8 Action-Packed Novels About Art Heists

Beauty creates value, and value attracts thieves

Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash

The fine art world is one of sophistication, wealth, and beauty, a fertile atmosphere for chronicles of intrigue— of artists who will create guileful forgeries for a price, and wealthy collectors draped in gold, who are relentless in their search for rarified artistry.

Characters unfold their easels and cultivate their collections in the most glittering metropolises- Paris, New York, and London, cities with storied histories of lofty, gilded institutions of art. But an unsightly immoral depth slithers beneath the dazzle of extravagant gallery parties flooded with frothy champagne. Beauty creates value, and value attracts thieves. Here are eight novels that follow the trail of beauty down a dark corridor of artifice.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer prize winning The Goldfinch is required reading in the category of stolen art novels. It begins with a 13-year old Theodore Decker taking a trip to a museum with his mother, where they both become victims of a terrorist’s attack that destroys the building and much of the art within it. Theo survives, and is able to make his way out of the rubble, clutching an art piece that he and his mother had viewed together just before the blast: a painting in muted tones of a small bird chained to its perch, called “the Goldfinch.” Theo tragically realizes that his mother hadn’t survived after waiting at home and calling hospitals around the city searching for her. The painting that he dragged from the rubble becomes a focal point of Theo’s existence as his life is ripped apart with grief. 

As Theo is dragged through a tumultuous childhood into an unstable adulthood, the painting remains his center, and he continues to hide it from the world. However, his treasured token suddenly becomes lost to him, and he is forced to follow its trail to a dark place. Tartt imbues Theo’s story with so much color, with its starkly real characters and the intense relationships between them, making it a thrilling and beautiful read.

Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Daniel Silva

Gabriel Allon is an art restorer and occasional spy who has faced many skilled assassins and terrorists throughout the 22-book long series. He has navigated a dangerous career of life and death battles often centered around stolen and forged art. In this 22nd installment of the series, Portrait of an Unknown Woman, Allon seems to have retired and settled peacefully in Venice with his family, his wife taking over his restoration business. But like many skilled spies, Allon is not allowed to remain in retirement for long. His old friend, an eccentric art dealer from London, requires his very specific skills in art restoration and spy work to investigate the rediscovery of a centuries old painting. Allon quickly finds that the painting is a very well done fake. This sets him on a trail, littered with murdered bodies, after the forger who created it, and their lucrative enterprise of deceiving the fine art world by tainting museums and art collections of the wealthy with forgeries.

As this is the latest installment in the series, some may suggest that you read all of the Gabriel Allon series before reading Portrait of an Unknown Woman in order to gain context for how the characters and relationships evolved throughout the series and culminated in this latest installation. But if you’re looking to jump in without reading The Kill Artist through The Cellist, it is still possible to understand and enjoy Portrait of an Unknown Woman.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li

Will is a senior art major at Harvard, and the son of Chinese American immigrants. With his education, Will is aware of the colonial evils that has filled Western museums with the artistic works of his ancestors. So when a mysterious Chinese benefactor selects him to lead the heist that will return five art pieces to Beijing, he agrees to the illegal and potentially impossible mission. His team consists of four other students: Irene Chen, the fast-talking con artist and public policy major; Daniel Liang, a pre-med student with a talent for lockpicking; Lily Wu, an engineering major who car races as a hobby and is a smooth getaway driver; and Alex Huang, a silicon valley engineer who serves as the team’s hacker. They risk losing everything they have strived toward for their futures, but stand to gain 50 million dollars in reward money, and a chance to make history.

This novel is inspired by the rumors surrounding real life museum thefts in the past couple decades, where it is speculated that the Chinese government targeted large European and American museums with thoroughly coordinated maneuvers to obtain art stolen during centuries of imperialism. As Li’s research for this novel included watching her favorite movies Ocean’s Eleven and The Fast and the Furious, this novel promises to be a thrilling and wild ride.

The Art Forger by Barbara A. Shapiro

Barbara A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger fictionalizes the real unsolved theft at the Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. A present day struggling young artist named Claire Roth reproduces famous works of art as a legal means of making a living. However, her desperation to escape a life as a starving artist makes a shady deal with a wealthy gallery owner, Aiden Markel, very tantalizing. In exchange for payment and exposure at his gallery, Claire is supposed to create a replica of a piece stolen from the Gardner Museum, one of the Degas Masterpieces. When she receives the artwork to copy, she is unable to determine if she was given the real one that had been stolen, or a very good forgery. Claire’s search for the truth leads her down a winding path of thrilling deceit and centuries-old secrets.

Stealing Mona Lisa by Carson Morton

Based on the real theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911, Stealing Mona Lisa is a story of a ragtag group of con artists who set out to steal the world’s most famous painting. Eduardo de Valfierno makes a living creating forgeries for fabulously wealthy patrons in Argentina, who believe that the art are authentic pieces. He meets the beautiful and unhappily married Mrs. Hart, who sets him on a journey that leads back to Paris to lift that famous painting from the Louvre. Eduardo and his crew run into danger as they are pursued by a persistent police inspector. Casted with a crew of lovable rogues and rascals, this novel is an exciting and fun read.

Headhunters by Jo Nesbos

Roger Brown has a cushy, gold-rimmed lifestyle to maintain that his work as a corporate headhunter cannot support alone. Even with his skill in his day job, he requires something under the table to keep his wife’s developing art gallery afloat. At an art opening, Roger meets the answer to his financial problems: Clas Greve, the CEO candidate for a major company, and the owner of a priceless Baroque-era Peter Paul Rubens painting. Clas seems to present a double opportunity to Roger, who dabbles in art theft. But after breaking into Clas’s home, Roger comes to find that this fateful meeting was a devastating stroke of misfortune.

Fake by Erica Katz

Fake takes us alongside professional forger Emma Caan’s impetuous plunge into the opulent and dangerous fine art scene. Emma specializes in 19th-century paintings, taking legal commissions from wealthy collectors who have authentic art pieces to protect and keep hidden. While she is skilled at her craft, her adeptness is a constant reminder that she had the potential to realize her own artistic dreams. But she remained in her current line of work in order to take care of her family. That is until Leonard Sobetsky, a man of immense influence in the art world, appears and draws Emma into the glitz, glamor, and financial opportunity of the less legal dealings in the art world. While Emma chases stability, she quickly finds herself in over her head with what this new world demands of her.

Woman on Fire by Lisa Barr

Lisa Barr is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, art-lover, and journalist, and she brings all of her experiences into writing Woman on Fire. The Woman on Fire painting was stolen 75 years ago by Nazi looters, as was the life of the fictional German impressionist painter who created it. Young journalist Jules Roth talks her way into working with the lead investigative reporter Dan Mansfield to find the painting. For Dan, the job is personal; his friend, Ellis Baum, is dying, and has a deeply sentimental and historical connection to the work. She wants to see the painting one last time.

The job won’t be as simple as tracking down the piece. Powerful heiress Margaux de Laurent has her sights set on the same painting, and she is used to getting what she wants. She comes from a wealthy family of art collectors, and commands the overwhelming resources that her status grants her. But Jules is determined, and ready to take on the ruthless de Laurent. Woman on Fire is a thrilling and romantic novel that showcases Barr’s passionately thorough research into art looted during the Holocaust.

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