Film Perspectives ,

Nazis, Con Men, Forgers, and Thieves: Art Crime in Postwar Cinema

Film still of Sterling Hayden in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, 1956. COURTESY THE CRITERION COLLECTION

Film still of Sterling Hayden in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, 1956.


On August 21, 1961, Francisco Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington (1812–14) was stolen from the National Gallery in London. The British government had purchased the painting 19 days earlier for £140,000, matching the bid of New York collector Charles Wrightsman so as to prevent the painting from leaving the U.K. It was recovered four years later, when a retired bus driver named Kempton Bunton returned the painting and confessed to the crime. Portrayed in the media as an unassuming and repentant Robin Hood, Bunton was acquitted of all charges except for the theft of the frame, for which he served three months in prison. In actuality, the painting was stolen by Bunton’s son John, who confessed upon his arrest for an unrelated offense in 1969. The Portrait of the Duke of Wellington has hung in the National Gallery ever since its return in 1965.

But it was while hidden in a cupboard in Bunton’s Newcastle flat, and not in the National Gallery, that Goya’s portrait made its film debut. In Dr. No (1962), the first adaptation of Ian Fleming’s 007 novels, the painting can be seen mounted in the den of the film’s eponymous villain, subject to the raised eyebrow of Sean Connery’s James Bond. Despite the film’s suggestion otherwise, Dr. No’s Goya is not stolen, but forged: hearing the news of the recent theft of the painting, the film’s production designer, Ken Adam, who passed away earlier this year, ordered a slide of the work from the National Gallery and reproduced it himself. A clever wink typical of Bond-movie camp, the portrait symbolically inaugurates the cinema of art crime, a distinctly postwar phenomenon whose forgeries and thefts have less to say about art than they do about Hollywood conventions. Like everything in show business, art is money. The Goya helps in depicting Dr. No as a bad guy, but his possession of a hot painting pales in comparison to his plans of world domination.

Art crime existed before the Second World War, but Hitler’s systematic theft and destruction of Europe’s great collections serves as a kind of year zero for its representation in popular culture. This subgenre persists to this day, evidence of the perception by Hollywood—not to mention the wider public—that the art world is largely a criminal operation, populated with white-collar crooks and shallow victims.

It is estimated that as few as 5 to 10 percent of stolen artworks are ever recovered, and the grand scale of the Nazis’ crime has left a vast space for speculation about what may have happened to great paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and van Gogh—an imaginative gap which Hollywood has taken upon itself to fill. As in the case of Dr. No, cinema provides stolen masterpieces a fictional afterlife, assigning them to an array of filthy rich villains: Modigliani’s Woman with a Fan (1919) and Picasso’s Le pigeon aux petits pois (1911), both unrecovered, make appearances in the collection of Bond nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) in Sam Mendes’s Spectre (2015). Cinema theorizes the lives and motives of a brand of criminals so rarely brought to justice, alternately glorifying and vilifying the forgers, thieves, and black marketeers who operate in the shadows of the art market.

Sean Connery as James Bond in Dr. No, 1962, admiring a forgery of Francisco de Goya’s The Portrait of the Duke of Wellington. ©UNITED ARTISTS, EON PRODUCTIONS/VIA BONDMOVIES.COM

Sean Connery as James Bond in Dr. No, 1962, admiring a forgery of Francisco de Goya’s The Portrait of the Duke of Wellington.


In the 1950s film noir gave birth to the heist movie: Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955), Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), and Lewis Milestone’s Ocean’s 11 (1960), the Rat Pack vehicle rebooted with great success by Steven Soderbergh in the early 2000s. The subgenre tends to feature actors in pairs or ensemble and relies heavily on plot twists. As such, the art-heist film—which has an antecedent in Godfrey Grayson’s The Fake (1953)—often includes both forger and thief, the narrative frequently hinging on the uncertainty of whether a stolen artwork is authentic or fake. This trope first appears in Ronald Neame’s Gambit and William Wyler’s How to Steal a Million, both released in 1966.

How to Steal a Million and Gambit are remarkably similar films. Both showcase the unlikely romance that develops between a British art thief and his reluctant accomplice, in each case an exotic beauty named Nicole. In How to Steal a Million, Audrey Hepburn plays Nicole Bonnet, daughter of renowned Parisian collector Charles Bonnet (Hugh Griffith). The elder Bonnet, we learn, is also a master forger, which first becomes a problem when Nicole catches Simon Dermott (Peter O’Toole) red-handed, attempting to lift one of Bonnet’s prized van Goghs (which is actually a Bonnet), and later when Nicole’s father lends a Venus by Cellini to the Kléber-Lafayette Museum, whose director unwittingly gains Bonnet’s permission to subject the sculpture to forensic testing, a prerequisite for the million-dollar insurance policy. Fearing exposure of the inauthenticity of her family’s collection, Nicole convinces Simon to help her steal back the sculpture, carved by her paternal grandfather and modeled after her grandmother, to whom Nicole bears a striking resemblance. Recognizing this likeness, Simon gives the sculpture to his romantic rival, American businessman Davis Leland (Eli Wallach), whose lust for Nicole is only surpassed by his lust for the Venus. Ironically, the sculpture is but a mere copy of Nicole, the true work of art, who is delighted and not displeased when Simon reveals his identity: a forgery expert with degrees in art history, chemistry, and criminology, hired to investigate the authenticity of Bonnet’s collection. The Venus was Simon’s first heist, as it was Nicole’s. Criminals together, they give Bonnet a mild scolding, and with his blessing, live happily ever after.

Gambit’s Nicole Chang (Shirley MacLaine, in unfortunate yellowface) also shares her visage with a sculpture—this time, a bronze casting of Chinese Empress Li Zu’e—and she too falls in love with the man who steals that sculpture, cat burglar Harry Dean (Michael Caine). Dean and his partner, dealer and forger Emile Fournier (John Abbott), pick Nicole out of a crowd of dancers in a Hong Kong nightclub and offer her $5,000 to travel to Dammuz, a fictional Middle Eastern city, in the role of Dean’s wife. Dammuz is home to a luxurious hotel owned by the richest man in the world, Ahmed Shahbandar (Herbert Lom, in brown makeup). MacLaine’s face is even more common than Hepburn’s, it seems, as it is also identical to that of Shahbandar’s dearly departed wife, and Dean hopes that he can use Nicole as a diversion in order to steal the sculpture, worth an undisclosed but presumably very large amount of money. Dean’s hopes prove elusive, however: his Cockney accent undermines his noble pretense as Sir Harold Dean, his Arab hosts turn out to be less primitive and more cosmopolitan than he imagined, and Nicole is no China doll, either. Like her counterpart in How to Steal a Million, MacLaine’s Nicole is as apt a thief as her future husband, and while the pair fail to nab the original Li Zu’e (Shahbandar keeps an elaborately guarded decoy on display), it’s no matter: the newspaper headlines are enough to convince buyers on the black market that any of Fournier’s previously fabricated copies of the bust could be the real thing, voiding any unique value to which the authentic object might lay claim.

Magali Noël in Jules Dassin’s Rififi, 1955. COURTESY RIALTO PICTURES/GAUMONT

Magali Noël in Jules Dassin’s Rififi, 1955.


In a romantic inversion of the film noir femme fatale, Hepburn and MacLaine’s characters propose women as the objets d’art worthiest of breaking the law for, a purer commodity than sculpture or painting, vain playthings of eccentric billionaires and mustachioed Frenchmen. In these films, art is a McGuffin, the museum just another crime scene, like Jamaica in Dr. No, or Las Vegas in Ocean’s 11. It is for this reason unsurprising that art crime is ripe territory for the Hollywood remake: there are only so many settings, after all. Michael Hoffman remade Gambit in 2012 with Colin Firth in Caine’s role, Cameron Diaz as a thankfully deorientalized update of the MacLaine character, and a screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen. Several cinematic heists of the 1960s were reconceived as art heists decades later. In Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) the titular character (Steve McQueen) robs banks and not the Met, as he does in John McTiernan’s 1999 remake with Pierce Brosnan, on furlough from playing 007. Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve (2004) takes the action from the casino floor to the Galleria D’Arte in Rome, where Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his entourage compete to steal the Fabergé Imperial Coronation Egg before Baron François Toulour (Vincent Cassell), a.k.a. “The Night Fox,” a French capoeira-master version of Thomas Crown, does. Each of these films is, in some way, a forgery of an earlier one, and some copies are better than the originals. But as genre films, they are all in conversation, stealing from one another all the time. Soderbergh takes Jewison’s split-screen and uses it in the Ocean’s movies; in another heist movie, Out of Sight (1998), Soderbergh restages Wyler’s famous shot of O’Toole shining a flashlight up Hepburn’s exposed knee, in a scene with Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in the trunk of a car.

Picasso, in a possibly apocryphal statement, said that the best artists steal—an idea that Orson Welles runs with in his 1973 essay film, F for Fake. Welles’s pseudo-documentary about confirmed forgers Elmyr de Hory, who later committed suicide in Spain while awaiting extradition to France, and Clifford Irving, author of a hoax “autobiography” of Howard Hughes, makes the relationship between art crime and the cinema explicit. All art is fakery: it is its essential artificiality that moves us. The best films dealing in art crime are those that take on the philosophical heft of their subject matter. In Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010), writer James Miller (William Shimell) preaches a gospel similar to Welles’s as he tours Tuscany with an antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche) who may or may not be his wife, playing ambiguous roles in a shifting performance of identity. Ocean’s wife, Tess (Julia Roberts), aids the heist in Ocean’s Twelve by trading in on her resemblance to none other than Julia Roberts in order to gain access to the museum. Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) in Wim Wenders’s neo-noir The American Friend (1977) deals in forged art in Hamburg until he is pressured into murder, enlisting terminally ill framer Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz) to pay back a debt owed to gangster Raoul Minot (Gérard Blain). By casting renowned directors—Hopper and Blain, but also Samuel Fuller, Jean Eustache, and Nicholas Ray as the forger Derwatt—Wenders solidifies the alliance between filmmaker and criminal. Wenders’s film is adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1974 novel Ripley’s Game, but the elements of the art world are taken from Ripley Under Ground (1970), to which Wenders did not have the rights. Wenders reports that Highsmith was initially “disturbed” by his theft, but upon a second viewing wrote him that the film “captured the essence of that Ripley character better than any of the other films,” effectively authenticating it with her signature.

While these filmmakers’ interests in the theoretical implications of art crime are symptomatic of postmodern attitudes toward art (no more so than in Raúl Ruiz’s 1979 The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting), for others, crime is crime, inexcusable without exception. In Clooney’s A-list flop The Monuments Men (2014), onetime Ripley Matt Damon plays Lieutenant James Granger, a reproduction of former Met director James Rorimer, who rescues the Ghent Altarpiece from the Nazis and manages to avoid sleeping with Cate Blanchett’s Claire Simon, a sexy stand-in for art historian and partisan Rose Valland (Granger has a wife and kids at home). In his off-screen life, Rorimer was one of the early proponents of radiographic examination—the very technology that threatens the forgeries of Bonnet and de Hory. Clooney’s film insists that art is sacred enough to be worth risking human life.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), Wes Anderson’s comedy about the theft of a prized Renaissance painting called Boy with Apple, begs to differ: though Boy with Apple hangs in the lobby of the Zubrowka hotel long after the war that took the life of concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the painting’s rightful owner, the old Europe in which it was painted no longer remains. Boy with Apple is a McGuffin, but a significant one, the absurd painting attempting but failing to distract from the true work of art, the hotel itself, which Anderson brings alive with baroque choreography. Stripped of its occupants, their eccentric costumes and personal dramas presumably exterminated, the postwar Grand Budapest Hotel is nothing but an empty frame belonging to a nostalgic loner. Art is a reproduction of life, Anderson seems to argue, and though it may manage to preserve the aura of a people, a time, a place, it is inevitably less vibrant than the souls who inspire it. Out of place and ignored in drab Soviet surroundings, Boy with Apple is evidence of a crime—a poignant reminder that there is a world outside of cinema, and that in that world, crime doesn’t pay.

Andrew Marzoni is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 34 under the title “Nazis & Con Men & Forgers & Thieves.”

Copyright 2016, Art Media ARTNEWS, llc. 110 Greene Street, 2nd Fl., New York, N.Y. 10012. All rights reserved.

  • Issues