AMELIA, Italy — “What’s the resemblance between the illegal art trade, the funding of terrorism by charities and smoking pot in a Dutch coffee bar?” Edgar Tijhuis, a criminologist who teaches at VU University in Amsterdam, paused and looked expectantly at a dozen students listening raptly. There was silence. “I hoped you wouldn’t say anything or else I wouldn’t have much to teach you,” he said.
Professor Tijhuis, who also practices international art law in Amsterdam, had come to this small walled town in Umbria, where church bells chime hymns to the Virgin Mary, and swallows squawk louder than cars, to lecture students enrolled in what is billed as the first master’s program in international art crime studies.
His class focused on international organized crime, and the lecture touched on money laundering and cigarette smuggling as well. (As for the resemblance he asked the students about, he explained that the activities showed how illegal transactions can be transformed into legal ones, and vice versa.) Other courses include art history, criminology, museum security and forgery. They’re all part of a three-month master’s program here trying to capitalize on interest in a field that’s been gaining attention through news media reports about the restitution of looted art and through popular literature. Not to mention that police forces around the world have in recent years created special squads to combat the problem.
Noah Charney, an American, is the director of the program and founding director of the group that sponsors it, the Association for Research Into Crimes Against Art (which also consults on what it calls art protection and recovery cases). He said the time was ripe “for academic study to help inform future police enforcement.”
According to the association’s Web site (www.artcrime.info
) Italy has by far the most art crime, with “approximately 20,000 art thefts reported each year.”
Citing Interpol, Mr. Charney said art crime was the third-highest-grossing illegal worldwide business, after drugs and weapons. Interpol itself says on its Web site (interpol.int) that it knows of no figures to make such a claim.
Whatever the case, fighting art crime may certainly pay for Mr. Charney. He has managed to transform himself into a 360-degree specialist. He not only teaches at the school and other universities, he also writes fiction and nonfiction books on the subject and he’s developing two television programs, one of a documentary nature that he would present, the other a fictional drama based on himself.
Harasyn Sandell, 22, who graduated this year from Dominican University of California, said she had long wanted to work with the F.B.I. Art Crime Team. “I think I’d be a good undercover agent because no one would suspect me,” she said.
The program, she added, was “seriously the best thing ever,” partly because it puts students in contact with experts like Virginia Curry, a retired F.B.I. special agent who has dealt with art crimes. Ms. Curry was here at a midterm conference this month giving a lecture on unexpected thieves.
“This is what happens when good people go bad,” Ms. Curry began, before Power-Pointing through case studies of graduate students, museum directors and professors who succumbed to temptation. (She did note that “you can make more money working for McDonald’s than as a museum intern,” though she did not suggest that this justified criminal behavior.)
Universities around the world offer individual classes on art crime and related subjects: fakes and forgeries; intellectual- and cultural-property protection; looting. But Mr. Charney maintains that his program is the first to provide an interdisciplinary approach, and several scholars of art crime concurred, including Ngarino Ellis at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, who said the group “could make some important contributions to the awareness of art crime internationally.” The degree is not formally recognized by an accredited university, though Mr. Charney said he was in discussion with various institutions. (Tuition alone costs about $7,000.)
The first class of students includes art historians, lawyers, museum professionals, art conservators, a private investigator, even a retired United States Secret Service agent, an array that suggests that the subject has broad appeal.
“I was always interested in art, and now I can incorporate that interest in my business,” said John Vezeris of Annapolis, Md., who retired from the Secret Service and opened a strategic security and risk management firm.
For his thesis he wants to apply an analytical approach to structures at risk, like churches, and find the best — and cheapest — way to keep them secure. It was, he said, an area with a lot of potential for business.
Security, of course, is one of the program’s themes. “In one assignment I ask the students how they would steal from Amelia’s archaeological museum, what would they steal and how would they profit from it,” Mr. Charney said.
At Saturday’s conference Vernon Rapley, director of the Art and Antiques Unit of Scotland Yard, dashed illusions when he told the audience that real art criminals bore little resemblance to Hollywood’s glamorized depictions.
“You don’t get a lot of people lowering themselves from the ceiling on wires,” he said. “It’s more likely that they’re going to just walk out the door with a painting under their arm.”
Some students came to learn how to protect the art in their care. Julia Brennan, a textile conservator who has worked in Madagascar, Algeria and Bhutan, said she had enrolled because art thefts are on the rise in countries where she has led conservation workshops, “and I’m building my bag of tools” for caring for national patrimonies.
Others have different agendas. Catherine Sezgin is looking to write fiction or nonfiction with an art crime theme. “I’m getting tired of the murder genre,” she said. “Art crimes give you that mystery element without the dead body and the DNA and whole forensics element” that’s so popular nowadays.
Mrs. Sezgin came to the course to get background information, and so far she was pleased. “I’m a mom living in Pasadena,” she said. “How else am I going to meet the head of the Scotland Yard art squad?”