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Friday, September 30, 2011

Stolen Art Watch, Hot Art. Astounding & Outstanding

Open Book: Hot Art, by Joshua Knelman

Last April, two thieves broke into a Toronto gallery and ran off with three paintings worth $73,000. The sum was high enough to attract local attention in the press, but the incident represented little more than a good day’s work for members of the worldwide fellowship of art thieves.

It’s a grand fraternity, flourishing in a global culture where art has never commanded greater prices. In the United States, according to Joshua Knelman’s Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives Through the Secret World of Stolen Art, the “business of fine art is worth an estimated $200-billion annually.” The value of the amount of stolen art annually is — well, no one knows for sure. If there was even a vaguely useful figure, depend on it, Knelman would have obtained it. Seven years in the making, Hot Art is an engrossing and thorough study of the shadow side of art fairs, galleries, museums, auction houses, private and public collectors.

It began in 2003 when Knelman was researching a story about a burglary at a small art gallery for The Walrus magazine, research that led him to some strange contacts, including one thief who threatened Knelman serious injury if he wrote anything about his involvement in the art gallery theft. A curious feature of Knelman’s narrative is that he becomes part of the story at the very beginning and at the very end, while in between lies a fairly impersonal stretch of reportage. The episodes that involve Knelman are unsettling. Aside from the anonymous thief, an ever wary Los Angeles Police Department detective temporarily regards Knelman as a suspect in a gallery heist — claiming to be a journalist could be a very good ruse, he figures — and the organizer of a conference on art theft in Cairo demands extra payment on his hotel bill. Knelman refuses to pay that extra money and successfully stands his ground, but only after a blistering argument and another not so veiled threat to the author’s health.

Finally, near the end of the book, his main informant from the criminal world, “Paul,” seeks reassurance from Knelman that there will be enough material left over for his own book. Knelman tries to ease his concern on that score, although he doesn’t actually guarantee anything.

None of these episodes — not even the hotel confrontation, which, strictly speaking, has nothing to do with Knelman’s story — are gratuitous. They help to establish in an intimate and sometimes ironic way themes of innocence and guilt, including the guilt of depriving a crook of the rightful fruits of his experience.

The main story is told from the perspective of a handful of crusaders who battle not only the increasing sophistication and determination of art thieves but the indifference of their police colleagues and even the hostility of gallery owners who don’t want to change their ways. “The business of art is one of the most corrupt, dirtiest industries on the planet,” maintains one such crusader, a Toronto lawyer specializing in cultural property law named Bonnie Czegledi. “There are no regulations and theft is rampant.” Proper documentation of sales is often missing, and gallery owners often feel it is rude to inquire closely about the provenance of a work of art offered to them. “Nobody in the art world asks questions,” Paul informs Knelman.

There’s a certain acceptance in that world of what happened to the Toronto gallery last April — art theft has been in existence as long as art. The history of Egypt, for example, is the history of systematic plunder of its antiquities. Czegledi, a descendent of inhabitants of Hungary’s Carpathian Mountains, who have long been persecuted by Romanian authorities, is particularly sensitive about this political aspect of art theft. “There’s almost nothing left of my people except a few songs collected by Béla Bartók,” she says to Knelman. “The best way to destroy a civilization is to erase their cultural heritage. The Nazis, for example, understood that very well.”

It is greed, however, rather than politics that drives today’s plundering of art, and it is intensive police work that must counter it. Knelman’s other lonely crusaders include LAPD detective Donald Hrycyk, virtually the only member of that police department’s Art Theft Detail; Richard Ellis of Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiques Squad, a squad that includes Ellis and one partner; Robert Wittman, the first agent in the history of the FBI to investigate art theft full-time; and Julian Radcliffe, a corporate consultant on terrorism and kidnapping who founded the Art Loss Register. That register had its beginnings when Radcliffe realized, in Knelman’s words, that “the best way to curb international art theft was to create an international list of stolen artwork. Whoever assembled that list would be the master of the art world.”

As a counterpoint to these voices, the more or less reformed thief Paul gives his own perspective on the art racket, sometimes sounding grimly amused at the spectacle of art’s losing battle against theft. Hrycyk, for one, admits that “the vast majority of these cases are not solved.” There are different sorts of thefts, however. One kind of theft is the stealing of paintings from galleries and private residences — more than half the items on the Art Loss Register are from private collections. These sooner or later find their way into galleries and auction houses as legitimate items of sale. Another kind is the theft of very high profile paintings from museums. Paul warns criminals against this kind of theft because it draws a lot of police attention. “A good thief stays out of the spotlight,” he says.

It’s one thing to lift a famous Rembrandt, another to dispose of it. A gallery owner tells Knelman, “When a painting is stolen, it has to be laundered. There are two ways to do this. One is to send it to Japan or to another country very far away. The other way is simply to hide it somewhere for a very long time, until anybody who would recognize the stolen painting is dead or has long forgotten it.”

It is hard to believe that Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee or Vermeer’s The Concert — two among the 14 paintings stolen in the famous 1990 heist from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum — will ever be forgotten.

Knelman leaves us no assurance that the scourge of art theft will abate any time soon. Closer regulation of the arts and antiques business might reduce theft by helping to dry up that market for stolen goods. Museums might redouble investment on alarms and securities systems in the almost fanatical mode of the Getty Center in Los Angeles, which has never suffered an incident of theft. Even that solution may not last for long, however, and not just because Getty Center-style security is very expensive. As museums become better secured, one expert tells Knelman, the way to steal art will be through armed robbery, in smash and grab mode. “The only thing thieves need to do is beat the alarm response time,” he observes.

We owe it to posterity, however, not to give up the attempt to secure art. Knelman, in this outstanding work of journalism, places the problem in perspective by quoting the FBI’s Wittman on the successful case of a stolen Rembrandt. “The Rembrandt that I recovered was 400 years old,” he says. “Do you know anyone who is 400 years old? Cultural property is permanent. We are fleeting.”

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Stolen Art Watch, Polish Bricklayer Hoards 300 Paintings

Art hoard 'worth millions of euros' found in Polish bricklayer's shed
Police in Poland have been left puzzled by the discovery of a collection of 300 paintings worth "millions of euros" in an outhouse belonging to a 92-year-old former bricklayer.

The paintings were found mixed up with junk in the dirty and dusty concrete building in the bricklayer’s garden near the north-western city of Szczecin.

One is on the Polish register of looted art after it disappeared from a museum in Katowice during World War II, while another dates back to 1532.

Just how the man came to possess the collection remains a mystery as he has been unable to communicate since suffering a series of strokes.

He has been placed under formal investigation for handling stolen art.

During the war thousands of works of art were looted by the Nazis from Poland, many never being seen again.

Stolen Art Watch, Pink Panther Rifat Jailed For Ten Years, Out In Four Years With Time Served and Good Behavior

A JAPANESE judge has jailed a Montenegrin member of the "pink panther" gang of international jewellery thieves over a $3.74 million gem heist.

Rifat Hadziahmetovic, once described as Japan's most wanted man by police, was sentenced to 10 years' jail for his part in the raid on a Tokyo store that netted jewels worth $3.74 million, a Tokyo District Court spokesman said today.

In the heist in Tokyo's upmarket Ginza district in June 2007, Hadziahmetovic and another pink panther member sprayed tear gas at store clerks, stole the jewellery and fled on bicycles, prosecutors said during the trial.

Hadziahmetovic's jailing is the latest blow against the pink panthers, a once seemingly untouchable band of thieves drawn from paramilitary circles in the former Yugoslavia.

The gang was given its name after British detectives found a diamond ring hidden in a jar of face cream, echoing an incident in Peter Sellers' 1963 comedy, The Pink Panther.

The smash-and-grab crime group is known to have stolen jewellery worth hundreds of millions of dollars in nearly 30 countries over the past decade, including Y3.5 billion worth of gems from another Ginza shop in 2004.

Hadziahmetovic, in his early 40s, was arrested in Cyprus in 2009 on a European warrant over the theft of luxury watches worth $8360,000 in Spain, to where he was transferred.

Japan then sought his extradition.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Stolen Art Watch, Firle Place, Newby Hall & Sutton Park Hot Art Recovered

Police recover £5m in stolen antiques in sleepy Yorkshire village

Two men arrested after items believed to have been taken in raids on stately homes discovered in caravan and garage

Detectives have found more than £5m worth of antiques stolen from stately homes in a tatty caravan and neighbouring lock-up garage in a quiet Yorkshire village.

Two men have been arrested for questioning over the haul which is thought to be part of a long-term and sophisticated targeting of mansions over the last five years.

Items recovered from Tankersley, near Sheffield, included treasures taken in two thefts which attracted international publicity in 2009. A Chippendale table was taken from Newby Hall near Ripon, for which it had been specially made, and porcelain worth £1.3m was stolen in a daring raid on Firle Place in Sussex.

A member of the National Trust, 58-year-old Graham Harkin from Wakefield, was jailed for nine years in March for the Firle theft. Detectives said after the case that he had refused to co-operate over the whereabouts of the stolen goods, but by then a major investigation was under way.

All three Yorkshire forces and the regional organised crime unit worked with specialised roads crime officers to track suspected gang members to where the goods might be stashed. Inquiries led them to a nondescript store in Tankersley, a village probably best known for the crumbling fortified farm that featured in Ken Loach's 1969 film Kes.

Officers who broke into the lock-up and caravan found the George III rosewood table from Newby, a house which influenced the plot of the TV drama Downton Abbey. Antiques experts at the time of the theft described the piece by the UK's best-known furniture-maker as having "worldwide importance".

Stored beside the Chippendale table was the Firle haul: a pair of Louis XVI ormolu and Sèvres bleu vases with an insurance value of £950,000; a Meissen statue from the 1740s titled The Indiscreet Harlequin, and a Sèvres Hollandois Nouveau vase from 1761, valued at £180,000 each.

Nine other items were recovered, including an embellished bracket clock made by Daniel Delander of London around 1710 which was stolen from Sion Hill Hall in Northallerton, north Yorkshire, shortly before the two other thefts.

Police raided addresses in Tankersley and the Leeds suburb of Middleton. They are currently questioning a 68-year-old man from the former and a 44-year-old man from the latter. The inquiry includes possible links to the illegal drugs trade.

Detective superintendent Steve Waite, head of regional intelligence for Yorkshire and the Humber, said: "We are so pleased and proud to have recovered these high-value antiques which have been described as true pieces of British heritage. We will now begin the formal process of identification and will eventually be in a position to reunite the pieces with their owners.

"A couple of items had suffered minor damage during the ordeal, but this demonstrates that those involved in the thefts were not in it for their love of antiques. In fact, recent trends indicate these types of high-value items are being used by organised crime groups as currency or collateral in relation to serious criminality, often involving drugs."

Other items which form part of the operation's continuing search include porcelain from 21 country house thefts since 2007. They include a Meissen teapot and bronze bust worth a total of £40,000 stolen in 2009 from Sutton Park near York, the home of the David Cameron's in-laws, Sir Reginald and Lady Sheffield. There have been 15 similar attempted but failed robberies that showed extensive knowledge of mansions and their security systems.

Police Press Release:

Police have recovered fourteen items of significant cultural and historic value worth at total of £5 million following a regional operation that took place on Thursday 22nd September 2011.

The items, which were recovered from “lock-ups” at two residential premises in South and West Yorkshire, are believed to be those previously reported as stolen from Newby Hall and Sion Hill in North Yorkshire and Firle Place in Sussex.

Of significant value is one Chippendale table, thought to have been made especially for Newby Hall in Ripon in 1775 but was stolen from the stately home in June 2009. The George III rosewood table is described as having worldwide importance.

Also recovered was a pair of Louis XVI ormolu and Sevres bleu vases, with an insurance value of £950,000. These were taken from Firle Place in July 2009 along with a Meissen statue, The Indiscreet Harlequin (circa 1743) and a rare Sèvres Hollandois Nouveau vase of 1761; valued at £180,000 each. Both pieces are amongst those recovered from the Firle Place break-in, which, together with the vases, places the total value of the Firle Place porcelain collection somewhere in the region of £1.3 million.

Another of the recovered antiques is an embellished bracket clock made by Daniel Delander of London in around 1710. It is believed to be the same clock that was reported as stolen from Sion Hill Hall in Northallerton in February 2009.

The Yorkshire and Humber Regional Intelligence and Special Operations Units received the initial intelligence which was then worked up further following a lengthy period of surveillance until it was possible to then identify a number of suspects connected to the thefts and whereabouts of the items.

The resulting raid on two residential premises took place throughout the day on Thursday 22nd September 2011 and into the early hours of Friday 23rd. It marked the culmination of a year-long investigation carried out by the Yorkshire and Humber Regional Organised Crime Unit who received significant support from West Yorkshire Police and officers from the Regional Roads Crime Team, North Yorkshire Police and South Yorkshire Police.

Over 30 officers worked tirelessly on the operation throughout and have since made two arrests: the first, a 68 year old male from Tankersley, South Yorkshire; the second, a 44 year old male from Middleton, Leeds, West Yorkshire. Both men are being questioned while the recovered items continue to be formerly identified by experts.

Speaking of the case, Det Supt Steve Waite, Head of Regional Intelligence said: “This is an absolutely fantastic case and a great result for both the officers involved and the stately homes that have been affected by these thefts. We are so pleased and proud to have recovered these high value antiques which have been described as true pieces of British heritage.

“We will now begin the formal process of identification and will eventually be in a position to reunite the pieces with their owners. For now, they will remain under lock and key in a controlled environment so as to preserve them.

“Only a couple of items have suffered minor damage in the ordeal but this just goes to show that those involved in the thefts were not in it for their love of antiques. In fact, recent trends indicate that these types of high-value items are actually being used by organised crime groups as currency or collateral in relation to serious criminality, often involving drugs.”

Art Hostage Comments:

On September 16th 2011 Graham Harkin, the man convicted of several Country house raids, Firle Place being the most noteable, appeared at Carlyle Crown Court for a Confiscation hearing under the 2002 Proceeds of Crime Act. Harkin faced a bill of several milion pounds or up to Ten years extra jail-time added to the Nine year jail sentence he recieved in March this year, 2011, when convicted of several country house raids, Firle Place included.

Then, less than a week later, six days in fact, Police raid these two places and recover the items listed and put out the Press Release they had been working towards this for a year.

Perhaps Harkin offered up these stolen art and antiques to excuse himself further jailtime and a softer pillow to rest his head upon whilst serving his time in jail, at an Open Jail, Cat D.

Upon another note, what has happened to the alleged two men arrested ? If this recovery was on the 22nd September then they were either charged or bailed to a later date, which is not mentioned either way. Could this all be a smoke-screen for the Harkin hand back, time will no doubt tell.

Art Hostage has said time and time again this kind of high value, high profile stolen art causes everyone concerned "Headaches" and is refered to as "Headache Art"

Perhaps now thieves will understand stealing high value, high profile art and antiques from Historic Houses, Museums and Public Buildings is less attractive than often potrayed in the media.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Stolen Art Watch, Joshua Knelman, Hot Art, The Early Years

Rembrandts, Picassos, Renoirs, and Edvard Munch’s The Scream hang on the walls. The halls bustle with activity, fed by an ever-increasing flow of art and antiquities snatched from the world’s galleries and museums. This fantastic site has its real origins in the multi-billion-dollar global art-theft business. Much of the bounty is disappearing into private collections, as police fall behind in the battle against con men, thieves, and collectors willing to pay almost any price to own a work of genius.

Joshua Knelman cut his teeth in regards to the Art Related Crime World with this article for the Walrus Magazine back in 2005. From this article the seed was sown for the book Hot Art,
Chasing Thieves and Detectives Through the Secret World of Stolen Art.

Artful Crimes

Curators call it the Lost Museum, a vast fictional place that houses all the artwork ever stolen

Lawyer Bonnie Czegledi sits in a brightly coloured office that doubles as an art gallery, sorting through lists of stolen art strewn across the table in front of her. The lists detail works looted from historic sites across the world, pieces taken from occupied France or lost during the Russian Revolution — thousands of paintings, sculptures, etchings, and drawings. Czegledi has many theories about why you might want to steal one of these works of art: because you fell in love with it; because it is fragile and needs your protection; because if you steal just one more your collection will be complete; because you can reap a ridiculous profit; because you loathe the snooty cultural establishment; because strolling out of a museum onto a crowded street with a stolen painting under your arm is an adrenaline rush like no other; because hanging a stolen work on your wall will impress your rich friends. The Toronto lawyer, whose practice is devoted entirely to art theft, could go on. After all, so much art is being stolen that according to UNESCO, The Greatest Show You’ve Never Seen, as insiders call it, is now worth an estimated $6 billion annually — making it the second most-profitable criminal enterprise in the world, after drug trafficking.

It’s not just Rembrandts and Picassos that are attracting thieves. Following the US invasion of Baghdad in 2003, looters sacked the Iraqi National Museum, removing a staggering array of Mesopotamian antiquities. Many of the pieces, including a priceless 5,000-year-old life-sized head of a Sumerian woman carved from marble, have disappeared only to be found on the doorsteps of private collectors, museums, and antique shops. In June, some tiny but valuable Babylonian artifacts reached the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto when a man arrived at the office of Dan Rahimi, the museum’s executive director for development, carrying what he believed to be six 3,000-year-old cylinder seals once used to roll imprints onto flat surfaces. These two-inch-long symbols of authority, carved out of marble or shaped from clay, are worth up to $100,000 (US) each.

The holder of these Iraqi treasures told Rahimi that a third party had purchased them on eBay. Rahimi, a trained archeologist who has worked extensively in the Middle East, was suspicious about the true origins of the cylinder seals, and their presence in Canada raised a troubling question: with art theft so rampant, what should prospective buyers do when the ownership of a work cannot be clearly established? The answer seems simple enough: don’t accept it. But in the world of art, where genius, money, and ego collide, morality can quickly fall by the wayside. Rahimi is always on guard against people who attempt to create a paper trail of legitimacy surrounding a disputed piece by loaning it to the rom. After carefully examining them, Rahimi determined that four were original and two were fakes. “The rom was absolutely not interested them,” he says.

Such a decision represents a minority choice among collectors, who seem more than willing to buy stolen works — a fact reflected in the number of paintings posted on Interpol’s Most Wanted art list. Among the recently stolen items: Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Madonna of the Yarnwinder ($65 million), dated 1501; Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s painting Head of a Little Girl ($300,000), stolen from the famous Paris auction house Tajan; and five Italian Renaissance bronze plaques valued at $1.1 million lifted from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum last December — the third robbery there in three months.

Some blame the growing number and brazen nature of the robberies on unprepared gallery owners and museum administrators. Incredibly, in 2004, at the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway, two armed and masked men ripped Edvard Munch’s nineteenth-century painting The Scream ($88 million) off the museum wall in the middle of the day and in full view of gallery visitors.

In the United States, the fbi has created a special task force to combat art theft, and Interpol tracks stolen art worldwide. But Canada appears to be an open field: the rcmp doesn’t have anyone dedicated to the problem, nor do any of the provinces save for Quebec, which has only two officers. “[Canada is] a great place to steal art, to hide looted art, and to smuggle it into the United States,” says Czegledi. “There’s no one paying attention. It’s like the Wild West out there.” Indeed, Interpol’s list of art stolen in Canada includes works by this impressive roster: Marc Chagall, Joan Miró, Peter Paul Rubens, and contemporary artists such as Alex Colville and Andy Warhol.

“We need to be more aggressive and go into museum and gallery collections,” insists Czegledi, “and say, ‘Listen, don’t say this [painting] is an anonymous loan,’ say, ‘It was stolen from a couple who were killed in the Holocaust.’ Canada is not doing anything.”

The Art Loss Register in New York City, which helps potential buyers verify whether works are stolen or not, rarely receives a call from north of the border. “We have very few clients in Canada who search our database,” says the register’s operations manager, Katherine Dugdale. “Certainly, auction houses there don’t use us.”

An unusual glimpse into the Canadian art-crime scene occurred in January 2004, when five eighteenth-century ivory statues carved by Huguenot craftsman David le Marchand and belonging to media magnate Ken Thomson, were stolen during business hours from the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. The thieves simply lifted the glass cases containing the $1.5-million statues and walked out. A $150,000 reward was offered by an insurance company, and two weeks later a lawyer acting as a go-between returned the statues.

That seemed like a painless ending for both the gallery and Thomson, who was so relieved when police returned his ivories that he placed them lovingly on his bed. “They meant so much to me,” said Thomson at the time. “People wouldn’t understand unless they were collectors themselves and had a very special affinity with something that they possessed that virtually became part of them.” But did the thieves actually receive the reward money as ransom, allowing them to escape justice and rob again? It wouldn’t surprise those who understand the sophistication of art thieves, and the almost compulsive desire of galleries and collectors to secure the safe return of their prized possessions.

Chad Wolfond remembers the morning of September 11, 2001, not only for the attack on the World Trade Center, but also for the robbery at his Lonsdale Gallery in Toronto. Waking up early that morning, he skipped breakfast and left on his usual ten-minute walk to work. Once at his desk, Wolfond tapped the keyboard of his computer, expecting it to power up. When it didn’t, he glanced down to discover it was gone. Then he noticed a paper trail across the gallery floor leading to filing cabinets where his vintage pinhole photography collection was stored. As he rifled through the drawers, his heart sank — the best works he owned, including those by leading French photographer Ilan Wolff, were missing. “I felt simultaneously pissed off and mildly flattered,” recalls Wolfond. “The thief had left photos that I also thought were inferior.” Shaken, Wolfond phoned police, and by noon they were dusting for fingerprints. Before leaving, one of the officers told him that a detective would be in touch, but added, “Chances are slim that you will ever see these photographs again.” A month later, the thief returned and took almost $35,000 worth of art, including photo-based works by Toronto artist Lori Newdick. Although some of the work has been recovered, Wolfond lost photographs valued at over $250,000, all told.

Some of the colleagues he contacted after the robberies advised him not to alert the media. News of the robbery, they argued, would only damage his gallery’s reputation as a secure place to show and sell. Some hinted that they too had been robbed, but had mourned in private. One suggested Wolfond call Czegledi. Contrary to received opinion, Czegledi counselled Wolfond to go to the media, believing that publicizing the theft would make the works impossible to sell. “Do everything you can to promote these stolen pictures,” she told Wolfond, who took her advice. “Contact Interpol. Talk to the media. Get listed on the Art Loss Register in New York City.”

On this particular day, Tarah Aylward, director of Toronto’s Ingram Gallery, has dropped by Czegledi’s office for legal advice. In October 2002, as part of the Toronto International Art Fair, a group of Yorkville galleries organized a lecture at Hazelton Lanes, an upscale shopping mall, to celebrate several Canadian artists. Staff at the mall volunteered to install sculptures in its courtyard by some of the artists Aylward represents, including Toronto figurative sculptor Joe Rosenthal. Aylward was told not to worry about security, but the Saturday before the lecture she received a phone call: two of Rosenthal’s bronzes had vanished.

Other galleries in the area were also hit during the 2002 art fair; in 2003, during the same period, a figurative painting by French artist Camille Cabaillot-Lassalle worth $28,000 disappeared from the Odon Wagner Gallery. The Toronto fair might be a magnet for criminals, but art theft is hardly a Toronto phenomenon. “I get emails from galleries across the country saying they have been robbed,” complains Aylward. “The thieves who do this work are not street criminals. They are sophisticated, polished. Certainly, they are successful.”

The largest art heist in Canadian history took place in 1972, when thieves broke into the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and stole paintings by eighteen European masters, including Honoré Daumier and Jean-François Millet, worth a combined $2 million. Only one of the paintings has been recovered. Since that historic theft, the problem has only worsened in Quebec. The Sûreté du Québec now has two full-time detectives, Sergeant Alain Lacoursière and his partner, Sergeant Jean François Talbot, tasked with bringing art thieves to justice. Lacoursière says that each year in Quebec alone there are 150 new cases in which $20 million worth of art is stolen. The only help he has outside his own force is from Interpol, which has one Ottawa-based employee compiling brochures about stolen objects, which are then distributed to police forces across the country. According to Lacoursière, the process is slow, and there is little communication between agencies. “I get phone calls from Toronto once in a while,” he says, “but I have no idea what’s happening in Vancouver. It’s a blank spot.”

The absence of hard information troubles Lacoursière, who knows just how quickly thieves can move a painting out of the country. He tells the story of a 1995 theft in which a robber stole a huge abstract painting by Quebec artist Jean-Paul Riopelle from a house in Montreal’s Westmount neighbourhood. Before he took it, the robber showed a picture of the painting to a prestigious auction house in Paris, which indicated interest. By the time the family arrived home from a weekend at their cottage, the Riopelle and the thief were already on a plane for Paris. The painting was quickly auctioned off for $200,000, just as Montreal police were getting around to filing a report. There was a further delay before other police forces were alerted by Interpol. “If I call Interpol to tell them a Riopelle was stolen in Montreal,” says Lacoursière, “that information won’t be delivered to the world for six months,” refering to the discs of stolen works circulated by Interpol. By then, paintings like the Riopelle have slipped undetected into a private collection.

Art-savvy criminals love practising their craft in Canada. “There are twenty-five full-time art thieves working in this country that I know of,” says Lacoursière. “I arrested a guy last week. He’s been in prison in seven different countries, but he told me, ‘I like Canada. If I get caught here, you have the nicest prisons.’”

Lacoursière knows his beat well, and keeps the email addresses and cellphone numbers of several thieves on hand. When the $150,000 reward was offered for Ken Thomson’s ivories, the detective quickly fingered two of his regulars as the likely culprits. He called them. One was in Toronto at the time, and Lacoursière told him, “Listen, you can’t sell them; they’re too well-publicized. And there’s a big reward being offered.” Whether Lacoursière’s man was the thief or not is unknown, but a couple of days later a lawyer came forward with the sculptures.

The ever-expanding database at the Art Loss Register in New York is clear evidence of the growth of art theft worldwide. When Katherine Dugdale started there three years ago, 140,000 stolen pieces were registered; now there are 160,000. “I was shocked at how many works are stolen,” she says. “I associated art crime with cultural artifacts, like the antiquities looted in Iraq. I didn’t think we would have 500 Picassos registered.” The stolen works, she says, are moved up through the tiers of the industry until they make it back to the top, where they are finally legitimized in museum catalogues and gallery collections.

Pilfered art is often laundered into “good title” in Switzerland, which, compared to other Western countries, has weak laws regarding the importation and exportation of cultural property. Thieves regularly move stolen work through the country where officials ask few questions. But, if not careful, museums too can provide coverage for stolen works lacking provenance. “When a piece of art enters a prominent museum catalogue, it [can] triple in value,” explains Czegledi. “And it’s not that hard to do.”

Czegledi also points the finger at her own profession. Lawyers who don’t perform due diligence can end up “cleaning” a stolen piece by accident. “Of course, that puts their reputation at risk if anyone else checks their work,” says Czegledi. But, she adds, “no one will check.”

Lacoursière doesn’t expect rigorous provenance (history of ownership) checks to become a regular practice at Canadian institutions anytime soon. “Galleries and auction houses will never be forced to check the provenance,” he says. “It would mean having to hire extra staff.” The detective’s ire is understandable. “Even pawnshops have to list everything — where it’s from, who they sell to. They deliver that list to the police each week.” But in many cases, he says, provenance is all but impossible to verify — if an Iraqi digs up an ancient cylinder seal or another valuable object of antiquity and smuggles it to the West, who’s to know?

During a lecture on international art crime at the Royal Ontario Museum, Czegledi lamented the cultural loss caused by the thefts at the Iraqi National Museum. Clicking off the lights, the words “iraq red list” appeared on a screen at the front of the room. An alabastar vase, then a necklace made of precious stones, then a Babylonian cylinder seal appeared, then dozens more art objects. “Iraq’s two greatest non-renewable resources,” Czegledi told her audience, “are oil and antiquities.”

In January, partly in response to the extensive, devastating looting at the Baghdad museum, the fbi unveiled its first Art Crime Team, a task force of eight detectives paired with prosecutors. Robert K. Wittman, a Philadelphia-based special agent and the team’s senior investigator, told an audience of dealers and museum officials in New York City that the art trade “is the biggest unregulated business in the United States and ripe for fraud.” To learn more about the illegal trade, each officer spent a week at the prestigious Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania, founded in 1922 to promote the appreciation of the fine arts. There, Wittman says, they were taught the difference between a Matisse and a Miró.

Czegledi and Patty Gerstenblith, an art law professor at DePaul University in Chicago, co-chaired a conference of the American Bar Association’s International Cultural Property Committee at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan in March of last year, for which they pulled together a roster of speakers to discuss Iraq. One of the speakers, Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, was a former boxer with a degree in the classics — one part intellectual, one part commando. Bogdanos’s assignment in Iraq had been a daunting one: recover more than 14,000 objects of art and antiquity looted from the country’s National Museum. The colonel described his task as if it were a video game for art collectors: wander Baghdad, track down the loot, return it to the museum, and don’t get killed. “We decided it was more important to recover items than prosecute offenders,” he said. “So we arranged a period of amnesty, and so far we’ve recovered almost 4,000 pieces.” That left some 10,000 still missing, in addition to the continual flow of objects being extracted daily from thousands of unprotected archeological sites in Iraq.

One year later, at an antique shop on Madison Avenue in New York City, Czegledi and I peered through a glass display case at a handful of tiny cylinder seals ranging in price from $10,000 to $100,000 (US). “Do you think they’re from Iraq?” she whispered, as the proprietor watched us out of the corner of his eye. “Excuse me,” Czegledi finally said, “where are these from?” He answered expertly and without guilt: “Western Iraq. Uruk, early-dynastic upper Neo-Assyrian calcite cylinder seal.”

War has long been a boon to art thieves. Earlier this year, Czegledi hunched over her boardroom table, long black hair spilling across her face as she spread out photocopies of detailed transport lists stamped Top Secret. One list showed the movement of hundreds of paintings — by Matisse, Monet, Chagall, Rubens, etc. — from Europe during World War II to transatlantic destinations such as Havana, New York, Washington, and Ottawa. Czegledi found the documents while conducting provenance research on behalf of a client at the National Archives in Washington, DC. “The easiest way to destroy a culture is to steal its soul,” she said. “The Nazis understood that very well.”

Lately, Czegledi has been spending more and more time tracking down the rightful owners of artwork that the Nazis sold to unscrupulous collectors, and cataloguing thousands of pieces that disappeared during the German occupation of Poland. “There are Rembrandts,” she says, “and then there are the Polish masters that I’ve never seen before, and that are unbelievable.” One piece, a sixteenth-century etching of a woman by the German artist Albrecht Dürer, is in storage at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. Says Czegledi, “I call her the lady in the drawer.”

Part of Hitler’s personal art collection — including a charcoal portrait of Benito Mussolini, dozens of portraits of Hitler himself, and his own signed Christmas card — has surfaced in Canada, too. Two years ago, an Ontario woman approached Czegledi and told her that at the end of World War II her late husband, then a British soldier, had been sent to Berlin as part of an advance party. The Russians had reached the city first, having sped ahead to pillage and burn. By the time the British officer reached the German capital, he found the Reich Chancellery trashed. He wandered into a severely damaged chamber in Hitler’s headquarters and found a portion of the führer’s private art collection lying in a heap on the floor. The soldier then did exactly what Hitler would have done — he stole the art. The former soldier later emigrated to Canada, bringing the art with him, and now his widow wants to be rid of it. Czegledi has been shopping the art to all the major museums in the country, but so far there have been no takers. Her current plan is to send it to a gallery in Bavaria, the collection’s region of origin.

In March, over a lunch at a French bistro off New York’s Park Avenue, Lawrence Kaye and his partner, Howard Spiegler, two of the world’s most prominent art lawyers, discussed not how to dispose of Nazi-era art collections, but how to return them to their rightful owners. Kaye had recently accepted a case involving more than 1,300 artworks, mostly by Dutch Old Masters, owned by Jacques Goudstikker, an avid collector who fled the German-occupied Netherlands in 1940, leaving his collection behind to be pillaged.

Kaye had had some success abroad: the Israel Museum in Jerusalem had recently agreed to hand over a charcoal drawing by Edgar Degas, Four Nude Female Dancers Resting (1898). In Canada, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts was being less helpful. The museum had agreed to turn over one of Goudstikker’s paintings, The Deification of Aeneas, a seventeenth-century painting by Charles Le Brun, if ownership could be established, but Kaye was becoming impatient. “We’re disappointed that we’re having resistance in Montreal,” he said, “but we’ll be more active with respect to this particular painting, which is high on our list.”

Efforts at restitution and law enforcement in the United States have received a helping hand from courts. Kaye cited the 2002 conviction of Frederick Schultz, a Madison Avenue dealer of Egyptian relics, as an important precedent. Schultz owned a number of rare and valuable pieces, including the head of Pharaoh Amenhotep iii, which he’d sold for $1.4 million. The sculpture had been dug up by tomb raiders and exported illegally into the United States. Schultz was eventually sentenced to almost three years in prison.

Despite Kaye’s experience with the Le Brun painting, there are some encouraging signs in Canada. The fact that no Canadian museum has shown an interest in acquiring the art from Hitler’s personal collection suggests a new caution. As well, the first Canadian symposium on art looted during World War II took place in November 2001 at the National Gallery in Ottawa. Like many other institutions across Canada and the United States, the National Gallery has posted a list on its website outlining the disputed art within its collection — including 100 paintings, sculptures, and drawings with gaps in ownership information between 1933 and 1945.

Michael Pantazzi, the curator of the European and American collections, says the National Gallery was the first in Canada to voluntarily return looted art. Among the best-known pieces it has returned is Le Salon de Madame Aron (1904), a painting by French artist Édouard Vuillard that was stolen in France during World War II and bought by the gallery in 1956. A second case of successful restitution involved an eighth-century Chinese limestone statue of a Buddhist holy man. It was handed over to the Chinese government in 2001 during a ceremony in Beijing.

But have museums learned from history? Are they doing all they can to keep today’s stolen art from entering their great halls? The rom’s Rahimi takes the provenance argument one step further. He believes that museums and galleries should refuse to accept works that seem even slightly suspect. This would mean abandoning the “good home” practice, which allows an institution to purchase a work of art with dubious credentials in order to prevent it from being damaged or lost further along the chain. “Anything we see we assume is bad,” he says. “We assume it’s fake, and if it’s not fake then it’s illegally obtained.”

Even if museums and galleries clean up their acts, the allure of stolen art remains strong for private collectors. Czegledi sees a complex mixture of ego, money, and power at work. “Collecting art,” she explains, “can become an obsessive behaviour. These collectors and dealers operate like a cult.” This explains why even a well-publicized painting with no hope of resale, such as The Scream, gets stolen. “If you possess something that is special, you become special,” Czegledi says. “It’s power.”

Rahimi wishes collectors and donors would see art collecting in ethical terms — if buyers felt a deeper sense of obligation toward shared cultural treasures, they might not be so quick to add the latest gem on the illicit market to their walls or display cases. But Rahimi agrees with Czegledi that the impulses that drive collectors to buy stolen art cannot be controlled. “People collect art for strange, personal reasons,” he says. “Some of them are really driven. They are obsessed with making collections.” That compulsion — to own a piece of genius — keeps thieves busy adding to the Greatest Show You Will Never See.

Joshua Knelman is the author of Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives through the Secret World of Stolen Art. His writing has been published in Toronto Life and Toro , among others.

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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Stolen Art Watch, Weekend Round Up

The World of Stolen Art

Art heists are mysterious, and mythological. In the real world, art theft is an international labyrinth of petty criminals and hot shot detectives. We go inside the international black market for stolen art, a market that fuels organized crime and one in which Canada plays a prominent role.

The World of Stolen Art - Joshua Knelman

We started this segment with a clip describing a real-life art heist.

The international black market for stolen art is rife with malicious -- and considerably shrewder -- characters than the two we just heard about. And many of them operate here in Canada. Joshua Knelman goes inside that world in his new book, Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives Through the Secret World of Stolen Art. Joshua Knelman was in Toronto.

The World of Stolen Art - Joshua Knelman

One of the detectives Joshua Knelman chronicled in his book is Robert Wittman. He's a former FBI agent who spent years undercover tracking down stolen art. Robert Wittman is also the author of Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures. He was in Philadelphia.

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Home is Where The Art Is

WEST COBB — Cobb Police have arrested two people and are seeking others who police say broke into a west Cobb home over the summer and got away with collectible antiques, art, precious metals, coins and artifacts valued at $150,000.

The homeowner’s wife and daughter discovered the burglary on Aug. 12. The burglars apparently went through the house, which the owner said was vandalized and damaged.

The thieves even took a 900-pound Champion safe, according to the police report.

A rare, first-edition signed book was among the items stolen, along with a priceless painting, said the victim.

“It was a great deal of very valuable property,” he said. “I’ve been collecting since I was 10 years old.”

Arnold Wayne Nix, 54, of Smyrna, and William David Ingram, 48, of Powder Springs, have been charged with the theft, according to arrest warrants and jailhouse records.

Nix was arrested by Cobb police on Aug. 31, and charged with felony burglary. He remains in the Cobb Jail on a $125,000 bond.

Ingram was arrested by Cobb police on Sept. 8 and charged with felony burglary. He was released from the Cobb County Jail on a $10,000 bond on Sept. 10.

Ingram’s warrant states that the safe was taken to a residence in Smyrna, but according to police and the victim, neither the safe nor its contents have been recovered.

Cobb Police Officer Michael Bowman said investigators are seeking additional suspects in the case, but declined to provide more details about the case.

The homeowner said he and his family are still dealing with the aftermath of the burglary.

“This is a life-changing event,” he said. “I don’t like leaving the house anymore, unless I have to. The loss of personal security, no longer feeling safe in our home … isn’t anything that’s going to go away fast. … The only leverage that we have is that they look at many years in prison.”

Court records show that Nix was previously arrested by Cobb police on July 18, at Macland and Corner roads and charged with schedule I and II drugs, possession of marijuana, less than one ounce, and vehicle with a false secret compartment. He was released on a $10,000 bond on July 19.

— Three people were behind bars Friday as the result of warrants served in a residential burglary investigation that netted more than $100,000 worth of stolen property, including artwork and firearms, a Riverside County sheriff's captain said.

Philip Sena and Denise Swearingen of Bermuda Dunes and Rick Sena of La Quinta were arrested in a two-day search that netted property stolen from residences throughout the Coachella Valley, Capt. Raymond Gregory said Friday.

“The (recovered) property includes a number of distinctive art pieces, as well as a large cache of firearms,” he said.

Police served search warrants at a residence on Bermuda Dunes Drive in the Bermuda Dunes Country Club and another residence on Avenue 70 in the unincorporated area of North Shore. They found “large quantities” of property stolen from residences in La Quinta, Bermuda Dunes, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage and other communities in the Coachella Valley, Gregory said.

Philip Sena, 46, was detained on suspicion of possession of stolen property, being a felon in possession of a firearm, possession of a silencer, possession of a deadly weapon and committing a felony while on bail.

Rick Sena, 45, was detained on suspicion of possession of stolen property and being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Swearingen, 41, was detained on suspicion of possession of stolen property.

The investigation, which is ongoing, was headed by the La Quinta Police Special Enforcement Team and the warrants were served with sheriff's investigators and personnel from other law enforcement agencies, said Gregory, who serves as the chief of police for La Quinta, which contracts for police services from the sheriff's department.

Looters plunder $8.5M from Ivory Coast museum

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — Looters stormed Ivory Coast's national museum during the country's bloody political crisis earlier this year, plundering nearly $8.5 million worth of art including the institution's entire gold collection.

Five months later, the museum's gates still open and close at the posted hours, but empty display cases gather dust. A lone set of elephant tusks sits in the dark in the museum's main exposition room.

And staff member Oumar Gbane now spends his days making a handwritten inventory of what was stolen since his computer was among the items taken.

"No tourists can come here. There is nothing to see," he laments. The pillage was the first in the museum's 70-year history.

Doran Ross, former director of the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles, says the Abidjan museum used to be "one of the best maintained in Africa."

Student groups and tourists once filled the museum's halls to view the corpse-like Senoufo statues depicting armless ghosts of ancestors and the dark wooden Baoule masks with elongated eyes and narrow mouths.

They saw delicate Akan pendants abstractly depicting animals in shiny gold, sacred Yohoure masks of antelopes with a human faces, and Baoule chest ornaments made of beads and golden disks etched with images of fish and crocodiles.

Ivorian artist and author Veronique Tadjo, who resides in South Africa, says the collection reflected "the various areas (of the country) that now need to reconcile."

"Young people will be deprived of these treasures that are part of our identity — what makes us proud, what makes us a nation," Tadjo says.

Museum director Silvie Memel Kassi says the thieves knew which pieces to take: The 17th century gold was stolen but less valuable pieces were not even touched.

In normal times, the museum property seems cut off from the billowing exhaust fumes and endless blocks of high rises outside. Stepping inside the museum walls, one enters a verdant place where tropical hardwoods, palm and banana trees flourish undisturbed.

During the violence, snipers made the property their own sanctuary, using the rooftop of the museum to stage attacks. Many of the bullet-shattered windows in towers across the street have not been replaced yet. When it rains, water leaks through bullet holes in the building's rusted metal roof.

In November, former president Laurent Gbagbo refused to leave office following a contested election, and five months later the country was on the brink of civil war. Members of the military, militia men and residents picked up arms in Abidjan.

On March 30, the ongoing violence that followed the election intensified around the museum, Gbane says. Museum workers went home not knowing they wouldn't return for weeks. Like most residents of the city, they locked themselves inside their homes, unable to leave except for perilous trips to find food.

No one was there to guard the museum. It was not a safe place to be, situated between the military headquarters and government buildings.

When Gbane returned on April 18, he found the thick cement walls were punctured on the front of the building and there was a pile of rubble on the museum's entrance.

After the looting Kassi contacted Interpol, and Ivorian customs officials have been ordered to watch for the plundered objects, Kassi says. But Ivory Coast's borders are porous and the pieces could be easily smuggled into neighboring countries without detection.

Museum pillages have been a byproduct of war for centuries. In 2003, looters in Iraq plundered 15,000 priceless artifacts that dated from the Stone Age and Babylon to the Assyrians. Afghanistan's museums have been systematically stripped of ancient artifacts for decades.

Often stolen art is only discovered when the thieves try to sell the pieces to museums or art collectors, says Ross, the art historian.

One danger is the gold could be melted down and disguised. Kassi thinks the thieves are too smart to do such a thing. "It doesn't have the same value. They know," she says.

Ross says the gold itself has low karat values and would not even be worth much melted down.

"The real value of the work is the artistic quality," he says. "This is a major loss, not just for Ivory Coast or Africa but for a much larger world," says Ross.

Paintings Stolen By Nazi's Returned to Poland

NEW YORK, Sept. 23 (UPI) -- Two Polish paintings stolen by Nazis during World War II were repatriated in a ceremony in New York by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Both oil-on-panel paintings by Polish artist Julian Falat were returned to Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski during the Thursday night ceremony, CNN reported.

"Behind every person who is here, we can find a very difficult history ... very difficult ties, tangled Polish-American ties," the president said. "It is so good in difficult histories we were able to develop very good, strong relations between our nations. I want to thank you for your good actions, for everything you have done."

The paintings, titled "Off to the Hunt" and "The Hunt," both winter scenes, "are two magnificent and very important pieces of art," said Bogdan Zdrojewski, Polish minister of culture and national heritage.

The paintings, taken from the National Museum in Warsaw, were discovered in 2006 at an auction in New York

A complaint filed in December claimed the paintings were taken from the Warsaw museum in 1944 by SS Lt. Col. Benne Von Arent.

The United States customs agency has returned more than 2,500 items to more than 22 countries since 2007.

"No one can ever provide just compensation to the victims of the Nazis' atrocities, but it is very gratifying for our office to play a role in returning the art that they looted during World War II to its rightful owners," New York U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement.

Stolen XV century icon returned to Ukraine
A XV century icon "Crucifixion with Bystanders," which was stolen in 1984 from Lviv Museum of Ukrainian Art, has been returned to Ukraine.

The ceremony to hand over the icon to Ukraine has been held at the Sophia of Kyiv National Sanctuary. The icon was stolen from Lviv Museum of Ukrainian Art (currently known as the Andriy Sheptytsky National Museum in Lviv) in 1984, along with over 20 more icons. The values were removed abroad, and some of them were sold. In early 2010, it became clear that the Crucifixion with Bystanders was in the collection of Russian icon collector Mikhail de Boire (Yelizavetin). He acquired the icon in Germany in 2007. His widow Yelizavetina expressed a desire to return the shrine to the Lviv museu

OTTAWA - Some people are stealing more than a just glance at artwork in government buildings.

Records kept by the Canada Council for the Arts show thieves have made off with pricey works of art on display in federal offices, airports and universities.

A list obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act shows more than $80,000 worth of art has disappeared over the years.

Not all of it was stolen.

One piece was sold at auction after someone at Montreal's Mirabel Airport mistakenly put it in the lost-and-found.

The government bought Canadian artist Ann Newdigate's tapestry, "Creatures of Habit," for $5,570. No one knows how much it sold for at auction, or where it is today.

"It was taken down by Transport Canada, and it was placed with goods from the lost-and-found department, and it was sold at auction," said Victoria Henry, director of the Canada Council Art Bank.

"So someone owns it, and has the name of the art bank, the label on it, for sure."

Henry said insurance covered the loss of the tapestry.

Other stolen works include paintings, photographs and soap stone sculptures.

The Canada Council Art Bank is the largest collection of contemporary Canadian art in the world, with around 17,000 works by some 2,500 artists in its working collection.

The entire collection was originally valued at $18 million. Now it is worth $70 million.

Companies and government departments and agencies can rent art from the collection to display in their offices and public spaces. It costs between $120 and $3,600 a year to rent a work of art.

The Canada Council says around 5,000 works are currently rented out to government offices, hospitals, schools and businesses.

The most valuable piece to be swiped was a small floor sculpture by Toronto-based artist Noel Harding. The 16-millimetre film-loop projection with moving props cost the government $13,055.

Henry defended the art bank's track record. She said only 201 works of art have been stolen since the art bank opened in 1972.

"We have rented well over 250,000 art works," Henry said.

"So it's a very limited number of works that have actually been lost or stolen during the 40 years that we've been in existence. So, it's a pretty good record."

Crooks struck CBC buildings most. The public broadcaster has been hit 16 times at its bureaus across the country.

Public Works has been robbed nine times at its Vancouver, Montreal, Gatineau, Que., Halifax and St. John's, N.L., offices. Thieves struck the Finance Department six times and the offices of the taxman five times.

Not even Public Safety Canada was safe. A soapstone sculpture by Inuit carver Enook Manomie and black-and-white photos by Robert Boffa were nabbed at two of the agency's offices.

"The public spaces are public," Henry said.

"I would say in all cases, there's usually in the lobby area some kind of a receptionist, if it's a government building, or a commissionaire in fact.

"So it is a bit of a surprise when a major work like that disappears."

Scenes of some other heists include immigration offices, hospitals, universities and colleges.

Meanwhile, around 100 works of art collectively valued at $413,884 have been damaged beyond repair.

Most of the too-damaged-to-display pieces were heavy fibreglass sculptures. Warehouses and loading docks were where most of the damage occurred.

Henry said many of those works simply deteriorated over time.

Church of Cyprus Announces Return of Stolen Frescoes
he Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus announces the return of the frescoes of the St. Themonianos (Euphimianos) Church at Lysi, situated within the Turkish occupied areas of Cyprus.

The frescoes will be returned by the Menil Foundation in Houston, Texas, USA, in accordance with the terms of the relevant loan agreement, between the Holy Archbishopric of Cyprus and the Menil Foundation, which expires on February 14, 2012.

''The return of the frescoes, which were illegally detached from the St. Themonianos Church by Turkish looters, after the violent Turkish invasion in 1974 and the continued illegal occupation of the northern part of Cyprus by the Turkish armed forces, as well as the destruction and looting of the religious heritage of our country, all in violation of International Law and Human Rights, constitutes a symbol of hope for the entire Cypriot people and strengthens its faith in the justification for its struggle for freedom and return to its ancestral homes'', the press release says.

The Church of Cyprus notes that the return of the frescoes has been a personal vision and goal of Archbishop of Cyprus Chrysostomos II, and was achieved after the concerted efforts of the Church of Cyprus and the competent authorities of the Republic of Cyprus.

''The Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus would like to cordially thank the Menil Foundation for its commitment to return the frescoes and, especially, for its unique initiative in promoting those symbols of Christian faith and masterpieces of Byzantine art, as well as for their first rate preservation and maintenance'', it is added.

The Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus expresses hope that this act of honour by the Menil Foundation shall constitute an example for many other organizations, museums, foundations and even private individuals to follow.

''The Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus expects that the Menil Foundation shall return the frescoes safely with the utmost diligence and care. The Church will work with the competent authorities of the State for the safe placement of the frescoes in our country and their keeping under the best conditions'', the press release concludes.

Since the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, hundreds of valuable artefacts have been stolen from the northern Turkish occupied areas of the island and found their way into the black market overseas.

More than 500 churches have been pillaged, destroyed or turned into museum, inns or silos. Many archaeological sites and other places belonging to the country’s 9,000 year old cultural heritage have been abandoned to the elements.

The Church of Cyprus has, at different times, managed to secure the return of stolen religious items, illegally stolen and sold on the black market abroad.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Stolen Art Watch, Houston Renoir Snatched By Gunman In Ski Mask

Suspect sought in case of stolen Renoir painting

Houston police are asking for the public's assistance in identifying a suspect and locating a Renoir painting stolen in an incident earlier this month at a westside residence.

HPD officers say they were called to a residence near Woodway and Chimney Rock on September 8. The victim told police a suspect, described only as a white male wearing a ski mask and gloves, demanded money and jewelry. He was armed with a black semi-automatic weapon. The victim pointed out a Renoir painting on the wall and its value. The suspect took the painting and its frame and fled the residence. The victim was not injured.

The painting, Pierre-August Renoir's Madeleine Leaning on Her Elbow with Flowers in Her Hair from 1918, is part of a private collection at the Vaughn Christopher Art Gallery at 1217 South Shepherd.

A private business is offering a reward of up to $25,000 for information leading to the return of the painting. Anyone with information on the suspect or the painting is urged to contact the HPD Robbery Division at 713-308-0700 or Crime Stoppers at 713-222-TIPS.

Stolen Art Watch, Hot Art, Alain Lacoursière Canadian Art Cop, Knelman Nails It

Police cracking down on a hotbed of hot art in Quebec

The story of how Montreal became home to one of the leading art-theft units in the world began in the early 1990s with a lone discontented municipal detective pursuing a personal passion.

Alain Lacoursière grew up in rural Quebec, joined the police academy right out of high school and rose quickly in the Montreal police force. By 1992, he was a 32-year-old in charge of 22 police officers working fraud cases. He was intelligent, driven, skilled at reading con men and miserable in his work. “I hated the job and I was starting to hate myself,” Mr. Lacoursière said

On a two-week trip to Paris, Mr. Lacoursière found himself loitering in the Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre, which were in so many ways the exact opposite of his beat at home where he toured the dirtiest corners of the human psyche. He returned to Montreal, vowing to find a way to incorporate his long-time love of art with his police work. So he enrolled in an art history night course at a local university.

Unbeknownst to his superiors, he contacted the FBI and Interpol with an open-ended request: Were there any stolen art files that might have a connection to Canada? The FBI sent the Montreal cop pictures of art that was missing and Mr. Lacoursière’s long journey began.

A fuzzy photograph of an antique tapestry, estimated to be worth $200,000, caught his attention. By then, his police desk was strewn with dozens of catalogues from local auction houses, one of which advertised what appeared to be the stolen tapestry. Mr. Lacoursière arrived at the auction house, just as the proceedings began, and soon found himself the proud owner of a tapestry, stolen out of New York. “I bought it for $195,000,” he said, though, of course, the money never changed hands.

Mr. Lacoursière phoned his FBI contact the next morning and they arranged for the tapestry to be returned. A grateful agent asked if there was anything he, or the FBI, could do in return. “You can write a letter to my boss telling him this type of work is valuable,” Mr. Lacoursière said. The letter, which was also sent to the mayor of Montreal, did the trick and the detective was granted permission to spend 25 per cent of his time on stolen art investigations.

Mr. Lacoursière began searching for like-minded law enforcers who track stolen art. In London, there was Scotland Yard’s Arts and Antiques Squad; in Los Angeles, there was a two-person unit called the Art Theft Detail. In France, Interpol was updating a list of global stolen artworks, and the Art Loss Register, a U.K.-based private database, was in its infancy, gathering lists of stolen art that auction houses could check.

He also submerged himself in the local art community. Montreal, it turns out, was a hotbed for hot art, and the detective was quickly overwhelmed with cases. The city was a destination for stolen works and a gateway to the largest art market in North America – New York. Mr. Lacoursière soon discovered a connection between stolen art and organized crime.

In the spring of 2001, Canada’s RCMP, the Sûreté du Québec and the Montreal police conducted a sweeping raid on the Hells Angels’ Quebec operations as part of a long investigation into a violent drug war that began in the mid-1990s. Mr. Lacoursière was called upon to tour an array of biker residences and clubhouses where, among the drugs, guns and cash, investigators had found caches of stolen art.

At one mansion, Mr. Lacoursière noticed a particularly opulent doorstop. He took a picture of it, e-mailed it to a few art experts and got a response almost immediately. He then instructed one of the officers to remove the doorstop. The police officer looked at him and asked, “Why? It’s just a doorstop.”

Mr. Lacoursière replied: “It’s a bronze statue by Riopelle.” The Riopelle turned out to be worth $75,000 and was one of the most valuable items seized.

In 2003, another raid on a biker’s house yielded a Cézanne painting locked up in a safe. Mr. Lacoursière e-mailed a picture to a renowned Swiss-based expert who told him the painting was one of the most famous forgeries of a Cézanne ever created.

“Even though it was a fake, an auction house in New York – and I won’t say which one, but it was one of the big ones – had already agreed to put it up for sale. The plan was for them to sell it at the New York auction house for $16-million,” he said.

“The way this works is that criminals sell it through the auction house to another criminal buyer in the audience at the auction. It makes sense, because the auction house gets a percentage – say, a million dollars. But the criminal organization has just laundered $15-million. Not bad.

“The painting weighs one pound and is 16 inches wide. That’s a lot easier than travelling with cash,” Mr. Lacoursière said.

The detective’s work on how organized crime used stolen art led Quebec’s provincial police force to recruit him in 2003. He was given additional resources and allowed to pick a partner. He chose a young detective named Jean-François Talbot, with an eye toward training him as his successor.

In the meantime, evidence linking stolen art to organized crime continued to pile up. In 2006, a stash of more than 2,500 paintings was found stored in the warehouses of two drug dealers in Quebec City. “Every month these guys were placing hundreds of paintings in auction houses across Quebec. They were using the system to launder their blood money. Place a man in the audience who inflates the price and buys the painting. Auction house gets its percentage, money is cleaned,” Mr. Lacoursière said.

He began to use technology aggressively, building a database with thousands of e-mail addresses of the world’s cultural experts, art lawyers, agents with the FBI, Scotland Yard and Interpol – and dozens of criminals he’d arrested or made contact with over the previous 15 years. His database also holds hundreds of pictures of stolen and forged artwork.

“This is all part of what I call ‘Art Alert,’ an early-warning system,” he said. The idea was to electronically share as much information as possible with as many people in the art community, fast, in order to keep up with the organized criminal element.

“Criminals now have a lot of tools. They use auction houses and art galleries, and they are fast. A painting can be stolen here and sold across the world in a day. In those cases, it doesn’t work if I file a report to Interpol and wait for them to send out that information. That can take months. With Art Alert, I can e-mail the auction houses directly. When I want to know something, I e-mail Christie’s or Sotheby’s in New York and in London. They know me now and they get back to me immediately.”

Mr. Lacoursière became a lead source of intelligence in Canada and one of the few people in the world who understood the scope of international art theft. He said that smuggling art from one country to another was far easier than smuggling bank notes or bank drafts. Customs officials weren’t trained properly to identify stolen art, and paintings were a breeze to move across oceans. That was good news for organized crime groups, he said, because paintings were being used more frequently as currency for the purchase of drugs and as payment on loans.

Between 2004 and 2007, Mr. Lacoursière and Sgt. Talbot opened 300 cases. In Quebec, art theft and crimes related to the black market are worth about $20-million annually, according to their data, but no statistics are available for any other province. At the end of 2008, Mr. Lacoursière retired.

Sgt. Talbot took over the Quebec unit, which expanded to include two more detectives. It is still the only force in Canada investigating art theft full-time. In 2011, the London-based Art Loss Register database held a list of more than 300,000 stolen artworks globally. In the U.S., the FBI had created its Art Crime Team, with a dedicated manager, and a special FBI website. The only municipal force in the U.S. with a dedicated art-crime detective is in Los Angeles, where Donald Hrycyk has recovered more than $80-million worth of stolen art over the last two decades.

“We have a very good picture of what’s happening in the criminal world in terms of art,” Mr. Lacoursière said, shortly before leaving the force. “Criminals use art in many different ways, for many different purposes. We know the Mafia and biker gangs have specialists for telemarketing, for fraud, for credit cards, and now they have specialists for art too.”

He added: “There are 25 full-time art thieves working in this country that I know of. I arrested a guy who has been in prison in seven different countries, and he told me, ‘I like Canada. If I get caught here, you have the nicest prisons.’”

Joshua Knelman is author of the book Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives through the Secret World of Stolen Art, published this month by Douglas & McIntyre.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Stolen Art Watch, Hot Art, Chasing Thieves and Detectives through the Secret World of Stolen Art

The Thomas Crown Affair meets The Devil in the White City

in this fast-paced international true crime story.

A young journalist from Toronto spends four years immersing himself in the mysterious world of international art theft, travelling from Cairo to New York, London, Montreal and Los Angeles. He befriends the slippery Paul, a master thief who got his start in Brighton as a knocker—travelling door to door as a junk collector while secretly scanning homes for valuables that he would steal later on. He gets caught up in the world of Donald Hrycyk, a detective who works on a shoestring budget in downtown L.A. to recover stolen art. Through alternating chapters focusing on Paul and a small international network of detectives, the story of the thief and the detective unfolds, revealing the dramatic rise of international art theft.

Joshua Knelman’s investigation finds there are only a handful of detectives, FBI agents and lawyers fighting a global battle against a thriving black market estimated to be one of the largest in the world. Meanwhile, the chain of criminals moves from thugs on the street to multinational organized crime syndicates, to a global network of art dealers who wash the artworks’ provenance clean again. In a surprise ending, Knelman learns that corruption can appear in the unlikeliest places.

A major work of investigative journalism, Hot Art is a globetrotting mystery filled with cunning and eccentric characters.

Joshua Knelman

What prompted you to start researching and writing about international art theft?

I was sent to investigate and write a short feature on a Toronto art gallery burglary. The owner was told by the police that chances were slim he’d ever see his art again. He consulted with colleagues, and most told him not to alert the media, and to be discreet. When I met with him, he gave me the phone number of a cultural lawyer who had given him opposite advice: go to the media, and do everything you can to publicize those stolen artworks. Her name was Bonnie Czegledi, and we struck up what turned out to be a seven-year conversation about the state of international art theft. Czegledi encouraged me to investigate and write the story. She also convinced me that it wasn’t just a local story, but one with international tentacles. I contacted the FBI, and Scotland Yard, and began searching for a small group of specialists around the globe who track the black market, and in some cases, use it to make a living.

Who are some of the favourite people you met during your investigation?

Many of the people I interviewed for the book are obsessed with understanding the black market for stolen art, and obsession is always attractive in an interview subject.

At the core of Hot Art are two opposing narrative poles— Detective Donald Hrycyk, a dedicated LAPD art-theft detective, and Paul Hendry, a retired art thief based in the U.K. Though they have never met, and live on two separate continents, Detective Hrycyk and Hendry both spent their lives learning how the same black market evolved. Although they were uncovering the same patterns, each was using the knowledge to forward a different goal. Detective Hrycyk was learning the various paths that artwork could take after being stolen, and watching as his suspicions were confirmed when some artworks stolen from L.A. appeared in Europe, and further afield. Paul Hendry, on the other hand, was using his knowledge to build a larger network of dealers, and to find more efficient ways to earn a profit from the material items that he drained from houses across England. What I found remarkable was how similar their descriptions of their learning experiences were. Needless to say, they both were absolutely dedicated to their causes.

You infiltrated a complex, mysterious and often inscrutable industry. What were the greatest challenges you faced when investigating the world of international art theft?

One challenge was finding reliable sources of knowledge and information, and then building a relationship with those sources. When I first interviewed Paul Hendry, he told me he had never stolen art from major museums. If, for example, I had not met Rick St. Hilaire, a county prosecutor from New Hampshire with a passion for art theft cases, I think I would have been disappointed by Hendry’s admission. But because I’d learned about the black market from cultural lawyers, and others, when Hendry told me he’d earned a living from laundering stolen art back into the legitimate market, and that he’d done so by “staying under the radar” and dealing in less famous artworks, I knew I was talking to precisely the right person—a seasoned pro. In fact, St. Hilaire had advised me to seek out, and build, a profile of a thief who made a living in just this way.

In your experience, do most detectives (and thieves) in the stolen art world have a particular passion for visual art? Or, is art viewed as another ‘currency’?

Most thieves steal art for money. Every detective I interviewed agreed on this point: The FBI, Scotland Yard, the LAPD, The Surete du Quebec, and Interpol. Stealing is a way of making a living, and of supporting a lifestyle. That said, the higher up the criminal chain a person is, the more knowledge they tend to have of the art itself. So, for example, one of Hendry’s advantages was the knowledge he had about the product that he was dealing with. In his case, I came to know that he does love and appreciate art. Most thieves who steal art, though, do not care about the art, or where it goes. They want to sell what they have stolen, and move on.

With this in mind, are criminal organizations that deal with art theft usually involved in other crimes, too, such as drug smuggling, extortion, etc.?

Some of the patterns indicate that some organized crime groups have developed a sophisticated understanding of the art market, and know how to exploit it. Alain Lacoursiere, the detective who founded the Quebec art crime unit, discovered that the Hells Angels were using art as a way to launder money. Lacoursiere said that organized crime now owned auction houses and art galleries. He also found evidence that thieves were stealing art from houses or galleries to pay off drug debts owed to more powerful criminals. The FBI and Scotland Yard both indicated that because the legitimate art market is one of the largest unregulated businesses in the Western world, it is a perfect arena for criminals to exploit.

Many film depictions of art theft – The Thomas Crown Affair, Oceans Twelve, How to Steal a Million – portray the business as sleek, sexy and a ‘victimless crime’. Is this the case in real life?

A big challenge in researching this book was getting beyond the myth of The Thomas Crown Affair. The idea of a rogue-billionaire who steals art to enjoy it in the privacy of his living room, or vault, has captured the imagination of Hollywood, and, in many instances, the media, and has informed the ways in which art thefts are covered in the news. One theme throughout the book is the great disconnect between the myth (The Thomas Crown Affair version of art theft), and the reality of the problem (an international black market that requires many levels of criminal behaviour to operate with efficiency). Almost every lawyer, detective, or special agent I interviewed dismissed the myth and pointed to the reality.

Bonnie Czegledi noted that the best way to erase a culture is to destroy its cultural heritage, and that, for example, the Nazis understood that very well. LAPD Detective Hrycyk pointed out that most people set aside money to buy art or objects, in an effort to make their life more beautiful and meaningful— it is often those items that people value most among their material possessions. A television can be replaced. A painting that has hung on a wall in your home for the past twenty years cannot.

In the first scenario, stealing or destroying art and antiquities can strike straight at the heart of a culture. For example, when the Iraqi National Museum was looted, everyone understood that this wasn’t just about stealing material value. It was about robbing a culture of its historical touchstones, and, in this case, stealing items that gave us clues about how we, as human beings, lived thousands of years ago. On the other end of the spectrum, when thieves break into a person’s home and steal artworks, often they are inflicting deep emotional losses. In both cases, the value of what has been stolen goes far beyond the monetary value, to the victims of those crimes, be they nations or families. These two points are, for me, the extremes of the spectrum of damage that art theft can inflict.

How did this understanding of the damage art theft can cause affect your relationship with Paul Hendry, and your opinion of him?

Hendry was a guide, in the same way that Bonnie Czegledi and Rick St. Hilaire were teachers for learning about how the international black market works. Rather than judge, I wanted to show how the black-market for stolen art functions, and how it has evolved. In the academic world, there’s a method of research called “Triangulation.” Most simply described, this means that a pattern is discerned by using different sources to confirm it. If I’d only interviewed Detective Donald Hrycyk, or any of the detectives or lawyers in the book, one piece of that pattern would have emerged, but by spending time discussing the black market with Paul, and hearing about his life and career, a similar pattern was revealed from the other side of the equation—the criminal world.

Hendry was a gentlemen from the moment we began our discussions, and took the time to teach and discuss the problem of art theft from a variety of angles. He is not just a former art thief; he is a source of intelligence, and analysis. For me, his perspective provided critical insight in understanding the scope of international art theft.

Are there any particularly clever heists that you were told of during your research?

Here are a few: entering a museum by stealth through a skylight, disarming the security guards, and then vanishing without a trace with 12 famous paintings (Montreal Musee des beaux arts, 1972). Stealing a small work of art, but also stealing the name-plaque beside it so there is no visible indication that a painting was ever there (a university in Australia, 2007). Taking a photograph of a painting, paying a photo-lab to create a perfectly-sized copy of the painting, and then framing that photograph in the original frame and placing it on the wall in place of the original painting (Los Angeles, 1987). Storming a museum during visiting hours, and using a getaway boat parked on a river behind the museum as the escape, while detonating bombs in other parts of the city to distract law enforcement (Sweden, 2000).

There are so many ways to steal art that are clever and make for spectacular headlines, but the story that captured me wasn’t a Hollywood-worthy choreographed event, but rather a much quieter and efficient system. This is the one Hendry used, and in some ways, perfected, and the one that Hrycyk came to see as the most insidious form of art theft: stealing art that is lesser known (don’t steal a Van Gogh), and using a network of contacts to sell that stolen artwork back into the legitimate art market, and then circulating those stolen items to hot spots around the world.


Hot Art

Hot Art

"If Aunt Millie gave you a treasured vase, here is a story that will make you quake with fear. For those of you who have shopped in a flea market and wondered where some of those beautiful objects came from, these pages reveal a dark underbelly, a world of shadowy characters. Buy a digital camera, put a photo of your treasures in your vault, and put extra locks on your door. The world is a dangerous place. This book shows how the stealing is done, and how to protect yourself. It's a handbook to all. For a great read, and a great education, Hot Art."

David Mirvish, Mirvish Productions, Aug 29, 2011
Read more about Hot Art >>
Hot Art

Hot Art

"Art theft is one of the largest underground markets in the world, yet very few people know how it works, or how to stop it. Joshua Knelman delves into this uncharted world with an open curiosity, befriending the detectives dedicated to retrieving stolen art, the lawyers struggling to protect cultural property, and the thieves who have their own reasons for doing what they do. These pages are full of shady characters and experts determined to outwit each other; an intriguing look at human lusts and foibles. Hot Art is fascinating, smart, and a page-turner."

Catherine Osborne, Deputy Editor, Azure magazine, Aug 24, 2011
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Hot Art

Hot Art

“…a fascinating look at the multibillion-dollar business of art theft around the world…This is riveting non-fiction that reads like a novel, with detectives out of central casting and a twist that would make the Coen Brothers proud.”

Chatelaine, Aug 12, 2011
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Hot Art

Hot Art

“Knelman’s book is The Godfather of investigative journalism. He takes us to places we always wanted to be but didn’t dare to enter, and he makes us fall for people we are not supposed to love—on both sides of the law.”

Andras Hamori, Executive Producer, The Sweet Hereafter and Crash, Jul 25, 2011
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Hot Art

Hot Art

“With an eye for detail worthy of Rembrandt’s Landscape with cottages (1654, stolen from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1972), Joshua Knelman has painted a luminous picture of the interconnected world of thieves, cops, and lawyers obsessed with stolen art. Whether he's writing about those who covet the art or those who protect it, Knelman's gifts as an investigator and storyteller drip from every page. Hot Art? Hot book.”

Jeremy Keehn, associate editor of Harper’s Magazine, Jul 19, 2011
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Hot Art

Hot Art

“Hot Art has it all: fascinating characters, great stories, and an intriguing subject matter, the world of art crimes. It is totally engrossing. I couldn’t stop reading it.”

Ted Kotcheff, Executive Producer of Law & Order: SVU, Jul 19, 2011
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Hot Art

Hot Art

“This is a crackerjack of a book – with enough rogues, thieves, and amoral civilians (not all of them on the radar of relentless cops) to people a dozen crime novels. First rate.”

Giles Blunt, bestselling crime novelist, Jul 19, 2011
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Hot Art

Hot Art

“Now this is investigative reporting. Dogged, fearless, and thrillingly thorough, Joshua Knelman becomes our Virgil through the secret underworld of stolen art. Like legendary muckrakers Bob Woodward, Seymour Hersh, and Barlett and Steele, Knelman relentlessly trails both the bad guys and the slightly less bad guys, looking for truth amidst all the deceit. It’s an astonishing debut.”

Richard Poplak, author of Ja No Man and Kenk, Jun 14, 2011

Joshua Knelman Launches Hot Art in 5 Cities

With huge advance praise from heavy-weights across the continent, Hot Art is set to launch on September 18th in Toronto. Author Joshua Knelman takes the show on the road with events in Kingston, Montreal, Ottawa and Winnipeg as well. The details:

Toronto, Sunday, September 18, 2011
at 10:00 am
Ben McNally's Books and Brunch
King Edward Hotel, 37 King St. East
Tickets $45.00 (taxes included).
Please call (416) 361-0032 with your credit card information to reserve a ticket.

Kingston, Sunday, September 25, 2011
from 1:30 pm to 2:30
The Kingston Writers Festival

Ottawa, Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Joshua Knelman in conversation with Rosemary Thompson, Director of Communications for Canada's National Arts Centre
at 7:00 pm
Collected Works, 1242 Wellington St.

Montreal, Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Joshua Knelman in conversation with Jonathan Goldstein, host of Wiretap, CBC
at 7:00 pm
Libraire Drawn & Quarterly, 211 Bernard West

Winnipeg, Thursday, November 17, 2011
Joshua Knelman in conversation with Robert Enright
at 8:00 pm
McNally Robinson Bookstore, 1120 Grant Ave.

Buy the Book: