Service of Art Theft Recovery

June 8th, 2015

Categories: Art, Details, Insurance, Museums, Theft

The empty frames which bordered some of the stolen artworks previously exhibited at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston [photo above], where the pictures used to be,  give a memorable, haunting sensation of loss. They’ve been missing for 25 years. Check out the website and you’ll see posted a $100,000 reward for information leading to the recovery of a finial of a Napoleonic eagle that was also lost in the 1990 burglary.

Speaking of burgled art, Mark Fishsteinm, with K2 Intelligence LLC, said: “You can never give up hope because if they are stolen, some people hold them for a predetermined amount of time and then think it’s safe to sell.” The retired New York City Police Department’s art crime division specialist told this to Wall Street Journal reporter Jennifer Smith for her story, “Picasso Recovery in Newark Shines Light on Art Theft.”

While the article focused on the fascinating business of art recovery, clearly the type of work only for the patient, the discovery in NJ didn’t share any how-to clues. Smith wrote about the theft of a cubist Picasso picture [photo at right], “La Coiffeuse,” [1911], from a storeroom in the Centre Pompidou in Paris that was reported in 2001. It was found in February in Newark, N.J. in a package sent from Belgium marked “Art Craft Toy,” with a value of $37. According to her, “It isn’t clear how customs officials at Newark, among the busier ports in the U.S., unearthed a stolen artwork the size of a place mat. A spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations declined to comment, citing a continuing investigation.”

Smith observed that in general law enforcement—police, FBI and Interpol–doesn’t work alone. Agencies collaborate with insurance companies and a few businesses such as Art Loss Register and Art Recovery Group [both in London]. The former lists stolen antiques as well as art in its database and is adding reports of forged/fake items to its service. The company boasted that last year it had 400,000 paid searches and found some 150 pieces.

It doesn’t help the cause in this country that there is no central reference list for the law-enforcement agencies to track art crimes even though they represent a chunk of change. Smith wrote that the FBI can no longer verify a previous estimate of $billions lost from art and cultural crimes. She didn’t explain why but my guess would be that prices are so crazy these days that nobody can keep track or count that high.

What inspires people to pay the prices they do for high profile art when they are simply making targets of themselves? If it can’t be sold, what’s the point of stealing art? Why do you think there isn’t a single registry here for all legitimate interested parties to access?

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8 Responses to “Service of Art Theft Recovery”

  1. Hank Goldman Said:

    Stolen works can’t be sold… Publicly. I believe there may be an underground market for those
    who just want to own a work…. Without thought of future generations problems, who
    Will inherit those Works.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I envision a rich miser sitting in his/her basement with a glass of wine, listening to favorite music surrounded by a stash of stolen art.

  3. JML Said:

    To answer your questions, it is all about money.

    One of the things which comes with being rich, is often a sense of inferiority, a need to be respected and accepted for more than just your money. A way that you can show that you have more to offer is to collect art.

    There is a whole complicated, sophisticated industry out there ready, willing and able to relieve you of part of the burden of being rich and make you feel good about yourself at the same time. Nothing is more flattering to the ego than having some handsome, Oxbridge accented, impeccably dressed and quaffed male or female curator or dealer say to you as you are sipping good champagne and looking at a giant transparent plastic bag stuffed with garbage, held closed by a giant wooden clothes pin, on display in the beautifully and graciously understated showrooms of a major auction house, “My, do you have an eye.”

    A few days later, you are out two and half million and the proud possessor of one large, stinking garbage bag, which you can brag about to your friends until you wake up and realize that you’ve just been had.

    Valuable art is stolen because thieves believe somebody will pay to get the stuff back, and they usually will. But a lot can go wrong if the thieves are unable to negotiate successfully with the insurances companies, and when the insurance companies are too inflexible. Less valuable art is stolen because it can usually be eventually offered for resale.

    I believe there is no central registry of stolen art because of turf wars between various bureaucracies.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Brilliant description. I can clearly see the arrogant feeding the insecure at the auction preview and I love it. Of course the garbage bag is valuable art–it is valued at $2.5 million! SOLD!

    I know so many stories that fit your turf war scenario in other instances–between competing brands in a single corporation or between Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines–supporting your spot-on suggestion. A little like warring parents during divorce deliberations where the kids suffer, the art owning public suffers in this war.

  5. Lucrezia Said:

    There could be a number of reasons for acquiring high profile art, the most visible being bragging rights followed by love of art and art collecting – or perhaps the other way around. Some own one or more serious pieces, and don’t advertise. These works are often inherited or are gifts.

    Objects of value live in many homes, be they art or something else, and only a small percentage is stolen. Otherwise, not only the art industry, but jewelers along with anyone involved in collectibles would be out of business.

    The thieves in question are formidable experts. They need to be, given the consequences if and when caught.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    The skill of a well trained thief is remarkable. I was pickpocketed and not until I reached for my wallet in the next store and it wasn’t there did I realize what had happened, when and where. I didn’t feel a thing at the time!

    Those who steal art are even more clever and able. And according to the stats in the Wall Street Journal story–and the Isabella Stewart Gardiner example–not many are caught in a hurry!

    I understand the desire to own something great. Years ago we saw a Vuillard pencil sketch at a show at the Park Avenue Armory. [Vuillard is a favorite.] It was teensy–the size of a coaster. It’s price was not. I always wondered who bought it. It was too small and monochromatic for the flashy collector. I hope it is in a loving home!

  7. Martha Takayama Said:

    Art theft is a multi-faceted phenomenon and career occupation garbed in mystery simply more convoluted than many legal and quasi-legal art transaction. The motivations for acquiring any work of art can range across an enormous emotional spectrum including genuine delight or appreciation of a work to an insatiable need for acquisition and self-aggrandizement, exhibitionism and even spitefulness.

    The possibility of sufficient compensation for the risk involved can also vary tremendously because there are those “collectors” who want to possess an item for themselves, not necessarily for sharing it with others. They may be willing to pay to acquire and not concerned with resale.
    There is a full length movie “Stolen” about the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist and the tireless work of the distinguished art detective Harold Smith. However we don’t really have any certain answers today. Much of the speculation has involved tangled mob relationships and people who are long deceased. I guess we Bostonian at least still hope they will come back.

    I agree strongly with JML and you, Jeanne, that rivalry and turf wars prevail in this crime-solving community. It should not be surprising that this combined with reticence of purveyors and collectors of art prevent centralized archives for registering theft and solutions.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    The word spitefulness resonated. A friend didn’t speak with her sister for 15 years over two pictures–portraits of a husband and wife–that belonged to a maiden aunt that the family thought were of tremendous value. The sister died first so the paintings were at my friend’s home when she died. I was there when the art auction specialist estimated their value which was far from extraordinary and not worth the damage to the relationship of two family members. [They had no other siblings.] I always wondered why they didn’t split the couple for their lifetimes and then the sister’s children could reunite them!

    As for loving to own art–I do! I see pictures at art shows and wish I could afford them. I never had the pockets deep enough for the $multi-million contemporary works that JML is referring to. As pandering sycophants have never been my favorites, I’d like to hope that I would not fall for their oozing compliments about my “taste in art.” However, I would LOVE to win a lottery and saunter among them and see their reactions to my polite but bold analyses of some of the stuff that passes for art and is priced in the stratosphere for which I would not spend one dollar.

    I, too, would celebrate if the works were returned to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum! I am certain that the museum has millions of other fans well beyond Boston city limits.

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