THE SILVER LINING
Coping with Theft, Vandalism, Deterioration, and Bad Press
10. The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Art Theft Program
On St. Patrick's Day 1990, two men disguised as
police officers broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in
Boston, Massachusetts, and stole twelve pieces of art valued at
approximately $300 million. The paintingsincluding works by
Rembrandt, Degas, Manet, and Vermeerhave never been recovered.
The illicit trade in art and cultural property has
become a major category of international crime. This includes theft of
individual works of art, illegal export of objects protected by
international laws, pillaging of archaeological sites, and vandalism.
Art crime is an international problem requiring cooperation at all
levels of law enforcement. To aid in this endeavor, the Federal Bureau
of Investigation (FBI) established the Art Theft Program in 1992 to
assist law enforcement agencies investigating these cases. A major
component of the Art Theft Program is the National Stolen Art File, a
computerized database of stolen art and cultural property as reported
to the FBI by law enforcement agencies throughout the United States and
internationally. Thefts from museums and libraries account for
approximately 18 percent of the cultural property theft cases reported
to the National Stolen Art File.
Every institution that maintains collections is at
risk from theft. As public awareness increases regarding the
institution's responsibility to manage its collections, the
institution's staff is under more rigorous requirements to protect the
collections. Law enforcement agencies work closely with cultural institutions
and rare book and art dealers nationally and internationally to
attempt to track down perpetrators of such thefts and to recover stolen
To assist cultural institutions in understanding
federal laws and reporting procedures concerning theft of cultural
property, I shall first describe governing statutes, then give
guidelines for responding to an incident of art crime and procedures for
reporting the theft to law enforcement officials, and, finally describe
databases regarding stolen art.
The Theft of Major Artwork statute was signed into
law in 1994, making it a federal offense to steal from museums and
libraries. Following is a summary of the specifics of the statute:
Title 18, United States Code, Section 668Theft
of Major Artworkmakes it a federal offense to obtain by theft or
fraud any object of cultural heritage from a museum. The statute also
prohibits the "fencing" or possession of such objects, knowing them to
be stolen. In defining what constitutes such an institution for its
purposes, the statute states that "museum" means an organized and
permanent institution, the activities of which affect interstate or
foreign commerce, that satisfies the following requirements:
(a) it is situated in the United States;
(b) it is established for an essentially educational
or aesthetic purpose;
(c) it has a professional staff, and
(d) it owns, uses, and cares for tangible objects
that are exhibited to the public on a regular schedule.
An "object of cultural heritage" means an object that is:
(a) over 100 years old and worth in excess of $5,000; or
(b) worth at least $100,000.
The statute describes two offenses. One results when
someone steals or obtains by fraud from the care, custody or control of
a museum any object of cultural heritage. The second involves knowing
that an object of cultural heritage has been stolen or obtained by
Title 18, United States Code, Section 3294, states
that no person shall be prosecuted, tried, or punished for a violation
of or conspiracy to violate Section 668 unless the indictment is
returned or the information is filed within twenty years after the
commission of the offense.
Title 18, United States Code, Section 659Theft
from Interstate Shipmentmakes it a federal offense to steal or
obtain by fraud anything from a conveyance, depot, or terminal, any
shipment being transported in interstate or foreign commerce. The
statute also prohibits the fencing of such stolen property. Section
1951Interference with Commerce by Threats of Violence (the Hobbs
Act)makes it a federal offense to obstruct interstate commerce by
robbery or extortion or to use or threaten to use violence against any
person or property in interstate commerce. Likewise, Sections 2314 and
2315, regarding interstate transportation of stolen property, prohibit
the transportation in interstate or foreign commerce of any
goods with a value of $5,000 or more by anyone knowing the goods to be
stolen. These statutes also prohibit the fencing of such goods.
Illegal Trafficking in Native American Human Remains
and Cultural Items, Section 1170, prohibits the sale of the human
remains or cultural artifacts of Native Americans without the right of
possession of those items in accordance with the Native American Graves
Protection and Repatriation Act. Finally, Title 18, United States Code, Sections 641 and
2114Theft of Government Propertymake it illegal to steal or
embezzle any government property or to commit robbery of government
The FBI has prepared guidelines for responding to the
theft of cultural property and for reporting the theft to law
enforcement officials. Before a theft occurs, it is important that an
institution protect itself by appropriate actions. These are listed
(1) Catalog all collections and maintain a backup
copy of object records. Include in the physical description: type of
object, title, maker, date or period, materials or techniques,
measurements, inscriptions and markings, distinguishing features,
subject, short description, and image of the object.
(2) Review security procedures for exhibitions,
collection storage areas, and transportation of objects. Include
registrars or collections managers, curators, security personnel, and
administrators in the review process. Administrators should be present so
that they are made aware of security concerns and allocate funds to
these areas. Update authorization levels and access procedures to
collection areas for staff and visitors. Monitor or escort people
entering collections storage, including volunteers, researchers, and
VIPs. Upgrade access doors to card readers, or change locks at regular
intervals, and immediately after a key is lost or an employee is
terminated. Document which keys, cards, and access cards are in the
possession of each staff member. Evaluate security equipment and repair
anything inoperable. Assess exhibition areas to ensure that display
cases are secure and objects are protected by barriers, security
alarms, or both. Request funding to upgrade security systems as needed.
Evaluate security around the outside of the building.
(3) Check employment references and perform criminal
history checks on all employees.
(4) Prepare an institutional emergency plan that
addresses property theft. Contact local law enforcement agencies and
establish liaison with the officers who would respond to matters of
cultural property theft at your museum or library. Include their names
and contact numbers in the emergency plan, along with the telephone
number for the local FBI office. Update contact information every six
months. Invite law enforcement officers to visit the museum or library
before an incident occurs. Discuss the institution's mission and
collections and review possible threats to the collections.
(5) Keep in regular contact with local law
enforcement agencies, and stay informed regarding possible threats to
the institution. Law enforcement can provide intelligence on gang
activity in the area and advise institutions if increases in criminal
activity are occurring. They can also inform the institution of local
events that may pose a security concern, such as a large parade or
(6) Request your fine arts insurance company to
conduct a walk-through of the institution to evaluate the security of
the collections. Document any comments for improving security of the
collections, and evaluate implementation of suggestions.
(7) Make staff aware of security concerns and request
that they contact the appropriate staff member if they see anything
suspicious. Create an incident form that can be completed when events
occur in the institution.
(8) Perform visual inventory and spot checks of the
collections on exhibition and in storage.
When a theft occurs, there are a number of actions
the FBI recommends, as follows:
(1) Protect the scene of the crime, and do not let
staff or visitors into the area to disturb evidence.
(2) Call the local police department immediately
(3) Call the local FBI office if the stolen objects
fulfill the criteria under the Theft of Major Artwork provision (Title
18, United States Code, Section 668). The object must be more than 100
years old and valued in excess of $5,000 or worth at least $100,000. For
thefts outside the United States, the FBI maintains more than thirty
legal attaché offices overseas, which can process requests for
assistance with cultural property thefts.
(4) Determine the last time the objects were seen and
what happened in the area, or to the objects, since that time.
(5) Identify witnesses and gather all pertinent
information regarding the theft and suspect or suspects for the law
(6) Prepare written descriptions of stolen objects
for the police, including photographs of objects if available.
(7) Contact the donors or lenders, if applicable, to
advise them of the theft.
(8) Contact the insurance company and file an
(9) Complete an incident report for internal use.
As regards recovery from a theft, the FBI recommends
that a museum:
(1) Evaluate the theft and determine continuing
threats to the collections. Update security policies or equipment, if
(2) Prepare statements for the media, and plan the
institution's strategy for dealing with public relations issues.
(3) Prepare a theft report having images and
descriptions of stolen objects and distribute the report to museums libraries,
auction houses, dealers, galleries, and collectors who may be
offered the objects for sale. Coordinate with the investigating
(4) Perform follow-up with the law enforcement
agency and request updated reports on the progress of the
An important resource is the National Stolen Art File
(NSAF). This database was developed as a law enforcement tool.
Therefore, only law enforcement agencies can submit requests to add
objects to the database or to have the database searched. The file lists
case information, including suspects and modus operandi, and provides
object descriptions and images. Victims of theft should check with the
investigating officer to make sure that the officer is aware of the
database and that information about stolen objects is submitted to the
FBI Art Theft Program by the investigating officer. The FBI also
maintains a Web page with art theft notices listed at
<www.fbi.gov>. Institutions can request that their objects be
placed on the notices that are distributed through the investigating
The file is located in Washington, D.C., at the
address National Stolen Art File, Federal Bureau of Investigation,
Major Theft Unit, room 5096, 935 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington,
D.C. 20535. The telephone number is (202) 324-4192, and the fax number
is (202) 324-1504. Additional information regarding the NSAF can be
found on the FBI Web page, <www.fbi.gov>, under the heading
"Headquarters and Programs/Criminal Investigative Division."
The Art Loss Register (ALR) is a private company
funded primarily by insurance companies. The ALR conducts searches of
its database for auction houses, museums conducting due diligence
searches during provenance research and acquisitions, and private
individuals. Further information can be found at the ARL Web site,
<www.artloss.com>. The address is Art Loss Register, 20 East
Forty-sixth Street, suite 1402, New York, N.Y 10017. The telephone
number is (212) 297-0941, and the fax number is (212) 972-5091.
The Interpol Cultural Property Database is a
database maintained by Interpol Headquarters, Lyon, France,
with access through Interpol Washington, D.C. Requests for objects to
be added to the database or searches to be performed must be made
through a law enforcement agency. Objects listed on this database are
those that may be shipped overseas for possible sale. The address is
Interpol Washington, U.S. National Central Bureau, 1301 New York Avenue,
Fourth floor, Washington, D.C. 20530. The telephone numbers are (202)
616-9000 and, for faxes, (202) 616-8400.
In addition, there are other smaller, specialized
databases for stolen art, where an institution may want to register its
stolen objects. Staff supporting the databases listed above may be able
to assist theft victims in identifying the appropriate databases to