Art investigators: Saving the country's cultural heritage, one recovered work at a time
Passion drives the overworked and underappreciated
"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.
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.
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.