Monday, May 24, 2010
Stolen Art Watch, Charles Vincent Sabba, Heart and Soul Interview Part 1
Charles Vincent Sabba Interview 22 May 2010
Art Hostage- In your painting Michel the Merry Drinker, Michel is so clear it brings the Merry Drinker up to date and allows us to see through the stereotype of a dirty, un-kept drinker.
To me this shows drinking can be merry, even though excessive, it shows life can go on even if heavy drinking is a major part. Why have you painted this depiction of Michel Van Rijn as the Merry Drinker of Frans Hals?
CS- Michel has an interesting face and a strong character. He is one of those larger than life personalities that attempt to force an acknowledgement of their presence and abilities on the world. Many people hate him and some love him, but whether or not you approve of him or his style of operating, an honest person would have to admit Michel, and the life he has lived, is very interesting. Sometimes one crosses paths with a person who believes they are pre-destined for greatness. I wanted to capture this self-confidence in his face and eyes. Yes, as you have said, he does not appear in the picture to be an incoherent, slobbering drinker, but an alert, clear minded human being who is confident of his abilities and possesses self-assuredness that he is destined for greatness. He appears to be cloaked in the dignity of man (as I like to paint all of my subjects), albeit one who indulges in all of the available fruits and joys that life has to offer.
I see an old school adventurer in Michel Van Rijn. Prior to, and in, the early 20th century, we had many freebooters who were steeped in Nietzschean thought, created their own value systems and did not believe that man’s justice could touch or judge them. I’m talking about men like the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, the writer and cultural minister Andre Malreaux and the artist Amedeo Modigliani, to name three of my favorites. Again, whether or not you like them as people or approve of their work is not the point. The point is that they created amazing works and attempted feats of action and daring that you just don’t see as frequently in the world today. Also, they constantly attempted to reinvent themselves making something stronger and more powerful on top of what went before. Michel for sometime had a Machiavellian approach to life and I see in his biography a mirror of Rudiger Safranski’s ideal of Nietzsche’s Ubermensche, that being a combination of ruthless warrior pride and artistic brilliance that was prominent in the Italian Renaissance princes.
I have not always approved of how Michel has treated some of the people he has had issues with in the past, but I respect his abilities, such as his profound knowledge of art and antiquities, his survival skills and some of the amazing feats and stunts he has pulled off. One feat of his I am particularly fond of is the faking of an artifact and getting it included into a major auction house catalogue, only to inform them on the day of the auction that they were duped. The auction had to pull the piece and admit it was a fake. This was Michel’s way of saying that sometimes even our art world’s largest institutions may be corrupted, as he implied that their experts must have known the piece was a fraud, but included it in the catalogue anyway just to make the sale. That stunt showed an inclination of artistic brilliance.
AH- What attracts you to Frans Hals?
CS- I’ve always been very passionate about the Italian old masters and spent a lot of time looking at their works and reading their art histories. I neglected my Dutch studies until I was enchanted by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Heist magic spell that has been cast on so many of us in the investigative world. I fell in love with Rembrandt’s works of genius and eventually discovered that Frans Hals was an outstanding portrait artist. Hals just resonates with me. One good thing about being an art lover in New York is that our museums own quite a number of Dutch works by Vermeer, Rembrandt and Hals.
AH- The Gardner Gossips blog was created to promote the huge canvas Gardner Gossips, what is the back-story to this project?
CS- This painting is 8 feet tall and 6 feet 8 inches wide. There are two versions of 32 different faces all talking to each other. Paul “Turbo” Hendry commissioned this piece for his son last March. He told me he thought it would be appropriate if an artist painted most of the main suspects and characters who have been involved in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist investigation. Turbo mused that over the last twenty years many suspects, investigators, reporters, writers, curators, documentary film directors and art experts have had much to say about the heist, who they thought pulled it off, and where they thought the paintings are, but to date no one really has a clue. Many books have been written, but they are books without an ending. Thousands of articles have been written that have started out with “On March 19, 1990, at 01.24 hrs, two thieves dressed as cops…. .” There has been a lot of talk and many leads in the investigation, but not a trace of the $500 million in art.
I start the picture with Isabella Stewart Gardner, she is talking to Rembrandt and it appears she is telling him his works are about to get nicked off of the walls. He turns to the person next to him and tells him. This continues through all 32 subjects and ends with the last person turning back to Isabella. Every character we chose for this canvas is bigger then life. Very interesting people with very handsome and beautiful, strong features. One cannot find an American in history much more interesting then the eccentric art-loving Isabella. There are the reporters Mashberg, Kurjian, Jill Rackmill and Brian Ross; suspects like William Youngworth and Myles Connor, who were once close friends and then ended up bitter enemies; Gangsters like Whitey Bulger and the FBI agent Connolly who was in Bulger’s pocket. Don’t forget the politico Bulger who grew up with his brother Whitey and agent Connolly in the Southie projects. There are many very intricate and intriguing stories behind all of the people and their relationships to each other on this canvas that transforms it into a Herculean epic poem in oil paint.
My friend William P. Youngworth III visited my studio and posed for portraits. He is the first person who is depicted on the canvas to see it in person the second was Oliver Hendry when he visited last March. Billy Youngworth is an amazing person and again, he epitomizes what I am saying about the wide array of characters, one more interesting then the other that has been a part of the Gardner heist tragedy. Billy was really beat up by everyone since he emerged as a suspect. He was attacked and double crossed by the Feds and law enforcement, he was thoroughly abused by the press, especially Tom Mashberg who attempted to “smoke him out,” and he was even targeted by some criminal groups, one of which planned to kidnap his son to force him to reveal info about the whereabouts of the stolen masterpieces. In spite of all of these trials and hardships he remained strong. He proved to be quite resilient, A real survivor. Billy never changed or backed away from his claim to be able to help facilitate the return of those art works. Everyone thought he would break or make mistakes, but he was very stoic and toughed out the hardships. Now, years later he owns and runs an extremely successful antiques business. More importantly he has proven to be a loyal husband and a loving father. His kids have turned out great. He has now turned his back on the Gardner caper and confidently states that both the museum and the authorities blew their only chance to recover the works. He boldly states that the works won’t resurface for at least another hundred years. I have painted Billy onto the Gardner canvas as he appeared back in the 1990s, and I am currently painting two portraits of him as he appears now. He has been a great supporter of me as an artist and has visited both my old Manhattan studio and my current New Jersey studio in the Rahway Arts District of Rahway, New Jersey many times.
AH- What are you trying to achieve by depicting figures from the art crime world and where do you see the convergence sometimes referred to as the grey area?
CS- First and foremost my ardent desire is to conduct “visual investigations” in the art theft world. I, as a trained police observer and visual artist, wish to document this realm in the same spirit that the war artists documented the people and action of WWII. This is my niche; this subject is what I, as an artist who is employed as a law enforcement officer, was naturally attracted to and fascinated by.
Second in importance is getting to know interesting people in the art world. I want to approach these portrait subjects, not as a police officer, but as an artist. I want to establish myself as a neutral observer. My intention is not to lock these people up, or get them charged for crimes they may have had committed, my intention is only to paint the involved men in women in all their human dignity. I want to know everyone in the art crimes arena. I want to forge true friendships with people I can trust, but I am also content in developing instrumental friendships and mere acquaintances as well. I will let the person’s words, actions and sincerity decide what group they are slotted into in my mind. I like to know very interesting people in the art scene and art theft investigators, art thieves, antiquities smugglers, forgers, and stolen art fences have proven to be very, very fascinating to talk to. Many reporters and investigators often insist there aren’t lady or gentlemen thieves who are aesthetes who appreciate the beauty in that in which they steal. Also, many of the masters and doctorates in the art world underestimate the level of art history knowledge an investigator or police officer can attain. To the art snobs that are out there, and unfortunately there are some, both groups are just knuckle draggers and thugs with mediocre or no level of sophistication. I can tell you that amongst both art theft investigators and art world criminals, I have found some very intellectual people who have a sound grasp of art history and art theory and have a feel for what is going on in the contemporary scene as well. Granted, the conversation is usually dominated by, or at least flows back into, business as usual, that being the investigations, art crimes, market place values, and war stories. But don’t underestimate criminals and never underestimate the police. A good investigator can attain important knowledge swiftly when he gets on a case and there are many lady and gentlemen gumshoes out there prone to aesthetic thought. I remember when I first met Scotland Yard’s Vernon Rapley I was impressed that he would spend his lunch breaks visiting the National Gallery. I think veteran investigators like Col. Musella, Gen. Conforti, Dick Ellis, Charlie Hill, and Bob Wittman can hold their own in conversations with the best in the curatorial field. As far as criminals go, if they are art lovers and they get locked up, they have the advantage of time to devour art history and theory books and magazines in the prison library or in their cell, and time is a commodity many of us don’t have. When I studied at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, one of the teachers, Monroe Denton, insisted we read the NY Times daily, all the art magazines in existence, all the important works by various critics, and many, many important art theory books. I have tried to keep this impossible discipline up the best I can, but there is so much to read and learn and so little time to accomplish this. Convicts have nothing but time on their hands and some are very well read.
Before I became a police officer I worked as a correctional officer for four and a half years. I worked a full year in a federal maximum security witness protection unit and I met a convict there who was involved in the art world. I told this protected “pentito” that Michelangelo Buonarroti was a hero artist of mine and he turned me onto De Tolnay’s writings. He couldn’t believe I had not read DeTolnay. He also turned me onto the Irving Stone novel Agony and Ecstacy which I ended up loving. So you see, knowledge and influence can come from the least expected places and I like to absorb from all interesting people I meet. I study them, pick their brains, then suck knowledge from them and make it my own. That is one way I constantly reinvent myself and build on what was there before.
Third and not least, I hope to build enough trust in the criminal circles that they get comfortable enough to tell me important info that may be helpful in stolen art recoveries. Hopefully, after word gets out that I can be trusted and am not out to hurt anyone or get them locked up, I will be asked to act as a middleman in recoveries between both law enforcement/institutions and the thieves. There is a sort of hairdresser effect when someone is painting your portrait. Everyone opens up to the hairdresser and barber. They end up being the all knowing in a neighborhood. The same goes for a portrait artist. People get comfortable and open up.
AH- What draws you towards the law enforcement and underworld figures that operate within the art crime arena?
CS- In the art crime arena, as in all areas of the art world, you can meet both boring art snobs as well as exciting, interesting people. The murky seas of the world of art crimes is very small and the people who navigate its waters often cross paths and know each other, or at least know of each other. I, as a navigator in this perpetual odyssey of human creation, want to be known as the explorer who actually charted those waters visually.
You could never find more interesting people, or stronger intellects, as you find in the art crimes arena. The art theft investigators you find there, such as Vernon Rapley, Ian Lawson, Michelle Roycroft, Dick Ellis, Col. Musella, Robert Wittman, to name a few are the most upstanding and dedicated law enforcement personnel I have ever met. To me, they are the defenders of culture and their level of excellence and dedication to recovering the world’s patrimony should never be underrated.
As far as criminal operators go, many are common thugs, some are crafty thieves that a Dickensesque Fagin would delight in breaking bread with, and a small number are actually accepted as geniuses who possess artistic brilliance, much like the poet Villon is accepted as, yes a criminal, but also an important poet.
Myles Connor is a fascinating example to discuss. Other police officers feel I should hate him because of his criminal past, not to mention that he once shot a cop. As an artist, I can’t help but see the strong visual in his face from various points of his life. I’ve painted him with his beard twice and he posed for me last year clean shaven while holding one of his 16th century Samurai swords from his collection. This is an outstanding portrait of Myles. I had lunch with him in Blackstone, Massachusetts last year, right after his book came out, and I really enjoyed hearing the episodes from the book first hand. For me life and literature, and life and art, often are a seamless unity. I don’t believe in judging people’s ethics or morals, I only judge levels of artistic skills and knowledge of art and aesthetics. Are you a Bourgeois Philistine, or are you an artist or aesthete. As far as ethics and morals are concerned, who is actually fit to judge these things? I am a cop. I arrest people. I’m not a judge. A judge sits on the bench and gets paid more then me. So I can strike up a friendship and break bread with any man or woman who shows me respect and offers a handshake in friendship.
When Myles was arrested for the art thefts at the Woolworth Estate and faced a long sentence with a habitual offender tag, a Rembrandt “fell off of the wall” at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Myles helped facilitate the return of the painting and received a reduced sentence. This was a perfect example of the mix of ruthless warrior pride and artistic brilliance I previously discussed. It was a brilliant move and in itself can be viewed as a conceptual art piece worthy of Maurizio Cattalan’s approval. As you may recall, Maurizio Catalan once burglarized the Galerie Bloom in Amsterdam and stole all of the gallery’s contents- the artworks, fax machines, filing cabinets-everything. He packed up the gallery’s property in boxes and transported them to Galerie de Appel where he exhibited them the next day under the title Another Fucking Readymade. This “theft” was a statement about displacement; one gallery was transported completely to another. The police were soon summoned. The owners of Galerie Bloom soon calmed down and made a deal to not press the issue if Maurizio would do a show in their gallery on a future date, so he did not get arrested and got another art show out of it. Brilliant.
Don’t get me wrong, I think art theft and art crimes involving the world’s cultural property are serious crimes against humanity, just as detrimental to humankind as genocide, human trafficking and slavery. But in both Myles and Maurizio’s cases works and items were stolen with the intention to return them and in both cases they were indeed returned with the actors’ desired results. Si guarda al fine, or the ends justify the means in an artistic sense. We as a society sometimes need to laugh at things. One of the reasons Andre Malraux had the big rift with the Surrealists was because he thought they took themselves too seriously. Malraux always said we shouldn’t take things too seriously and I agree- a little bohemian fumisme and blague is needed in life. And to avoid any criticisms or nasty phone calls, I do want to make it clear that I do not condone of the theft of the BMFA’s Rembrandt, nor do I find humor in it. As far as I remember, and this story was told to me by a participant in that crime, a guard was almost shot in this crime. There were guns present in the get away vehicle, so this was far from funny and a very serious crime. My point again is the artistic brilliance of the plot. This was a very creative chess move that got Myle’s a reduced sentence. I’m not one to judge morals or ethics, just ability and artistic creativity. Machiavelli and Cesare Borgia would have approved of the action as long as it went as planned. When the Pazzis killed Giuliano De’ Medici but failed to kill Lorenzo, the Florentine populace, who supported the Medici, still thought the plan was ingenious. The Pazzi were dubbed idiots not because they attempted to seize political power but because they failed. Their crime was not the murder of a Medici in the middle of the Eucharistic celebration, the crime was that they planned something that ultimately failed and led to their demise. I respect action and ability
AH- What is your favourite color?
CS- I love the entire color spectrum and for me they must be taken in by the retina in combinations to have a true psychological or emotional effect. I will use the colors of the heroic revolutions of the West as an example: red, white and blue (U.S.A. and France- rights of man); red, white and green (Italian Unification/ Young Italy); green, white and orange (Irish Independence); black, red, purple ( I Carbonari); to name a few, but not all, of the colors and flags I love.
AH- What is your favorite curse word, both in English and Italian?
CS- I don’t like to curse in English, because cursing in English sounds too vulgar and raunchy. Cursing in Italian can be very poetic and expressive. I say Non me ne frego un cazzo a lot. It was a favorite statement of one of my favorite poets, Gabriele D’Annunzio, and it exemplifies a stress free attitude towards life that I have accepted.
AH- Have you ever painted whilst drunk?
CS- Of course but it is very rare. When I work I am totally involved in my subject matter and do not need mind altering stimulus. I like to drink wine with my meals. My favorite is Barbera. I really love Sandro Chia’s wine as well. Sandro Chia founded his Castello Romitorio in 1984 and his wine is superb. I have become close friends with one of his U.S. distributors here in the U.S. I met this wine distributor at Sandro Chia’s last art exhibition at the Charles Cowels Gallery in Chelsea. I also met Sandro’s son Filippo who helps run Castello Romitorio.
Other then moderate drinking of wine with dinner, I only drink heavy when I’m out with my artist friends in Manhattan or Brooklyn. We like to party and absinthe, the real stuff, not the American version, is our favorite.
AH- Dean Martin portrayed himself as a drunk on stage, however, the truth was he only drank apple juice and the playing drunk was part of the act, do you think alcohol helps or hinders creating art?
CS- Unfortunately the art world has become quite conservative and it is frowned upon for an artist to attend exhibitions or art lectures intoxicated. In the 1980s and 1970s people were wild and had fun, but today one has to keep a professional bearing. I, however, like to remind myself of Henri Muger’s words of wisdom that art is more of a faith then a profession. Modigliani always painted while he was very drunk, but I would think any form of intoxication would usually hinder a creative flow.
AH- If you could have dinner with any historical figure, who would that be?
CS- Is that a romantic dinner date? I would definitely ask out Susan Valadon. Or any of the following sexy, intelligent ladies: Josephine baker, Lee Miller, Berthe Morisot. Oh yea, how about Lucrezia Borgia. I bet Lucrezia would be a hot date.
AH- What is your relationship with Oliver Samuel Hendry?
CS- Oliver is an amazing young man. I have no doubt that he will soon be known internationally as the new brilliant young British art collector on the scene. Oliver already has many of my works in his huge art collection. He has bought my entire past raisonne, or at least what I had left on hand, he has the 8’ by 6’ 8” Gardner Gossips and has paid in full in advance, he also commissioned and paid in full a 8’ by 10’ painting of the U.S. Presidents, and he is in the process of buying 32 portraits, all 24” x 28”, of various people involved in the art crimes arena.
The first time I met Oliver was last September when I stayed with him and his pop at their beach front home on the English Channel. Then he stayed with me for nine days here in the States when he came over to attend my art exhibition at the Y Gallery New York in the Bowery. We are going to spend time in Italy this July and August and I will visit them again in England next spring, when I am going to do an Ireland, England, Amsterdam sweep again in an attempt to get more art crimes subjects to pose for me. All in all, the Hendry’s are getting close like family.
My advice is to keep your eye on this kid, because he is going to be bigger then Charles Saatchi, or at least will be on a first name basis with Saatchi and attending his cocktail parties.
AH- What is your relationship with Turbo Paul Hendry?
CS- I first heard of Paul “Turbo” Hendry when I attended the Art & Antiques Crimes course in 2004. This was a class held by the Metropolitan Police Art and Antiques Unit at Scotland Yard. I then saw him in the Gardner Heist documentary Stolen. A brighton film company interviewed me and Billy Youngworth for a documentary called the Art of the Heist. Turbo and Dick Ellis were also in this and I was already curious about him. Then Ulrich Boser interviewed me for his Harper Collin’s book Gardner Heist. My self and Youngworth were in one chapter and Turbo was in another. So, long story short, I asked Ulrich to get me in contact with Turbo. As I said before, I like to know all the zany, interesting people in the art world and Turbo looked like a fun guy to know. Once we made contact, I turned him onto Skype and we would sit and talk about art and art theft cases for hours. We have really become best of friends. He is an amazing guy and much like Youngworth, was someone with a criminal past who completely turned his life around. He went on to further his education late in life and achieved his Masters Degree. He can talk fast and intelligently without missing a beat or losing his train of thought. I think this is an amazing skill. Also, he is very intuitive, almost psychic, in a way that he can sense what someone is feeling or thinking. These skills were acquired back in his “knocker” days and he has continued to perfect them.
AH- What would you like God to say to you when you finally meet?
CS- A lot of my outlook on art has been influenced over the years by the thoughts and beliefs of Michelangelo Buonarotti. In fact, he was such a heroic figure in my life that I named one of my daughters Michelangela in his honor. Michelangelo believed that an artist, instead of a mere imitator of nature, was a second creator, or a lesser creator under God’s guiding light. The artist as quasi-deity, whose mission on earth is to create. Nature is a weak reflection of reality, but God shared a small amount of his creative force with the artists and it is they who recreate the true reality of the world of ideas. When I am finally confronted by God the absolute artist, the creative force of the universe, I hope he will look at me and say that I was a good artist and that I fulfilled my mission on earth and left behind a significant body of work.