Russia's FSB said to have set sights on paintings stolen from Italy, found in Ukraine
Russia's FSB Federal Security Service has been developing its own operation to track down 17 precious paintings stolen from a museum in Verona, Italy, and recently recovered in Ukraine, according to the Ukrainian State Border Service.
"During the investigation, the border guards have learnt that the search for the paintings was also in the sphere of the Russian FSB's interests, and the thieves were taken by the Russian side under control. What is more, the FSB planned its own operation to relocate the pictures to Russian-controlled Transdniestria [a breakaway self-proclaimed state located on the eastern Moldovan border with Ukraine]," the Ukrainian agency said.
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Having identified members of the criminal group and the way they had transported the paintings, including works by Tintoretto, Rubens and Mantegna, the Ukrainian border guards, investigators and military prosecutors found a cache storing the stolen art on Turunchuk Island on the Dniester River in Odesa region's Biliayivsky district between Ukraine and Moldova, the service's press service reported.
The Ukrainian law enforcers worked closely with their Moldovan counterparts to identify the thieves and track down the paintings. The criminal group included citizens of Ukraine, Moldova and Russia. The investigators found that the works of art had been mailed to Odesa region from Moldova for further sale in Ukraine and Russia.
As part of the investigation, the Ukrainian military prosecutors plan to invite Italian experts and officials in to authenticate the paintings and formalize their handover.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has already hailed the Ukrainian investigators' work as a "brilliant operation" and said it had demonstrated Ukraine's efficient fight against art smuggling.
The presidential press service reported that the paintings were seized on May 6 and tests conducted on May 7 confirmed that these are the original works of art.
The paintings worth from EUR 15 million to EUR 20 million were stolen from Verona's Castelvecchio museum last November.
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In March, the Italian authorities announced the arrest of 13 suspects in the case in Italy and the ex-Soviet nation of Moldova.
Director of the Ukrainian State Tax Service's investigation department Petro Tsyhykal reported that the paintings search operation conducted by the Italian police was dubbed "Twins," as twin brothers were involved in the theft. One of them worked as a museum guard. The criminals acted out an attack on the museum's guards and stole the paintings, which were allegedly ordered by a private art collector from a Russian region, most probably, the Chechen Republic.
President Petro Poroshenko said the recovery of the stolen art estimated to be worth more than 16 million euros ($18.3 million) had demonstrated Ukraine's efficient fight against art smuggling.
Ukrainian border guards found the stolen paintings hidden in plastic bags in a cache on a small island on the Dniester River between Ukraine and Moldova.
The paintings were stolen from Verona's Castelvecchio museum last November. Three masked armed men entered the museum in a medieval castle after it closed and just before its alarm system was activated. They tied up a security guard and a cashier, quickly took the paintings from the walls and got away in the security guard's car.
In March, the Italian authorities announced the arrest of 13 suspects in the case in Italy and the ex-Soviet nation of Moldova. They included the Italian guard on duty when the robbery took place and his twin brother along with the brother's Moldovan wife, who were arrested in Italy.
Investigators had analyzed 4,000 hours of video and hundreds of phone calls to identify the suspects. In intercepted phone calls, the thieves congratulated themselves, calling the heist "a big hit," and saying they would have to wait a few months before trying to offload such valuable paintings.
Ukrainian Border Guard agency said the paintings had been mailed from Moldova to Ukraine's Odessa border region and kept there by members of a criminal group that included citizens of Ukraine, Moldova and Russia.
"We have not only preserved the global value of these paintings, but also reaffirmed Ukraine's prestige by such efficient actions," Poroshenko said.
He ordered his government to invite Italian officials and experts in to authenticate the paintings and formalize their handover.
Christopher Cooper, 48, pleaded guilty to fraud, specimen theft charges and dealing in tainted cultural objects.
His thefts took place in a series of offences over three years, during which time district crown prosecutor and CPS lead for heritage crime Stephen Davies suggested he made £150,000 from his crimes.
He was sentenced to three years and eight months at Hereford Crown Court.
It took a dedicated team at West Mercia Police 18-months to fully investigate the crimes, with the support of the Metropolitan Police Art and Antiques Unit, and most of the stolen items have now been returned to their rightful owners.
Following a successful fundraising campaign by The Churches Conservation Trust to raise the money to fix damage caused by the thefts, the two priceless panels from Holy Trinity at Torbryan are now undergoing painstaking conservation work, and are scheduled to be returned to the church over the summer.
The decorative oak panels, bearing paintings of St Victor of Marseilles and St Margaret of Antioch, are considered of national importance, and were stolen from Holy Trinity Church at Torbryan between August 2 and 9 2013.
The panels remained missing until they were recovered by the Metropolitan Police Art and Antiques Unit after being spotted by a private collector in an online sale.
This led to a raid by specialist detectives in south London in January 2015.
Crispin Truman, chief executive of The Churches Conservation Trust, said: "It is good that Mr Cooper has come clean about these damaging and heart-breaking thefts and has helped return valuable historic items to their rightful owners - the community.
"Heritage crime causes just as much heartache and anxiety as other sorts of theft, but all too often it goes unsolved.
"Particular thanks to West Mercia Police and the various police forces who worked so hard to bring Mr Cooper to justice.
"Thankfully, the generosity of our supporters and the general public is allowing the priceless artworks he hacked out of Holy Trinity in Torbryan to be painstakingly conserved, and they will soon return home to the church.
"However, as a heritage charity reliant on donations to maintain and care for our 349 churches, that money could have been spent on other important artefacts."
The panels are part of a rood screen which is one of only a handful of such artworks in England which survived the Reformation.
The theft prompted a national media campaign to try to trace the whereabouts of the missing panels, receiving the backing of high profile figures such as Loyd Grossman, Dan Cruickshank and the late Candida Lycett Green.
The collector who alerted the police recognised the panels from media coverage of the theft.
When it first came to light in 2013, the theft was a bitter blow for The Churches Conservation Trust, the national charity that cares for 349 unique churches across England, including Torbryan church.
Thanks to donations from supporters and members of the public, £7,000 was raised to restore the damage.
West Mercia Police led the investigation into the theft as part of Operation Icarus, and recovered a treasure trove of other church artefacts, including stonework, friezes, statues, paintings, brasses, misericords, stained glass and bibles.
Nicknamed "Sparkle" the priceless 302-year-old violin Siemens had been given to perform with, along with a gifted $15,000 bow, mysteriously went missing last week after a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in California last week.
"It felt like a piece of me had died... I love sharing the story of how I got my instrument and how it touches people," she says. "And I thought, "how can my story be taken from me?" It's such a positive story of how people have given to me and how I give back through it."
At 3:00 a.m Siemens and friends went out into the Santa Barbra streets scouring dumpsters, and inquiring at gas stations for any sign of the 18th century instrument. With a flight to catch in a matter of hours, Siemens says she didn't know how she would play her next show. It was then a glimmer of hope appeared, a good samaritan heard about the story and offered a $2,000 reward to anyone with information on the missing violin. Fellow musician, Ainsley Kroeker, offered to borrow a bow; friends and family were praying through the night. She says even her taxi driver helped search dumpsters around the hotel.
"It was unbelievable how people jumped in to help," Siemens says.
After a sleepless night, Siemens boarded her flight bound for North Dakota with no news on the missing instrument. It was during a layover in the Seattle airport she received word the violin had been returned as mysteriously as it was taken.
She learned someone in a hooded sweater had walked into the front desk of Siemens' hotel and placed the violin on the counter with the simple explanation, "I hear you've been looking for this," and walked out.
There in the boarding area of the airport Siemens broke down, "I could not stop crying," she says.
"I'm just so thankful, everyday I'm waking up thankful," Siemens says.
The story that could've ended tragically, she says, is now inspiring others. After sharing the experience fans have offered to pay travel costs to reunite Siemens with the violin, while another, a massage therapist, offered a massage after the stressful episode. She notes it's also fitting May is Pay It Forward month.
"It's beautiful because one man's junk is another person's treasure, and he doesn't know what he stole from me," Siemens says. "It's important to just do wonderful things for people, even simple things, because you don't know how it's going to touch them on that day."
The Ins and Outs of Stolen Art, Explained
While it is true that certain aspects of the law in Florida are more forgiving towards current possessors than would be the case under New York law, there are major misconceptions in Hendel’s analysis. There is no law, in any state, that allows someone to gain title over a work after it has passed through a requisite number of exchanges. In fact, a work can be sold by a hundred dealers and yet still belong to an original owner.
Stolen Art Statute in the U.S.In the United States, every state operates under the “nemo dat” rule, shorthand for “nemo dat quod non habet,” meaning “no one gives what he doesn’t have.” Generally, a thief can never gain good title (ownership not subject to competing claims or liens) and may never pass title. Anyone in the chain of sale for a stolen work will not get good title, absent an exception.
There are narrow exceptions that allow a good faith purchaser (someone without constructive or actual knowledge of any title defects) to gain proper title. In limited circumstances, the court may deem it equitable to grant title to a good faith purchaser rather than the original owner. And while it is true that those limited exceptions vary from state to state, no state simply provides title to the most recent purchaser, as Hendel suggests.
Due to New York’s position at the center of the art market, both in the U.S. and the world at large, the Empire State is particularly protective of original owners in order to prevent the state from becoming a haven for stolen art. The state’s protective stance is reflected in its statute of limitations exception. As a general rule, a victim has a set time to file a lawsuit. For art theft, the clock typically begins to run when the work is stolen. However, the New York statute of limitations for art theft begins when the true owner demands the return of the object and the possessor refuses the demand. The reasoning is as follows: A good faith purchaser does not commit a wrongful act until he or she refuses to return the stolen work; only then can the statute of limitations begin to run. This “Demand and Refusal Rule” is tempered by a legal defense called “laches,” that prevents an original owner from sitting on their rights for an unreasonable length of time.
Other states are not quite as protective, following the “Discovery Rule.” That rule holds that the statute of limitations begins to run when a diligent owner knew, or should have known, the current location of an artwork. This standard is used by all states other than New York, as it encourages the original owner to act diligently in seeking his or her property. In the case that the original owner did nothing to recover his property, then a court may not agree to delay the statute of limitations, and the owner may be barred from bringing suit. This analysis is fact-specific and differs from case to case.
The inquiry in Tisch v. Hendel will rely on many facts. Should Tisch have discovered the location of the work earlier? How should she have searched for the painting? Should she have advertised the theft or would that have driven the work further underground? Did Hendel act in good faith? He is an art dealer with knowledge of the art market. Should he have research the work more thoroughly before purchase? As Picasso is the most stolen artist, should Hendel have been more skeptical of the piece and its low sale price? However, independent of the outcome of this case, the U.S. statute is clear and, in fact, much more stringent than in certain other jurisdictions worldwide.
What Loopholes Could Have Protected Hendel?In the U.S., courts have recognized the importance of researching the title and history of artworks. If someone intends to purchase stolen art, there are other jurisdictions that are more favorable. Switzerland has long had a reputation as a safe haven for stolen property. Not only does the European nation fiercely guard the privacy of its banking clients, but its freeport in Geneva has become home to some of the greatest private art collections, with many deals taking place in the secrecy of its vaults.
The freeport has become notorious for housing looted and stolen art. One of the most famous dealers in looted Roman and Etruscan antiquities, Giacomo Medici, stored his wares in the freeport, eventually facing criminal changes, serving time in prison, and having his collection seized in the late 1990s. But the freeport continues to make headlines, as a raid earlier this year led to the discovery of a trove of illicit antiquities belong to one of Medici’s contacts, Robin Symes.
After much criticism over the nature of the Geneva warehouse, a change to the Swiss Customs Act was enacted on January 1, 2016. The regulations were amended to implement time limits for exports, increase transparency by declaring goods for export and provide the identification of buyers. The change to the Act was motivated as part of a larger program to reduce money laundering and smuggling. However, even with these changes, stolen art may be easier to transfer in Switzerland due to the fact that Swiss law presumes good faith on the part of a purchaser.
Individuals involved in the trade of stolen art have also used offshore accounts to complete transactions away from the prying eyes of the law and the art market. In April, a Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca, suffered a security breach and had millions of internal files become public. The information in the so-called Panama Papers leak confirmed the suspicion that wealthy individuals use shell companies to hide art.
One prime example among the revelations is the case of Modigliani’s portrait Seated Man With a Cane (1918). The piece was once stolen by the Nazis. It vanished for decades but appeared for auction in 1996 at Christie’s and again in 2008 at Sotheby’s, with the well-known Helly Nahmad Gallery listed as consignor. At this time, the original owner’s heir, Philippe Maestracci, discovered the work’s whereabouts and claimed the painting as his family’s missing property. But when Maestracci demanded return of the work, the Nahmad Gallery claimed that it did not own the painting. The gallery claimed that the Modigliani portrait was purchased by International Art Center S.A. (“IAC”), a Panamanian company. As was revealed in the Panama Papers, IAC is a shell company for the Nahmads that was established by a member of the family. Ownership was later transferred to other family members through a share transfer.
For individuals with stolen art, the options are not limited to Florida and New York. Offshore accounts, freeports, and nations that presume good faith are all options for collectors. However, as a lawyer, I do not advocate hiding or purchasing stolen art or loot. As noted above in reference to the Panama Papers and the discovery of Medici and Symes collections, hidden art troves are usually discovered, and with disastrous consequences. It is not wise to deal in stolen or looted art. And it is important to purchase art with good title, as those purchases encourage a healthy and transparent art market, and those works also retain their value upon resale and are not subject to seizure.
Should the FBI Offer Reward Money for Stolen Art?
Bosnia Urged to Tackle Art Trafficking
|The Bosnian National Gallery. Photo: Emir Kapetanovic/Wikicommons.|
There is no accurate data on the issue, but large numbers of artworks have been stolen from both private and public collections, Jusufovic said.
“Around 1,500 works were stolen from the Bosnian Association of Visual Artists alone, another 45 from the International Gallery of Portraits of Tuzla," he added by way of example.
Strajo Krsmanovic, the director of Bosnian National Art Gallery, told BIRN that the museum had complained of the disappearance of around 50 portraits as long ago as 1993, but that so far none of them has been found.
"We initially denounced the theft in 1993 and recently renewed our complaint to the authorities of the Sarajevo canton... We know that Interpol is also working on this topic, but so far there has been no result," Krsmanovic said.
He also said that the people who trafficked art during the war cannot be prosecuted any more because the crime has passed the statute of limitations.
"However, our first concern is not to punish these criminals, rather to get back our works," Krsmanovic said.
"What we are asking for is to establish an effective system for the identification and tracking of these works, so that it will become impossible to sell them and therefore whoever has them now will be incentivised to return them," Krsmanovic added.
Last month, 44 portraits that disappeared from the Museum of AVNOJ (the Anti-Fascist Council for the Liberation of Yugoslavia) in the central Bosnian town of Jajce were delivered to the Bosnian embassy in Belgrade by an anonymous individual.
"That was probably a case of somebody who wasn't able to sell these portraits anymore," Krsmanovic said.
Jusufovic argued that in order to tackle the illegal trafficking of artworks in the country, a centralised registry for all stolen works should be set up as soon as possible.
"It's necessary to create a central database in order to track all stolen artworks and increase cooperation at all levels of Bosnian government, including the police and prosecutors," he said.
The Bosnian Ministry of Civil Affairs, which is responsible for cultural issues at the state level, confirmed to BIRN that there is still no centralised authority dealing with the problem of art trafficking in the country.
"Our ministry doesn't have any regulations [allowing it to act] in this field, it only coordinates its activities with the two entities in order to implement the UNESCO Convention [against art trafficking]," the ministry said in a written response.
It said that combatting art trafficking requires coordination between several official bodies and ministries.
"We are working to ensure the correct cooperation and the exchange of information between all these levels of government," it said.