Image by Saxon
Ever wondered what drives art thieves to risk it all for the sake of a masterpiece?
I was thinking about this the other day and I really couldn’t come up with a good answer. Sure, there’s a black market out there where some of the world’s richest will pay top dollar for historical pieces that will never be seen by the public again, but many times, art that is stolen is so high profile that it would be practically impossible to sell.
What makes these pieces so valuable and enviable anyway? What about it drives these thieves to take on some of the most advanced security systems in the world just to lay their hands on it?
And most importantly, how can you start creating more work like that?
Despite the headaches and complications that come from having your art stolen, most artists I know would be least a little bit tickled to think that someone was so possessed by their work that they resolved to steal it. Even though it’s frustrating, it’s surely a vote of confidence in your craft.
I set out to find exactly what it is that makes an art thief drool. I talked to an internationally recognized artist and designer Pablo Solomon, rapped with a museum security consultant Steven Paley, chatted with photographer and gallery curator Jolene Hanson, and listened to a host of other artists. Here’s what I learned. If you’re a creative professional, these are lessons that can make any work you do more sellable to your audience.
It Touches Them Personally
We always hear about the art thieves who steal the world’s most significant art in order to give some billionaire bragging rights amongst his friends, but more common than that are the thieves who steal for their own personal collections. They follow their favorite artists closely and they know exactly what they like. They feel personally connected to the work.
Do you know your audience? Every time you create something, do you have their deepest desires in mind as well as your own? Do you connect with them personally and know their greatest hopes and fears?
If you do, it doesn’t really matter what you’re making – you’ll sell plenty.
It’s Very Shareable
Beyond creating for your audience’s deepest desires, do you do it in a way that’s extremely shareable – that makes people want to talk about it with their friends?
Not every art thief steals work that is significant to them. Sometimes, they just want the in thing. If people all over town are talking about your work, then you’re the in thing. Count on attracting plenty of thieves.
No worries, though. This is a fine predicament where you’ll be selling a lot more than you’re losing. And just the fact that your work is being ripped off is another talking point that makes it even more shareable. (Being stolen turned out to be extremely good PR for the Mona Lisa.)
In order to make your work shareable, it has to do more than just touch on your audience’s greatest hopes and fears. It has to do it in a way that makes them comfortable telling other people about it. Those are scary emotions for most.
How can you take a heavy topic and portray it in a way that makes people comfortable?
It Reinforces Their Perception of Themselves
Art thieves are no ordinary crooks. They often think themselves the highest class of criminal, not to be associated with petty thieves and other heavy-handed thugs. They’re refined and sophisticated. In fact, many think themselves artists.
Whether or not that’s actually the case doesn’t really matter. People buy (and steal) art that reinforces the image that they have of themselves. If you know your audience, then you can create work that strongly reinforces their identities and makes them excited to buy more and more of your stuff.
The Artist Has a Strong Personality
Debates have raged for centuries (and they’ll continue to do so) over what’s more important: the artist or the physical art. Regardless of the argument, you and I both know that people connect to creative work just as much through the person that created it as the work itself.
Many art thieves, and most people, look for a story in the artist that is incredibly interesting in one way or another. Your craft is important, but so is your personality. J.D. Salinger was a recluse. Andy Warhol was flamboyant and a bit of a nut-job. They both created masterpieces, but they also mastered their own personalities.
You have to be authentic because your audience is incredibly skilled at sniffing out a fake, but if there’s a little piece of you that you’ve been hiding because you aren’t sure how people will react, try letting it out for a while and see what happens. You might be surprised.
It’s Super Niche
When an art thief is looking for a piece of work that can be resold and fetch an excellent price, they’re not going to go after the most widely popular piece they can find – it’s too well known and they’d never unload it. Instead, they look for pieces that are relatively unknown, but incredibly valuable to a small group of people.
They look for Niche Art.
Let’s face it, there are millions of landscape painters out there, but how many landscape painters also place a chicken in a cowboy hat riding a robot horse in every one of their scenes in order to really excite the chicken/cowboy hat/robot horse crowd?
There are thousands of creative directors out there fighting for work, but what about the guy that everyone knows only works for small film companies that make clay-mation art porn? Is he hurting for work?
Obviously those are ridiculous examples, but you get the picture. The more specific you get with your work, the more infatuated your audience becomes, even though it grows smaller and smaller.
When everyone knows you’re the go-to person for something, you’ll have a lot of ‘thieves’ studying what you do and trying to copy, but it doesn’t matter because they won’t get it right. You’re still the go-to guy or gal.
It’s All about Connections
What it all comes down to is that creative work that becomes valuable enough to attract an art thief has to make a deep connection.
- It connects someone with a strong emotion
- It connects people with their friends
- It connects others with themselves
- It connects the audience with the creator
- It connects someone with a specific fascination
Not everything you create will hit each one of those criteria, but the more of them your work into your art, the more valuable it becomes. You’ll attract more and more thieves, but it’ll hardly matter when you’re selling your pants off.
How Stealable Is Your Work?
Financial considerations aside, how would you feel if you learned someone loved your work enough to break into a building and steal it?
On which of the art thief’s criteria does your work score highest?
How can you make your work more ‘stealable’ (apart from leaving it in an unlocked car)?