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Art Theft Expert: ’90% Chance’ Stolen Paintings Will Surface

May 21, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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After the theft of five valuable paintings from a Paris museum, Jeffrey Brown talks to art security and recovery consultant Robert Wittman about the black market for stolen art and security measures that could help protect valuable artifacts.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And more on the Paris heist and the world of art theft from Robert Wittman, a former FBI agent and founder of the bureau’s Art Crime Team. His book “Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures” comes out next week.

And that’s good timing for you, Mr. Wittman.

So, what jumps out at you about this grand theft in Paris? Brazen, bold? How would you describe it?

ROBERT WITTMAN, author, “Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures”: Well, thank you for inviting me here tonight, Jeffrey.

I — yes, when you say good timing, it’s never good timing when somebody can steal the cultural property of the world and take advantage of that.

I think what jumps out at me is the lack of good security at the museum, the fact that the security system wasn’t properly working, the fact that there was no alarms on that window that would have gone out, you know, just for that part of it. The motion detectors were not working. I think the CCTV cameras were pointed on the roof. These are all things that show me that, basically, that was a crime waiting to happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does it suggest to you that it might be an inside job?

ROBERT WITTMAN: Well, you know, while at the bureau, we did a study on that, on cases that we had solved in the past 20 years. And we found that about 88 percent of museum thefts, heists from museums, usually entailed someone from the inside. Now, not always was it an employee, and not always was it a family member.

But it could have been an expert, something of that nature, but someone who had access and keys to the kingdom were usually was who was involved.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the Parisian culture official we had in our setup, he also was quoted as saying that the thief showed — quote — “good taste” in his choice of art. And that sounds very French, of course.

JEFFREY BROWN: But it also suggests that, presumably, these were targeted. I mean, that would be a clue, right. What other — what other — what other clues would you look for?

ROBERT WITTMAN: Well, you know, just recently, not even 30 days ago, a Picasso sold at auction for over $104 million. That was a world record for a Picasso sale. So, that made big news all over the world.

And I’m sure these individuals who are stealing these paintings were cognizant of the fact that that piece was so expensive. You know, Jeffrey, this is the fourth large art heist in France in the past three years. It’s been rather prevalent. The first two occurred — one occurred in Paris in 2007, where a pair of Picassos were stolen from the granddaughter of Pablo Picasso.

Another occurred in the Museum of Fine Arts in Nice, where four paintings were stolen. Luckily, through investigation and undercover operations that we initiated with the French, we were able to recover those particular paintings.

Just a year-and-a-half ago, a Picasso sketchbook was taken from the Picasso Museum, and then, of course, this — this deal two days ago. So, Picasso has been very popular with the thieves. And it’s the result of gangs and groups in France that work together to do these — these art heists.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that — that — that’s where I want to go to. I mean, that’s the intriguing question, is, who steals art and why?

You just mentioned some thieves, some — some groups. So, it’s organized groups, that would be?

ROBERT WITTMAN: They are organized. They are not organized in the sense of the — the definition. We look at organized crime.

What they are, they are groups of people who work together to do different types of crime. Generally speaking, these groups are located in the South of France. That is a gateway, that area in the south of France, Marseille, Nice. That area is a gateway in Western Europe for a lot of criminal activity, stolen automobiles, guns, weapons, armed robbery. It is all stuff that happens in that area.

So, those individuals do have contacts, they have tendrils throughout the country, and they do work together.

JEFFREY BROWN: And why steal prominent works of art? Do you — we saw that expert in our setup saying that there’s no way these could be sold. So, I have heard the possibility they could be used as bargaining chips. What — why would these be — why would these be stolen?

ROBERT WITTMAN: Well, in the investigation, as I say, when I was undercover there two years ago, what I found out was, you know, the first thing they want to do is, they want to sell them, all right? That’s the main goal, is to try to make as much money as possible.

If they can’t sell them, and they are too hot to go, then what they will do is, they will maintain them, they will hold on to them. At one point, individuals that I spoke to had more than 75 paintings that they had stored away. And they will hold on to these paintings until someone gets in trouble.

And, once they are, they get caught by the police on another activity, they will use these as bargaining chips to lessen sentences and even have charges dropped. So, they become negotiating chips in — in crime families.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, briefly, finally, I know a lot — there are some famous cases where the art is never recovered. There is the famous Gardner Museum case in Boston.

ROBERT WITTMAN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is the — what does your experience tell you about a case like this, about the possibilities of recovery?

ROBERT WITTMAN: My experience is that I have a 90 percent chance that these will be recovered. It’s very unique and unusual that we don’t recover these paintings. First of all, for them to be destroyed, that destroys the whole purpose of having them. I mean, they are valuable pieces.

Secondly, you know, when they — they will come back when they hit the marketplace. At some point — it may not be today, it may not be tomorrow — but, at some point in the future, these paintings will come back to the marketplace. And, at that time, they will be recovered.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Robert Wittman, thanks very much.

ROBERT WITTMAN: Thank you.