to all the possible masterminds behind it, including the mob.
Savior For Sale: Da Vinci’s Lost Masterpiece? (2021)
Leonardo Da Vinci is considered one of the most famous artists of all time. So it became big news when a lost painting named “Salvator Mundi” was found in Louisiana in 2017 that would later sell for $450 million. But the question remains: is it a legitimate Da Vinci? Or was everyone falling victim to wishful thinking? While the legitimacy of the painting is the big question, there’s more to the scandal of “Salvator Mundi” in Savior for Sale including tax-havens filled with priceless art, middlemen on the make and so much more. So in 2021, not one but two documentary films came out tracking the story of this painting. The second is Lost Leonardo.
Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art (2020)
This documentary focuses on how a prestigious New York City gallery ended up selling $80 million of fake Abstract Expressionist paintings over a decade. When an art dealer shows up to the gallery with some newly discovered paintings by Mark Rothko and other artists, the director of the former Knoedler Gallery thinks she’s hit a career-defining treasure trove. Over a series of years, the gallery bought the paintings and then resold for millions of dollars to the ultra-rich. But were the paintings legit? How much did the director know or was she completely duped herself? It’s a fascinating look into the world of high-end art and the ultra-wealthy who covet art.
The Painter and the Thief (2020)
So while the other films focus on the art and the ultra-high net worth people, this Danish documentary is much more intimate and less about the art than friendship and forgiveness. When Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova had two of her biggest paintings stolen from her show, she hardly expected that she’d ask one of the thieves to sit for a portrait. The film follows their developing friendship as both deal with their respective demons, finding some solace in one another’s lonely souls. It’s a beautiful film that does not fall victim to the usual cliches of the genre.
Portrait of Wally (2012)
World War II may be over for 77 years but the crimes of the Nazis continue on, including looted art. When a painting is displayed on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, someone recognizes the painting as one that had been taken by the Nazis during the war. The painting in question, Egon Schiele's "Portrait of Wally,” becomes the focal point for the debate on how to handle Nazi-looted art. It’s a story that really shows the incredible work of art historians to piece together a painting’s history and a tiny bit of justice for past crimes.
The Art of the Steal (2009)
So this documentary isn’t exactly about crime in the strict sense of the word but it’s definitely exploring ethics and greed.
The Barnes Foundation is famous for its incredible collection of art including a huge selection of Renoirs, Cezanne, and other major impressionist painters. But the Foundation is also famous for its backstory. Albert C. Barnes, the founder, began collecting these incredible artists, long before it was considered fashionable. When he tried to display his collection, the denizens of Philadelphia scorned him. So he decided to take his collection to a home outside of the city and limit access to the worthy few. In his will, he outlined that the collection could not be moved and must be displayed the exact way he left it. This is the story of how the will and intent of Barnes were broken due to financial woes as well as the desire of the Philadelphia establishment to bring the collection to the city. It’s a film that will leave you with very mixed feelings about the fate of the collection.