Friday, August 22, 2008

Art Theft

One type of crime that has always fascinated the public is the highly stratified world of Art Theft. According to the FBI Art Crime Team, art theft alone constitutes losses of roughly $6 billion each year.

The FBI established a rapid deployment Art Crime Team in 2004. The team is composed of 13 Special Agents, each responsible for addressing art and cultural property crime cases in an assigned geographic region. The Art Crime Team is coordinated through the FBI's Art Theft Program, located at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Since its inception, the Art Crime Team has recovered over 850 items of cultural property with a value exceeding $134 million.
If you peruse the website and this link to the Top Ten Art Crimes, it's a fascinating look into the prevalence of this crime, and how the FBI works with international law enforcement agencies to track the world's most valuable art pieces.

But contrary to the movies, this IHT article suggests art theft oftentimes bears little resemblance to the spectacular world of tipsters, fences, professional thieves, and greedy art collectors who ransom or hold hostage these famous works. Sometimes, it seems more analogous to a convenience store robbery.

"No one theory can fit all examples of art theft, but I think it's often an IQ test for not-so-smart criminals, and a lot of them fail," said James Mintz, the principal of a corporate investigations firm with offices in New York, London, Zurich and other cities that has handled art cases.

Many of the most notorious art thefts in past decades bear him out and illuminate a strange disconnection between the enduring mystique of art theft and the reality of its perpetrators. The theft in Vienna in 2003 of a gold-plated saltcellar made by Benvenuto Cellini, valued at $60 million, was traced to a 50-year-old alarm-systems specialist with no criminal record. The police called him a "funny guy" who had decided to take the Cellini more or less spontaneously. A divorcé who lived alone, he kept the sculpture under his bed for two years.

They go on to note cases of thieves keeping stolen Picasso's rolled up in "cardboard tubes," sculptures "hidden in closets," and other such ignominious conclusions.

But the allure is still there, and the occasional spectacular theft which goes unresolved is where the Hollywood screenplays come from.
The marquee example remains the 1990 robbery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the biggest art theft in American history, with a value estimated at as high as $300 million. Speculation has run high for years that the crime, still unsolved with the art unrecovered, might have been carried out by the organization of James (Whitey) Bulger, the Boston crime boss, who remains a fugitive.

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