February 18, 2015

Art Crime Team Celebrates 10th Anniversary

Part 2: Dedicated Investigators Use Time-Tested Methods

The FBI established a rapid deployment Art Crime Team in 2004.

Part 2 of an interview with Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, manager of the FBI’s art theft program.

Q: Is investigating art crimes different from investigating other types of crimes?

Magness-Gardiner: Much of what we investigate is art theft, which is basically a theft of property. Most of our agents have a background in investigating property theft and interstate transportation of stolen property. So in one sense they are using time-tested investigative methods. It’s the objects they are dealing with that make these cases special. The items are often fragile, so if they are recovered they must be handled with special techniques. We also have to determine if they are authentic. Is this actually the work we are looking for, or is this a forgery?

Q: What kinds of agents are drawn to the Art Crime Team and what backgrounds do they have?

Magness-Gardiner: Some of our agents have a fine art or art history background, or are themselves artists or collectors. But that’s fewer than half of the individuals on the team. The other members have an interest in art, culture, and history—and to my point of view, that is just as significant—and being on the team allows them to expand their knowledge while doing good by investigating thefts or frauds in these areas.

Q: How serious a problem is art crime?

Magness-Gardiner: Here in the U.S., we are a market for all sorts of art. There is a big community of collectors, museums, and dealers. But because we are such a big market for legitimate art, we are also a market for illicit art that is being brought in from other countries. Sometimes the works are stolen from collections, while much of it—artifacts and antiquities—is looted directly out of the ground, which complicates things because often there is no record of it. Objects might come from archeological sites or from poorly inventoried churches and monasteries. These objects, whether in museums, other collections, or in the ground, can be very valuable in a monetary sense, and in their countries of origin they have an even greater value as cultural heritage.

Q: So the Art Crime Team works closely with international law enforcement and other countries?

Magness-Gardiner: Yes. More than half of our cases have some international element. But we also work closely with our domestic law enforcement partners and with the art community in general. We work with foreign governments to identify stolen pieces and attempt to recover them when we can find them in the United States. These are usually items that relate to the history and ethnicity of that culture. When these things are lost, a culture is made poorer for it.

Q: It must be gratifying to return items of such significance to their country of origin.

Magness-Gardiner: It is very satisfying to return things to people, whether to individual victims, institutions, or countries. Many of these objects have great personal significance, and huge institutional significance when a museum or archive is involved. When a country gets something returned, of course this has a great deal of meaning. People are very grateful for our help. We have been very successful in these areas.

Q: And to what do you owe that success?

Magness-Gardiner: A big part of our success is the team approach, because it allows us to work throughout the entire country with a highly trained group of individuals who communicate with each other and are passionate—and determined—about the work they do.