Art investigators: Saving the country's cultural heritage, one recovered work at a time

"Geronimo's war bonnet" (recovered in 1998) and Robert Wittman, who helped develop the FBI's Art Crime Team and now owns a private art recovery company outside Philadelphia.
"Geronimo's war bonnet" (recovered in 1998) and Robert Wittman, who helped develop the FBI's Art Crime Team and now owns a private art recovery company outside Philadelphia.

When Paul Brachfeld heard about the heist of historic documents in Baltimore this summer, the National Archives inspector general acted quickly.

First, he checked his records to see if the suspects — Barry Landau, a well-known collector, and his young friend, Jason Savedoff — had visited his facilities.

They had.

Next, he reached out to federal investigators and offered the services of his in-house investigative group.

The Archival Recovery Team — ART, for short — is now sorting through more than 10,000 items removed from Landau's Manhattan apartment. Their discoveries so far include treasures that trace back to Napoleon, Newton and Beethoven.

"The vast preponderance of those are not necessarily from my institution," Brachfeld said. "But If not me and my office, who would do this work?"

Brachfeld's full-time team, made up of four to five people, is one of just a few investigative groups in the United States that focus on the recovery of cultural property.

America is the largest consumer of artwork in the world, with a 40 percent share of the $200 billion global industry. It's also the scene of nearly half of the illegal art trade estimated to be worth another $7 billion worldwide.

Yet other countries pay far more attention to art fraud. Italy has several hundred detectives on its Carabinieri Art Squad, and Greece, France, Germany and Belgium all have national units working the detail.

In contrast, the FBI's Art Crime Team, co-founded by a Baltimore native whose father ran an antiques shop on Howard Street, is made up of one archaeologist and 13 agents, who work the beat on the side. And the Los Angeles Police Department's Art Theft Detail consists of just one investigator, a man who is delaying retirement because he's afraid the division will die if he leaves without a trained successor.

Those two organizations and Brachfeld's ART all work under similar conditions: They're underfunded, overworked and underappreciated, current and former members say. But they also say the organizations are run by passionate people who love the job — which has taken some of them around the world — and who must routinely fight to keep it.

That explains Brachfeld's quick reaction to the Baltimore theft. He knows that a hot case like Landau's is the perfect public-relations opportunity — a chance to remind the bosses who write the budgets that the work matters.

The new bank robbery

Art theft is roughly as old as art itself, going back millennia to the looters and opportunists who robbed castles and tombs alike. The Bible describes such thefts, as do the history books, which note plunderings by Vikings, Nazis and those who raided Iraq's National Museum after U.S.-led forces took Baghdad in 2003.

Today, pilfering art and antiquities is the new bank robbery, according to Robert Goldman, a former federal prosecutor and history major who specializes in cultural property cases.

"We all know banks have no money anymore," Goldman said. "People watch 'Antiques Roadshow' and 'Pawn Stars' and all these other shows that are on cable, and everybody now believes that there's incredible value in old stuff."

That's made thieves out of all sorts of people, industry analysts said, from electrical contractors to garden- variety burglars who hit up a pizza joint one night and an archive the next.

"It's very easy sometimes to steal art; you just have to be brazen enough to do it," said Derek Fincham, a professor at the South Texas College of Law and the academic director of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art.

Over the years, the "Mona Lisa" has been stolen, along with a lock of George Washington's hair, Andrew Hamilton's snuffbox and a presidential portrait from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum, to name a few.

Landau, 63, and Savedoff, 24, were indicted in July on federal charges alleging they stole dozens of historic texts signed by American presidents and visionaries from three archives in Maryland and New York.

But prosecutors claimed in court hearings that the scheme is much larger, spanning many years and involving thousands of items taken from at least a dozen locations on both sides of the Atlantic, mostly by Landau. (Savedoff is expected to plead guilty Thursday to his role in the scheme, according to people familiar with the case.)

The charges shocked the art and antiques world, which knew Landau as a popular collector of presidential memorabilia, and they have drawn nationwide media attention, Fincham said.

Art thefts make for good headlines and movie characters — a la "The Thomas Crown Affair" — but they usually don't get much notice from traditional law enforcement, Fincham said, in large part because they're property crimes: "the lowest on the enforcement-allocation ladder."

"I don't think law enforcement has caught up to the idea that there's a difference between presidential documents and jewelry or your car," Fincham said. "You want to preserve these objects and this historical record for future generations."

'I pushed'

Brachfeld left the Federal Communications Commission, where he oversaw audits, to join the National Archives and Records Administration as its inspector general at the end of 1999.

He came into a "weak, little" office, he said, with no real capacity to track thefts from any of the agency's 44 facilities nationwide. "We just were, I think, as an institution comfortably numb and blindly indifferent to the threat."

He focused initially on improving internal controls and security. His first big investigation came in 2002 after discovering that a NARA employee in Philadelphia had pocketed presidential pardons and autographed photos of the Apollo astronauts, among other items, and was trying to sell them.

Outraged, Brachfeld pushed for a full prosecution. He drove to Philadelphia to try to convince the U.S. attorneys that the case was worthwhile, even though it didn't involve violent crime, drugs or terrorism.

"I said basically … 'Think how much attention you're going to get it if you have a press conference. These names, these iconic names, you're going to get on TV,' and it worked," Brachfeld said. "I basically did a PR campaign. I pushed, I pushed, I pushed."

He developed the ART program in a similar manner, he said — "the same way I got a puppy when I was a kid" — complaining and cajoling until the opposition relented. He also vowed to supervisors that he wouldn't allow that type of crime to happen at the august institution. "And if I didn't get the resources from the agency," he said, "then I was going to go to the Hill."

His team spent $50,000 recently to investigate an employee who admitted stealing $30,000 worth of recordings — including one of Babe Ruth on a hunting trip — and selling them on eBay. The cost was boosted by the required appraisals, storage needs and travel to recover items the employee had sold, according to court records.

"We don't put monetary value" on our items, Brachfeld said. "Once it's in our institution, it's our job to protect it. Something that looks to me like a scrap of nothing, to some researcher could be the hidden gem."

ART typically focuses on crimes against the archives but took over the Landau sorting because members had the capability and the interest.

The documents — one of the largest volumes of stolen artifacts ever recovered — require certain handling and temperature controls, as well as professionals who know where they might have come from, Brachfeld said.

The group was about 20 percent through the process earlier this month, alerting victims and developing intelligence for the Maryland U.S. attorney's office, which is prosecuting the case in Baltimore.

"Our No. 1 goal has been reached," Brachfeld said, "which is to preserve and protect these records."

Getting 'the bug'

The case is being watched by the others in the field. On the West Coast, Detective Don Hrycyk, of the Los Angeles Police Department's Art Theft Detail, calls it a "nightmare."

"It's hard enough for museums and special collections to guard against the dangerous stranger," he said — much less the respected collector.

Hrycyk is a 37-year force veteran who joined the newly formed Art Theft Detail in the mid-1980s after he got "tired of dealing with dead bodies." He was a homicide detective at a time when the homicide rate was sky-high, and he was ready for a change when the detail was developed.

It grew out of a centralized burglary unit that typically dealt with auto thefts but had discovered a pattern of art-related crimes and fraud in the city.

Hrycyk has handled dinosaur eggs and Hollywood props — "anything that you might find in a museum," he said. "It's not the same old thing … you never know what you're going to be investigating and also you run into interesting characters."

There was the Harvard professor who "suddenly got into art fraud" on a whim; the farmer who once conned a professor out of a bookcase full of Tibetan art; and the crime ring that boldly sold its booty on a cable TV channel, auction style.

"A lot of these people are opportunists who really didn't plan to steal art," Hrycyk said. But they found an opportunity, and "the bug caught them."

The bug caught him as well. At 61, he's been thinking for a while about retiring but can't bring himself to leave because he's not sure the city-based detail would survive without him. He's the last person in it, and a hiring freeze has prevented him from filling a second position.

"I'd like to find somebody to train and take my place before I leave here, because there's not a school for this stuff," he said. "It's a minimum of three years to try to mentor somebody."


Robert Wittman, who helped develop the FBI's Art Crime Team and now owns a private art recovery company outside Philadelphia, said the work requires specific skills.

"They are not like most property crime investigations," he said. Investigators must tread lightly and know the way the art world operates to recover items before they're taken underground or destroyed.

Wittman, who was born in Japan but raised in Baltimore, knows the vulnerabilities of the art business. His American father ran Wittman's Oriental Gallery on Howard Street, stocking the shop with hundreds of intricate pieces from his Japanese wife's culture.

The younger Wittman inherited his father's interest and took it with him into the FBI as an agent in Philadelphia. One of his first cases involved a Chinese crystal ball stolen from the Pennsylvania Museum.

He teamed up with the like-minded prosecutor Goldman in Philly, and they formed their own art crime team well before the FBI formalized a unit years later.

"We were doing this work before it was sexy," said Goldman, who's now in private practice in Pennsylvania.

They bent the laws to fit the crimes they discovered, applying mail fraud statutes and environmental protections to their creative prosecutions.

In 1998, after discovering an electrical contractor's home museum full of items from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, they became the first to use a "Theft of Major Art" law, which made it a federal offense to steal from a library or museum.

In 1999, they used the Bald Eagle Protection Act to prosecute a man who tried to sell a war bonnet that had belonged to Geronimo.

And in 2001 and 2002, they won mail- and wire-fraud convictions against two former "Antiques Roadshow" experts who staged phony appraisals on the show, sometimes lowballing property and then buying it.

"We found that if you did these cases, and got good press, then the managers would let us continue," said Wittman. He tried to stay out of the spotlight to protect the undercover work he did in countries around the world as "Bob Clay," posing as an art broker, collector, expert or buyer.

Between 1997 and 2004, he and Goldman racked up a dozen significant recoveries, including a rare copy of the Bill of Rights, a Norman Rockwell painting and a Civil War sword that belonged to the U.S. Naval Academy. They used those cases to propose an Art Crime Team to the FBI, which launched the program at the end of 2004.

Today, the group is made up of 13 agents who do the work part time, in addition to their other duties, and archaeolopgist Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, who oversees the operation. Three federal prosecutors are assigned to handle their cases.

Most of the agents get on the team because they have an interest in art and antiques, Magness-Gardiner said, though there's quite a bit of turnover. Wittman, who has been gone three years, says that's because it's not a career-making gig.

"It's not the type of job where you're going to become a manager; you don't get raised up because it's low priority," he said. He says he was the bureau's first and only full-time art investigator, both before and after the development of the Art Crime Team.

"I wasn't so interested all the time in catching somebody," Wittman said. "I was more interested in recovering the art. It always seemed more important to recover it and have it for our children than it was to catch some guy and have [him get] three years in prison."

Both he and his former partner worry that few people feel as they do, however.

"Not being there anymore, my concern is that this isn't just a passing fancy by the federal government, that they continue to give these crimes the attention" they need, said Goldman.

"The loss to civilization and the loss to our cultural heritage" is significant, he said. "The best prosecutors and the best agents in these cases are the people that get it."


Cultural property protectors:

Art Crime Team (FBI) — 13 agents work part time to recover lost and fraudulent cultural works. More than 2,600 items worth $142 million recovered since later 2004.

Art Recovery Team (National Archives and Records Administration) — Four- to five-person group within the inspector general's office focused on theft and fraud within the National Archives 44 facilities.

Art Theft Detail, (LAPD) — One-man unit focused on cultural property fraud in Los Angeles, has recovered more than $80 million worth of items since 1993.

Cultural Property Crimes Program (U.S. National Central Bureau of Interpol) — Publishes international theft notices making it harder to trade goods. Interpol also publishes a quarterly "Stolen Works of Art Database" bulletin and a biannual poster of the top 10 missing items.

Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities program (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) — Repatriates stolen items across borders, returning more than 2,500 items to 21 countries since 2007, when it ramped up agent training.