Book Review: “Females in the Frame: Women, Art, and Crime” (2019)
Last updated: January 2020
By Yuchen Xie.
“I know of no notable female forgers in the history of forgery.” Noah Charney, The Art of Forgery: The Minds, Motives and Methods of Master Forgers (2015)
“There is no doubting that women have been actively involved in art crime.” Penelope Jackson, Females in the Frame: Women, Art, and Crime (2019)
A founding trustee of the New Zealand Art Crime Research Trust, Penelope Jackson is an art historian and curator based in Tauranga, New Zealand, and the author of Females in the Frame: Women, Art, and Crime (Palgrave McMillan, 2019). The book unveils the untold history of women in art crime, explores the motives behind their criminal acts, and questions the gendered language associated with the documentation of art crime. The women mentioned in the book include wife of Churchill, Lady Clementine Churchill, notorious art dealers such as Ann Freedman of the Knoedler Gallery, and Tatiana Khan who sold a fake Picasso painting, along with less famous women from a wide range of countries including Japan, France, and Russia, just to name a few. With a comprehensive and detailed account of forgery, theft, and vandalism cases, Jackson demonstrates a keen interest and expertise in the subject. In Females in the Frame: Women, Art, and Crime, Jackson seeks to “present a more well- rounded balanced history,” as said in her own words, shedding light on women’s role in art crime. In the Introduction to the book, Jackson said she was inspired by Dr. Noah Charney’s The Art of Forgery: The Minds, Motives and Methods of Master Forgers (Phaidon, 2015), where he noted that “there is a decided lack of female forgers in this book; there are female accomplices and con men, but I know of no notable female forgers in the history of forgery.” Charney’s provocation triggered Jackson to explore and unmask this underrepresented side of art crime. Notably, Jackson inquired deeply into the very reasons behind the omission of women from the history of art crime. In her book, Jackson explores stories of women who destroyed art (Chapter 2 – Lady Destroyers), women who were involved in art crime as mothers of art criminal sons (Chapter 3 – The Mother of All Art Crimes), women who vandalized art for reasons of drawing public attention and getting into prison to have a place to live (Chapter 4 — She Vandals), women who conned artists and clients (Chapter 5 – The Art of the Con(Wo)man), women who stole artworks (Chapter 6 – The Light Fingered), women who forged art (Chapter 7 – Naming Rights), and women who committed white-collar crime using their professional associations (Chapter 8 – The Professionals).
In Chapter 2 – Lady Destroyers, Jackson offers examples of many women who destroyed valuable artworks for different reasons, particularly discussing in detail the efforts of Clementine Churchill to destroy many paintings of her husband, Sir Winston Churchill. According to her daughter Soames, Clementine Churchill destroyed Walter Sickert’s sketches of Churchill simply because she disliked them. And she “must have felt very strongly about the sketch to destroy it rather than donate it to a public collection,” according to Jackson. Later, Jackson discusses Clementine Churchill’s destruction of two other works, accounting for her efforts to control images of her husband for both present and future generations. After a discussion on mothers who destroyed artworks in the hope of protecting their criminal sons by eliminating evidence of the theft, Jackson goes into detail in the following chapter on art vandalism. Among these female vandals are British Suffragettes who defaced art in an effort to draw public attention to gender inequality, a Japanese woman who vandalized the Mona Lisa in 1974 to highlight the museum’s unfair policy against disabled people, and an unemployed woman who vandalized a painting by Jean-August-Dominique Ingres at the Louvre in 1907 because she thought ending up in prison would solve her housing problem. Not to excuse, but the circumstances of some criminal act reveal these women’s disadvantaged social status.
In Chapter 5 – The Art of the Con(Wo)man, Jackson discusses the fraudulent art dealing practice of women in the U.S., Australia, and Germany, with a focus on the penultimate director of the Knoedler Gallery, Ann Freedman, who was one of the named defendants in the lawsuits against the notorious gallery for selling dozens of forgeries in the 1990s and 2000s (for a detailed coverage of the Knoedler saga, visit here), and Petra Kujau, Konrad Kujau’s assistant who claimed to be his niece and sold fake Kujau’s “original forgeries” (Konrad Kujau himself was a famous forger whose “original Kujau forgeries” became coveted and obtained great commercial value). After discussing cases involving these women, Jackson raises an interesting point – the fact that “all of the women were middle-aged, or older, when convicted.” Did they build up their reputation of integrity with years of ethical practice only to destroy it with illegal activities? Did their age and experience simply deceive people more easily? Jackson seeks to explain this phenomenon with a discussion on the nature of art dealing and examination of similarities between the cases of Freedman and the other seven conwomen. The chapter on naming rights contains the story of Margaret Keane, the subject of Tim Burton’s movie Big Eyes (2014). Jackson chronicles how Margaret’s husband Walter Keane sold her works under his name and control and how Margaret finally revealed the true authorship of the big eyes paintings and brought a lawsuit against Walter in 1986 in Honolulu.
Further, comparing Margaret Keane with Elizabeth Durack, who forged her identity and sold her works under a different name, Jackson underscores that “something as simple as the name of an artist (and their signature) can create major and irreversible outcomes.” In the chapter on professionals-turned criminals, after discussing a few women who used their professional status to gain access to art collections in their care, Jackson culminates the cases with the story of the heroic figure, Rose Valland, who documented ownership of many artworks stolen by the Nazis and made post-WWII restitution easier. Valland’s actions while illicit at the time and have been praised in the aftermath. Jackson highlights Valland’s story because “not only did she undertake dangerous work by being an astute unofficial art spy… but she is also a fascinating example of how history has been documented and presented.”
On this note, Jackson transitions from the discussion of individual cases to a concluding chapter, reflecting on the gendered language of the history of art crime. Particularly, she emphasized the “not particularly attractive” appearance of Valland, challenging the false portrayal of her as very feminine and able to seduce men in certain films and literature (she was played by Cate Blanchett in the 2014 movie The Monuments Men). In other films such as Dr. No (1962) and The Train (1964), women are given minor roles and “more often than not, their characters are glamorous and alluring assistants,” says Jackson. The literature on art crime is also marked by a gendered language. For example, Jacqueline Crofton, who threw eggs at a Martin Creed painting at Tate Modern, was referred to as “grandmother,” while Hannelore K. who vandalized a work by Köpcke was referred to by the media as “old lady” and “granny.” We are provoked to ask whether a man, in the same situation, would be referred to as “grandfather” or “old man.” Probably not. Such a difference in the language to describe female and male art criminals reveals an unbalanced account of art crime. While the language has become less gendered, according to Jackson, there is still some distance to go.
Females in the Frame: Women, Art, and Crime is an informative and thorough overview of women in art crime and an interesting read to account for untold stories. Just like the majority of art collections in art repositories worldwide that have an overwhelming representation of male artists, art history accounts tend to feature male protagonists. Jackson’s objective, hopefully, was not to show that there were as many female thieves and forgers but to uncover the underrepresented side of the history of art crime. This easy-to-read book provides us with a new insights into the history of art crime and suggests why and how women’s involvement is omitted from historical documentation.
About the Book’s Author: Penelope Jackson is an art historian and curator based in New Zealand. A former gallery director, Jackson is a founding trustee of the New Zealand Art Crime Research Trust. She is the author of Art Thieves, Fakers & Fraudsters: The New Zealand Story (2016) and has contributed to the Journal of Art Crime and Art Crime and its Prevention (2016). Jackson has curated major exhibitions, including: award-winning Corrugations: The Art of Jeff Thomson (2013), The Lynley Dodd Story (2015), An Empty Frame: Crimes of Art in New Zealand (2016) and Katherine Mansfield: A Portrait (2018). About the Book: Penelope Jackson, Females in the Frame: Women, Art, and Crime (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019) ISBN: 978-3-030-20766-3. Available here.
- Noah Charney, The Art of Forgery: The Minds, Motives and Methods of Master Forgers, London: Phaidon (2015), p.14. ↑
About the Author: Yuchen Xie was a Fall 2019 Intern at the Center for Art Law and is pursuing her M.A. in Arts Administration at Columbia University. She holds her B.A. in Studio Art and French from the University of Virginia (2018). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.