They show up in books and movies, including The Art of the Steal, The Thomas Crown Affair, Ocean’s Eight and many others.
Stolen masterpieces by Claude Monet, Salvador Dali and other artists old and new figure prominently in those stories. And they are the daily grind for a few FBI agents and private art sleuths who track criminals with an appetite for oil paintings and sculpture.
I recently read the memoir of FBI agent Robert K. Wittman, called Priceless. It follows him to Santa Fe, Miami, Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro and Paris, chasing criminals who stole or transported stolen art. Among them were pieces by Rembrandt, Norman Rockwells, Vermeer, TK and Native American artifacts and Zimbabwean headrests, ceremonial pillows used in ancient religious rites.
The book captures the complexity of tracking down stolen art, using informants, police sleuthing and stings and an alias; Wittman’s often was Robert Clay, an art dealer who worked with unscrupulous clients. ADD A LITTLE MORE
If you want to see stolen art the FBI hopes to regain, take a look at the FBI’s National Stolen Artwork File, an online database. It shows a wide variety of art: abstracts by Adolfo, bronze Buddhas, 13th century Native American ceramic bowls, ancient Mayan sculpture, many photographs by Berenice Abbott, Linda Butler, Lewis Hines and others; several mixed media pieces by artist Nicole Charbonnet, a Monet landscape, a Robert Rauschenberg lithograph and so much more. The database contains 57 pages of art and artifacts, from ancient religious pieces to Andy Warhol prints.
“Because we are such a big market for legitimate art, we are also a market for illicit art that is being brought in from other countries,” said Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, the now-retired manager of the FBI’s art theft program, in a Q&A on the FBI website. “These objects, whether in museums, other collections, or in the ground, can be very valuable in a monetary sense, and in their countries of origin they have an even greater value as cultural heritage.”
Since it started its Art Crimes team in 2004, the FBI estimates that it has returned more than 15,000 pieces of art and artifacts worth more than $800 million. Many go to museums or cultural sites internationally.
The FBI also publishes a list of its Top 10 Art Crimes, which include unsolved thefts of a Cezanne in 1999 ; a Renoir stolen from a Houston home in 2011 and theft of 13 paintings including a Rembrandt and Vermeer from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum some 30 years ago.
Among the criminals who have been caught selling fake paintings with falsified provenances is former prominent New York art dealer Ezra Chowaiki, who worked with wealthy collectors as he committed $10 million in art scams, according to the New York Post. Described as likable and knowledgeable, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2018.
Michigan has its share of art thefts from collectors homes as well as forged art stories, some local and some playing out across many cities. Eric Ian Hornak Spoutz, who had several aliases and lived in Mount Clemens, presented himself as a curator and art dealer with expertise in European, Asian and American art. He used falsified receipts, letters from dead attorneys and more, to pass off paintings as authentic since 2005, selling them at auction houses and on eBay, according to the Detroit News.
“Eric Spoutz made a lucrative ‘career’ selling forged art as originals from American masters like De Kooning, Kline and Mitchell. From creating fake
documents to assuming new identities, Spoutz used the full palette of deception to complete his decade-long work of fraud, swindling art collectors out of more than a million dollars,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement.
In February 2017, Sproutz was sentenced to 41 months in prison after selling art to such museums as the Smithsonian, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and George Washington University.
© Vickie Elmer, 2020
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