November 1, 2023
Inside the FBI: The Art Crime Program
On this episode of Inside the FBI, we’ll learn more about the Bureau's role in investigating and recovering missing art and cultural property.
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Ellen Ferrante: What do paintings by Monet, Rembrandt, and Dali... an original Charles Dickens novel... Stradivarius violins... a gold ring from the 1952 World Series... and 13th century Native American ceramics have in common?
They’re all examples of missing art and cultural property that the FBI investigates under its Art Crime Program.
Since its inception in 2004, the program has helped recover more than 20,000 items valued at over $900 million.
In this episode, we’ll learn more about the FBI’s role in investigating and recovering missing art and cultural property.
I’m Ellen Ferrante, and this is Inside the FBI.
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Ferrante: Art and cultural property crime leads to billions of dollars in losses every year. And art crime can involve a number of illegal activities, like theft, fraud, looting, and trafficking of art across state or international lines.
The FBI established its Art Crime Program to help combat and investigate these crimes. Composed of special agents, this team works with subject matter experts domestically and abroad.
Kristin Koch, the supervisory special agent and program manager of the FBI’s Art Crime Program, further explains what we mean by “art crime.”
Kristin Koch: Art crime encompasses not just what you would think of someone stealing a painting from a museum, which is something we certainly investigate. But it also includes investigations of frauds and forgeries, antiquities trafficking, and violations of NAGPRA and ARPA, which are the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the Archeological Resources Protection Act.
Ferrante: One case that Koch helped investigate demonstrates the complexity in art crime investigation. In this instance, law enforcement learned that someone in Boston was selling fake Andy Warhol paintings to an art dealer out in Los Angeles.
Koch: Through investigating that case, not only did we find that he had sold some fake paintings to the dealer in Los Angeles, but he had sold some fake paintings to a number of other individuals, including an individual in France, another individual in Massachusetts, and the paintings that he was using to make the fakes, he had basically stolen from a friend of his that was living in Korea.
So, we ended up charging interstate transportation of stolen property, but as a theft by conversion, a money laundering case, and a wire fraud case in that particular instance. And what was interesting about it specifically was one, I got to learn a lot about the artist that he had created these fakes from or had people create fakes from, as well as being able to work with a scientific laboratory that did analysis specifically on fine art and antiquities.
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And there was a large international aspect to this case involving a victim in Korea, a victim in France, a gallery in Germany, and a witness that was also located in Germany.
Ferrante: So, how does the FBI get involved with investigating these types of crimes? As Koch explains:
Koch: Many art crime matters involve violations of federal law. The art crime market worldwide is a tens of billions of dollar[s] industry every year in the illicit market. And the illicit market is also very large. So, whenever there's money involved, there's usually crime involved.
Ferrante: In addition, transnational organized crime groups—which the FBI also investigates—are often responsible for the illicit trade in art and cultural artifacts. Also known as TOCs, these transnational organized crime groups consist of individuals who operate, wholly or in part, by illegal means.
Although tremendous strides have been made to combat cultural property crime, intelligence reveals this is a growing global threat, demanding proactive FBI measures and resources.
Koch: There are organized criminal groups that are involved in trafficking of stolen art or antiquities. And that's how a lot of the stolen items from overseas end up into the United States is through organized criminal groups. That's also the same within the United States. There are a number of art crime investigations that are being conducted or have been conducted by the Art Crime Team that involve TOC actors, such as the Mafia, Russian organized crime, or other organized criminal groups throughout the United States.
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Ferrante: The FBI’s Art Crime Program is composed of three key elements. Field investigations...
Koch: The field investigations are conducted by members of the Art Crime Team, as well as other agents in field offices that are not necessarily on the team.
Ferrante: The Rapid Deployment Art Crime Team...
Koch: And then the Rapid Deployment Art Crime team itself is a group of highly trained investigators that have specialized skills in subject matter expertise that help to combat cultural property crimes, either in support of FBI investigations or through collaboration, engagement with law enforcement, government or NGO partners in the United States and abroad.
Ferrante: ...and the National Stolen Art File:
Koch: The National Stolen Art File is the repository for stolen art in the United States and abroad that is searchable by the public and law enforcement to help people identify items of stolen art and/or antiquities and other types of items.
Ferrante: Created in 1979, the National Stolen Art File has evolved from a paper file system to a public website and, most recently, a free mobile app. Anyone can openly search the database to see what items have been reported to law enforcement as stolen.
Each entry records information like the physical description of the stolen property, the artist, title, materials, and dimensions, and, when available, digital images. Today, over 8,000 items have been registered in the National Stolen Art File.
But not just any piece of art or cultural property is eligible to be registered in the National Stolen Art File.
Koch: The value of the item has to be over $5,000. And then there has to be some type of unique identifying feature to the item. For instance, if you have something that's one of a kind that there was only one of one made and we have good photographs of it or a very good description of it and what makes it unique—because if you're just going to say that “I have this coin,” and there's a thousand other similar coins to that coin, or very much the same, and it's not really uniquely identified because many of them were minted, then that makes it really not an object we could put in there because there are too many in the marketplace.
Whereas if you have, say, a painting by Pablo Picasso or a print by a Pablo Picasso, if it were to be hand-signed and numbered—so, for instance, if it was in a series of 100 prints that were made and your print was 57 out of 100, there's a unique identifying feature that goes along with that that allows us to be able to put an object into the National Stolen Art File.
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Ferrante: How the FBI conducts any one art crime investigation depends on the type of case at hand.
Koch: In the case of fine art, we can use our Laboratory and the Questioned Document[s] Unit. They can take x-rays and use different types of light to examine the works and see what is potentially behind the paint that you may see on the canvas, if there's something that's behind it or something that's been altered. They obviously can do handwriting analysis. We have used private laboratories to conduct chemical analysis of the types of paint and materials that are used on fine art to determine the age, whether, say, the canvas is cotton or linen, to determine if, for instance, a certain type of paint that would’ve been used by the real artist, which is now no longer available in the current art market, is present on that painting.
There were certain paints and pigments that were used by artists a long time ago that sometimes due to the fact that they're hazardous to the artist, are no longer in production. And so, the chemist can test to see if that paint is present on the questioned painting or if it's not, and if the paint is determined to be a modern paint that was in use after the artist had passed away, then we know that it's not possible that that he […] or she could have painted that particular painting.
Ferrante: During an investigation, the FBI may also work with a variety of subject matter experts.
Koch: We deal heavily with subject matter experts in this field. And it's not just with the art, but also with antiquities. We collaborate very heavily with archeologists and university professors to help us […] identify whether objects of cultural heritage from another country are actually from that location, or if they're not authentic, or if it's something that appears to be looted that shouldn't be in the possession of a person inside of the United States.
And then we also use subject matter experts, you know, in the fine art business to help us authenticate items. Some artists have foundations that will authenticate works, otherwise we will try and get in contact with people that worked with the artists to give us an idea of the types of materials and methods that they use to create the art.
Ferrante: Some investigations reveal that art or cultural property was stolen or looted from another country and brought into the United States. In these cases, the FBI works to repatriate these pieces. International partnerships play a big role in this process.
Koch: Our international partnerships are worldwide. Anywhere where there's a legal attaché office sitting and even in the countries where we don't have legal attaché offices, we try and make connections in partnerships so that we can all work collaboratively to combat crime. We also work with Europol and Interpol and the specific police agencies with certain countries to also further our mission.
The FBI sits on the Cultural Heritage Coordinating Committee, which was set up by law in 2016 by Congress. And it provides a[n] all-government approach to being able to protect cultural heritage and do these types of things, such as repatriating items. We are very happy to be able to sit on that group and that committee. And it really gives us facetime with all of the other partners that we need to be able to make sure that we're able to do these repatriations and return property to other countries, to where it rightfully belongs.
Ferrante: Koch further explains how the Bureau approaches these cases—maybe by coming across a piece of art or cultural property with questionable history or maybe by having a foreign or domestic partner reach out about specific items.
Koch: There's a lot of behind the scenes work that goes into that, and really, that comes from our liaison with our international partners, as well as our other governmental partners, such as the State Department [and] our legal attaché offices overseas. Everybody works together in coordination to make sure that it is appropriate that we return items to certain countries and also to make sure that we've had the proper authentication in place that the country accepts that the item is theirs and wants it back; and then also de-conflict with our other law enforcement partners to make sure that this isn't something that would interfere with an ongoing criminal investigation that they may have.
Ferrante: The FBI also works with Indigenous Persons communities in the United States to ensure art and cultural property is repatriated to its rightful owners.
Koch: We have liaison relationships with many of the tribes and we work with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to be able to make sure that we are in contact with the right people from the tribes; and that we are respecting and making sure that we're doing things in a culturally appropriate manner—to make sure that the items that they suspect have been stolen from their tribe or stolen from their ancestors is appropriately returned to them.
Ferrante: If you’re looking to purchase your own art, remember to take caution. Ask for documentation or provenance, which is authentication information about an art piece, like its history, photographs of the piece with the artist or prior owners, or records of past sales.
Koch: Do your own research. See if there are like items or the same item has been sold multiple times, and it looks like it potentially could be a scam before you go ahead and purchase something where you could be spending an amount of money that you're not willing to lose.
If the seller doesn't have or isn't willing to read the history of the piece, then I would be a little more skeptical before deciding to make your purchase. On the flip side of that, if the seller is more than willing to provide you provenance, I would sort of check it like you check a reference. Take a look at what the provenance says, contact a previous owner and make sure that the provenance that's being provided is accurate and hasn't been generated by the seller to entice you to buy the item.
If you're someone that has a piece of art or has come across it through inheritance from your family, or if it was given to you as a gift, it's always a good idea to query the National Stolen Art file and take a look and make sure that that piece is not listed before you’d conduct any type of transaction with art.
Ferrante: If you do think you or an organization or community is a victim of art crime, contact your local police department.
And if you have information on a piece in the National Stolen Art File, submit a tip to the FBI at tips.fbi.gov. You can also use the FBI’s National Stolen Art File app to view and share stolen art entries and to submit tips to the FBI. Download the free app from the Apple App Store or Google Play.
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Ferrante: This has been another production of Inside the FBI. You can follow us on your favorite podcast player, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or YouTube. You can also subscribe to email alerts about new episodes at fbi.gov/podcasts.
I’m Ellen Ferrante from the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs. Thanks for tuning in.
The FBI’s Art Crime Team in Chicago returned the painting Landschaft italienischen Charakters (Landscape of Italian Character) by the Austrian painter Johann Franz Nepomuk Lauterer to its rightful owner.
After an investigation by the FBI Boston Division—in collaboration with our legal attaché office in Mexico City and our international partners—the FBI returned a letter signed by Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés to the government of Mexico.