Art Crime is the New Hot Topic
Spiegel Online tells the story behind a complicated claim against the Guggenheim and MoMA for the return of some disputed Picassos. The Independent in London has picked it up too. Meanwhile, the Boston Globe wraps up the case of the stolen Cezanne. Robert Mardirosian, who was the lawyer to an art thief who was shot to death tried to swap one valuable Cezanne for six less valuable paintings. But the whole thing blew up in his face and he was just found guilty: “Mardirosian, who was allegedly told . . . that the paintings were stolen, did not try to return them, but instead stored them in Switzerland. In 1999, using a shell company and lawyers, Mardirosian returned the Cezanne . . . in exchange for title to the six other paintings, which are much less valuable, according to records and testimony. Mardirosian’s lawyers have contended that their client wanted only to collect a finder’s fee for recovering the valuable Cezanne. After recovering the Cezanne, [it was] auctioned . . . off at Sotheby’s for $29.3 million.”
And if all of that weren’t enough, The Wall Street Journal runs an excellent story by Kelly Crow on the FBI’s art-crime efforts centering around Robert Wittman, who goes undercover to play assorted shady art world roles.
Despite the public attention that follows major art thefts and any subsequent recoveries, the FBI has historically treated art crime like a tweedy backwater compared with offenses like terrorism, racketeering and drug smuggling. Cases involving looted artifacts were hardly a priority five years ago. Even now, New York’s art cases are handled by a major-theft agent, James Wynne, who doesn’t go undercover. But after the massive looting of Baghdad’s National Museum five years ago sparked public outrage, Mr. Wittman realized the bureau might be persuaded to invest more in protecting U.S. museums.
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It helped Mr. Wittman’s lobbying efforts to point out that far smaller countries already had art squads, even if some have lately suffered under recent budget cuts. Scotland Yard in London has four art detectives, down from 14 during their squad’s heyday two decades ago. France has 30, and Italy boasts 300 art-hunting carabinieri, including investigators who use helicopters to patrol the country’s myriad archaeological dig sites.
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After a lifetime in pursuit, Mr. Wittman knows his job is more gritty than glamorous. He doesn’t mind. In fact, he delights in revealing the real face of art crime. In April, he spoke to a few major donors at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the condition that they wouldn’t take his photograph. At one point he held up a few images of Hollywood’s gentlemen thieves like Cary Grant in “To Catch a Thief” and Pierce Brosnan in “The Thomas Crown Affair,” followed by a real-life rogue’s gallery of arrested art thieves, their hair sloppy and faces sour. Grinning, he said, “Sorry, ladies.”