There didn't seem anything particularly unusual about the sale of William Kingsland's art collection, at least at first. A well-known New York art connoisseur, Kingsland died in 2006, and the auction house Christie's was hired inthe months after his death to sell many of his paintings and sculptures. But it turned out that Kingsland was not his given name. His birth name was Melvyn Kohn, and dozens of the artworks in his collection had been stolen from museums and galleries. The most notable include canvases by Pablo Picasso and John Singleton Copley and an Alberto Giacometti sculpture worth as much as a million dollars. "It appears that during a period of time in his life he went into galleries and took things that caught his eye," says New York Public Administrator Ethel Griffin, who is overseeing the case.
So whom did the auction house call for help? The FBI. One of its art theft investigators, Special Agent Jim Wynne, has been working the case since the beginning, researching the provenance of the stolen pieces and interviewing galleries believed to be the last verified owners. "[I wanted] to try and recover this stuff for the victims," Wynne says. And while the rightful owners of some of the pieces have been determined, most of the works still sit in a sort of legal limbo, their exact ownership unclear. The bureau recently posted images of the stolen objects on its website at www.fbi.gov, just a few clicks away from its list of the most wanted terrorists, under the headline: "Stolen Art Uncovered. Is it Yours?"
Meet the nation's art cops, assigned the long and often difficult task of returning stolen masterpieces to their owners. Art theft has become one of the world's most lucrative illegal activities, an estimated $6 billion black market business, with more than 50,000 heists occurring each year. The FBI has taken significant steps to fight the trend in recent years, creating a team of agents dedicated to recovering hot van Goghs and pilfered Monets. "Art is one-of-a-kind history that can never be re-created," says Special Agent Brian Brusokas. "If you take a piece off the wall and hide it away for 40 or 50 years, you're potentially depriving an entire generation, the whole world for that matter, of ever being able to view such a piece."
Federal art crime investigators are not new. The FBI has long had individual agents in New York and Los Angeles focused on museum robberies and art fraud. But after the massive looting of Iraq's National Museum in 2003 in which some 14,000 works were stolen, the bureau decided for the first time to form an art theft team, which now has more than a dozen agents assigned to regions in the United States. The unit aims to recover any illegal cultural property and often works with foreign law enforcement agencies. The squad has posted some major successes, recovering works by Matisse and Goya and one of the original copies of the Bill of Rights. "Art easily moves across state and international boundaries," says Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, manager of the art theft program. "Having this network of agents has been very effective."
To join the art theft team, agents must receive special training in art and art recovery. They learn the difference between an etching and an engraving; they learn how criminals forge documents to help slip fakes into the legitimate art market. "Art is different. It's not like cars, where there are registries with license plate numbers and registration numbers," says Sharon Flescher, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research, a nonprofit that specializes in art crime. "There is no one place where every work of art that has ever been created can be found, and it's not easy for the uninitiated to differentiate between different media, whether it's types of prints or paintings or works on paper. It helps to have a trained eye."
Art law is different, too. While thieves can be prosecuted under stolen property statutes, specific laws have been enacted to counter art crime. After the 1990 heist of a Vermeer and three Rembrandts from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Sen. Edward Kennedy pushed through Congress the Theft of Major Artwork statute. The law makes it a federal offense to own or conceal any artwork that is stolen from a museum and is more than 100 years old or worth more than $100,000. The penalties include fines and as much as 10 years in prison.
But for law enforcement, and the art world, the return of a missing object often holds more significance than a conviction. "I don't think many people realize that missing art is as important as it is. What's being stolen and secreted away is staggering," says Virginia Curry, who worked art crimes for the bureau for more than a decade and retired in 2006. "For me, the first priority is to recover the art. The second consideration is to identify the most culpable person involved."
Ulrich Boser, a former U.S. News reporter, is the author of "The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft."