Art Crime and the FBI: An introduction to how masterpieces are stolen and recovered

Finally, the day has arrived: Robert Wittman’s course Art Crime: How Masterpieces are Stolen and Recovered is about to begin…

With the blessing of Nathanial Goldblum from Christie’s Education, over the next few weeks it will be my aim to gather as much information as I can from this series to share with you –in the hopes that together we might benefit from the wealth of knowledge relayed by Robert Wittman, a charismatic and incredibly valued figure in the field of cultural heritage protection and preservation.

Perhaps this series might also entice you to attend next year’s Fakes, Frauds and Forgeries: Issues in Authenticity. Christie’s Education is a specialist institution in the study of art business and the art market, art history and art world ecosystems, curating and connoisseurship. Scrolling through their upcoming courses gives one a good impression of the knowledges and cultures they explore – all to benefit several outstanding lecture series, accessible to you. If you’re interested in taking a look, click here.

Wittman is an experienced story-teller. Not only that, but his perspective is unique. Having spent over 30 years in this field, and attending to the most high-profile cases – one can deduce he is in the best position to discuss what the FBI can do, how art is stolen today and how it is recovered. The case studies explored in this series are recorded in art newspapers across the globe. But this six-week uninterrupted interaction proffers something quite special: direct intel from a reliable source. After all, much of what is reported varies with what actually happened. So, this really is a privileged opportunity and I can’t thank Robert Wittman and Nathaniel Goldblum enough for allowing me to participate as a reviewer.

Without further ado, let’s return to the present. Excitedly, I wait as Sara Weintraub, co-host with Nathaniel Goldblum from Christie’s Education, welcomes us into the call. In steps a cheerful Robert Wittman, and thus initiates session one…  

Why do people get involved in art crime?

Let’s begin with a little moment of reflection: we’re sitting in a lecture series on the subject, listening to a man who has spent the majority of his life fighting criminals faking, forging and creating fraud – all in the name of Art. This page, the Art of Value, exists to decipher this very complex space. And, not only are “art crimes” committed against sculptures, prints and paintings, but collectibles, antiquities, and antiques make up the art market, too. This market has been valued at more than 200-billion-dollars worldwide and 40% of that industry is in the United States, which makes the USA is the biggest consumer country in the world. Wittman flippantly surmised… “Every time you get a deal that you think is too good to be true, it is too good to be true”.

Figure 1: An artist’s impression of the theft of the Mona Lisa, from La Domenica del Corriere magazine, published September 1911. Illustration: Achille Beltrame (1871-1945); photo: DeAgostini / Getty Images

In the early 2000s the FBI conducted the following study. They approached and gathered intel from the Carabinieri, with its 300 members and three brigades; two art crime squads in Madrid (part of the Spanish National Police); the art and antiquities squad at Scotland Yard (homebase for the Metropolitan Police); and the 35-member OECD art squad in Paris. Through this collaboration, the FBI established that illicitly bought, traded or stolen cultural property is making a six-figure count of about 6-billion dollars a year in the worldwide art market. Incredibly, about 75% of that market is not theft: it’s frauds, forgeries and fakes.

I particularly enjoyed Wittman’s reference to Willy Sutton. A link to the FBI’s biography of this very famous bank robber can be found here. While Willy was being led off to prison, a reporter asked him why he robbed banks. He looked the reporter up and down and candidly responded, “because that’s where the money is.” After hearing this first session in its entirety I suggest we rephrase the question and instead ask: why do people get involved in art crime? Because that’s where the money is. Bank robbers get caught 90% of the time, for as little as $1, 000 profit. Compare this to the case-studies explored in the next blogpost and you’ll get a clear picture why art is targeted. But first, let’s unpick the following five art theft violations…

An overview of Art Theft Violations

Here listed are the five current Art Crime Violations that the FBI, Homeland Security Investigations, and other federal agencies labour under. Proving these elements in art crimes is the only way they can hope to successfully prosecute criminals. Robert Wittman explored these violations in fine detail, and I’ll do my best to summarise each below.

Figure 2: screenshot from session one, Art Theft Violations, Art Crime: How Masterpieces are Stolen and Discovered. Credit: Christie’s Education and Robert Wittman.

Interstate Transportation of Stolen Property

This is the first crime that agents look to in these types of situations that are federal. It is a violation if you steal or know that a piece of property worth $5, 000 or more is stolen, and decide to transport it over a state or international border. It’s a violation of the Stolen Property Act, which is in the Constitution.

Theft of a Major Artwork

This is the only violation that includes the word “art”. In 1995 this statute was passed as part of the Law-and-Order Criminal Bill by Ted Kennedy, a Senator in Massachusetts. Basically, it implies that if you steal a piece of cultural heritage (and Congress defines cultural heritage as “anything under the care and custody of a museum”) – and that piece is worth $5, 000 or more and is over 100 years old or is any age but can be valued upwards of $100, 000 – you are committing a crime in the US. If you attempt to sell, transport, or exhibit a piece of cultural heritage knowing it to be stolen, then you also are in violation of this Statute.

The Theft of a Major Artwork statute is unusual for another reason: property crime statues have a five-year limitation but, in this case, if you know a piece of artwork is stolen you are reupping the statue – “which means it never ends” – and the possession of that artwork continues to be a criminal case. The catalyst for this statue was, of course, the Isabella Stuart Gardner theft in 1990. This is the biggest single property crime that has ever occurred in Boston. Kelly Horan, Jack Rodolico and Stephen Kurkjian speak candidly discuss the Gardner mystery in their “behind the scenes” podcast, Last Seen. More visual learners with access to Netflix may be interested in the following documentary: This is a Robbery: the world’s biggest art heist.

Hobbs Act-Robbery

Stealing from an institution, such as a museum or a gallery, interferes with interstate commerce – and thus can be counted as committing Hobbs Act-Robbery. For example, a case well-known to members of the Philadelphian task force: the “smash and grab” jewellery store robberies. In 1994 several groups of individuals made a business of travelling across State borders to rob high-end jewellery stores, selectively stealing Rolex watches. After committing these crimes, they’d drop their loot off in hotel room, discard the car, pick up their stash, fly back to Philadelphia and pawn off the stolen property at local Jewellers’. The task force struggled to keep track of the thefts, which were taking place nation-wide. Not only this, but the perpetrators wore ski masks and mittens, leaving no trace.

Finally, a member of the gang blundered his robbery at a MacDonalds in Pennsylvania. Jamming his gloveless forefinger into the counter, he angrily ordered the cash from the register to be “Put right here!” Fingerprints are evidence, of course. The prints matched and the thief was arrested. Robbing a MacDonalds, which does business with interstate commerce, with a gun (that’s a minimum five-year mandatory sentence already) is a federal crime. Wittman alleged that, once the tables had turned, the FBI were able to “flip” the perpetrator which put an end to the crime spree. The Philadelphian task force arrested 127 people, as well as a half a dozen jewellers who were buying the Rolexes at 50 cents to the dollar (even going to far as to cover the travel expenses). The following year, only three related Hobbs Act-Robberies took place.


There are 17 countries that the USA has established memorandums of understanding with including Italy, Greece, Thailand, Cambodia, Peru and Mexico. Bringing artefacts from those countries into the USA can be considered “smuggling” depending on what’s stated in the individual agreements. For example, in China anything created before 1900 is considered “prohibited property” whilst Roman coins minted and sold in London belong to Italy and can’t be brought Stateside.

Mail Fraud/Wire Fraud

These “white collar crimes” of art theft make the most of any air or ground carrier, such as FedEx and UPS. If you post a false contract, and the person you’re sending that document to depends on that information you’re providing to be true, then you are committing fraud. Wire Fraud used to be committed via newspaper, over telephone, even fax… now it’s largely played out by email. Proving that the information provided is untrue and that the person committing the fraud knew it to be so can lead to an FBI investigation. Of course, the claim would have to be fairly substantial: simply mistaking an Etsy buy or fumbling a TradeMe deal won’t cut it. Wittman advised with a knowing smirk, “If you buy a Picasso on Ebay, make sure there are two ess’s. And that the Monet ends with “ET” not “AT”.”

And that, my friends, feels like a good place to stop. Stay tuned for the next post, which will delve into reality’s would-be debonair art thieves – part two of session one.

About the author: Alexandra Taylor is a paintings conservator. She is currently a Fellow at Stichting Restauratie Atelier Limburg (SRAL). Prior to this she has worked internationally, holding positions at Saltmarsh Paintings Conservation in Cambridge and the Phoebus Foundation in Antwerp. Her interests lie in the treatment of Old Masters and the fundamental aspects of paintings analysis, research, and the valorisation of results. Alexandra received her conjoint BFA(h)/BA at the University of Auckland (NZ) and MA in Cultural Materials Conservation at the University of Melbourne (AUS). She is a 2019 GAF Fellow at the International Specialised Skills Institute in Melbourne (AUS). Her Fellowship investigated current practice in preventing art crimes in conservation with the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (IT).

Disclaimer: this article is intended for educational purposes, and does not purport to provide legal advice. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.


TEDx Talks, 2012, Art Crime: Noah Charney at TEDxCelje, 27 Dec 2012, YouTube, sourced 25 September 2022 from <>

Thanks to Nathaniel Goldblum from Christie’s Education for granting me the opportunity to review such a fascinating talk.

In 2008 Robert Wittman left the FBI and established his own company, Robert Wittman Incorporated (see below). A reason for breaking away and turning to the private sector includes being able to assess all types of situations related to art crime – including museum security service, collection management and expert witness testimony. The FBI turns away 80% of complaints because they aren’t considered criminal offences. Now, Robert Wittman can assist with both criminal and civil disputes – and currently handles 40-55 cases at any given moment.

For more information on Robert Wittman Inc., visit:

Some of Wittman’s more daring adventures are catalogued in two texts: Priceless and The Devil’s Diary: Alfred Rosenberg and the Stolen Secrets of the Third Reich.

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