The Bizarre & Intriguing World of Art Theft: Public Authorities and Private Organizations Work Together to Recover Stolen Art and Prevent Future Thefts

By Hart, Melissa | Art Business News, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

The Bizarre & Intriguing World of Art Theft: Public Authorities and Private Organizations Work Together to Recover Stolen Art and Prevent Future Thefts


Hart, Melissa, Art Business News


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The Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that thieves steal $4 billion to $6 billion worth of art worldwide each year from galleries, museums, and private homes. Some art thieves covet a particular piece and take it for their own enjoyment. Others pilfer paintings, sculptures, and photographs with the intention of selling them, sometimes funding terrorist activities and other illegal pursuits with the profits. Still others--private owners--fake art theft to cash in on insurance claims. Both public and private organizations maintain vast image databases with information on provenance and sales history of works of art and employ individuals who dedicate their days to recovering missing art.

Among the organizations focused on the search and recovery of stolen art is the Art Theft Detail of the Los Angeles Police Department. It maintains a webpage that describes cases on which its detectives have worked. "These stories are presented to you for several reasons," the website states. "First, they will give you the flavor of what it is like to be an art cop. You will see that art investigations involve many different crimes, including burglary, theft, consignment fraud, investment scams, fraudulent art, insurance fraud, elder abuse, and phony estate sales."

One of the LAPD's most memorable case studies, "Tibetan Artifacts and Pot-Bellied Pigs," involved a New York City collector and scholar of Tibetan art who trusted a handyman with her keys. The man, pretending to be a student of Buddhism, stole more than 200 antiquities from her collection. Detectives received a tip 11 years later that the thief might reside in Los Angeles. They found him living in the house of a frail retiree, with some of the stolen Tibetan pieces, by then cracked and crumbling, displayed in a room. In an adjoining room, they discovered a group of pot-bellied pigs rooting around in urine and feces.

Since 1993, LAPD's Art Theft Detail has recovered more than $121 million worth of stolen art. Many of the cases it describes are colorful--even absurd--and often preventable. Other case titles on the website include "The Chauffeur Did It," "The Butler Did It," and "Trust Me, I Work Here."

"Most art theft is [done by] people who actually saw [the piece]," says LAPD Detective Brent Johnson. "It's someone who's been invited into the home to work."

DATABASES: A ROAD TO RECOVERY

Detective Don Hrycyk has been a full-time LAPD art cop for more than 20 years. When he and Johnson hear about a case of art theft, they search for fingerprints, DNA, and video footage at the crime scene. They also request high-resolution photos of the stolen piece to put up on the LAPD website. "If we think it left the country, we put it up on Interpol and Art Loss Register," says Johnson. "Hopefully, it will come up for auction or go up for sale."

Several databases exist worldwide to document stolen art and thwart illegal sales. Aside from those sites maintained by police departments, Interpol, and the FBI, private databases give detectives and others the ability to spread the word about new thefts and claims.

Years before the LAPD established its Art Theft Detail, the International Foundation for Art Research created an art-theft archive to curtail theft. The organization's Stolen Art Alert became the Art Loss Register (ALR), a private database of lost and stolen art. The foundation offers both item registration and search-and-recovery services. "The ALR acts as a significant deterrent on the theft of art," the website reads. "Criminals are now well-aware of the risk ... they face in trying to sell stolen pieces of art."

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One of these pieces is Paul Cezanne's "Bouilloire et Fruits," a vibrant still life I of apples, oranges, and lemons around a silver pitcher that was stolen from a Boston residence in 1978. It reappeared two A decades later when a retired lawyer hiding his identity tried unsuccessfully to sell the painting. …

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