The FBI has an Art Crime Team. And nowadays it’s busy.
For years they mostly worked under the radar, although their work had the potential to capture the public’s imagination.
Fraudulently obtained Super Bowl rings.
The return of Paintings stolen from churches in Peru.
A man who converted humble art he bought online into more expensive works expert production of forged documents of origin.
Now the Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, who have the very specific job of investigating art crimes, have something of a higher profile, in part due to a case the Art Crime Team began prosecuting last summer.
It came to light with a raid on the Orlando Museum of Art, where agents confiscated 25 works the museum claimed were created by Jean-Michel Basquiat, a hugely popular artist. His work regularly fetches millions of dollars at auction. But enough questions were raised about the history of the Orlando works that agents began investigating its authenticity.
The investigation is ongoing, but the Art Crime Team, which has grown to two dozen agents across the country in recent years, is now at the center of an art scandal that is being watched around the world.
Recently, two of the team’s investigators, Special Agent Elizabeth Rivas, who headed the Los Angeles Art Crime Unit until her retirement last year, and Special Agent Allen Grove, her successor, agreed to answer questions from the New York Times.
They declined to comment on the Basquiat case, citing the ongoing investigation. But they debated the origin and purpose of Art Crime Team, and increased public interest in it. Here are edited excerpts from the interview.
First of all, can you tell me the history of this team?
RIVAS From 2003, around the time of the Iraq war, there was a lot of looting in the Baghdad Museum and some other cultural areas in Baghdad. And at that time, our FBI headquarters saw the need to identify a team of agents who could help by attempting to identify stolen artwork and antiques. The hope was that we, the FBI, could help return everything that was stolen and entered this country.
Long before that, FBI agents had worked on art cases. But the formalization of the team began with the war.
Why is this work important?
GROVE Obviously a lot of what we do isn’t necessarily life or death, but these paintings and cultural objects and the types of artifacts we deal with endure far beyond our work in this organization – and, frankly, our lives out.
It’s also something the FBI is uniquely able to cover. We are a national organization but also have global contacts throughout government. And it gets complicated, especially with the antique trade, which has its tentacles in all sorts of countries and various dubious entities.
Interest in this type of work seems to be increasing. …
RIVAS We’ve been doing this for a while. It just gets more public. It’s also a lot busier as fraud and theft have increased during the pandemic. And it takes a while for our cases to reach the indictment level. So I think a lot of the cases and the great work that we’ve done are gradually coming to light.
GROVE I’ve noticed that a lot of documentaries and podcasts deal with art crime and antique cases. It speaks to the global intrigue surrounding some of these, but also to the unique characteristics of many of these types of cases that set them apart from a drug case or a typical economic case. These cases fall outside of what we often hear for crime stories: murderers and horrifying violent crimes. They always seem to include interesting characters.
Tell us about some of the most interesting cases.
RIVAS Much of this probably began with the Galerie Knoedler case. This important gallery in New York, one of the oldest and most renowned, sold fakes. And the fact that the FBI identified this and worked to prosecute the individuals involved brought to light, I believe, that there was such a fraud in the art market.
Then there was the Rudy Kurniawan wine fraud case. Some of the larger scams that the Art Crime Team have worked on have brought to light the fact that it is not a regulated market and that there are problems and many counterfeits.
There is also a fraud case involving a gentleman who lived in West Hollywood and posed as having money. He would buy art online for hundreds of dollars and then resell those pieces for hundreds of thousands of dollars. And he created the fake provenance documents for the artwork. In the end, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 60 months in prison for mail fraud, wire fraud and tax fraud.
GROVE Agent Rivas invited me to search this case, and under a desk, in a suitcase he had, were several embossed seals to use on his certificates of authenticity. Finding that was definitely an “aha” moment.
How is this work different from the work you did earlier in your career? You say you both like art; did you like art when you started?
RIVAS: I have spent most of my career handling commercial cases such as fraud. Many art crime cases are the same types of fraud: some form of money is involved. It may be a Basquiat today, a Picasso tomorrow, but whatever fraud has been committed, I will approach it as I would any financial crime investigation.
How do you become an art expert in no time?
RIVAS My love for art comes from traveling and visiting museums. I have no training in it.
There was an LAPD detective I worked with who ran the LAPD’s Art Theft Division for over 25 years. I would get names of experts from him. I learned a lot from him and from other members of the art crime team who were on the team before I joined.
We also have our Art Crime Training, usually every year, where we learn how to work these cases – lessons we learned from other agents.
Before you started, did you know what a Basquiat is?
RIVAS Yes. Usually, when I look at fakes related to a certain artist, I have read the books and seen all the documentaries. I’m researching. If I don’t know, I’ll learn. It will help improve the investigation as you learn more about the artist and their style.
GROVE Much of this is on-the-job training. We have special Art Crime Team training courses for dealing with cultural assets. There are very specific ways in which we have to deal with artworks if we want to use them as evidence. They treat a Basquiat painting differently than a Glock 19 pistol.
RIVAS We are experts for experts. Depending on the artist or medium, we consult experts and rely on their help.
How many crimes can your team prosecute at once, and how do you determine which crimes to prosecute?
RIVAS Our Tips come from everywhere. Calls, victims who bought something online, others who suffered a loss.
When investigating the cases, we check whether a crime has occurred and what the statute of limitations is. Also, what is the object? Is it something important to American history, like the ruby red slippers from The Wizard of Oz stolen from a museum?
Each United States Attorney’s Office will have a different threshold for criminal cases that they wish to prosecute. We have a slight advantage if it’s a major work of art.
What types of art crimes are most common?
RIVAS Much of our time is spent cheating. The scam could be something that is sold as authentic but isn’t – that’s probably the greatest crime. And it’s not just art. It could be sporting memorabilia. It could be stamps to collect.
The charge could be wire fraud, mail fraud. It could be a case of money laundering. It could be someone doing all of that and committing tax evasion.
GROVE There is also theft. If we have a stolen item that crosses state lines, then we have a federal connection.
You mentioned a federal database of stolen art.
RIVAS Yes, it’s called The Stolen Art File. You can enter an artist’s name and see what objects are in the database. It was very helpful. Someone googles the artist’s name or the title of what’s being sold and they’ll see that it was stolen and then we’ll be notified.
Any parting tips for collectors or warnings for those in the art field who might be prone to commit a crime?
RIVAS It is sometimes very difficult for victims to believe that they have been scammed. Many scammers are flattering, very friendly and thoughtful, and appear to be very genuine people. And I think a lot of the victims can’t believe they were scammed or that this person ever did it up to then. There is only one big trust base.
For collectors: check the provenance and if the price is too low and too good to be true, it’s probably not authentic. Do your homework. I think everyone in the art world is looking for that one piece that they found in a locker or at a flea market and it’s a real Picasso. The chances of these finds are so slim. So many people look and believe they bought something that’s real. And unfortunately it isn’t.
https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/13/arts/fbi-art-crime-team.html The FBI has an Art Crime Team. And nowadays it’s busy.