Art Cops: Overworked and Under-resourced

Over the weekend in the Baltimore Sun Tricia Bishop reports on the current state of heritage policing in the United States:

America is the largest consumer of artwork in the world, with a 40 percent share of the $200 billion global industry. It’s also the scene of nearly half of the illegal art trade estimated to be worth another $7 billion worldwide. 

Yet other countries pay far more attention to art fraud. Italy has several hundred detectives on its Carabinieri Art Squad, and Greece, France, Germany and Belgium all have national units working the detail. 

In contrast, the FBI’s Art Crime Team, co-founded by a Baltimore native whose father ran an antiques shop on Howard Street, is made up of one archaeologist and 13 agents, who work the beat on the side. And the Los Angeles Police Department’s Art Theft Detail consists of just one investigator, a man who is delaying retirement because he’s afraid the division will die if he leaves without a trained successor.

The piece looks at three of the main groups tasked with art crimes in the United States: The Art Crime Team, the Archival Recovery Team, and Don Hrycyk at the LAPD. As I said in the piece, these folks have an essential job, and given the fact these crimes are still relegated to the status of non-violent property crimes in many cases, they don’t rise to the level of illegal narcotics or terrorism or other priorities law enforcement must tackle. But there is a fundamental difference between property and historical objects and art, and more attention should be paid to them. America as a country might be thinking too much about owning and buying these objects, and not enough about acting as stewards.

  1. Tricia Bishop, Art investigators: Saving the country’s cultural heritage, one recovered work at a time, Baltimore Sun, October 23, 2011, http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-history-thieves-20111007,0,443863,full.story (last visited Oct 26, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

The National Archives Archival Recovery Team

The 150th anniversary of the Civil War has renewed interest in artifacts from that era, and the National Archives Art Recovery Team has ramped up its efforts to track down objects which have been stolen:
 FRANKLIN, TENN. – Among the Civil War buffs wandering through the tables of muskets and faded daguerreotypes of Union soldiers for sale here are four federal agents. 
One raids houses and carries a gun. But right now he’s handing out innocuous-looking brochures to the relic hunters walking by, as the sweet smell of glazed nuts wafts from a concession stand. “Does that document belong in the National Archives?” the brochure asks. 
The agents have flown to a fairground outside Nashville to the country’s biggest Civil War show to hunt for stolen treasure – robbed right from the nation’s attic. 
Whether they know it or not, the dealers may be trafficking in stolen government property. The heist may have taken place in 1865. Or last week. Or a document may not have been looted at all, but made its way into private hands instead of the Archives. 
With the Civil War 150th anniversary drawing new interest, the trail could be warm. 
“We’re friendly,” says Paul Brachfeld, inspector general of the Archives, who has gotten out of the office this December weekend to see his team in action. For the dealers, “it’s an authenticity thing,” he says. “If you traffic in stolen documents, it taints everything.” 
The tactic illustrates the new, more aggressive approach the Archives is taking in an effort to recover treasures that have disappeared from its holdings. Porous security and open access have allowed countless items to slip out of the Archives’ 44 centers and presidential libraries, from the Washington headquarters to the Reagan Library in California. 
The missing items include telegrams written by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War; the Wright brothers’ patent for a flying machine; Eli Whitney’s patent for the cotton gin; Lyndon Johnson’s class ring from the Coast Guard; an official portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt; and target maps for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. 

The most recent issue of the Journal of Art Crime also featured an interview with Paul Brachfeld.

  1. Lisa Rein, National Archives hunts for missing treasures with recovery team, The Washington Post, February 23, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/22/AR2011022206661.html?sid=ST2011022300101 (last visited Feb 23, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Former National Archives Department Head Under Investigation

A former department head at the National archives is under federal investigation after Federal agents searched his home last week.  Leslie Waffen had worked at the national archives for 40 years, heading the Motion Picture, Sound, and Video unit. Federal agents seized material from his home last Tuesday and searched his home. There are no details yet about what kinds of items were recovered.

Inspector General Paul Brachfeld is quoted in the TBD piece detailing the investigation last week: “The threat is there. Incidences have transpired and they continue to transpire, and my job is to, A, investigate active cases and, B, educate the public”.  Brachfeld offers more details on the National Archives Archival Recovery Team (ART) in the fall volume of the Journal of Art Crime, which will be available in early December. To subscribe see http://www.artcrime.info/publications.  

The Wright Brothers missing Airplane patent

One of the biggest challenges for the National Archives is its role as a repository for the people. It is open to the public, but it contains a massive amount of material. Much of this has not been systematically inventoried. By way of example there are stores of government documents in salt mines in Hutchinson Kansas.  Stored there are dismantled pieces of the hospital room where President John F. Kennedy was treated after he was shot. Given all of this material, and the access the public has, one of the biggest problems will always be insider thefts. The problem of the employees of the archives taking valuable objects and keeping or selling them.  The Government Accountability office recently issued a report on the National Archives after items had gone missing.  Lost items include the Wright Brothers patent for the first airplane, Eli Whitney’s patent for the cotton gin, a copy of President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech, as well as target maps of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

These insider thefts are a betrayal of one’s profession, but also rob future generations of these important pieces of their past.  To see a truly staggering list of missing documents, look at this list of missing historical documents and items.

  1. Elahe Izadi, National Archives agents raid home of Leslie Waffen, former archives department head, TBD, October 29, 2010, http://www.tbd.com/articles/2010/10/national-archives-agents-raid-home-of-leslie-waffen-former-archives-department-head-26544.html (last visited Nov 1, 2010).
  2. Audit Shows Records At National Archives At Risk : NPR,  http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130844620 (last visited Nov 1, 2010).
  3. U.S. GAO – National Archives and Records Administration: Oversight and Management Improvements Initiated, but More Action Needed, http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-11-15 (last visited Nov 1, 2010).
  4. Faye Fiore, Guardians of the nation’s attic – Los Angeles Times, L.A. Times, August 8, 2010, http://articles.latimes.com/2010/aug/08/nation/la-na-treasure-hunters-nu-20100809 (last visited Nov 1, 2010).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com