Dozens of works are being displayed in the presidential palace in the Italian capital in a special exhibition also intended to show off a police force that is called in to consult on art thefts around the world.
The force said it has the largest database of stolen works around the world -- with around 5.7 million objects -- and is planning to travel to Libya, Iraq and Syria in the coming months to investigate cases.
“The turnover from the illegal trade in art is fourth in the world after arms, drugs and financial products,” said Mariano Mossa, head of the cultural police force.
Italy was the first country to equip itself with a special department to investigate art thefts in 1969 and its headquarters is in a Baroque palace in the centre of Rome that crowds of tourists pass every day.
It has 13 regional postings around the country.
Painting stolen from yacht found in collector's home
Last year the police found a painting by Russian-born Jewish painter Marc Chagall “Le Nu au Bouquet” in a private collector's home in Bologna that had been stolen from a US tycoon's yacht in Italy in 2002.
They also investigated the shocking theft of hundreds, even thousands, of rare books from the Girolamini Library in Naples that were allegedly smuggled out and sold internationally by its former director.
Among the exhibits in the Rome show was an entire Etruscan mausoleum found by builders on a construction site near Perugia in central Italy, including 23 well preserved urns with scenes from Greek mythology.
“This is one of the most extraordinary discoveries of recent years in Etruscan art,” said Louis Godart,an adviser to the Italian presidency on conservation.
There is also a sculpture of Roman emperor Tiberius, stolen in 1971 and found in London 40 years later in 2011, and a triptych that disappeared from Florence in 1977 and was recovered only in 2009.
A precious vase that was found during an illegal archaeological excavation was seized as it was being handed over to a Japanese buyer by a Swiss intermediary.
These works of art “were stolen from the public in an illegal, immoral way for the purpose of enrichment,” said Maurizio Caprara, a spokesman for President Giorgio Napolitano who hosted the exhibition.
Godart said the recovery of the works showed the police's “competence, enthusiasm and professionalism, but also how our heritage is extremely fragile”.
Godart said Italian museums “urgently” needed more security guards, amid a rise in reported thefts during an economic crisis that has slashed culture budgets.
The Federculture association on Monday said that the cuts were “disturbing”, pointing to a reduction in the state subsidies for upkeep of monuments to 75 million euros in 2013 from 165 million euros in 2008.
Private donations have also dropped during the crisis.
Thefts from churches and museums have meanwhile increased, along with illegal archaeological digs, according to a report by the Legambiente watchdog.
The exhibition entitled “Memory Regained: Treasures recovered by the Carabinieri”, opens to the public in the Quirinale palace Thursday and runs until March 16.
UWS and NSW Police come together to tackle art crime
Dr. Pamela James, lecturer in cultural and social analysis at the University of Western Sydney (UWS), wrapped up months of work late last year with the realisation of a new Art Crime Consultative Committee.
Working closely with the NSW Police Force, the committee will tackle the often unreported and unsolved crimes of a rather specialised sector of the underworld – art theft.
Art crime is one of the world's most expensive criminal enterprises, ranked fourth after drugs, arms and and estimated by the FBI to be worth $6 billion a year, according to the FBI. While Australia is low on the list of concerned countries, the Australian Institute of Criminology estimated in 2010 that $20 million worth of art is stolen in Australia every year. But lack of awareness many art crimes in Australia remain off the radar and of low priority. e That is all about to change.
Auction houses are not disclosing concern about art crime. Bonhams Australia chairman Mark Fraser said, ‘Art theft in Australia is remarkably infrequent. It's a small marketplace, and stolen art tends to stand out very distinctly.’
But James said art crime is often not publicly disclosed, ‘Public galleries often do not report theft as it could show their security as being insufficient, and private collections may not wish to publically draw attention to the value of their collections.’
The most recent high profile cases in Australia include the recovery of $1.5million of paintings stolen from Sydney property developer Peter O’Mara in a raid by police last October, and of course the disgrace of dealer Ronald Coles, who was sentences before a Sydney court last August for his multi-million dollar art fraud.
Blouin reported that in 2000 the University of Melbourne’s Department of Criminology conducted research on the illegal art market in Australia, but because of the lack of consistent reporting mechanisms for art crime were only able to suggest that "both theft and fakery are persistent problems in the art market of Australia".
James said ‘The art market can unknowingly pass on stolen or fraudulent art and the criminal art market operates in a unique way, rather different to the market for other stolen goods.’
She added, ‘There is no expertise in the NSW Police Force to help deal with the crime while countries such as Italy have specific taskforces. This Committee will help to equip the Police Force with the necessary mechanisms, skills and protocols to protect our art market.
'Art experts, greater training and cross jurisdictional liaison in the specialised area of art crime will all become more accessible with the formation of the Committee which will be chaired by the Property Crime Squad and include representatives from the Fraud and Cybercrime Squad, the University of Western Sydney and other relevant industry and law enforcement bodies.'
‘This is an innovative, internationally unique answer to the outbreak of a niche, and often invisible, crime’, concluded Dr. James of the Art Crime Consultative Committee.
The antiquities dealer accused in global art theft ring
According to federal authorities, that's exactly what Subhash Kapoor did. The 64-year-old Kapoor is accused of stealing hundreds of pieces of art valued at more than $100 million, according to James Dinkins, a director of Homeland Security Investigations. That department is overseeing the case involving one of the largest art rings. "This is definitely one of the biggest, I think that we've seen in the world," Dinkins told CNBC.
Dinkins also described how Kapoor's team allegedly targeted sacred sites.
"These areas are very remote. They go in under the cover of darkness with trucks and tools, and sometimes it's actually during the excavation process itself, when they're discovering them, before the world even knows they found them," Dinkins told CNBC.
"They'll excavate them out and leave under the cover of darkness, conceal it on trucks, move it around to ports of entry, and ship it around the world."
One stolen sculpture, a rare second century sandstone of a woman, is said to be worth $15 million, according to investigators. A 1,700-pound statue of Buddha's head from the first-second century is worth $4.5 million, and an 11th century Uma bronze statue $2.5 million, according to authorities. Indian officials, however, refuse to put a price tag on what they consider to be priceless, national treasures.
Kapoor is not a newcomer to the art world.
He opened a gallery in New York City, Art of the Past, in 1974. For decades, he sold legitimate pieces right next to stolen items, authorities said. Several stolen pieces found their way into museums around the world. One stolen $5 million item was displayed in the National Gallery in Australia. Kapoor also sold and donated numerous pieces to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The museum's website lists some of the drawings as a, "Gift of Subhash Kapoor, in memory of his parents, Smt Shashi Kanta and Shree Parshotam Ram Kapoor."
A Metropolitan Museum of Art official told CNBC, "The Metropolitan received a number of gifts over the years from Mr. Kapoor, and also made some purchases—and we are currently engaged in researching the ownership histories of all of them."
The National Gallery in Australia said in a statement that it owns 21 pieces of art from Kapoor's gallery collected between 2002 and 2011 and that it will cooperate with relevant authorities.
More museums around the world are believed to house art stolen form Kapoor, authorities say.
"We've gone into businesses and taken them off walls, the lobbies where they are displaying them. And sometimes it's even professional athletes and entertainers who have a lot of wealth and money and can afford to spend a million dollars to display an item in their home," Dinkins told CNBC.
Authorities including Shawn Bray, director of Interpol Washington, acknowledge that policing international fraud rings is incredibly difficult. "If you take a look at the Interpol database, there are of 42,000 items there. When you add up a value that you could possibly give these things, the price is staggering," Bray said. Authorities estimate several billion dollars exchange hands in the illicit antiquities market each year.
Several pieces of additional stolen Indian art—not attached to the Kapoor case—were returned this week to the Indian Consulate. Consul General Dnyaneshwar M. Mulay told CNBC about the importance of getting these national treasures back to India.
"Whatever their market value, they are invaluable historically, culturally. So that they are going back is a matter of pride and joy for our relationship," Mulay said. "It is very unfortunate that there are still people that think it is required to be taken out, stolen, smuggled in the international market. The problem is there are buyers and sellers. And both sides, the supply side and the demand side, need to be constrained, controlled, and very probable treated by the law," Mulay said.
Kapoor was apprehended by Interpol in Germany and extradited to India, where he's being held on charges of trafficking in precious idols.
An accused art thief caught in a criminal sting that aired on a reality show says he had an agreement with a Long Island mansion owner to sell the swiped paintings — and the TV network has the footage that can set him free.
In court documents that were to be filed Monday night, house painter Joselito Vega said the caught-on-camera theft of artwork worth $100,000 from a Kings Point estate — including a small Picasso etching — was just a misunderstanding that could easily be cleared up if CBS shared video from its short-lived “Brooklyn DA” show.
Vega, who was arrested in 2012, said he was approached by Michael Schulhof, who hired him to do some painting in his mother’s stately home.
“Up until his arrest, Vega didn’t believe that there was anything wrong or illegal with this arrangement,” Vega’s lawyer Timothy Parlatore said in the filing.
Parlatore said proof of the arrangement was in Vega’s car, which he said was searched, on camera, after Vega’s arrest.
The lawyer said prosecutors failed to turn over the vehicle evidence, and CBS has refused to share the footage.
The drama played out over the course of the first three episodes of the much maligned documentary series on then-DA Charles Hynes’ office, which aired as Hynes was running for re-election.
The CBS web site calls the episodes “a high-tech undercover sting involving a famous art collection.”
Calls to the Schulhof estate were not immediately returned.
Vega, of Easton, Pa., claims he was duped by a greedy homeowner who had promised one of the paintings, which was insured for $200,000, to the Guggenheim Museum upon his mother’s death, in what the defendant said was an insurance scam.
Matriarch Hannelore Schulhof died in 2012.
The recorded theft was Vega’s second trip to the house to do work. He was “hired” again after an inventory first revealed missing artwork, and he became a likely suspect.
Investigators set up hidden cameras in the Gold Coast mansion and set out artwork to entice him. Vega was videotaped stealing another three pieces of art, authorities said.
A spokesman for the TV series “Brooklyn DA” declined to comment.
Rings worth $180k stolen in smash and grab
The jewellery heist, which included rings valued at up to $4000, was captured on CCTV cameras and police are also appealing for any information the public can provide.
Co-owner Keri Mason said the Tennyson St shop's alarm system was not activated by the 3am intruder.
"There had been a report to the police of noise that was made and somebody walking past noticed the broken window," she said.
"We came down and there was a huge hole in the window just above our counter and our main jewellery cabinet was broken - that had 180 of our expensive rings [inside it]," Mrs Mason said.
"On the video footage you could see a guy in a black hoodie jump straight through the smashed window, through to the cabinet where he loaded up all the jewellery trays into his black duffle bag and jumped back out the window."
No facial features could be made out from the security video "and he was deliberately slouching".
The average retail price of the gold, diamond and precious-stone rings was $1000, but "some were up to $4000".
"I'd know a lot of them if I saw them - there are a couple of unique ones," Mrs Mason said.
She owns the shop with her sister Raewyn Dailei.
Ms Dailei said: "It was all our stock for the cruise ship season and the busiest month of the year with Art Deco Weekend."
They were underinsured for the retail value of the rings and hoped police would recover them, she said.
"We are seriously out of pocket." Detective Ross Alexander said police had good lines of inquiry but were calling for help from the public.
"If anyone is being offered jewellery and have any suspicions over its origin they should give Crimestoppers or us a call," Mr Alexander said.
Despite the theft, it was business as usual yesterday for the sisters.
"We have to sell some more jewellery to make up for it," Mrs Mason said.
The sisters have been in business together for 25 years with only one similar incident.
"When we first opened the shop 18 years ago we had a burglary where they came in the back. Even the police said they haven't seen commercial burglaries like this lately - it's usually domestic," Ms Dailei said.
The Peculiar Underworld of Rare-Book Thieves
When officials finally caught on in 2012 to the looting of the Biblioteca Girolamini, a gorgeous rare-book library in Naples, Italy, entire walls of bookcases stood empty. Thousands of books vanished into the black market, including rare editions by the likes of Aristotle and Galileo. Some turned up with their library ID marks crudely hacked out. Most are still missing today.
Nearly as shocking was the barbarian behind it all: the library’s own director, Marino Massimo de Caro. A politically wired, self-taught book expert, De Caro and his cronies—allegedly including a lawyer and a priest—looted the library and destroyed its card catalogue to cover their tracks. De Caro even commissioned master forgeries of an ancient book by Galileo so he could swap them for the real thing at other libraries.
In the peculiar underworld of rare-book theft, De Caro joins a rogue’s gallery that features flamboyant eccentrics, disgruntled employees, corrupt academics—even a serial killer.
While the criminal personalities vary, according to the elite detectives who hunt book thieves, they all share something in common: base greed and a knack for gaining insider access to the cozy, exclusive world of rare-book collecting.
“It tends not to be your average burglar,” Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, manager of the FBI’s Art Theft Program, said in an interview with Paste. “You have to know something about what you’re stealing to do it profitably, and for the most part, [book theft] is driven by greed.”
The Art Theft Program is a team of FBI agents who track “cultural property crimes”—the theft of art and artifacts. Stolen paintings get most of the public limelight, while theft of rare books or manuscripts remains an obscure corner of cultural property crime. In part, that’s because it’s relatively unusual.
“The thefts are scarce in our business in comparison with other trading activities,” Gonzalo Fernández Pontes, the security chair at the Switzerland-based International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB), said. In his own 22 years of operating a bookstore in Madrid, he said only twice did thieves “in a hurry to make some pocket money” try to sell him stolen books.
Pontes explained, however, that thefts can increase after highly publicized book sales, such as last November’s record-setting auction of a 1640 copy of the Bay Psalm Book for over $14 million.
And books can be relatively easy to steal. Unlike paintings or art objects, Magness-Gardiner said books are “vulnerable because these are items…a person can access and handle,” noting that the whole point of a library is to make books available for individual reading. “There is an element of trust in the [library] community,” she said—a trust that thieves often exploit.
A classic case is Anthony Melnikas, an Ohio State University art professor busted in 1995 for attempting to sell pages he had cut out of books in the Vatican Library. Melnikas was well-known at the library and a friend of its director.
“You can see how he used his personal connections and trust he established over a lifetime…to commit thefts,” Magness-Gardiner said.
When a book theft does occur, the lack of evidence could stump Sherlock Holmes. Even noticing the theft can take years. A stolen painting leaves an obvious blank spot on a wall, but a stolen book leaves an easily-filled gap on a bookshelf. Some thieves, like Melnikas, just cut out the valuable illustrations. And rare documents are often catalogued by the box, not individually.
“For archival material, the first clue we have it’s stolen is when it’s been advertised for sale,” Magness-Gardiner said.
Once the theft is noticed, books are still “special problems.” Unlike unique works of art, a book is usually one copy of many in an edition. Tracking down the one specific copy that was stolen is a forensic nightmare; ditto for trying to locate the owners of books found in thieves’ hoards. Factor in thieves who hack off identifying library marks, and Magness-Gardiner says the detective work is “extraordinarily difficult.”
An archaeologist by training, Magness-Gardiner is not an FBI agent herself. Instead, she advises agents on resources and authorities to help them track stolen artifacts. After all, it takes an expert to catch an expert.
Pinning down a suspect is also more challenging than one might think. The rare-book world’s knowledge and manners are elitist, but they can be learned by almost anyone.
“There’s no list of experts,” Magness-Gardiner said. “There are people who are self-taught…who are quite expert.”
All these challenges converged in the infamous case of thief Edward Forbes Smiley III. A well-respected map collector, Smiley ingratiated himself with major libraries by donating maps to their collections. At the very same time, he was hacking rare maps out of books in those and other libraries. After years of unnoticed theft, Smiley was nabbed in 2006 in Yale University’s rare-book library after a librarian noticed an X-Acto knife blade on the floor.
The FBI still has books and maps confiscated from Smiley whose owners remain unknown. Last summer, it issued an unusual public appeal for help and released photos of many items (including the photo above of a “Chart of the North Part of America by J. Thornton”).
Other Smiley items were returned only after intense detective work according to journalist Michael Blanding, whose book about the case, The Map Thief, is due out this year. Blanding told Paste that Smiley cooperated with the FBI.
“Even so, the recovery of the maps was a long, complex process involving forensic research, including matching paper stains, library stamps and even wormholes to identify which volumes maps were ripped from,” Blanding said.
Trusting the word of a cooperating thief only goes so far, and Smiley is suspected of many other thefts.
“We may never know the full extent of Smiley’s crimes or recover all the maps he stole,” Blanding said.
Online databases of stolen cultural property, including rare books, are used to catch thieves. But there are several different databases with varying contents, and none of them are a one-stop shop for the wary book-buyer.
Interpol, the France-based international police agency, runs one such database. London’s Scotland Yard runs another. The FBI’s National Stolen Art File is also a prominent database, but it only includes cases with U.S. federal jurisdiction and only lists truly unique books.
The best database may be stolen-book.org. Operated by the ILAB, it allows member booksellers to post descriptions and photos of stolen books in as little as 10 minutes, with an automatic email alert going to all members around the world. Books added in recent years include a 1589 Bible and first editions of everything from Winnie the Pooh to Naked Lunch.
The simple system works. One recent example: a couple used a forged £12,000 check to steal a first edition of the James Bond novel Casino Royale in London, then they tried to quickly sell it in New York City.
“They were completely unaware of how ILAB’s information email system works, and this led to their arrest,” ILAB Security Chair Pontes said.
But the ILAB’s system is only as good as its members. Among those charged in the Girolamini library looting conspiracy, three are auctioneers and booksellers who are ILAB affiliates.
“The Girolamini affair is very complex, and it will take years to have all the pieces of this jigsaw in their correct position,” Pontes said, noting the booksellers have yet to go to court. But he insists ethical integrity must be at the heart of the industry, or it will fail.
“We say that in our trade, ‘to build up a reputation takes the whole professional life, but you can lose it in half an hour,’” he said.
The FBI’s Magness-Gardiner believes increased awareness and skepticism from book-buyers would help.
“The more the rarity goes up, the deeper you want to go in checking,” she said. That means looking at databases, asking for paperwork on the book’s previous sales and checking the seller’s reputation in the community and the industry. But it all begins with a simple, easily-forgotten question.
“Ask the seller where the item came from,” Magness-Gardiner said. “I personally would not accept ‘I don’t know’ for an answer.”
A Rogue’s Gallery of Book Thieves
Anders Burius, the former head of the National Library of Sweden’s manuscript department, committed suicide (and accidentally blew up his apartment) in 2004 after authorities realized he was stealing books from his own workplace. The FBI located and returned some of his bounty last year, but many books remain missing.
William Jacques, an oil-company accountant dubbed the “Tome Raider” by the British press, was jailed for stealing rare books by Newton, Thomas Paine and others from Cambridge University and other libraries in the 1990s. When he was released, he promptly stole books from the Royal Horticultural Society. Many books remain missing, and he is now banned from all U.K. libraries.
Raymond Scott, an eccentric British antiques dealer and con man, was imprisoned for attempting to sell a stolen, vandalized copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio in 2008. The First Folio , along with other rare books and documents, had been stolen from Durham University 10 years earlier. Scott showed up for trial in a limousine and committed suicide in prison in 2012.
Gary Evans, a violent jewel thief and serial killer, was also a self-taught antiques expert. Busted in 1994 for stealing a first edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America from a Vermont library, he got a reduced sentence in exchange for returning the book. He continued stealing antiques until police realized he was a murderer in 1998. Escaping a police van thanks to a handcuff key hidden deep in his nose, Evans killed himself by leaping off a highway bridge.