Recovering a priceless object or punishing the thief?


That’s a fundamental question which plagues criminal penalties for the theft of cultural property, and it often plays out in the decision-making of individual law enforcement officers, judges and prosecutors. The latest example is the laudable recovery and return today of two500-year-old maps stolen from Spain’s National library earlier this year; one of which is this map which shows the recently discovered new world. Paul Hamilos has an overview from Madrid in today’s Guardian. I commented on the recovery of one of these maps back in October, after it was sold on eBay. The FBI press release from Nov. 8 is here.

The thief, Cesar Gomez Rivero is a 60-yar-old Spanish citizen of Uruguayen descent who is a resident of Argentina. He sent his lawyer to negotiate an immunity deal with a judge in Buenos Aires in exchange for handing over 8 of the 19 stolen maps. The judge rejected the deal and was able to keep the maps. Apparently he used a Stanley knife to cut pages from the collections at the national library. Eleven maps have been recovered in total, in the UK, Australia, Argentina, and the US.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Napoleon III and the NSPA

Lomi Kriel of the San Antonio Express-News has an interesting account of the FBI’s confiscation of a carbine rifle owned by Napoleon III which was stolen from the Musée de l’Armée during WWII. French authorities saw an advertisement for the weapon on the internet. French authorities contacted interpol, which later involved the FBI’s Art Crime Team.

Napoleon III served as the emperor of France from 1852-70, and this carbine was one of the earliest breech-loading arms produced. Ralph Diaz, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Antonio Division said “In the big picture, the FBI doesn’t typically get involved in the pursuit of a rifle… But this weapon is of great historical value to the country of France.” One wonders how the rifle was stolen. I wonder if it was perhaps an American soldier, as was the case with the Quedlinburg treasures.

The FBI did not identify the seller, and it seems he did not know the weapon was stolen when he acquired it for his collection. Federal prosecutors are reviewing the case, but charges are probably unlikely. The rifle was listed for sale at $12,000, a sum which is likely far below what it would have fetched at an open auction.

There are a few interesting things about this case. First, it reveals the extent to which the National Stolen Property Act can impact the trade in art or antiquities. In this case, charges probably will not be filed, but the NSPA allowed authorities to seize the weapon and return it to France. Also, collectors of any object which might have cultural value would be wise to conduct a thorough provenance check, and if a seller cannot or will not provide one, red flags should be raised.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

New Addition to Top 10 Art Crimes


The FBI Art Crime Team announced on Monday that it was adding the theft of Frans Van Mieris A Cavalier (Self Portrait) which was stolen from an Australian Gallery back in June. The work may be worth as much as $1.4 million Australian. The work is not large, measuring about 30cm x 26cm. The Director of the Art Gallery of NSW, Edmund Capon said “To be honest, I could slip it under your coat… it could have happened that way”.

The Top 10 Art Crimes list was initiated in 2005, and since then 10 of the various examples have been recovered:

  • A Rembrandt self-portrait and Renoir’s Young Parisian from Sweden’s National Museum theft;
  • Goya’s Children with a Cart from the Toledo Art Museum theft;
  • Munch’s The Scream and The Madonna from the Munch Museum theft in Oslo;
  • and the Cellini Salt Cellar from the Kunsthistorisches Museum theft in Vienna.
  • Also recovered was the Statue of Entemena from the Iraqi Looted and Stolen Artifacts entry.

That’s an impressive start, and indicates there is a growing need for continued publication of high-profile thefts like these.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com