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The Art of Crime: These Books Explore the Nefarious Underbelly of the Art World

Enter a world of scandal, controversy, and heists.

art crimes books feature

The art world has it all: larger-than-life personalities, obscene amounts of money, gossip and scandal, and over-the-top and controversial art. And of course, there’s crime. We can’t seem to get enough of the stories of outrageous heists or shocking forgeries. The stories around art always seem to feel larger than life—which makes for good headlines.  For instance, most recently, ArtNews reported that Brazilian police found a stolen painting of Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral that was worth $59.1 million. But that’s not all. The painting was found with other stolen art under a bed and part of the theft involved a fake psychic. Sometimes real life is stranger than fiction.

So for all those art crime enthusiasts, here is a list of recently published fictional books that feature art crime in some way. While theft and forgery are popular narratives, there are also other crimes such as outright fraud and even destruction. 

Fake by Erica Katz


By Erica Katz

Feeling like all the opportunities in the art world have passed her by, Emma Caan has found a job making legal fakes for museums and collectors. She’s good at her job but she wants more. Then she meets oligarch art collector Leonard Sobetsky who is convinced of her artistic talent and offers her a way out. She finds herself an assistant at a top New York Gallery and more money than she ever dreamed of, including a beautiful apartment in New York, exclusive parties, and private jets. All in exchange for some occasional work for Sobetsky. But as she is drawn into the world of the ultrawealthy and highest echelons of the art world, she starts to think that something is not quite right. What is happening to those paintings she is making for Sobetsky? After all, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. 

Related: 8 Legal Thrillers That Will Have You on the Edge of Your Seat


Portrait of a Thief

By Grace D. Li

If one person stealing artwork from a museum or private collector is theft, what do you call it when an entire collection was taken from its country of origin? The most famous controversy over looted art is of course the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum. But Greece is not the only country with its artifacts displayed in other countries. Western museums are filled with artifacts from Benin, Italy, and China, to name a few. So what if a group of individuals decided to steal the art back? That’s the premise of Portrait of a Thief.

When a Chinese billionaire approaches Harvard student Will Chen with a proposal to rob six museums of six stolen Chinese sculptures for an obscene amount of money, it’s an offer that’s hard to refuse. He decides to bring a team together for the heist—drawing on family and personal contacts. Can the team pull off these heists? What will it cost them? Or what will it cost them if they don’t?

portrait of an unknown lady

Portrait of an Unknown Lady

By Maria Gainza, translated by Thomas Bunstead

While we tend to elevate artists and revile forgers, this book flips that idea on its head.

An unnamed narrator who worked at an art gallery learns of a famous mysterious forger known for her incredible reproductions of Mariette Lydis, a giant in Argentine society. So she decides to find out as much as she can about the woman, unweaving the tangled story of her life. It's a fascinating exploration of what authenticity means as well as what it means to live an artistic life.

the last mona lisa

The Last Mona Lisa

By Jonathan Santlofer

Sometimes theft can make a painting famous. The most well-known case is the 1911 theft of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa from the Louvre by Vincent Peruggia. For two years, the painting was missing—and fakes popped up—until the painting was returned. Maybe. While art professor Luke Perrone wanted to learn more about his infamous ancestor, Peruggia, he had not expected the dangerous turn his research would take. Told from numerous viewpoints, this story follows Luke as he tries to figure out the truth of what happened to the Mona Lisa and what Peruggia did in those two lost years.

Related: 8 Dark Academia Mystery Books To Feed Your Hunger for Answers

alice knott

Alice Knott

By Blake Butler

Stealing paintings is one thing. Destroying them is entirely another. It’s a truly atrocious deed. When a viral video pops up showing the burning of a famous painting with a seated audience,  it’s soon discovered the painting was stolen from reclusive heiress Alice Knott. But it’s only the start. More videos and thefts occur. Is Alice Knott behind these horrible acts? Or is she the victim? Who is Alice Knott?

the forger and the thief

The Forger and the Thief

By Kirsten McKenzie

Florence, Italy is known for its incredible art and architecture. But only a few decades after surviving the ravages of World War II, horrible floods threatened the city in 1966. But that’s not all that’s at risk. Five strangers find themselves brought together by a forger’s misdeeds as the waters rise in the streets. Each person has their own agenda whether it’s finding a lost painting or trying to leave a spouse, and will try to keep their secrets hidden. It’s a glorious imagining of Florence during this epic disaster.