- The Washington Times - Friday, July 21, 2006

Thanks to such films as “Ocean’s Twelve,” “Entrapment” and “The Thomas Crown Affair,” the crime of art theft conjures images of catlike thieves staging elaborate, suspenseful heists.

These archcriminals are rarer than Hollywood would admit, but art theft still is very real. Combating it is the mission of the FBI’s Art Theft Program, based in the District.

“I’ve never run across [a thief] who looked like Pierce Brosnan,” says Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, manager of the FBI’s Art Theft Program. “They’re pretty ordinary.”

Contrary to popular belief, she says, U.S. art thieves are “usually breaking-and-entering burglars,” stealing more from warehouses and private homes than museums and art galleries.

The latter, explains Kathleen Kennedy, senior underwriter at AXA Art Insurance Chicago, are protected by “pressure pads, motion detectors, break-glass sensors and sound sensors.”

According to Mrs. Magness-Gardiner, the Art Theft Program is composed of the National Stolen Art File and the Art Crime Team.

The Stolen Art File, which was created in 1979 and uploaded electronically in 1997, helps compile stolen art and pieces of cultural value. “[Art] doesn’t have a serial number,” says Mrs. Magness-Gardiner, who is an archaeologist by training. “So it couldn’t be put into any other database.”

Because very few easily recognizable works are stolen from U.S. collections, the Stolen Art File also helps officials identify whether a found piece in question is the stolen work of art.

The Art Crime Team — the operative arm of the program — was created in 2004. The unit recovered more than 100 items worth more than $50 million in its first year alone, including Rembrandt’s self-portrait, which had been stolen at gunpoint in Sweden, and more than 100 paintings worth more than $3 million that had been stolen from a Florida warehouse.

Other recent cases solved by the Art Crime Team include last month’s recovery of Teddy Roosevelt’s San Juan Hill pistol and eight cylindrical seals looted from Iraqi archaeological sites, which were recovered and returned in February 2005.

“Each agent is given a specific territory. … There’s a West Coast, Upper Midwest, East Coast,” Mrs. Magness-Gardiner says. “Each agent heads the investigation for art crimes. … He’s a resource for other agents who are trying to investigate art theft and fraud.”

One of those agents is special agent James P. Wynne, who has worked with the Major Theft Squad in New York City since 1987. According to Mr. Wynne, “It’s more likely … that thefts come from people on the inside.”

One of Mr. Wynne’s favorite cases involved “a diary in Malcolm X’s pocket when he was killed [that] was being sold in California” by Manhattan Supreme Court clerk Douglas Henderson in 1999.

“It was supposed to be in the Supreme Court’s evidence vault,” Mr. Wynne recalls of the attempted auction of the diary. “The first thing I had heard about it was in the New York Times.”

Mr. Wynne also helped crack the 1991 case of Daniel Cevallos-Tovar, who stole more than 280 rare alchemy books while researching at Yale and Harvard.

“He was trying to be a practicing alchemist,” Mr. Wynne says, until “his apartment was struck by lightning,” resulting in a fire that the fire department had to put out.

Because of water and chemical damage, “all of his property was moved to a storage facility,” Mr. Wynne says. “He paid the rental fees for a while — and then he ended up stopping.”

The unwitting storage facility tried to recoup its losses by selling the books. It was only because a buyer noticed unmarked bookplates that Mr. Wynne was on the case, ending with the recovery of the texts and Cevallos-Tovar’s guilty plea.

Mrs. Magness-Gardiner says the Art Crime Team’s operations range from “straight investigative techniques” to undercover “sting” operations, such as the recovery of the Rembrandt from a gang of robbers in Copenhagen.

She explains that art theft’s appeal is “there are no established title registration systems for works of arts.” She adds that “it’s easier to get away with it than in other fields because there are no serial numbers. Many people buy stolen art without being aware that it’s stolen.”

Mrs. Magness-Gardiner adds that “you could try to sell it electronically on the Internet, at a flea market, at a dealer, at an art house.”

The only places that have any sort of safeguards against stolen art moving along to another owner are museums; pawnshops, which, according to Brian Diener of the District’s Diener Jewelers, are “usually monitored … [and] governed by the District of Columbia police department”; and high-end auction houses, such as Sotheby’s.

“Art doesn’t devalue over time the same way a cell phone or a computer might,” Mrs. Magness-Gardiner says. “It might be worthwhile to keep it in storage over a period of time.”

Because criminals will lie low to avoid the statute of limitations for art theft and possession of stolen property, she adds, “the pieces will disappear from the market for 20 to 30 years, by which time, the person from whom they originally stole it might be deceased and the heirs wouldn’t even know they owned it.”

Other times, when a stolen piece of art goes public, such as being auctioned or held in a museum, it can lead to a dispute over the piece’s rightful ownership, such as the recent controversy surrounding the Getty Museum, which returned two ancient works to Greece on July 10.

Mrs. Magness-Gardiner urges victims of art theft to call the police immediately and also register their stolen art with the civilian-accessible Art Loss Register.

Mr. Wynne agrees, saying that failure to register art immediately could result in dealers, finding no match on the Art Loss Register, selling the artwork to an unwitting buyer or another dealer, who is “even more comfortable” because the work has come from a fellow dealer.

Ms. Kennedy adds that it is “critical” for art owners to have “an updated, detailed list with photographs of all their artworks” in multiple locations and easily accessible.

“Due diligence is really critical when you’re purchasing cultural property in the U.S. You need to check out the registry to make sure it isn’t a stolen work of art; you need to find out the last owner and the owner before that,” Mrs. Magness-Gardiner adds.

Still, Mrs. Magness-Gardiner says, catching a thief is not as glamorous as the movies show.

Asked if Hollywood’s view of art theft is more fantasy than fact, she sighs with only slight aggravation. “Yes,” she says. “That is an exaggeration.”

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