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FBI Art Theft Program

Bonnie Magness-Gardiner describes the FBI's role in the investigation and recovery of stolen art.


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My name is Bonnie Magness-Gardiner. I am the Art Theft Program manager for the FBI.

The art crime team was established in 2004, partly as a result of the problem with the Baghdad Museum and the looting of the Baghdad Museum.

The U.S. government understood at that point that they really needed a rapid deployment team to go in and investigate this particular event, and one that was trained especially to look at stolen and looted art.

Now it took a year or so to get that together, but in 2004 the rapid-deployment Art Crime Team was put together here at the FBI, initially with eight special agents and a program manager. Now we have 13 special agents and myself as the program manager.

There is specialized training involved for the Art Crime Team. We need to get them familiar with the periods of art, the vocabulary of art, art history, but more importantly with the business of art. Most often when we identify stolen art we identify it as it’s coming back into the marketplace.

The FBI has jurisdiction over certain kinds of cultural property cases—two, or rather three in particular.

First is interstate transportation of stolen property. And we have specialized art law, art legislation, and that is the theft of major artwork statute. Now this is directed specifically at museums.

Cases come to the FBI in two major ways. One: through local police departments. When there’s a theft at a museum or a theft at a residence, the local police are always the first on the scene and they make the report.

Now if it is within FBI jurisdiction—the object has traveled across state lines or it’s from a museum—then the local police often contact the FBI and get in touch with our local Art Crime Team member and investigate that particular case.

More often, however, we get tips from the public. And I would like to encourage the public, if they have any knowledge of stolen art, looted art, art fraud that meets the criteria for our investigation to submit a tip via the tip line or call their local FBI office.

The National Stolen Art File is the other half of the Art Theft Program here at the FBI. The National Stolen Art File is, in fact, exactly what it says. It is a series of entries on objects that have been stolen—usually within the United States—that are valued at over $2,000.

Art theft … it’s hard to characterize the problem absolutely because we don’t really have very good statistics. Not all art thefts are reported. Many art thefts are actually lootings from either institutions or from archaeological sites, sometimes from churches; they don’t even know what’s missing and therefore it is very hard to evaluate.

That being said, however, it’s estimated that it’s between $4 and 6 billion worldwide every year. And much of that stolen art actually ends up in the United States because we are a market for art, for cultural property here.

In the U.S., the problem usually centers around residential burglaries for private collections. That is the normal pattern for a theft here. However, we also have thefts from museums and may many thefts form archaeological sites and Native American burials.

The Top Ten list was created really to publicize the problem of cultural property theft, cultural property looting as well. So the number-one on our list, though these are not categorized in order of importance, is the looting of the Baghdad Museum.

We are still looking for this material. It is archaeological material from 5,000 years ago up to the medieval period that comes from the center of civilization.

Some of the other thefts on the list include thefts from a major museum in Switzerland, the Bührle Collection, and that was in the early part of 2008. There were four paintings stolen, modern impressionist masters. Two of those were almost immediately returned, but two still remain unidentified1 and missing.

This is a way of publicizing those specific thefts and asking the public also that if they have information to provide it to the FBI.

We have had a great deal of success with the Art Crime Team. Since our inception we’ve recovered over 850 items valued at over $134 million.

Some of the most important of these would be form a burglary, a theft, in Sweden in the year 2000, where three paintings were taken: a Rembrandt and two Renoirs. One of the Renoirs was immediately recovered, or almost immediately recovered. And the other two were recovered after a few years, in fact in 2005.

Protecting your own art is really a matter of care and due diligence. First and most importantly is to have an inventory of those valuable things that you own, and by valuable I mean valuable to you.

Keep a list, even if it’s as simple as a thimble collection or as important as modern masterpieces, you have to have a list with the names of the artists and the titles and the dimensions, and very importantly images—photographs or video—of the individual works of art.

Now in terms of safeguarding yourself against buying stolen art, here’s where you need to do your due diligence. That is, always buy from a reliable dealer. Make sure through the Better Business Bureau, through contacting other people in the field, that this person has a good reputation.

It’s also important that once you identify a specific work of art that you’re interested in to check out the provenance—that is the history of ownership. Ask for that from the dealer, but not only ask for that, check it yourself. Go through the list of addresses and contact information and make sure that the people who are named on that list actually did own this work of art, that it hasn’t been sort of a fictional history of ownership, and verify for yourself that indeed this is not a stolen work of art.