Riah Pryor has traversed the dark underbelly of art crime in order to bring her passion and expertise to the genteel Regency town of Cheltenham
Plagiarism [pley-juh-riz-uh m] noun 1. an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another without authorisation.
We’ve all been there. The hand-carved scarab being sold for small change in the shadow of the Great Pyramid, or the priapic figurine offered with utterances of “ancient” and “priceless” under the blistering sun atop the Acropolis. Of course, we know these objects are mass produced – as soon as one is bought, another is produced for the next tourist looking for a memento to take home – so there’s no harm done, is there? But what of the skilful forgers of our great works of art who can fool even the expert eye, and of the genuine antiquities that are being liberated from their countries and smuggled in to the line the pockets of the already wealthy? Suddenly the world of innocent tourist tat takes on a much darker air.
It takes a steady nerve and a trained eye to address the issues of art crime; most police detectives wouldn’t know where to start when identifying such objects. This is where experts such as Riah Pryor come in: investigative journalist specialising in the relationship between art and law, criminal researcher for New Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiques Unit… and now Head of Content and Programmes for Cheltenham Trust.
I meet with her in the convivial surrounds of The Wilson’s café, with coffee machines frothing in the background and mums with buggies meeting over tea and cake, and wonder how she came to work in the shady world of art crime?
“It wasn’t the plan,” she laughs. “To be honest, it wasn’t until I got to the sixth form that I heard of Art History as a subject. I heard that you got a free trip to Rome if you did the course, and I thought ‘this sounds excellent’.”
Riah had always been interested in heritage and art galleries, but had never considered it as a career option. She instantly fell in love with the subject at A-level, though, aided by having an “amazing” tutor, and couldn’t quite believe her luck in having discovered something that suited her so perfectly.
“No-one in my family had an artistic background,” she says, “and so I didn’t think it would be an option as a career… but anyone who loves art history and culture will understand that it takes over your life. You just live for it.”
Following a year out in Florence studying art – “I didn’t get anything particularly constructive out of it, but it was amazing being around art” – she went on to UCL and got her BA. What particularly interested her was our relationship with art in society – the life it has ahead of it after it leaves the artist’s studio. What place will it have in someone’s home? In the art market place? What sort of legal issues might arise? This led to her writing a dissertation on copyright and contemporary art, working with the Tate to help research it.
Having read The Medici Conspiracy by Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini – “It