What to Know
- The FBI's Art Crime Team is a specialized unit of agents formed and trained to combat a rising number of art fraud and theft cases.
- FBI supervisory special agent Martin Licciardo said art theft and art fraud cases often involve international transactions and buyers.
- The unit also has conducted investigations into stolen historical artifacts and ancient relics looted from historic sites.
The FBI has recovered at least 2,650 missing pieces of art or historical artifacts, many of which were stolen, since 2004, according to a review by the News4 I-Team.
The cases were managed by the agency’s Art Crime Team, a specialized unit of agents formed and trained to combat a rising number of art fraud and theft cases.
Cases reviewed by the I-Team include the recent recovery of a stolen historic letter authored by Charles Darwin in the 1870s. The letter was stolen in the 1970s from the Smithsonian Archives in Washington, D.C., according to FBI special agent Marc Hess. After receiving a tip about the letter’s whereabouts, agents recovered the document and returned it to Smithsonian managers May 26.
“It is an important part of our heritage,” Hess said. “It may not be worth a lot monetarily, but it’s worth a lot to scholars.”
U.S. Justice Department records reviewed by the I-Team also detail an $11 million art theft scheme for which a California businessman was convicted last year. Luke Brugnara accepted but refused to pay for five crates filled with prized art pieces, including by Picasso, Luks and Degas, FBI investigators said.
FBI investigators released copies of text messages sent by Brugnara to an art dealer, claiming the pieces were a gift, not a purchase. One of the five crates, including a $3 million Degas sculpture, remains missing, FBI investigators told the I-Team. Brugnara is serving his sentence in a federal prison.
In another recent case investigated by the FBI Art Crime Team, a classic Renoir painting was recovered and returned to the Baltimore Museum of Art. The painting was stolen more than 60 years ago, according to FBI reports, then recovered in 2014 from a woman who said she purchased it in recent years at a flea market in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
FBI supervisory special agent Martin Licciardo said art theft and art fraud cases often involve international transactions and buyers.
“There is a vast network of middlemen, international brokers and looters,” Licciardo said.
The FBI maintains an online database of stolen art and historical items. According to the FBI, “(Listed) objects must be uniquely identifiable and have historical or artistic significance. This includes fine arts, decorative arts, antiquities, Asian art, Islamic art, Native American art, ethnographic objects, archaeological material, textiles, books and manuscripts, clocks and watches, coins, stamps, musical instruments, and scientific instruments.”
The Art Crime Unit’s closed cases include the recovery of a diverse series of other well-known pieces of art. FBI records list “Children with a Cart,” a 1778 painting from Francisco de Goya stolen while being transported from Ohio to the Guggenheim Museum in New York. They also list a Rembrandt self-portrait from 1630. It was recovered in a sting operation in Denmark, according to the FBI.
The unit also has conducted investigations into stolen historical artifacts and ancient relics looted from historic sites.
“It can be anything from a 2,000-year-old plate to a painting painted 100 years ago,” Licciardo said.
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones and Michael O'Regan.