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The Darker Side of the Art World | #phishing | #scams | #hacking | #aihp



It’s undeniable, that excitement you feel when waiting to read the next upcoming bestseller.  We’ve all experienced it. Sometimes, it feels like you’ll do anything to know whether Offred escapes, or to indulge in the next Sally Rooney novel, or to discover a new debut author. The anticipation to be one of the first people to know what happens next in a book series is sometimes borderline frustrating, but nevertheless, very few people act upon this excitement.

Recently, however, it emerged that this is not the case for Filippo Bernardini, who, in early January, was stopped by the FBI at New York’s JFK airport and arrested for stealing numerous manuscripts of novels and impersonating staff members of publishing houses.

Bernardini is an Italian citizen employed by publishers Simon and Schuster, who are known for their wide range of publishing interests and whose recent books have included The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur, and They Both Die At The End by Adam Silvera. Bernardini has been accused of pilfering manuscripts from publishers, with his indictment alleging that he has “impersonated, defrauded, and attempted to defraud, hundreds of individuals”.

According to the FBI’s Assistant Director-in-Charge, Michael J. Driscoll, “Mr. Bernardini used his insider knowledge of the industry to get authors to send him their unpublished books and texts by posing as agents, publishing houses, and literary scouts. Mr. Bernardini was allegedly trying to steal other people’s literary ideas for himself, but in the end he wasn’t creative enough to get away with it.”

Bernardini’s scheming behaviour is now believed to have been taking place since August 2016, and since then over 160 fake online domains have been created, which used tiny typographical errors to trick editors and publishers into providing information. Perhaps I’m naïve – or have watched too many James Bond films – but I always imagined hacking and phishing scams to involve hundreds of screens with constant monitoring and beeping, and people running around keeping tabs on different contacts and locations. Bernardini’s scams, however, appear to have relied more heavily on a human error, of sorts.

The tricks in typography that Bernardini used enabled his scams, as the human eye skims over incorrect spellings, if they looked how we would expect them to. Bernardini slyly manipulated letters in the email addresses and domains he established, switching “g” for “q” and “t” for “f ”, emailing from the @penguinrandornhouse address to show his authority. You might think these tricks would, in practice, be very easy to spot, but have you ever noticed that an “r” and an “n” together look very similar to an “m”?

On top of this, the indictment against Bernardini also alleges that he created a website impersonating an American scouting company, based in New York. Through positioning himself as a scout – who helps to read manuscripts, sifting through submissions and ultimately deciding what would be good to take forward to publishing and translating – Bernardini was able to access unreleased manuscripts.

The indictment also alleges that in September 2020, he created another fraudulent email address to correspond with a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, requesting they send their most recent manuscript to him. The author, unassumingly, did so.

Reportedly, authors such as Margaret Attwood, Stieg Larsson, Sally Rooney, and Ethan Hawke have all fallen victim to such phishing scams. In 2019, the BBC disclosed that there had been “concerted efforts to steal” the manuscript of Attwood’s The Testaments, the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. To mitigate the risks and try to prevent further scams, publishers put contingency plans into place: advanced copies of The Testaments were issued to readers with a different title, and judges of the Booker Prize (which Attwood went on to jointly win, along with Bernardine Evaristo, in 2019) were required to sign non-disclosure agreements before reading themanuscripts, which were then hidden and locked away overnight.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this puzzle is the motive – or more accurately maybe, the seeming lack of. None of the stolen works have ever been leaked online before publication, and no blackmail demands or ransoms have come to fruition either, leading some to assume the thief was trying to obtain knowledge of potential TV and film rights ahead of others. Others, however, suggest the motive is arguably more sinister, being a psychological mind game of sorts, where Bernardini was trying to gain some power and leverage in a highly competitive industry.

Bernardini was charged on counts of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft, but has pleaded not guilty, with bail set at £221, 556. Though the saga has spanned several years, and surely will itself become a bestselling novel and TV series soon enough, it is by no means the only phishing story in the publishing industry.

In 2018,The Bookseller reported that scouting agency Eccles Fisher was struggling with a scam, where emails sent from a seemingly genuine Eccles Fisher account were then redirected when replied to, allowing the scammer to access manuscripts, typescripts, and official passwords.

The publishing industry is not the only sector in the arts to suffer recently from large thefts.  Though art heists are not a new phenomenon –the first documented heist was in 1473, when pirates stole Hans Memling’s The Last Judgement whilst it was travelling to France – in the height of the pandemic, thieves were finding the closure of museums and galleries the perfect time to loot. In early 2020, Van Gogh’s 1884 painting Spring Garden was stolen from the Singer Laren Museum in the Netherlands, and was later believed to be held to ransom, with a photograph appearing of the painting alongside a copy of the New York Times, dated 30 May.

A few months later, a Frans Hals painting, Two Laughing Boys with a Mug of Beer, was stolen from the Hofje van Aerden Museum in Leerdam, near Utrecht. The painting, with an estimated value of £13.4m, has been stolen twice before too, and in 1988 when it was stolen, thieves also took Jacob van Ruisdael’s Forest View with Flowering Elderberry, though returned it later. Currently, some of van Ruisdael’s other works are on display at York Art Gallery in their Lost Gainsborough exhibition, which is open until 13th February.

Given that these thefts were close in proximity to each other, in terms of both time and location, police arrested an unnamed 58-year-old man in connection with both. However, as of 2021, neither painting has yet been found.  Despite this, throughout art history, numerous stolen paintings have eventually been located.  The Mona Lisa, stolen from the Louvre in 1911, was found after the thief, Vincenzo Peruggia (a member of staff at the Louvre) tried to donate the painting to an Italian museum. In 1913, the Mona Lisa was restored in the Louvre.

Renoir’s Young Parisian and Conversation and a Rembrandt self-portrait were all stolen in 2000 from the National Museum of Fine Arts in Stockholm, and despite their escape on a speedboat, by 2005 all three works had been returned.  The Madonna of the Yarnwinder, attributed to Da Vinci (although the extent of his involvement with the painting is debated) was stolen from Drumlanrig Castle in Scotland in 2003 by two tourists, but was eventually recovered after a raid at a law firm in Glasgow in 2007. It now hangs in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Though lots are answered, some still prove elusive and unsolvable: the world’s biggest art heist remains unsolved, as the 13 works (valued at an estimated $500m) stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, in 1990 have never been found.  The heist took place during the night of 18 March, and works by some of the world’s most prolific artists were stolen, including Rembrandt, Degas, Vermeer, and Manet.

Witnesses said that two men in police uniforms were sitting in a car outside the museum. The seeming-policemen used the intercom system to request access, saying they were the response to reports of disturbances. They then handcuffed, blindfolded, and bound the security guard. Suspicions about the thief or thieves have abounded ever since. Some say the guard must be to blame, and that the theft was an inside job, whereas others suggest it was a mafia job, with the thieves not necessarily keeping the artworks afterwards. The FBI believes the works travelled throughout the crime networks spreading across Connecticut and Philadelphia but this is uncertain, and the last alleged sighting of any of the works was the Rembrandt seascape, seen in 2003.  Since then, there have been no sightings.

As with the story of Bernardini, art heists prove the perfect fodder for literary and filmic endeavours. Last year, Netflix released This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist, directed by Colin Barnicle, a four-part series exploring the night of the heist and discussing possibilities for the thieves and whereabouts of the works.  Barnicle said his primary intention for creating the series was to raise awareness, stating “I think there’s a possibility that some small pieces are still out there somewhere on somebody’s wall– they just don’t know they have them because it wasn’t as widely spread as the Vermeer and the few Rembrandts”.

For many, the arts are an escape, and this has become particularly prominent in the last two years.  Though most give the arts the respect they deserve, stories such as the Isabella Stewart Gardner heist and Filippo Bernardini’s manipulation and betrayal of individual creativity are astounding, and show the enduring importance of art, even, as with these cases, in their absence

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