Purloined Picassos chased by FBI art sleuths
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Special Agent in Charge Richard DesLauriers, right, stands next to a poster that shows a Rembrandt painting and a reward while facing reporters during a news conference at FBI headquarters in Boston, Monday, March 18, 2013. The FBI believes it knows the identities of the thieves who stole art valued at up to $500 million from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum more than two decades ago. DesLauriers says the thieves belong to a criminal organization based in New England and the mid-Atlantic states. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Francisco de Goya's painting "Children with a Cart" is shown on display at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2007. The painting, stolen in November 2006 while en route to the Guggenheim from the Toledo Museum of Art, who was loaning it for the exhibition "Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso," was recovered by the FBI. El Greco's painting joins 21 other paintings on display as part of the Spanish Painting exhibit. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Stored inside a laptop at FBI headquarters are photos of thousands of paintings, sculptures and artifacts, works by Vincent Van Gogh and Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Paul Cezanne – international treasures worth millions of dollars each. All are missing.
The computer belongs to Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, a PhD in Near Eastern archeology who leads the agency’s art-theft program and considers herself one of the least-likely employees walking through the doors of the J. Edgar Hoover Building headquarters in Washington each morning.
As wealthy investors seek to diversify their assets and Wall Street art enthusiasts like SAC Capital Advisors founder Steven Cohen beef up their collections, art crime is a growth industry and an increasingly important target for the FBI.
“It’s history, it is high value, it is true crime and it is mystery,” said Robert Wittman, a former FBI special agent and senior investigator on the agency’s Art Crime Team. “We’re dealing with things that have an interest and a value to society and to culture and to civilization.”
Art theft, while impossible to pinpoint its scope, has been estimated by some groups as totaling as much as $6 billion a year globally. Though it has been investigated by the FBI for decades, the agency’s efforts got a boost in 2004 with the creation of the rapid-deployment Art Crime Team.
The black market in art “is a very large enterprise,” Magness-Gardiner said in an interview. “Stolen art, stolen antiquities move into a legitimate market very easily.”
Her office serves as a hub for federal law enforcement efforts to combat art theft. She oversees the National Stolen Art File, a database of stolen art and cultural property, as well as the FBI’s “Top Ten Art Crimes” – a Most Wanted list for historic valuables.
Made up of 14 special agents and three prosecutors, the team operates around the country, with each agent in the field overseeing a different region. The team got its start after the looting of cultural treasures in Baghdad following the U.S. invasion of Iraq and has cultivated international ties as it does its work.
To date, the team has recovered more than 2,650 items with a combined value of more than $150 million, according to the FBI.
While museum heists depicted in Hollywood movies may be the perception most have of art theft, it’s the individual collector who is the prime target for thieves, Magness-Gardiner said.
“The idea that there’s a Mr. Big out there somewhere who’s directing all of this burglary and theft from museums I think is mostly a product of our film industry,” she said.
Jeffrey Gundlach, chief executive officer of Los Angeles-based DoubleLine Capital, is among the beneficiaries of the team’s efforts, which helped recover more than $10 million in works stolen from his Santa Monica home in September. Six people were charged in January, according to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.
The private collector marketplace, which boomed in the years before the 2008 financial crisis, has recovered to near precrisis levels, with more than $56.7 billion in art transactions in 2012, according to The European Fine Art Foundation’s Art Market Report released in March. Private sales, which make up part of the market, are not publicly available.
“Over the last 10 years, you’ve seen an explosion to new levels in the art space,” Jeff Rabin, principal and co-founder of Artvest Partners, an art investment advisory firm based in New York City.
The growth, driven by factors including the integration of Russia, China and India into the global economy, Rabin said, stalled and quickly receded in the immediate wake of the financial crisis. The recovery since then has been dramatic, even as growth has begun to slow over the past year, he said.
Transactions are up more than 50 percent since the start of 2009, according to the market report, which gathers and analyzes data from dealers, auction houses, collectors, industry experts and financial databases to reach its conclusions. The market is up more than 90 percent since 2002.
For some wealth advisers, the uncertainty that followed the financial crisis made artwork an attractive addition to an investment portfolio, according to a paper this year from consulting firm Deloitte and ArtTactic, a market research group for art collectors, funds and institutions.
Wittman, the former FBI agent, now runs a security and recovery consulting firm in Philadelphia. He said the profile of art thieves, particularly in the United States where museum thefts are rare, is that of a typical burglar. While they may bring some sophistication to the theft, their knowledge of what to do with the artwork afterward is limited.
“I can’t tell you how many times in these investigations where you find that these guys are hiding pieces in their closets, behind their refrigerators,” said Wittman, the author of Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures. “They are valuable paintings, but they can’t do anything with them.”