By Peter Szekely
NEWYORK (Reuters) – When a 17th century Dutch painting looted by the Nazis turned up for sale in New York in late 2017, the FBI’s Art Crime Team moved in, verified its identity and helped win a court order to return the work to its rightful owners.
It was the latest of many high-profile cases for the 22-person Federal Bureau of Investigation division dedicated to solving a wide array of art-related crimes at an agency that is better known for chasing bank robbers, spies and other criminal rogues.
Solomon Koninck’s 17th-century painting “A Scholar Sharpening His Quill,” was one of many treasures belonging to the family of art collector Adolphe Schloss that were seized by the Nazi-supporting Vichy government in France 75 years ago. The portrait, which once adorned Adolph Hitler’s Munich offices, disappeared at the end of World War Two.
It resurfaced at Christie’s auction house, which tipped off the FBI unit last year that a Chilean art dealer was trying to sell it.
“The evidence was really overwhelming,” FBI Special Agent Chris McKeogh said, days after the work’s formal repatriation to the Schloss heirs in early April. “There was really no question that this was the painting in question.”
In its early days, recalled Robert Wittman, the Art Crime Team’s founding chief, being art cops was not exactly “a path to directorship.”
But after 14 years, the team is getting more respect from fellow agents after several headline-grabbing recoveries in the United States of art works and other cultural property, Supervisory Special Agent Tim Carpenter said.
“People just think what we’re doing is cool,” said Carpenter, who now runs the unit from the FBI’s Washington headquarters.
“I think we’ve changed a lot of perceptions, even within the organization,” he said. “So now my phone rings off the hook weekly for folks wanting to be on the team.”
Since it was founded in 2005, the team has recovered nearly 15,000 objects worth nearly $800 million and secured more than 90 convictions.
Last year alone, its recoveries included a painting by Marc Chagall that had been taken from the Manhattan home of an elderly couple nearly 30 years earlier, a Nazi-looted work by artist Auguste Renoir and a pair of “ruby slippers” worth millions worn by Judy Garland as Dorothy in the 1939 movie “The Wizard of Oz.”
It is not the money, Carpenter stressed, but rather the “intrinsic value” of stolen art and cultural property – anything from baseball cards to a $5 million Stradivarius – that determines whether the FBI will pursue it.
The red sequined shoes stolen from the Judy Garland Museum in Minnesota 13 years ago were a prime example.
“People responded to that case,” he said. “They said this is really important; this is a piece of Americana.”
Agents selected for the team must understand why art and culture matter to humanity, Carpenter said.
Agent McKeogh pinpointed his art awakening to a college backpacking trip in Paris. On an obligatory visit to the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, he happened to pass Pierre-Narcisse Guerin’s 18th-century oil painting “The Return of Marcus Sextus.”
“I found a painting that spoke to me and spent about a half-hour sitting in front it,” said McKeogh, who is based in New York. “And from there, I was really hooked.”
The United States was lagging far behind European countries in art crime-fighting resources when Wittman helped launch the team in 2005, partly to track down antiquities that were looted from the Baghdad Museum after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Now a private consultant, Wittman was the bureau’s original art sleuth. He said art thieves were always most vulnerable when they tried to unload their high-profile, ill-gotten gains.
“The real art in art heists is not the stealing, it’s the selling,” said Wittman, who had recovered more than $300 million in stolen art when he retired in 2008 after 20 years.
While there are no reliable statistics on art crime, Carpenter said he thinks technology is making things worse because stolen works and forgeries can be sold anonymously on online marketplaces.
If the Art Crime Team’s most vexing case is a daring 1990 heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in which thieves made off with 13 pieces by Dutch masters Rembrandt and Vermeer and other artists worth half a billion dollars.
Despite a $10 million reward, none of them has been recovered, and the theft, considered to be among the biggest in art history, looms as the team’s most glaring unsolved case.
“There’s not a single person on the Art Crime Team that doesn’t dream of the day that we can recover those pieces,” said Carpenter.
(Reporting by Peter Szekely; Editing by Susan Thomas)