February 9, 2015

Art Crime Team Celebrates 10th Anniversary

Part 1: A Decade of Successful Investigations and Recoveries

To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the FBI’s Art Crime Team, FBI.gov recently discussed the team’s history, mission, and accomplishments with Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, who manages the Bureau’s art theft program.

Q: How did the Art Crime Team get started?

Magness-Gardiner: The FBI has always had agents who investigated frauds and thefts related to art, but in 2003, there was substantial looting of Iraq’s National Museum in Baghdad. Thousands of works were stolen. Because of the U.S. presence in Iraq at the time, it was clear that somebody would have to investigate. It was also clear that the U.S. government didn’t have a team organized, in place, or with the expertise required to do that kind of investigation. But the need for such a team was apparent, and the FBI took that on. The Art Crime Team was formed a year or so later.

Q: What were those early days like?

Magness-Gardiner: When I first arrived, the team consisted of eight agents located in field offices around the country, as well as three trial attorneys from the Department of Justice assigned to assist with prosecutions. Today, the agent component has almost doubled to 15 men and women. One of the great benefits of having the agents located in so many cities in the U.S. is that we literally cover the country.

Q: Describe some of the team’s accomplishments over the past decade.

Magness-Gardiner: One of our earliest successes was the recovery of a Rembrandt self-portrait valued at $40 million. The painting had been stolen from the Swedish National Museum in Stockholm in 2000. We recovered it during an undercover operation in 2005. Since the Art Crime Team’s creation, we have made more than 11,800 recoveries, and the value of those recovered objects is estimated to be more than $160 million. We have also helped to convict more than 80 individuals for a range of art crimes.

Q: The National Stolen Art File has also been a success, hasn’t it?

Magness-Gardiner: Yes, and particularly since it went online on FBI.gov in 2010. The National Stolen Art File is a database listing art stolen primarily in the United States. To be included in the file, the art must be valued at $2,000 or more, and we require a theft report and a description of the work providing its unique characteristics. Unlike automobiles, for example, art does not have a serial number on it. So we need specific descriptors that allow us to positively identify the works. Most submissions to the file come from local police departments or from victims. Currently there are about 8,000 listings, everything from fine art to collectibles—anything that has a cultural value that can be uniquely identified.

Q: Is there a particular kind of art that is more susceptible to being stolen or forged?

Magness-Gardiner: Unfortunately, it’s an equal opportunity market for thieves and fraudsters. Over the last 10 years we have dealt with everything from fossils stolen from South America to modern art that’s been forged and put on the market in New York. We have investigated cases involving fine art, manuscripts, letters, baseball cards, and textiles from pre-Colombian to modern. Everything that you can imagine that has a monetary value or cultural significance is subject to theft or fakery.