Personnel from the FBI’s Art Crime Team hold a framed work by Marc Chagall prior to its return to the owners’ estate in 2018, nearly 30 years after it was stolen. The painting, entitled Othello and Desdemona, was recovered in 2017 after a Maryland man contacted the FBI’s Washington Field Office. According to court documents, the Maryland man had obtained the painting in the late 1980s or early 1990s from the man who stole the Chagall in New York in 1988. (all images courtesy the FBI)

It is difficult to paint a clear picture, statistically speaking, of the scale and impact of art crime. The transnational phenomenon spans forgeries, fakes, money laundering, illicit trafficking, illicit excavation, cultural spoliation, theft, and looting — and can be intertwined with other forms of organized crime, such as drug smuggling and arms trafficking, as well. An annual report released by the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) indicates that in 2020, the organization’s 72 member countries seized a whopping 854,742 cultural objects including paintings, sculptures, numismatic items, archaeological artifacts, and library materials. But Interpol’s seizure count pales in comparison to a more speculative number released in 2020 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which estimated that the illicit cultural property trade is worth $10 billion annually.

Italy was the first country to establish a specialized team to address the issue, founding its Carabinieri Art Squad — which now boasts some 300 members — in 1969, prior to the landmark 1970 UNESCO Convention, an international law against the trafficking of looted cultural objects. Despite the United States’ status as an art market leader with a 42% share of the global pie today, the FBI Art Crime Team wasn’t founded until 2004. The small program crystallized in response to the looting of some 15,000 antiquities from the National Museum of Baghdad in April 2003, amid the chaos and devastation fomented by the US-led invasion of Iraq.

The Art Crime Team is headquartered in Washington, DC, and situated in the FBI Criminal Investigative Division’s Transnational Organized Crime Global Section. The team started out with eight part-time agents; now, it has grown to 22 members, a mix of part-time and full-time employees spread throughout the country, with paired agents stationed in larger cities such as New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. The FBI Art Crime Team’s motive is twofold: to hold the subjects responsible and to recover the cultural heritage objects in question. Since its inception, the team has recovered more than 20,000 objects valued at over $900 million, says FBI Supervisory Special Agent Randolph J. Deaton IV, who manages the FBI Art Crime Program.

FBI agents trained in art transportation package and crate the Stele of Lakshmi-Narayana in preparation for its return to the government of Nepal in March 2021 (photo courtesy of the Dallas Museum of Art)

“The 2004 date is a bit misleading in the sense that the FBI has been working art crime matters for decades,” says FBI Special Agent Chris McKeogh. One of two dedicated agents based in the art world hub of New York, McKeogh has been with the Art Crime Team for seven years and worked everything from money laundering cases to shipwreck cases. He has recovered an estimated 4,000 items himself, though he notes that the process of recovery is intrinsically collaborative, involving tipsters, auction house and museum contacts, academic experts, prosecutors, and law enforcement colleagues at home and abroad. McKeogh says that the FBI has been heavily involved with counteracting art crime since the ’60s, adding that he has an active case from 1962.

Art crime has, of course, existed from time immemorial — since the troika of art, crime, and property was first conceptualized. In the 1970s, however, the notion of art as an alternative investment vehicle and its own asset class took off, making art a more widely desirable steal. In the 1980s and ’90s, the art market became increasingly globalized and prices climbed to new heights. Those decades witnessed a spike in residential thefts of artworks from high rises in Manhattan, says McKeogh, as well as smash-and-grab thefts targeting Madison Avenue galleries. Someone would pull up in a car, grab a $300,000 artwork, and run back out.

These days, widely accessible databases of stolen art make it more difficult to offload artworks thieved in this brusque fashion. The FBI Art Crime Team’s National Stolen Art File, a publicly available database of stolen cultural property passing a $2,000 threshold, indexes institutional and residential thefts stretching several decades back. If a potential buyer suspects a bad actor or encounters a questionable claim or eyebrow-raising gap in a work’s ownership history, or provenance, that person can easily consult the database to confirm whether the object in question is registered as stolen.

Today, the National Stolen Art File encompasses over 5,000 items ranging from the more expected drawings, paintings, and sculptures to vintage microscopes, sacred doors, ancient astrolabes, and rare stamps. Suspect items can also be checked against Interpol’s global database of over 52,000 stolen cultural objects, which anyone can apply for authorization to peruse; in 2021, Interpol also released an app to this effect.

Front and back of the letter written by Charles Darwin to Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden on May 2, 1875. The letter was stolen from the Smithsonian Institution Archives in the mid-1970s. On May 26, 2016, Assistant Director in Charge Paul M. Abbate of the FBI Washington Field Office returned the letter to Smithsonian Institution Archives Director Anne Van Camp after an investigation by special agents from the FBI Art Crime Team.

Though high-profile art thefts certainly still happen — in March 2020, for example, a masterpiece by Vincent van Gogh was stolen from a Dutch museum that was temporarily closed under pandemic lockdown — the publicity generated around the theft of important works hinders their resale. The FBI Art Crime Team maintains a public “Top 10 Art Crimes” list inspired by the FBI’s “10 Most Wanted Fugitives” list, which has been around since 1950. Topping the list are artifacts looted from Iraq in 2003 — many of which have been recovered and repatriated, though thousands of returns remain outstanding — and the infamous Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist, which involved the theft of an estimated $500 million of paintings in a single night in 1990; despite the museum’s offer of a $10 million reward, the crime remains unsolved more than three decades later. Interpol reports that most art thefts take place at private residences, though museums and places of worship are certainly targets. Regarding theft, there is also the related issue of illicit excavation from archaeological sites, which appears to be on the rise in Asia and the South Pacific, where Interpol’s report indicated that 40 times as many objects were seized from illicit excavation sites in 2020 over 2019.

“Here we are in 2021, and the art market remains relatively unregulated,” says McKeogh. “It provides an opportunity for people to move money in a way that they can’t with other commodities.”

Today, it is not unusual for art to be tied up with fraud and money laundering schemes. Forgeries (intentional imitations of artworks) and fakes (intentional misrepresentations of artworks) are also a growing problem, facilitated by the ease of buying and selling material without proper documentation in highly unregulated online marketplaces. Interpol describes the art market as “polluted” with fakes and “flooded” with forgeries, a complex phenomenon involving networks that are difficult to disrupt. The organization noted, in particular, a rapid rise in the number of fake historical artifacts on the market. For example, in 2015-2016, one-third of archaeological artifacts seized on the Turkish-Lebanese borders were determined to be fakes.

Artifacts on display at Don Miller’s farm in 2014. For more than seven decades, Miller unearthed cultural artifacts from North America, South America, Asia, the Caribbean, and Indo-Pacific regions such as Papua New Guinea.

“There’s a lot of fake artwork out there,” says McKeogh. “It’s just a matter of doing your due diligence and using common sense.” Greed often plays a role among buyers: people see an artwork or artifact that should be selling for $200,000 for sale on eBay priced at $3,000, assume that the seller is unaware of the object’s value, and buy it with the intent to resell for a quick profit. Caveat emptor: it’s probably fake, advises McKeogh (that said, a 2018 article in the Atlantic on looted Iraqi antiquities suggested that some of the objects priced cheaply online may be the genuine (stolen) artifact, offered by thieves who want to quickly offload stolen goods for which they lack documentation). Forgers get greedy, too, McKeogh points out. Instead of making one fake, they might churn out 30 or 40. “If you were to find an authentic Jackson Pollock drip painting in an attic, that would be front-page news and sell for nine figures,” says McKeogh. But 40 Pollock masterpieces squirreled away in an attic for decades? Not so likely.

Forgeries and fakes — for which the FBI consults its sizable Rolodex of art historical experts — are a tricky business. In the United States, it is illegal to knowingly sell these items, but not to own or display them; furthermore, the FBI is legally obligated to return fakes to their owners after a case has ended. Owners may want to hang onto works that have been deemed inauthentic for reasons that range from distrusting the opinion of the authenticator to simply liking the artwork despite its besmirched status (more unusually, some academic institutions like Harvard University have held onto fakes as teaching tools). Inevitably, with deaths and inheritances, much of the work filters back through the market, a headache for the FBI who see the same inauthentic works recirculating. McKeogh is aware of fakes that have entered the art market four or five times.

Art Crime Team members met with experts for a week-long training seminar in New York City in December 2009.

Between the growing public interest in repatriation, in which the FBI Art Crime Team is often involved, and the release of popular art crime documentaries, such as Made You Look: A True Story about Fake Art (2020) and This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist (2021), general awareness of the Art Crime Program is on the rise. In addition to hearing from contacts at auction houses, museums, galleries, and the press, the team increasingly receives tips from the public, who reach out via the FBI tip line or contact their local police departments.

McKeogh says that the most common public misconception about the FBI Art Crime Unit — and law enforcement in general — is that they’re all-knowing. “We’re not,” he says. “One time a tipster asked me, in the first five minutes of meeting him, why the culprit hadn’t been arrested yet. My response was: you gave me the tip five minutes ago. We’re fast, but we’re not that fast.”

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Cassie Packard

Cassie Packard is a Brooklyn-based art writer. (cassiepackard.com)