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FBI Art Crime Team says residences are biggest target

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Special agents investigate thefts, trafficking and forgeries, recovering millions of dollars worth of art.

I know better than to believe everything I see in the movies. But when it came to art heists, I believed that they all, in fact, took place in beautiful European countries, at high-profile museums, executed by men dressed in black. Didn’t you?

A recent conversation with Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, the program manager for the FBI’s Art Theft Program in Washington, set me straight. I learned that bad guys don’t always look like Pierce Brosnan, and the biggest targets are not museums, but rather, houses like yours.

You established the art crimes team in 2004. What prompted that?

The looting of the Baghdad Museum and the recognition at the time and thereafter that law enforcement needed a team of experts who knew how to investigate that type of crime and knew how to handle art.

Since then, what dollar amount of art have you recovered?

More than $142million. That’s more than 2,400 objects of cultural property and about 30 to 40 completed cases, but we have many more than that ongoing at any one time. You’ve got remember, when works of art are stolen they can be missing for many years. The Gardner case was opened in 1990, and it’s been open, pending and active since then. [The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft was the largest property crime in U.S. history, in which two robbers dressed as police officers, tied up security guards and stole $500 million worth of art, including Degas sketches, Rembrandt works and a rare Vermeer.]

Do the agents on this team have backgrounds in art?

They don’t all have specialized backgrounds in art, but I do bring them together once a year for a week-long training where we really focus on the business of art—conservation practices, expert testimony, how you deal with professionals in this realm, how to determine a fake work of art. For the week-long training, I usually select a city that has some importance for the art market. The latest was in New York, where there are many auction houses and experts. In previous yeas, its been in Chicago and Santa Fe. This last training we didn’t do so much visiting the museums but more bringing in experts and having them talk about authentication processes, problems, what to expect and what are the pitfalls.

People who steal art—are they only stealing art? Is it a specialized crime?

Some of them are but by and large, no. Most is stolen during residential burglaries. A thief will enter the house, identify what he thinks is valuable and take it—whether it’s a TV or a work of art. The specialties are the ones going to archives, museums and libraries, where a level of knowledge is required to know what is valuable and how to sell it. That’s especially true in the book and archive world.

What types of places are the biggest targets?

Residences tend to be the target. To a much lesser degree, galleries—smash and grab jobs. In museums, which is less frequent, or a library or archival setting, it tends to be an insider—staff, patron, docent--someone who knows the institution. Whereas a residential burglary, it could be anybody, although when art is stolen it is often someone who has access to the house, like a serviceperson or contractor.

Is it complicated to authenticate a piece of art?

It can be. There are various forms and means of forging something. A painting might be authentic, but the signature is wrong. Then there is the problem of copying, which has a very long and distinguished history. Students are sent to museums to copy fine works of art; that is not illegal. The crime is when someone takes that legitimate copy and tries to sell it as an original.

What’s surprised you most about this field?

The variety of criminal activity that’s involved in the buying and selling of works of art. It’s also puzzling to me that people who buy works of art tend to do so on an emotional basis, and they don’t ask the questions one would normally ask. If you’re buying a car, you go to Consumer Reports, do background research. Often when buying a piece of art, people aren’t asking the questions. When I’m talking to people who might purchase art, I tell them to check the reputation of the seller and then ask them, “Where did this come from? Who owned this before you did?” And then follow up and check, to make sure you’re not buying something stolen or fraudulent.

Is this a full-time job for the 13 art crime special agents?

No, this is a collateral duty. They are assigned to a regular squad—most are on violent crimes and work on this when they are finished with their other cases. They are supported by three special prosecutors from the Department of Justice.

Do you ever have an art crime that’s also a violent crime?

Rarely does that happen here. It tends to be more violent overseas.

And in the movies.

Yes, and in the movies. But you should know, we don’t look like that. And neither do the thieves.

Click here to watch a video about the FBI Art Crime Team.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure