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Coping with Theft, Vandalism, Deterioration, and Bad Press

10. The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Art Theft Program
Lynne Chaffinch

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 paintings—including works by Rembrandt, Degas, Manet, and Vermeer—have 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 cultural property.

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 668—Theft of Major Artwork—makes 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 fraud.

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 659—Theft from Interstate Shipment—makes 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 1951—Interference 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 2114—Theft of Government Property—make it illegal to steal or embezzle any government property or to commit robbery of government property.

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 here.

(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 festival.

(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 enforcement agency

(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 insurance claim.

(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 necessary.

(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 agency.

(4) Perform follow-up with the law enforcement agency and request updated reports on the progress of the investigation.

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 <>. Institutions can request that their objects be placed on the notices that are distributed through the investigating agency.

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, <>, 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, <>. 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 contact.

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  The Library of Congress >> To Preserve and Protect
   September 15, 2008
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