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

FBI Recovers Buck’s Manuscript

The Philadelphia office of the FBI has announced it has recovered a 400-page manuscript stolen around 1966 from the author’s farm. The Good Earth manuscript by Pearl Buck won the Pulitzer prize, and was the driving force behind the author’s Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s not clear whether the FBI’s Art Crime Team was involved in this recovery, as they are based in Philadelphia, or whether it was agents from the Philadelphia office who made the recovery. There is no precise value for the manuscript, but it is surely priceless for literary scholars.

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

Theft of a Small Masterpiece in Sydney


Last week a work by Dutch master Frans van Mieris, A Cavalier (Self Portrait), was taken from a busy gallery last Sunday. 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”.

Many of the Australian news outlets refer to an interview on Australian ABC radio with Robert Goldman, an agent with the FBI Art Crime Team. Goldman runs through the usual speculation which occurs when a valuable painting has been stolen, as the market for a high-profile work is negligible. As he said, “Our experience, the FBI experience, is that approximately 80 per cent of museum theft cases of art are inside jobs – either people who work there – people whom we say ‘have the keys to the kingdom’.”

Other theories are that the thieves were just foolish, thinking they could have sold it, when in reality they cannot. Also there is the usual speculation that the work could have been stolen on consignment by a Dr. No character because as Goldman says “There are collectors out there that don’t care if the items are stolen.”

The recovery rate for these works is very low. When this kind of work does resurface, it is often a generation later. The irony in this case is this gallery had begun to trumpet its new security in preparation for an upcoming exhibition on Islamic Art. The other possibility may be that security is so lax, a gallery visitor may have just admired the work and wanted it on their wall. Though much of the gallery is under video surveillance, it seems the room where this object was displayed was not.

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

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