Jul 24, 2009

The FBI's Art Crime Team

Ulrich Boser has written a piece on the FBI Art Crime Team for the recent edition of the US News and World Report; it will also likely be a popular citation for law students composing student notes on art theft and cultural property crime for the next few years.  The piece discusses the work of the FBI, and how the special art unit was instituted after the 2003 Iraq invasion.  For contrast, consider that Italy's Carabinieri has had a special Art Squad for 40 years.

The piece focuses on the reasons for art theft, and how the FBI has worked to combat these thefts.  One of the most interesting recoveries was the theft of North Carolina's Bill of Rights:

During the final days of the Civil War, Union Army soldiers stole North Carolina's Bill of Rights out of the state Capitol. Commissioned by President George Washington, the document was one of only 14 copies created after Congress proposed the first amendments, and for more than 140 years, it remained missing. Then, in 2003, two antiques dealers tried to peddle the work for $4 million. A millionaire philanthropist showed interest in the document, claiming that he would buy the artifact on behalf of Philadelphia's Constitution Center. But the philanthropist was actually an undercover FBI agent, and investigators seized the document. "It was like touching history," one agent said.

It is an interesting piece, but one that has been written many times, without adding much new for those like me who read these kinds of pieces. 

I found the comments of Mark Durney, who blogs at Art Theft Central much more interesting.  It seems Durney was interviewed for Boser's piece, but his comments didn't make the final cut.  That's a shame, because Durney had a lot of interesting things to say about why many art crimes go unreported; much of which has not been discussed before.  As Durney argued with respect to attracting traveling exhibitions, 

. . .  I described how museums and cultural institutions are often wary of reporting thefts as it can discourage other institutions and individuals from loaning works of art for special exhibitions - the cash cow for many institutions. To confirm my suspicions that special exhibitions are a source of considerable income I examined the 2006-2007 financial reports of several high-profile art museums. For example, the Philadelphia Museum of Art reported an income of $1,839,449 from special exhibitions. This amounted to a shade over 29% of the museum's program service revenue ($6,281,637 - program service revenue is revenue from admissions, special exhibition ticket sales, concession sales etc., BUT not membership dues or government grants - usually the largest portions of an institution's total revenue). Another institution, the Wadsworth Atheneum reported that in 2007 its income from special exhibitions was more than double its income from regular admissions ($842,218 versus $401,527 respectively). Although special exhibitions can be great sources of income for museums, they are also instrumental in sustaining and attracting donors and grants.
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