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Monday, February 13, 2012


According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the criminal enterprise of stolen art is a continuing problem that is growing with estimated annual losses up to 6 billion. Perpetrators of art theft can be small time crooks or sophisticated thieves who meticulously plan their crimes, often trafficking stolen items through an underground network of buyers. 

Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, an archaeologist who manages the Art Theft program at the FBI, indicates more than half of art related thefts occur at private homes.

What do Art Thieves steal?

Referred to as Art and Cultural Property Crimes, stolen works can include items from private owners, governments, museums or protected archaeological sites to include artifacts, statues, decorative arts, fine arts, scientific and musical instruments, coins, stamps, ethnographic objects, antique jewelry and gems, historical maps, manuscripts and other documents of historical significance. Art theft continues to increase due to market demand, open borders, improved transportation methods and even political instability throughout the world.
16th-century Caravaggio painting referred to'The Taking of the Christ' 
or The Kiss of Judaswas stolen in 2008 and recovered in 2010.

Federal Resources

In 2004, the FBI established the FBI Art Crime Team comprised of 13 special agents with specialized training and responsible for investigating art and cultural property theft in specifically assigned geographic regions worldwide. In addition, the Department of Justice has assigned 3 trial attorneys to provide prosecutorial support.

Applying technology 

The Art Crime Team Unit also works in cooperation with international authorities and maintains the National Stolen Art File (NSAF), a computerized database of stolen property reported by US and international authorities throughout the world. NSAF maintains the physical descriptions, images and case information of items reported serving as an investigative tool and analytical database.

The NSAF online database is available to the public and contains information regarding the description, title, maker, and period it was created but does not contain police reports or investigative information. It can be accessed at National Stolen Art File (NSAF). Despite international resources and specialized federal units, international art theft continues to increase and investigations can last years. According to the Public Broadcast Service (PBS), as many as 90 percent of art thefts going unsolved, stating the additional difficulties investigating stolen works is commonly attributed to poor documentation of the item, an unregulated market and failure of collectors and curators to submit reports or descriptive data into existing databases.

The  Art Loss Register (ALR) is another international resource with locations in the United Kingdom, United States, Germany, Netherlands and France that serves as an international database where owners of art works can report a lost or stolen item or register legitimate ownership of valuable possessions. It is also a public searchable database that buyers or investigators can utilize is as a tool to inquire if an item has been reported stolen or lost. ALR also offers registrants expert provenance research and investigative services by qualified art historians.

The Getty Museum developed the Object ID in 1993, creating an international standard for proper documentation and recordkeeping for valuable objects to be used as a preventive measure to theft. The manual, Introduction to Object ID: Guidelines for making records that describe art, antiques, and antiquities can be found in libraries. More recently, The J. Paul Getty Trust published Collections Theft Response Procedures manual used by international authorities, museums, collectors and libraries throughout the world. The guide helps those responsible for works by providing a checklist and guidelines addressing preventive measures and effectively responding to theft. The manual includes how to properly report stolen works, work with authorities, insurance companies and private detectives. For more information you may visit The J. Paul Getty Trust Museum.

Private Detectives Specializing in Art Recovery

Art thieve investigators can be hired by private owners, financial institutions, insurance companies, museums, art dealers and collectors to investigate and recover trafficked art and archaeological items and forgeries. For private investigators to effectively investigate and recover stolen works it is necessary to work cooperatively with federal and international authorities, develop relationships with those within the international art community as well as becoming familiar with the underground networks of unscrupulous art dealers responsible for trafficking and sales of stolen items. Working independently but cooperatively with authorities, private investigators can provide rapid response theft recovery and significantly aide in the prosecution in the dark world of art thievery.

Knowledgeable thieves can sell stolen works for millions while the smaller time thief may sell a stolen work of art for far less than it value and far less cautious in the effort to make a sale. Priceless works of art have been located in Manhattan apartments, at garage sales and even on Craigslist. Many stolen works have been sold to private buyers without the purchaser having knowledge the items is even stolen.

Private investigators specializing in art theft recovery have a desire to preserve history but also knowledge in national and international antiquity investigation techniques, customs and international law, insurance claims, appraisal, forgery analysis, criminal and civil art law, conservation, and art financial services.

Working with private investigators can also prevent victimization when purchasing valuable works. Investigators can assist with due diligence and provenance by analyzing and verifying information, collecting historical data on items and helping coordinate sales and purchases between parties assisting both the buyer and seller by reducing risk of future potential criminal or civil litigation.

Fighting art theft is a worldwide effort that involves professionals from public and private industry but when it comes to piece of history - it is always worth protecting.

J. Paul Getty Trust

Author - Kym L. Pasqualini
Director, Missing Media Solutions