They are special agents with an eye for art. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Art Crime Team, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, focuses on art and cultural property crimes, including theft, fraud, looting, and trafficking across state and international lines.
The rapid-deployment team pursues pilfered fine art by famous artists such as Rembrandt, Picasso and Matisse, as well as other valuable items from the pre-Columbian to the contemporary eras, including fossils, archaeological artifacts, manuscripts, letters, textiles and collectibles.
“Everything that you can imagine that has a monetary value or cultural significance is subject to theft or fakery,” Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, who manages the bureau’s art theft program, said in an interview posted on the FBI’s website in February 2015.
In 2014, for example, agents recovered a 300-year-old Stradivarius violin, worth more than $5 million, which had been stolen from a concertmaster with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.
FBI agents have specialized in investigating art fraud and theft since the agency was founded in the early 20th century. The Art Crime Team (ACT) was created a decade ago in the wake of widespread looting at Iraq’s National Museum in Baghdad, shortly after the U.S. invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.
Most of the 15 or so men and women on the Art Crime Team have a background in investigating property theft and interstate transportation of stolen property, Magness-Gardiner said. They use the same “time-tested investigative methods” deployed to track down other stolen goods.
Fewer than half of the team members are collectors or artists themselves, or have training in art history or fine art. However, the other members are interested in subjects such as history, culture and art, which helps sustain their dogged pursuit of stolen goods.
Magness-Gardiner said the United States has a huge community of collectors, museums and dealers, making it also a major black market for illicit artwork.
According to the FBI, more than half of the ACT cases have an international element and require close collaboration with foreign governments, including in Denmark, Ecuador, Japan, Spain and Sweden.
A key tool in recovery is the National Stolen Art File, which was created in 1979 and lists more than 8,000 art pieces and other culturally significant items. Dealers and collectors can consult the file, which went online in 2010, to determine whether there’s anything fishy about a piece they are handling or thinking of buying.
The ACT has made nearly 12,000 recoveries of items valued at more than $160 million. Cases have included the recovery of 100 paintings stolen from a fine art storage facility and the return of Francisco de Goya’s 1778 painting “Children with a Cart,” which was stolen while being transported between museums in Ohio and New York.
The cases have led to the convictions of more than 80 defendants.
“It is very satisfying to return things to people, whether to individual victims, institutions or countries,” Magness-Gardiner said. “Many of these objects have great personal significance, and huge institutional significance when a museum or archive is involved.”