The FBI Team that Investigates Stolen Art

April 16, 2023

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The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the United States has a team that is dedicated solely to art crime. The Art Crime Team is composed of 16 special agents of the Bureau that investigate the theft, looting, fraud, or illegal trafficking of art and cultural property. Since the team began, they have recovered more than 14,850 items that have been valued at over $165 million.

The Art Crime Team was started in 2004 because of the looting of rare artifacts that had taken place in Iraq in 2003 at the National Museum in Baghdad. The US government needed a specialized, rapid deployment team that was trained on how to investigate stolen art, and the FBI put one together a year later. The original team began with eight special agents and a program manager who received specialized training that focused only on the world of art.

The FBI also maintains a database of stolen art and cultural property valued over $2000 called the National Stolen Art File (NSAF). This database can be used by law enforcement agencies worldwide.

Along with the database, the FBI has a Top Ten Art Crimes list that is similar to their famous Ten Most Wanted list. Here’s a breakdown of the FBI’s Top Ten Art Crimes at the time of this writing.

1. Iraq National Museum — Though many of the artifacts stolen in March and April 2003 from the Iraq National Museum have been recovered, between 7,000 and 10,000 still remain missing. In 2006, the statue of King Entemena of Lagash was recovered and returned to the government of Iraq during a ceremony in Washington, DC. It was considered one of the most significant pieces that had been stolen from the museum.

2. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum — On March 18, 1990, two men got into the Gardener Museum in Boston dressed as police officers. They subdued and tied up the security guards of the museum before stealing 13 art pieces from the collection. The total value of the museum pieces that were stolen was approximately $500 million and included works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Degas. It remains as the largest property crime in U.S. history. There is a $5 million reward for information leading to the capture of the perpetrators.

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3. Oratory of San Lorenzo — In October 1969, the Caravaggio painting, Nativity, was removed from its frame by two thieves in the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Italy. The value of the painting was estimated at $20 million.

4. Stradivarius Theft — A $3 million Stradivarius violin was stolen from the apartment of concert violinist Erica Morini in New York City in 1995. The Stradivarius was made in 1727 and is known as the Davidoff-Morini Stradivarius.

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Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen e1498754474716

5. The Van Gogh Museum — Two thieves broke into the Vincent Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2002 and stole Van Gogh’s View of the Sea at Scheveningen and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen. The thieves used a ladder to climb to the roof to gain access to the museum. The paintings were valued at $30 million. Two men were convicted for the crime in 2003, but the paintings were not recovered. Both paintings were later found in 2016 in the Italian country home of an alleged international cocaine trafficker south of Naples. They were found unframed and wrapped in cotton cloth.

View of Auvers sur Oise Paul Cezanne

6. Ashmolean Museum — Cézanne’s painting, View of Auvers-sur-Oise, was stolen from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, on December 31, 1999. The thief broke into the museum during the firework celebration to mark the turn of the century. The painting was valued at £3 million or $3.9 million US dollars.

7. A gallery in West Hollywood, California — Two oil paintings by Maxfield Parrish, which were panels commissioned for the New York City mansion of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, were stolen from a West Hollywood gallery in 2002. Both paintings were cut from their frames and estimated to be worth $4 million.

8. Museu Chacara Do Ceu — Paintings by Salvador Dali, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Claude Monet were stolen by four armed men from the Museu Chacara Do Ceu in Rio de Janeiro in 2006. The estimated value of the paintings has not been determined.

9. Art Gallery of New South Wales — A self-portrait of Dutch artist Frans Van Mieris titled A Cavalier was stolen during a public viewing at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, in 2007. The small oil on wood painting was estimated to have a value of $1 million.

10. A home in Houston, Texas — The Renoir painting, Madeleine Leaning on Her Elbow with Flowers in Her Hair, was stolen from a Houston home by an armed robber in 2011. While there has been no value estimated for the painting, a private insurer is offering $50,000 for information leading to its recovery.

Other Notable Cases Solved by the Art Crime Team

The FBI’s Art Crime Team recovered an 1870s letter written by Charles Darwin that had been stolen from the Smithsonian Archives in Washington, DC, in the 1970s. It was returned to the Smithsonian in 2016.

The team recovered the Renoir painting, Landscape on the Banks of the Seine, in 2014 and returned it to the Baltimore Museum of Art. The painting had been stolen over 60 years ago. It was recovered from a woman who had bought it at a flea market in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, in 2010 for $7. The painting was valued from $75,000 to $100,000. A federal district judge decided that the painting was the rightful property of the museum and had it returned.

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A painting by Francisco de Goya from 1778 called Children with a Cart was recovered in 2006 after it had been stolen while in route from Ohio to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Its value was $1.1 million. The truck carrying the painting stopped for the night, and a thief got into the back of the truck. His intention wasn’t to steal the painting but to steal tools or construction equipment. He just so happened to take a crate that contained the painting. It took only ten days for the painting to be found, and the FBI had the help of the thief. He had called the FBI looking to collect the reward for the painting’s return.

Sources: FBI, Art News, NBC Washington, UK Telegraph, UK Guardian, Penn Current, NPR, CNN

About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium, our ad-free subscription sites. I hope you learn many new things here that add to your knowledge.

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