Stolen Rockwell and Spielberg and Theft Databases


Steven Spielberg has discovered a stolen Norman Rockwell painting, Russian Schoolroom in his art collection. The work was listed on the FBI’s art crimes web site. There don’t seem to be any good images of this work on the web. This is a small thumbnail. In terms of the original theft, the FBI website states the following:

On June 25, 1973, an original Norman Rockwell painting, entitled Russian Schoolroom, was stolen during a late night burglary in Clayton, Missouri. The painting was part of a Norman Rockwell Exhibit sponsored by the Chicago office of the Circle Galleries, later known as Arts International Galleries. At the time of the theft, the Russian Schoolroom, oil on canvas, measured 16″ X 37″, and was presented in a 2′ x 4′ frame of dull gold-white molding. This painting may also be referred to as The Russian Classroom or Russian Schoolchildren.

Records for the Russian Schoolroom indicate that after the theft in 1973 and prior to 1988, the painting’s location was unknown. In October 1988 Russian Schoolroom was sold at auction in New Orleans, Louisiana. Records revealed that at that time, the painting was associated with Circle Galleries (Chicago) and the Danenburg Gallery (New York). Neither gallery exists today.

Recent information determined that the same Russian Schoolroom was allegedly advertised for sale at a Norman Rockwell Exhibit in New York, circa 1989.

In July 2004, upon receipt of the information above, the FBI’s newly formed Art Crime Team initiated an investigation to locate and recover the Russian Schoolroom.

It seems a member of Spielberg’s staff came across the site. The FBI was then notified. There is no indication that Spielberg had any knowledge of the work’s theft when he purchased it. Spielberg is a well-known collector of Rockwell. What this example does illustrate is a need for better and more comprehensive art databases. If collectors can check a work against one comprehensive database, then this kind of mistake will surely be avoided, and the incentive for stealing art will decrease dramatically.

The Art Loss Register is the most prominent of the stolen art databases. Here is a recent article on the work it does. It has been responsible for a number of high-profile recoveries. However, I am a bit skeptical because it is a closed database. It costs about $50 per search, and not everyone can search it. Julian Radcliffe, the ALR’s chairman has said in interviews in the past that the reason the database is not public is it would allow the thieves to know the status of a work they have stolen. That may be true, but I’m still a bit skeptical. If it became routine to post a picture of your painting on a free, easy-to-use website, I think the same goals would be furthered.

It seems a company may have designed a way to use simple camera phones to compare a work to a stolen art database:

Thanks to a new development from the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology IPK, the investigator can now simply take a photo of the art object with his cell phone and send it instantly to a central server. The researchers’ new image analysis system automatically compares this picture with the user’s database. The system identifies similar objects on the basis of visual features such as their shape, outline, color or texture, and returns a list of the top ten closest hits to the cell phone in a matter of seconds. If the picture is among the works in the database, the art detective can react immediately. “The system is remarkably easy to operate,” says Dr. Bertram Nickolay, head of the department for security systems. “Since it was built mostly from standard modules, it’s also a cost-effective solution.” Furthermore, the system is immune to interference factors such as a poor photograph of the work of art. Reflections caused by flash photography or by excessive brightness have no effect on the image analysis in the central server.

This could work, and it could work well. I imagine that the first company which figures out how to make a simple and easy database will earn a lot of money, and will do wonders for insuring the legitimacy of the art trade. My personal preference would be to have a free system similar to wikipedia, which allows anyone to use and access the site. Until there is a comprehensive database which ties together all of these various databases though, we will continue to see people unwittingly purchasing stolen works.

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

Corruption Charges


From Lawfuel:

Hollywood Police Officers Kevin Companion, Jeffry Courtney, Thomas Simcox and Stephen Harrison were charged in a complaint unsealed today with extortion and narcotics charges, announced R. Alexander Acosta, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, and Jonathan I. Solomon, Special Agent in Charge, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Miami Field Office. Specifically, the complaint charges the defendants with conspiring and attempting to commit extortion under color of official right by accepting bribes to protect and facilitate what was represented to be a wide range of criminal activities, including the sale and interstate transportation of stolen property, a crooked high stakes gambling operation, cargo theft, and the transportation of a multi-kilogram load of heroin, all in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1951. The defendants were also charged with conspiring and attempting to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance, in violation of Title 21, United States Code, Section 846, for their roles in protecting a heroin shipment.

The charges against these four Hollywood Police Officers arose from a two-year undercover investigation jointly conducted by the United States Attorney’s Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. According to the complaint, Companion, a 20-year veteran of the Hollywood Police Department, Courtney, a 15-year veteran of the Department, Simcox, a 24-year veteran of the Department, and Harrison, an 8-year veteran of the Department, provided a variety of illegal services to a group of individuals who represented themselves to be part of a New York-based criminal organization which was looking to recruit police officers to protect and facilitate their illegal operations. In reality, however, these individuals were FBI undercover agents, and the purported criminal activities were all staged operations done as part of the investigation.

In exchange for cash payments, the defendants were involved in the following criminal activities: Companion protected the collection of an illegal gambling debt and the fencing of stolen watches; Companion and Courtney protected a sale of $400,000 worth of stolen diamonds, and personally delivered $400,000 worth of stolen bearer bonds from Florida to New York City; Companion, Courtney, Simcox, and Harrison all participated in providing protection for a high-stakes rigged poker game staged on a yacht; Companion, Courtney, and Simcox delivered $1,000,000 worth of stolen diamonds from Florida to Atlantic City, New Jersey; Companion, Courtney, Simcox and Harrison all protected the theft of a tractor-trailer load of cigarettes; Companion and Harrison delivered a load of valuable stolen artwork from Florida to Atlantic City; and finally, Companion, Courtney, Simcox, and Harrison provided a security escort for the transportation of a multi-kilo load of heroin from Miami Beach to Hollywood, Florida, for further delivery to the criminal organization up north. The defendants would be paid in cash at the conclusion of each criminal episode in which they participated, and as a result of their criminal activities, they received the following approximate total amounts: Companion – $42,000; Courtney – $22,000; Simcox – $16,000; and Harrison – $12,000.

Continue Reading.

It’s an interesting development, and one sure to grab headlines. It sounds almost too far-fetched to be real. I found the charges of transporting artwork particularly interesting. It’s an example of mob ties to art theft. A number of claims are thrown about regarding organized crime and stolen art, but there is not a lot of hard evidence to support the claim. Here is some evidence, though it seems the far more serious violations were in regards to extortion and drug smuggling. One of the reasons given for a stronger criminal response to the illicit trade in cultural property are reports like this, which link stolen art to drugs and other more serious crimes.

You can read the press release from the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida here.

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

Return of the Hoosier Battle Flag


The Indianapolis Star has an article by Vic Ryckaert describing the theft and return of this Indiana battle flag from the 25th Indiana Volunteer Regiment. The flag disappeared from the Indiana World War Memorial around 1985. The flag was discovered by a member of the FBI’s Art Crime Team. It had been hanging in a bank lobby in Fremont, Ind., since 2000. The flag, valued at $60,000 was taken into battle in the Civil War at battles such as Shiloh, Vicksburg and Atlanta. The indications are that this flag was used for a veteran’s day ceremony, and never returned. This kind of low-grade theft, which results from inefficient institutional procedures probably accounts for the lion’s share of theft in the conventional sense of the word. Add the flag to the list of 850 items which have been recovered by the Art Crime Team since its inception in 2004. There are 12 full time agents working on the squad, stationed at various field offices throughout the country. Though the market will never be truly legitimate until there is widespread provenance checks for cultural property, this is a notable first step. It shows that an increase in resources can have a significant impact on the illicit trade.

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

Theodore Roosevelt’s Gun

Anthony Joseph Tulino, a postal worker from Florida, pleaded guilty to violating the Antiquities Act of 1906 yesterday. The gun has been missing since it was stolen from a display case in 1990. Roosevelt carried the 1892 revolver during the charge up Cuba’s San Juan Hill in 1898. Roosevelt signed the 1906 Act into law, as a very early effort to protect the theft of relics from Federal property.

The FBI’s Art Theft Unit recovered the gun earlier this year, and it was returned to Roosevelt’s former home in Sagamaore Hill near Oyster Bay, New York. Tulino faces up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine. The revolver has been valued at up to $500,000.

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

Goya Recovered

The New York Times reports this morning that Goya’s “Children With a Cart” was recovered in good condition on Saturday in New Jersey. The F.B.I. investigators are not releasing many details, possibly because the investigation is ongoing. Apparently, an attorney notified the bureau of the work’s location. No details are being released about her identity, or if she is representing one the thieves as a client. There is no word yet on whether the attorney will receive the $50,000 reward offered by the insurer. If the attorney does get the reward money, I’m not sure if she will be required to give any of that money to her clients. That seems like quite an interesting ethical question, and I’m not sure what the outcome might be.

The thieves would be shielded by confidentiality though, so there is no way investigators would be able to track down the thieves without conducting their own investigation. At this point, it seems the FBI is attributing the theft to blind luck on the part of the thieves, and not any inside information as was speculated. The FBI’s Newark spokesman, Steve Siegal, says in the NYT,

This time of year, close to Christmas, they probably thought they’d found a truck filled with PlayStations and broke in and started looking for the biggest-looking box. Basically, it’s a target-of-opportunity typical New Jersey cargo theft. There are literally predators — for lack of a better word — who when they see a tractor-trailer or a cargo vehicle parked for any length of time start snooping around.

If anything, that makes the delivery company in charge of transporting the work look even sillier. It’s a sad state of affairs when ps2’s are harder to steal then a work of art.

I do not anticipate any charges being filed in this case, and the resolution of this mirrors the recovery of a Peruvian gold headdress authorities recovered in London in August. Investigators want to reward thieves who quickly return objects in this way. One of the best shots investigators may have at recovery is if thieves anonymously return stolen objects. Because the objects are so valuable, their safe return is the highest priority. This Goya, like the Peruvian treasure, has a very small potential market. The risk of an arrest pales in comparison with the proceeds of a potential sale, because no reputable buyer would be willing to take on stolen property like this.

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

Goya Theft Update

Saturday’s New York Times has an update on the theft of Goya’s “Children With a Cart”. As I said earlier this week, the market for this work is extremely small. Purchasers of the work will not be able to claim they acquired the work in good faith, and thus the Toledo Museum of Art will defeat the possessor’s claims. Of course, the thieves may not be concerned with selling the work, they may be trying to ransom the work back to the museum.

The FBI is investigating the theft, and has not released any information to the public. It seems though, that as more time passes, the likelihood of a quick resolutions grows more remote. The Times piece has quite a few details of the theft, which it seems to have gathered from the insurance investigation and interviews with the proprietors of the Pennsylvania Howard Johnson. The painting was taken from the delivery truck overnight, after being parked in the motel’s parking lot. At this point, criticism has centered on the driver’s decision to stop overnight when they could have completed the drive in a day. Also, these works are not supposed to be left unattended.

Whether this theft was an inside job as a number of commentators have speculated remains to be seen. It might just be an example of a couple of lucky thieves coming across this delivery truck at this Howard Johnson. Look for museums to increase the security procedures involving the transportation of valuable works of art in the future. Many museums depend on the income and prestige which comes with hosting large exhibitions like these. For the general public, it would be a great shame if this theft causes institutions to think twice before loaning their works to other museums.

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

Goya Stolen


The New York Sun reported last night that a 1778 work by Francisco de Goya, Children With Cart, pictured here, was stolen near Scranton, Penn. It was being transported to The Guggenheim for an exhibit on Spanish Painting. The FBI is investigating, and has offered a reward of $50,000. The painting is valued at about $1.1 million. The work had been housed at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio. It looks to be from his earlier career, before the lead in his paint may have caused his deafness, which resulted in some fantastically-bizarre works.

Why was this work stolen? Surely, the market for the work is quite small, as nobody will be able to claim good faith in buying or selling the work. The thieves may be attempting to ransom the work back to the museum. Criminal penalties are far lower for kidnapping a work of art than they would be for, say, kidnapping a person. The other possibility is that a wealthy collector may have requested it stolen for her own private collection. Some have termed this hypothetical theft-on-demand the Dr. No possibility. If the work is returned, look for it to gain in notoriety.

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

Will Billboards help Return $300 Million in Stolen Art?


Over the weekend, the Boston Globe picks up a piece by London’s Financial Times, that Eric Ives, head of the FBI’s major theft unit, is considering using billboards to aid its investigation of the works stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. One of the works stolen includes this work, which is Rembrandt’s only seascape. The total value of all of the works has been estimated at $300 million. I’ve written about this theft before, in terms of a new documentary here. The best account of the theft I’ve found is Court TV’s here.

Will Billboard’s work? I’m not sure. They certainly can’t hurt. The idea, I suppose, is for someone to catch a glimpse of these works and after seeing the billboard, alert the authorities. I’m not sure there would be much of a market for these works, as they are so widely known in the art world, that there would certainly be an impossibility of a good faith purchase. The law would not honor the sale because the buyers should know that these works have been stolen.

Fascinating theories abound, involving Boston Mafia and IRA members. Certainly, no one will be able to sell these works on any licit market, and if the thieves are caught, there may be a prosecution under the National Stolen Property Act if the transaction has a federal character (like crossing state lines for example). At this point, nearly 16 years after the theft, there does not seem to be any leads for the FBI Investigation, and a billboard campaign may serve to renew interest in the theft.

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