How A Onetime Art Thief’s Personal Evolution from ‘American Animal’ to Author and Journalist is Providing Valuable Insights to the Criminal Justice Field
Eric Borsuk: An Art Crime Memoirist’s Metamorphosis How A Onetime Art Thief’s Personal Evolution from ‘American Animal’ to Author and Journalist is Providing Valuable Insights to the Criminal Justice Field Kimberly Babin (Updated from the article originally published on Medium (Oct 2022)) May 9, 2023 Award-winning author, journalist, and consultant, Eric Borsuk, entered college with aspirations to work Federal Bureau of Investigations as an agent, but things went horribly awry when he and three friends instead began plotting what would later become one of the most significant art heists in U.S. history. Now, Borsuk is working to bring attention to criminal justice topics and reforms, working with multiple organizations, including The Marshall Project which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting in 2021. His essay “Bidders of the Din” has been selected for THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 2023 (Available this fall from HarperCollins Publishers) by this year’s guest editor, Vivian Gornick, and receive the 2022 Sidney Award from David Brooks of The New York Times, and the Longreads Best of 2022 Award. After serving time for stealing a rare original first edition of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, a two-volume set of the Hortus Sanitatis, and twenty original John James Audubon pencil drawings, Borsuk penned the true crime memoir “American Animals.” The book served as the basis for the 2018 film by the same name. While the book has been largely seen as a coming-of-age true crime read, it may hold powerful, yet previously over-looked information that could prove highly valuable to criminal justice professionals, law enforcement, and those involved in cultural heritage and art crime and law sectors. Beyond his first book, Borsuk is now becoming a voice in criminal justice and law enforcement arena by contributing his own insights from his experience in the criminal justice system and voicing the experience of others through his journalism. In this interview, we asked Eric for his insights on art crime and criminal justice. The heist is said to be “one of the most audacious art heists in U.S. history”. From a criminal justice perspective, it is very well known that having one or two friends with a bad idea can lead to serious criminal and legal problems, especially frequently for young males. Do you think many other incidents of art crime from theft to vandalization — such as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Heist — are likely to have been born in the same way? Often art theft is completed by established criminals and frequently to launder money or fund organized crime, but do you think some instances are more likely to be on the less nefarious side — born out of rebellion, or thrill seeking? Most art crimes of this nature undoubtedly seem to be connected to organized crime. In my opinion, what makes our story unique is that none of us were professional criminals. We didn’t fit the mold; we weren’t the likely culprits. We were disillusioned youth — just 18 years old when we started planning the heist — searching for a way out of our mundane, middle-American existences. When people feel trapped, they often seek a remedy within reach and panic out of desperation. Paradoxically, the most absurd, far-fetched option seemed the most plausible to us. Like a modern-day Crime and Punishment, our endeavors ultimately led to crime-rebellion as a solution. Once the heist had been proposed, there was no turning back. Initially, we planned on using the profits from the stolen artwork to create new lives for ourselves. But, over time, what had started as a fantasy grew into an obsession, as if the heist would not just lead to our escape but also our salvation. As strange as it may sound, it felt like our last and only hope of creating worthwhile lives. Even though none of us were criminals with bad intentions, and we were terrified of the prospect of committing a felony, we forced ourselves to see it through. Throughout the planning phase, we kept reassuring ourselves that something would eventually stop us from proceeding — perhaps a security mechanism too difficult to bypass — but that was not the case. At every turn, we found the heist would be even easier to execute than we had imagined — no alarms attached to the pieces, no security cameras, etc. So, we kept pushing this fantasy along further and further, assuming that eventually something would stop us. As a lover of art and rare manuscripts, I hate to say it, because I don’t want to see museums overly surveilled, but the fact that there was hardly any security definitely contributed to our carrying out the crime. In your book, you mention that you were attending college in hopes of joining the FBI as a relative was an agent and you had aspired to follow suit since childhood. Now, after the incident, you have returned to an interest in law enforcement and criminal justice issues. Do you think your insight and experiences from both sides of the law has formed a better overall standing of the CJ system as a whole? Since early childhood, I had made great efforts to one day join the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I read every book on the F.B.I. and even became pen pals with former agents turned authors. I had multiple family members in the Bureau, and it was always my intention to follow in their footsteps. Even in college, at the time of the heist, I was still majoring in accounting, one of the only accepted baccalaureate degrees to apply for the F.B.I. straight out of college. I had always believed strongly in American democracy and the rule of law. To the surprise of many, even after having gone through the criminal justice system, I still believe in those founding principles. Now that I have experienced all sides of this equation, it has allowed me to form a better overall understanding of the criminal justice system as a whole. People oftentimes seem to have a very one-sided viewpoint of this topic, perhaps due to such factors as lack of information or exposure, which is why it’s so vital to involve individuals with lived experience in the conversation. You have worked as a journalist in many criminal justice arenas. Could your insight be valuable as a consultant for things like Museum Security or Art Crime Investigations? In my opinion, the best solution to any problem lies in a fully informed approach. So, with that in mind, yes, I do believe that my insight would likely be valuable for such consulting purposes. As I previously mentioned, same as my work in journalism and criminal justice reform, involving individuals with lived experience is key. While writing was initially your “bid” in serving time — do you think that in a sense, if the heist hadn’t happened, you still would have found a passion for writing and reporting on CJ topics — given that accounting was a means to an end in Criminal Justice & Law Enforcement? Writing had always been a passion of mine, but growing up in a Southern, conservative area, there wasn’t a lot of emphasis placed on the arts. Writing wasn’t really considered a viable career. The main thing writers need is time — time to practice, time to find their voice. Like any art form, it takes an incredible amount of time to become proficient. It wasn’t until I got to prison that I finally had the time to explore this interest. Without incarceration, I don’t know if I ever would’ve pursued this craft. Likewise, I don’t know if I ever would’ve become involved in criminal justice and prison reform. In my experience, I’ve found that most people unfortunately don’t seem to give it much thought until it affects them personally. Do you think that the fact that Spencer was an artist heavily influenced an art heist rather than some other scheme? In this case, the fact that Spencer was an artist definitely influenced the heist. As an art student at Transylvania University, he had access to the Special Collections Museum. It all started when he made an off-hand remark to another friend, Warren, about how much valuable artwork was housed in the Special Collections, and how there was very little security. So, I can’t speak much to the correlation of artists and art crimes, but it would seem there is certainly a connection to individuals with inside knowledge of the museums. Any up-and-coming books, articles, or other work of yours we should watch for? Where can we learn more about you and your work? I just published an essay (three years in the making) entitled “Bidders of the Din” with The Marshall Project and Virginia Quarterly Review about my time serving a seven-year federal prison sentence at the age of 20. I also work with organizations around the country to spotlight the stories of currently and formerly incarcerated adults, as well as juveniles diverted from justice system involvement. In addition, I serve on the board of directors for Die Jim Crow Records (DJC Records), the nation’s first nonprofit record label for prison-impacted musicians. You can learn more about Eric Borsuk and his work here: Linktree Kimberly Babin is an Art Law & Art Market specialist. She has curated numerous exhibitions and worked with world renowned artists. Kimberly holds a degree in Criminal Justice — Art Law & Crime, and studied art law with Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and the Institute of Art & Law. She has presented on the arts, art law & crime, curation, cultural heritage and the arts market at Christie’s, icom The Florida State Bar's Premiere International Law Global Convention, DCentral, Fashion Week New York, DFWNYC, colleges, museums, and other institutions. She is the Founder of Art Legal- Kimberly Babin Arts Advisory, and The Art Law Case Briefs podcast.