Crime and Picasso: The Shadowy Underworld of Art

A special FBI team focuses on one of the world's most lucrative illegal activities.

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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."

Still, recovering stolen art isn't easy. Part of the problem is figuring out the exact motivation; people steal art for all sorts of reasons. Some thieves are gangsters hoping to pilfer a trophy. Some are disgruntled security guards looking for revenge. Sometimes curators pocket artifacts because they believe that they can take better care of them than the museum or gallery that owns them. A thief once swiped a Chagall painting from New York City's Jewish Museum, and a few days later the institution received a ransom note, saying that the canvas would not be returned until Israel and the Palestinians made lasting peace. (Some months later, the Chagall was recovered in a postal center in Topeka, Kan., and investigators now believe that the thief tried to get rid of the work by sending it as a dead letter.)

For the most part, though, the crooks are motivated by cash. While the art market has slumped in recent months along with the rest of the economy, a top painting still can fetch tens of millions of dollars, with a rare Impressionist work sharing the same value as a corporate jet or a small technology firm. During an FBI sting operation to recover a stolen Rembrandt self-portrait a few years ago, an undercover agent asked the seller if he had any interest in the old master canvas. "No," the man baldly replied. "I'm in it for the money."

But is there really money to be made in art theft? For the most part, the answer is no. Criminals have few options when it comes to profiting from art crime. Auction houses have no interest in selling looted art; legitimate collectors have no interest in purchasing it. Even keeping stashes of stolen art for pleasure is unlikely. Investigators have never found any evidence of a so-called Dr. No (named after the villain from the James Bond movie), a shady, art-loving millionaire who snaps up stolen paintings for late-night viewing in the basement of his Caribbean mansion. "Art theft is a crime of opportunity," says Agent Wynne. "The problem for the thieves is that you can't sell the stuff. If it is so noteworthy and so valuable, it's extraordinarily hard to sell."

Most stolen art ends up slipping into the criminal netherworld. Crooks will hide the item in an attic and wait for a good time to sell it, or an enterprising rogue might trade the pilfered work to other criminals for guns and drugs as a sort of underworld currency. And through dedicated investigative work and good relationships with art dealers and collectors, the bureau has been able to track down more than 1,000 stolen objects over the past four years.

The FBI often recovers artworks when they come up for sale, as oblivious criminals regularly bring hot art into Christie's or Sotheby's not knowing that the auctioneers vet objects before they go under the hammer. It helps, too, that crooks don't typically have much of an understanding of art and art history. A handyman once swiped a painting from a home in Connecticut and sold the canvas to a local antiques dealer for $100. He later told investigators that he was hoping to make a little cash. But it turned out that French artist Henri Fantin-Latour had created the work, and it was worth more than $1 million.

Still, many art theft cases take years, decades, even more than a century, to crack. During the final days of the Civil War, Union Army soldiers stole North Carolina's Bill of Rights out of the state Capitol. Commissioned by President George Washington, the document was one of only 14 copies created after Congress proposed the first amendments, and for more than 140 years, it remained missing. Then, in 2003, two antiques dealers tried to peddle the work for $4 million. A millionaire philanthropist showed interest in the document, claiming that he would buy the artifact on behalf of Philadelphia's Constitution Center. But the philanthropist was actually an undercover FBI agent, and investigators seized the document. "It was like touching history," one agent said.


Corrected on : 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."