art detective arthur brand

Confessions of an art detective

When a priceless painting goes missing, the art world doesn’t call the FBI — they ring Arthur Brand

On the night art detective Arthur Brand finally laid his hands on the long lost painting Buste de Femme, his apartment became the most expensive in Amsterdam. The piece, a favourite of Picasso’s that had hung in the artist’s own home, had gone missing 20 years earlier, pinched from a yacht off the coast of Antibes. For two decades, the canvas had zigzagged across the underworld, bouncing between terrorists, the mafia and the international jet-set — and now it was in Arthur Brand’s home.

“Only a few people in the world have laid eyes on this Picasso”, says Brand. “And for one night, I had it. So what did I do? I hung it on my wall and I sat and looked at it and smoked.”

Picasso, Brand, cigarette. That cosy trio tells you almost everything you need to know about the world’s most successful art detective — the charming, compelling saviour of lost causes. By the time the insurance company came to remove the painting in an armoured car the next day, the empty space on his wall was priceless. “I’ve fallen in love with art,” he tells us, “My one mission is to get stolen art back where it belongs.”

Here, Brand tells us how he came to be the world’s foremost finder of lost art and antiquities, in his own words…

“Only a few people in the world have laid eyes on this Picasso. And for one night, I had it. So what did I do? I hung it on my wall and I sat and looked at it and smoked.”

The first artefact that really blew me away was in Leiden in the Netherlands. I was eight years old, and I was taken to see this child mummy. One of its toes was still visible. I remember looking at this child, my age, from 3,000 years ago, just lying there — and it blew my mind.

Later, I started to collect ancient coins. I fell in love with the mystery of them — these ancient cities that don’t exist, these plants that are now extinct. But as soon as I started to learn more about coins, I found that there were fakes around, and good ones, too. I also found that there was this omerta, this silence, around the black market.

The CIA believes that the illegal art market is the fourth largest criminal enterprise in the world. We’re talking big money here. But it’s not only money at stake. As soon as you start to mess with art and antiquities, you mess with our understanding of the past. You may as well be tearing pages out of a book.

About 30% of all art on the market is either fake or has been tampered with. As soon as I realised that, I thought: ‘I’ve got to do something about this.’ I’ve always been interested in crime, and I love art and history, and I wanted to weaponise myself against these forces. So I looked to the underworld.

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