Inside the national gallery of stolen art

Shortly after midnight on March 18th, 1990, security guard Rick Abath allowed two men dressed as police officers to enter the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. This decision may have been “the most costly mistake in art history,” according to The Boston Globe. The men stole 13 artworks worth more than $500 million and left Abath handcuffed in the basement.

The mystery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist has never been solved. Today, the pilfered works are part of the National Stolen Art File, a database of looted treasures curated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The 23 agents in charge of this effort are part of the FBI’s art crime team. Created in 2004, the team’s mandate is to track down and return stolen art. Its origins date back to the US invasion of Iraq when 15,000 artifacts were looted from the National Museum in Baghdad.

Special Agent Tim Carpenter, who heads up the art crime team’s efforts, says, to him, arresting the bad guys is secondary. “Our primary focus is the safe recovery of the artwork,” he explains. If criminals know the FBI is closing in, they might try to destroy the evidence, which in his case can mean works of art. “That’s happened,” he says. “They’re afraid or they’re about to get caught, and they’ll destroy the evidence, and they burn a $10 million original painting. Obviously, that’s a nightmare scenario.”

Carpenter spoke to The Verge about how terrorist organizations use stolen art to fund their criminal enterprises, and why museum heists are still a problem in the United States, despite major advancements in museum security.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Your team was established in 2004. Can you tell me a bit about the idea behind it and why it felt necessary to build a group with specific expertise in tracking down stolen art?

It started officially in 2004, but I don’t want to suggest that the FBI didn’t work art cases prior to that. We’ve had folks working these cases since the ‘70s. And frankly, the ‘70s and ‘80s were the Wild West with art heists in the United States.

What happened in 2003 is we were occupying Iraq. Everybody knows full well the looting that occurred at the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad. When that happened, the FBI was tapped on the shoulder, along with a number of other federal agencies, including the Department of Defense and Homeland Security. Basically, Congress said, “What are you guys going to do about this? We have this massive looting problem at this museum.” I think that was a seminal moment where everybody looked at each other and said, “Well, what are we going to do about this? We have some background in this and we have some expertise, but it’s these random associations of agents.” We didn’t really have a team that was capable of deploying on short notice to go and manage a massive event like this. That was the catalyst.

When we think about what falls under your team’s purview, just based on the National Stolen Art File, it seems like “art” encompasses jewelry, paintings, even furniture. Can you describe the scope of what your team defines as art?

Let me carve it up into two different things. First off, the types of material. What do we define as cultural property? It pretty much could be anything, right? It’s fine art, it’s sculptures, it’s antiquities, books, manuscripts, rock and roll memorabilia, sports memorabilia. You probably saw the news: we got back the ruby slippers from Wizard of Oz.

Then I’ll shift gears and break it down into the types of crimes that we look at. Our bread and butter, what we’re well-known for, are theft cases. Museum heists, stuff from galleries, stuff from private collectors, and so forth. But truthfully, that represents a relatively small portion of our portfolio. A much larger part of our portfolio these days is related to fraud. We spend a lot of time and resources investigating fraud cases that involve fakes and forgeries. And that’s across the entire gamut of all of those materials that I just described. It’s not just the fake paintings, a fake Picasso or a fake Van Gogh. We see fraud involving forgeries and fakes across every corner of the market. Whether it’s Near East antiquities or coins or manuscripts or sports memorabilia, the market is rife with fraud.

We do a fair number of antiquities trafficking cases — particularly since 2013, when ISIS started occupying territory and destroying world heritage sites and digging up archeological sites and trafficking in that material to support their operations.

These days, our focus is more on money laundering. Using the art market to launder illegal proceeds is our number one priority at the moment.

It’s interesting that terrorist groups are able to use stolen antiques as a major funding source. It seems like those items would be difficult to launder.

Well, it’s not easy to move that material into the marketplace. We have a lot of rules and regulations, we have import restrictions. The world is paying attention, right? And particularly the material that comes out of Syria or Iraq, that stuff is extremely difficult to move and nigh impossible to move in the open market. But we do see the stuff entering into the gray markets and the black markets.

It’s an unfortunate truth that there are dealers and collectors across the world that aren’t necessarily concerned about the sourcing of the material. Maybe they just don’t ask questions they should ask.

Can you share a bit about how you go about investigating these crimes? How do you start to understand where a piece of art came from and then return it to its rightful owner?

These are criminal investigations. They involve art and cultural property. But at the end of the day, it’s a criminal case, and we’re going to work it just like any traditional case. How we approach a crime, though, largely depends on what the crime is. We’re going to respond to a theft case differently than we would a fraud case.

Pick your favorite museum anywhere in the country, and say they had a heist today, and somebody stole a $30 million painting. That’s a traditional criminal case, right? I don’t want to say it’s run of the mill, but it’s a traditional case. We’re going to do the crime scene, we’re going to collect the evidence, we’re going to interview witnesses, we’re going to do all of those things that you would expect criminal investigators to do. It’s a simple whodunit.

I will tell you this, particularly about theft cases: what makes them a little bit different than a traditional criminal case is what we’re trying to recover. In some instances, we might be recovering an original Modigliani or an original da Vinci piece or a Rodin or whatever it might be. So for us, and I know a lot of my law enforcement colleagues cringe when I say this, but for us, in the art theft program, arresting the bad guys is really secondary. Our first and primary focus is the safe recovery of the artwork.

Maybe we really want to go after a certain target and make sure that we can arrest them and get them prosecuted properly, but then that exposes the artwork to risk because they burn the art. That’s happened. They’re afraid or they’re about to get caught, and they’ll destroy the evidence, and they burn a $10 million original painting.

Obviously, that’s a nightmare scenario. So you have to treat them a little bit differently than we might do a traditional criminal case. Not to say that we treat them with kid gloves, but we just have a different objective. Our primary objective is the safe recovery of the artwork.

Now, fraud cases, they’re different. Those tend to be more of a paper case. We’re doing subpoenas and search warrants, and we’re getting email records and phone records. You have to just follow the trail. And those tend to be long. They can take a long time.

Do you have set academics who you work with for specific types of cases, or are you constantly having to seek out new experts?

It’s both. Obviously, we have a fairly deep Rolodex that we use. And then there’s always new stuff that’s going to come up like, “Oh, we haven’t seen this before. We’ve got to go around.”

I get this a lot, where people make this assumption because I’m the manager of the FBI’s art theft program that I’m some kind of a scholar or an academic. Listen, let me dispel that notion. I don’t have a PhD in art history. I’m not an archeologist. We’re criminal investigators. My expertise is in the investigation of art and culture property. It doesn’t make me an art expert.

When I lecture and I go out and I give these presentations, I’m always quick to point out to everybody, “Listen, I’m not an expert in any of these fields. I’m an expert at finding experts.” This is what I do for a living: I find experts to come in and help us work our cases.

We do have expertise on the team. And of course, you pick up stuff along the way. You can’t do these cases and not learn along the way.

How big of an issue is art crime in the United States? I’d imagine we’re a large market for stolen art, even if theft isn’t as big of an issue anymore, compared to other parts of the world.

The United States is the largest consumer market in the world for cultural property, and that’s licit and illicit. We’re a wealthy nation. We have a lot of money in the United States. And where there’s money, people collect, and they’re going to buy culture property.

There’s certainly laundering going on in the market. There’s money laundering where people are laundering illicit proceeds. Maybe it’s drug money or whatever it might be. And they’re cleaning that money through purchases in the art market, which is largely unregulated.

We also have provenance laundering, particularly for antiquities and so forth. They come out of the ground and are undocumented. You have to create a provenance in order to be able to sell them in the market.

I don’t know if I’d say that we have less art crime than the rest of the world. I think we probably have more here in the United States. It’s just that we don’t suffer those Hollywood-style museum heists — that tends to be a Europe problem. We had that problem in the ’80s. Museum security has improved drastically over the years, so we see less of that now.

We still have a fair amount of museum thefts in the United States, but they tend to be internal. About 80 percent of all museum thefts in the United States are internal thefts, out of the storage facilities instead of off the gallery floor.

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