Home News Stories 2010 February Team Approach to Art Crime, Part 1
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Team Approach to Art Crime, Part 1

Art Crime
A Team Approach, Part 1


Art Crime Team members met with experts in for a week-long training seminar in New York City.

The Sotheby’s auctioneer scanned the room as the bidding continued for a first-century Roman bronze sculpture of the goddess Aphrodite. When the gavel finally came down and the sale price was recorded at more than $530,000, members of our art crime team observing the action were reminded once again that when it comes to the world of art, the stakes can be very high.

With so much money changing hands, is it any wonder that thieves and scammers steal valuable works and pass off fakes as originals?

The ability to deal with such crimes is one of the reasons the art crime team—made up of 13 agents from around the country and three special prosecutors from the Department of Justice—was established in 2004. It’s also why the team, which celebrated its fifth anniversary last October, recently gathered for a week-long training seminar in the art capital of the world, New York City.

Johannes Vermeer’s “The Concert” Painting
Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s “The Concert” was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990.


Considering an Art Purchase?

- Get a thorough provenance (history of ownership) on the work. Don’t rely on a simple certificate of authenticity.

- Carefully research the dealer. Check the Better Business Bureau for possible complaints. Find out if they sell only online or if they have a gallery.

- For works you already own, go back to the gallery and ask for provenance. You can also contact artists’ foundations that will do side-by-side comparisons with originals for a fee.

- Be cautious. You are most likely to let your guard down when you think you’ve found a treasure at a bargain price.

Since the team’s inception, more than 2,400 objects of cultural property valued at more than $142 million have been recovered
. A number of art criminals have been sent to jail, and many of the recovered items have been returned or repatriated. Even so, said Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, who manages our Art Theft Program, “We are seeing an increase in these types of crimes.” Some estimates place the total losses due to art and cultural property crimes at $8 billion per year.

The training is an annual event that brings team members together to talk about their cases, to share investigative techniques, and to hear from experts in the field. Agents on the team must know how to investigate art crimes, but they also need to interact with art specialists, research a work’s provenance (history of ownership), and understand how to store and conserve seized works that may be worth millions of dollars.

A focus of this year’s training was on authentication—how to determine if a work is real or fake. Experts participating in panel discussions spoke of identifying forgeries using time-tested methods of scholarship and experience. One physicist discussed his use of cutting-edge technology to identify a work’s “image DNA.”

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Consider the ramifications of a fake work being taken as an original: A fraudster bought a $100 unsigned painting, forged the signature of the artist Juan Gris, and sold it to a dealer for $65,000. The dealer then sold it to a collector for $135,000.

“The first buyer may know it’s a fake, but the second buyer doesn’t,” Gardiner said. “And then it’s in the marketplace.”

“Nobody wants to see stolen or forged artworks passing through the marketplace,” said Jane Levine, director of Sotheby’s worldwide compliance division. During a tour of the auction house, Levine told the team, “The work the FBI does investigating and prosecuting art crimes is necessary and important—and it’s good for the art business.”

The problem with fakes is significant. One long-time gallery owner told agents that about 30 percent of the works people bring him to sell are probably not authentic. (Some in the business illustrate the problem with a joke: Of the 4,000 paintings produced by the artist Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, 7,000 are in the United States.)

Collectively, members of the team have decades of experience investigating art crimes. Next, we’ll meet some of its agents and learn about their cases.

- A Team Approach, Part II
- Art Crime Team