Bob: I am doing well; it’s great to be here Martin thank you.
Martin: I was pretty excited when Eric Bradley of Antique Trader gave me her name and I thought it would make the perfect podcast. There is a lot of intrigue when it comes to art theft, and you are on the Colbert Report what was that like?
Bob: He is a great guy, very smart man, he works hard at that show, and it’s a great show.
Martin: Yes and he took it easy on you.
Bob: I think he was actually interested in the subject, is after the taping they told me usually gets up and leaves, but he stayed and asked me some questions. I think he was actually interested in the subject itself. When you first go on you go in the green room, any comes in to visit with you. He said listen I just want you to know that this is all in fun, and please don’t take offense at anything. Then the producers tell you don’t try to tell any jokes, let him do the jokes, no one upping. You don’t want to try to match brains Steve Colbert.
Martin: right off the bat I want to say, most people’s opinions is that art thieves early like Pierce Brosman, Cary Grant in their sort of in a romantic intrigue when it comes to art thief’s. What are art thieves really like?
Bob: I called both the Oscar-winning art thieves, they have that opinion that there handsome and debonair, rich and they do this because they dabble in the arts. But the truth is, generally speaking there are three types of people involved in art theft, and that’s different from the people involved in forgeries frauds and fakes. It is a whole different type of concept, the people who were involved in theft are either general criminals, involved in many different types of criminal enterprises, including armed robberies, car theft and they just happen to do an art theft. Then you have what I call the experts, people who have access to the collections, maybe people who become emotionally involved with this stuff and decide they’re going to take it. These can include dealers, but you also have people who are actually working in the museums, insiders. Speaking of Museum theft, between 88 and 90% of Museum thefts included insider component.
Martin: when you say inside it’s because of the statistics you get from cracking the case in my right? What are the cases were the crime is solved, and the art is returned?
Bob: it depends, the general return of stolen property, is somewhere between five and 20%, that’s for all stolen property including cars, TVs anything. But when we talk about art heists, these high-value paintings are probably 90 to 95%. The reason for that is as you know, art can be chopped up like a car, and it’s not like drugs that can be cut up. The art is unique within itself and if anything happens to that card the value goes down. Therefore anyone who takes the piece has to care for it to keep it in good condition.
Martin: in your opinion, has anyone ever stolen art just keep it?
Bob: there are many people who of stolen property, and I want to explain it’s not always art, what we’re talking about art theft were not always talking about paintings and sculptures. Under the FBI definition of the art theft in Art crime team, it is cultural property theft, it all comes together so were talking about pre-Columbian, looted artifacts, material coming from the middle east, Asian artifacts historical pieces, US artifacts, from history bill of rights, Civil War sword, all of these things are considered part of the art theft program. Two people steal? I’ve seen people steal who wanted to collect items, and may enjoy the items and they take them for that reason but most really want to sell them.
Martin: how you spoke about the Bill of Rights, I heard about that, and it was returned a few years ago, is that right?
Bob: the Bill of Rights was recovered in 2003. In 1789 or 1787 I can’t remember, George Washington sent 13 copies that he had scribed to the 13 states. Most states kept to them, but one or two of them sent them back to Washington. Most of the states ratified them and kept them, in one of the states that kept them in the statehouse was North Carolina. It remained there all the way up to 1865 during the Civil War, a trooper that was coming back north with Sherman’s troops, they capture the capital and went in and this trooper actually took the Bill of Rights as a souvenir. He went back to Indiana with it and sold it for five dollars, and it was kept in the family all the way up to 2003 when a couple of antiques appraisers actually founded and purchased it and attempted to sell it for $4 million to the national Constitution Center in Philadelphia. They had had it identified as well, they had it looked at by experts at the George Washington University. The Congressional think tank, the historical group that does that type of authentication. They were told it was authentic and probably North Carolina’s, but they ignored that and kept going with it, of course it was stolen property and it belong to the government, the state of North Carolina. We got seizure warrants from North Carolina and did an undercover operation in Philadelphia where I post as a philanthropist to buy it. When they delivered it, we stopped everybody and seized it and were able to return it to the statehouse.
Martin: so where does the statute of limitations fall into place here?
Bob: the normal statute of limitations for stolen property is five years. If someone steals property they cannot be charged and prosecuted after five years of the theft, in a standard property crime. Federally if someone steals a piece of property and they take it from Philadelphia to Atlantic City, crossing state lines, at that point it re-ups the statute of limitations. Because what you’ve actually done is committed interstate transportation of stolen property.
Martin: so you recovered this piece for the state after 150 years, how does that play into it?
Bob: there’s a statute of limitations on prosecution of the person who has stolen the property, that doesn’t mean that you can still pass good title on the piece it’s like anything else with an artwork, there are three things that determine the of value and the ability to sell. The provenance, history of it. It’s authenticity, again that’s important and having good title. That is the touch is part I think nowadays, because there’s so much litigation going on. I really want to impress on your listeners, if they’re going to buy artwork make sure that they do due diligence research on the title so they know that they can hone it can continue to own it.
Martin: where does all the Nazi stolen art works fit into this have you ever investigated something like that?
Bob: since my retirement from the FBI in 2008, I can get into these types of things. At the time with the Bureau, we didn’t get involved in these types of things because that was more a civil suit. When you’re in law enforcement when you’re talking about the local police state police or the feds, these cases have got to be criminal cases that they can look into. The round pegs could fit into the round hole, you have to build proof beyond a reasonable doubt of the elements of the specific crime. In those situations you’re talking up those aren’t criminal cases those are civil fights, so generally speaking the government does not get involved, it is between private parties. Today with Robert Whitman Incorporated, the company I have I can get involved in those cases and do the research and due diligence.
Martin:I don’t know how to word this but what is the number one stupidest crook that you’ve ever seen?
Bob: stupid is one thing, the number one worst thing I ever saw people do was about 20 years ago; there was a case in Philadelphia where three individuals went into the Pennsbury Manor, historical site, the home of William Penn the founder of the colony. He lived there from 1683 to 1700; a wonderful home it’s been preserved, a lot of his material is still there. These three women decided they are going to stealing antiques from the house in order to sell them at an auction. That is stupid to begin with as you and I both know it’s identified material, you can’t sell it. What they did, is that they got scared, because there were so much press about the burglary, and it was on the front pages of the newspapers all in the area, they took the material and they threw it into the Delaware River, in order to hide it and get rid of it. We’re talking about material 300 years old, owned by the family of the 37 or 38 pieces that were taken, 32 were recovered at the bottom of the river but we lost all of the wooden pieces. Can you imagine that Martin, these pieces survived three centuries and ended up going into the river, just because of as you say the stupidity.
Martin: I was doing work with a noted artist’s estate, Walt Kuhn in Cape Neddick, Maine. A bunch of bikers stole about 30 of the clown paintings which can sell up to $1 million. When they are being sought after they piled the paintings in a pile and let them on fire. It is an atrocity because when these things are gone and gone forever.
Bob: especially when the artist is dead and they cannot be replaced, and a can ever be done again you’re right. This material was cultural property, the history of our country.
Martin:I like that phrase is sort of in capsules exactly what it is, it is history and once it’s gone it’s gone.
Bob: it’s not just one museum, or one historic home they belong to everyone and we all lose. I was still bad when I see that happen. I look at it this way, we are all here together, everyone who’s alive today. None of us get out of this alive in the end so it’s our time; it’s our responsibility to protect this property for our children and our grandchildren. If we don’t, our forefathers have kept it for us, they’ve been successful and when we lose a piece like that, that’s a failure for all of us. We all carry the blame for that, the future generations will not be able to enjoy, learn from, and inherit the material we lose.
Martin: I did a podcast with Ulrich Boser, podcast 31 on the Isabella Stewart Gardner heist, and that exemplifies what we’re talking about here, the empty frames that are hanging in there, where the Rembrandt was and all those wonderful paintings that are gone. Did you know Ulrich?
Bob: yes there’s a whole paragraph in his book about me.
Martin: I am sorry I read the book quite a while ago and I forgot about that, has there been any breakthrough in the Gardner case?
Bob: at this point I have not heard of anything new, since I conducted an investigation from 2006 to 2008, I was undercover in Paris, Madrid and Miami chasing the Rembrandt storm over the Sea of Galilee, and the Vermeer concert from that collection.
Martin: when you say undercover do you pose as a prominent art buyer?
Bob: from 1988 to 2008 I was undercover somewhere in the world working sometimes says yes a prominent art buyer, sometimes as an authenticator for the mob, or sometimes a professor, or sometimes just a buyer who absolutely had no clue but was an easy con mark, depending on what the situation was. But at that time I was undercover as an art buyer let clients around the world that were interested in buying that type specific painting. We got within a few weeks of almost recovering those two major paintings, unfortunately it didn’t work out. I document that in my book priceless.
Martin: that book came out in 2010?
Bob: it was actually published by Random House on June 1, 2010; it’s a national bestseller New York Times bestseller. In it I talk about 15 cases that I was involved with around the world and talk about recoveries and undercover operations and what went into them.
Martin: I know this is the song kind of corny but you ever have a briefcase full of cash?
Bob:have I ever had a briefcase full of cash? Sure, I had one case a talk about in the book where we recovered a $35 million Rembrandt. That was stolen gun point from the Swedish national Museum in Stockholm and after about two weeks’ worth of meetings, we negotiated a deal to buy back the paintings for $250,000, and I had that: $100 bills in my briefcase.
Martin: has your life been threatened while you been cracking any these cases?
Bob:any time you work in law enforcement, and you’re dealing with people who are in these cases armed robbers, and in that Swedish case the individuals within the museum with machine guns and basically stole three paintings at gunpoint and that happened many times. Whenever you’re dealing with those people you have to keep your wits about you and be ready for whatever comes along. I remember one occasion when we recovered two Picassos that had been stolen from the family and him only did the operation these individuals were meeting with one of my quote buyers to sell the paintings they are arrested by the French police, while they were too happy about it they said they wanted to kill me. We had a meeting in Miami and in that particular case I had a gun in each pocket.
Martin: when you say he recovered the two Picasso paintings, was that the case when there are stolen from the granddaughter? Was that stolen from her by gunpoint?
Bob: no, that was stolen out of her apartment while she was away, the individual that stole them had gotten in their year earlier, when he did work in the apartment he made a key. He waited a year for her not to be there, for a good time to go in and he stole to paintings.
Martin: I was recently speaking to a curator of the museum which will remain unnamed, and the curator said that most museums that he knows of or not insured, that instead the beef up security and fire prevention, what’s the scoop on that?
Bob: what’s the scoop with that? I have no idea, I think it’s possible but it is irresponsible. Any collection of material should be insured, and you don’t have to ensure the entire museum, but every piece in the museum. What you do is you have a basis, maybe it’s a $5 million policy, which is not that expensive, or whatever it is a $1 million policy. With the idea that not everything would be lost, stolen or destroyed the same time. If someone comes in and steals to paintings in there worth a certain amount, at least you have that basis to work with and make that insurance company your partner in the investigation to try to recover it. You don’t have to have $1 billion worth of insurance, you just need enough to make the insurance company are partnering case there’s a loss, in order to recover the material. In my new company we do investigations for insurance companies, the lease when we did was just a couple months ago in Houston Texas, woman was in her home and there was a home invasion robbery where a man went in with a gun, and he stole a Renoir print off the wall, he didn’t know what it was he said that lady. We got a call right away from the insurance company, we went down the conducted investigation, at this point we have not recovered, but were working on.
Martin:let’s talk a little bit about your business you’re located in Pennsylvania, but you travel worldwide?
Bob: yes we still travel worldwide we been to Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Genoa Italy, London, Romania chasing these paintings.
Martin: is there any place the world where more theft happens than other? Areas?
Bob: I think it depends on the type of that you’re talking about, depends on the material, and of course be talking about looted artifacts; those are coming from the source countries. That’s a type of theft that occurs quite often, but there seems to be a lot of theft in Western Europe today, and I think the reason for that is the quality of security in a lot of the museums is a bit lacking. His topic is he don’t want it, it’s because the economic times, and is very expensive, and usually what happens is security is one of the first things that people start to cut, and that’s because it’s on the wrong side of ledger sheet, it doesn’t bring money and supposedly it cost money. So what a museum might do, they have 14 guards, will maybe we can make do with 10. What that does is lower your security profile, which makes you more apt to be a victim. Something happened so obvious just a few weeks ago, increase at the Olympian museum, they had cut the security group to nothing, there was just one woman in the museum, so couple guys went in and tied her up, and he stole more than 40 items. They did this at gunpoint, because they could.
Martin:two more thefts happen in museums than in private situations?
Bob: I think the biggest amount of thefts are not from museums, because museums to have a certain amount of security. The biggest amount of thefts are from burglaries from private homes, and a lot of that is not hard work, it’s not of what we think is artwork. Private homes are the vast majority of thefts out there.
Martin: in the business that you have now do you also give people security ideas, as far as protecting the valuables?
Bob: oh, absolutely we do a collection security site facility management survey. What we will do is we’ll go in and look at the layers of security, whether they have perimeter penetration, electronic, human and will make sure things are done as far as best practices in all those different types of situations. Also, we do collection management, if individuals don’t know what they have, or want to know what they have, or people inherit things and they don’t realize what’s in the collections, will go in and do that. We also do object ID for them, as far as identifications we created database, yes we do all that plus due diligence for research for background material and will also do theft mitigation reports, if you want to sell something you want to make sure it wasn’t stolen from anywhere, we can do report for you on that as well. Were involved in many different parts, the only thing we do not do his appraisals.
Martin: I do a lot of research on provenance, that’s intense research sometimes. Of course the higher profile the piece it is the easier it usually is, when you get something is still valuable that sort of obscure, sometimes you can’t get too far as far as provenance goes.
Bob: I’ll get someone like you to do the background, the ultimate background but what we will do is research all the background of where it supposedly came from, and other words we will ask all the tough questions, we will go pin it down. If you bought it from this place were to go find that place, and were looking up in the files we get all the background and talk to everybody that was there. It’s actually an investigation into where it came from and how far back we can go.
Martin: I was a set auction two weeks ago there was a painting that a person bought a thrift store in Florida for three dollars, I’m not exaggerating and it just sold for $230,000. When you get a situation like that, you kind of hit a brick wall, don’t you?
Bob: my first thought would be worded the thrift store get it, where they buy from where did they get it from, was a donated, who donated, did he have any records? If they don’t, you can only take it back as far as you can. What I would do then, is a theft mitigation report, to see if it was listed as stolen anywhere. What is it doing in a thrift shop for three dollars?
Martin: that does seem to happen more the family loses touch with how much something is worth sometimes.
Bob: you know Martin, that something that bothers me, I’m going to say something about this, and you can use it or not use it. Today’s world, we watch television fits all these proliferations of television shows like American pickers and pawn stars, whatever it’s called, there are all these different shows. The whole idea of the show is to buy low and sell high, it’s about how much money you could possibly make off of somebody, because you quote have more knowledge than they do. I think that creates a feeling, an idea that this is okay, to rip people off to see what I’m saying? Yes it’s great if you go to a thrift shop and you have the knowledge to buy something for three dollars a console for a lot of money, that’s great. But, when you walk into someone’s home, and you buy this for $10 and sell it for $500, that is not right, there’s no reason why you can’t make 20% profit, or 25% profit, or have it be a decent profit. There’s nothing wrong with bulls, or bears, but you don’t have to be a pig.
Martin: I’m definitely keeping this in because I agree with you under percent. Of course we fight innocently, one of the biggest finds I ever had, I didn’t know what I was buying, and I’ve are in a situation where was an open market an estate sale, I had no idea what thing was I thought it was great, I was 18 years old in a made a lot of money and in that case, I think it was innocent.
Bob: I’m not talking about that, these people on these shows, are being aggrandized for ripping people off. And in the end it’s not a profit plus $600, I mean that’s what it’s all about, and that to me is wrong, that’s the wrong way of doing business and I think it sends out the wrong message.
Martin: little insight to that, on one of the first shows of American pickers one of them bought a cash register at think it was I’m not sure and sold it for really high profit. The show received so much mail about that from angry people that they had to change the entire format, and show less profit.
Bob: treasure hunting, that’s what it’s all about, and that’s okay I think treasure hunting is okay. There is another show coming out called American diggers, and it’s this old time wrestler for something that digs stuff up out of the ground and sells them for high profit, and again I think that sends up the wrong message, because I hope your listeners realize it is illegal to do that on federal property, on battlefields, in Indian burial sites, that is looting! It is against archaeological resource preservation act, it is a federal crime. I think it showed that aggrandized is that, and says how great it is; they really need to know to let people know it is not a good idea, unless you know are you going, and what you’re doing.
Martin: you just mentioned Indian burial grounds I’ve heard a case number years ago was I which are talking about?
Bob:there’s been many cases, IJ case in Santa Fe New Mexico, involving about $400,000 worth of material being offered for sale against the North American graves repatriation act, which is basically protection of tribal material, and these individuals were selling this material commodity that came out of Pueblo and selling it to collectors and dealers, and it is all illegal stuff you know you can’t sell it, it’s owned by the tribes. There are a lot of cases involving that material.
Martin:I know in Mexico, for one thing there’s a lot of pre-Columbian burial pieces that were in shaft tombs that are on the open market all over the place, that doesn’t seem to be illegal?
Bob: is, you cannot import it into the US, but the pieces that are already here are legal, but now we have a treaty with Mexico that does not allow the importation of those materials.
Martin: a lot of those were dug up by farmers and sold locally
Bob: that’s the thing, for your listeners that are into collections of antiquities, that something that you really have to be aware of, because every year the United States signs new memorandums of understanding with different countries, I think this 13 or 14 now that you cannot import material from those countries. Have to be careful know what you’re doing, before you get involved, I think they just signed the treaty in December with Greece involving ancient coins.
Martin:can you name a few other countries that this is in place with?
Bob: sure, Thailand, Guatemala. Peru, the looking at China, Greece, Italy, all those the source countries including Egypt where this material is banned. So you have to be careful.
Martin: sliding back to what we’re talking about the thieves, they always have this high-tech stuff that they use somehow they’re rich enough to have high tech, you know they steal the diamond are the museum and things like that. Have you ever actually seen a case for some of his using high-tech stuff?
Bob: there was one case a number of years ago, in Vienna where an individual went into a state museum and stole a golden statue by Cellini, and that individual did have information on silencing the alarm, he was an alarm specialist, so when he went in he was not detected, but other than that is just an armed robbery, or it’s a shoplifting. I think one of the most high-tech things I’ve seen is in X-Acto knife, one map dealer was using to cut maps out of the rare book Library at Yale. Usually it’s pretty low-tech stuff
Martin: I didn’t appraisal years ago, I think you’d find this interesting or woman had a mansion in Pennsylvania that burned and in it she had a Gilbert Stuart of George Washington, it was one of the really good ones invaluable. When I was in her basement doing the appraisal I found this large frame that was really interesting and I asked her about it, she told me that was the frame that the Gilbert Stuart was in. When I looked at it I noticed it was razor cut around the structure, and the jagged edge of the canvas had smoke on it, so was obvious it was cut out of the frame and stolen before the fire was set. She claimed she had no idea this happened and started crying. I just can’t imagine how that could happen to be aware of the situation like that?
Bob: did she ever recover the piece?
Martin: I was in touch with her for a little while after that, and I asked her what she did about that, but I don’t know if anything ever happened with this?
Bob: I would think that that would be pretty easy to find, if it is out there, I don’t know how many years ago was or whatever, but it should be reported and added into the databases so that if it does come up for auction or for does come up for sale we get a read on it.
Martin: I want to speak about auctions, do you have situations where you have actually had to go to an auction of an upcoming article that was to be auctioned and confiscate it?
Bob: yes, on a number of occasions we were recovered material on at least three different occasions. It happens all the time in New York at Christie’s or Sotheby’s antiquity auctions, when I say all the time, I mean once or twice a year where countries will make a claim on something, and what happens is once the claim is made the auction on that specific item may be held up until it’s been identified and adjudicated, but the auction continues is just that one item that comes off.
Martin: yes, I had that happen once with the weathervane, it was advertised everywhere and it in the penis stolen weathervane, I had no idea the person that consigned it had no idea, he bought it at a large antique fair.
Bob:did he get his money back?
Martin: I don’t know how that handout, but he spent some money on it.
Bob: I want to tell your listeners if you buy material that has any kind of value, substantial value you need to get good provenance and good history on it. Also make sure the person you’re buying it from is legitimate get their license number etc. because you never know what can happen.
Martin: that is good advice, are there ever high-profile thefts that are never reported?
Bob: I think that sometimes museums have the mistaken idea that they should not report, and I think that’s an older idea back in the 70s and 80s and before, museums did not want report missing items because they thought that that would affect donations in the future and that type of thing. And they didn’t want the publicity but I think today there’s a whole change of ideas. In fact, if you don’t report the theft you can’t get it back for one, secondly, regarding the criminal back to do it again because I got away with it and thirdly as far as due diligence is concerned, the people who were in charge of the museum or in charge of the historic house whatever, may have some liability issues, they’re not withholding their duties and doing it correctly. There’s a lot of different ways of thinking about this nowadays, I think mostly high-profile pieces do get reported.
Martin: do you yourself going to museums and look how things might be taken or stolen?
Bob: no, I never think about how peace can be stolen, I only think about how peace can be better secured; it’s a different thought process. It’s more I wish this had a better hanger, or wish this was bolted to the wall or maybe that he shouldn’t be so close to the door, but I always think of how they can strengthen security.
Martin: they must train youth to the FBI and how to think like a criminal, or how a criminal thinks I should think.
Bob: you have to understand, when you’re talking about art theft, and art crime, it’s not about art history, it’s more about the art business. So, having a business background in auction Galleries or the art world is very helpful, it’s all about how to make a deal in the art world.
Martin: how did you have a background in that at all?
Bob: yes, my parents were in the antique business, so I kind of grew up in it to a certain degree. I used to work with my father; he had an Asian antique shop on Howard Street in Baltimore, which is the antique row of the city. He always loved Asian antiques, so we started business up for a few years I go down and help him on Saturdays and whatnot, and you know you learn how to make a deal in the art world.
Martin: by the way I’m probably sure you’re aware of this but the Asian market is real hot right now especially Chinese.
Bob: yes, it’s been booming hasn’t it?
Martin: we are about out of time, but I feel I could talk to all day. You mentioned earlier that somewhere about 10% of the items were never recovered what would you have to guess if you had to what happens to these items?
Bob: I think they are destroyed, I think we do lose pieces. I told about those pieces that were stolen in Pennsylvania, I think painting sometimes over the years are not properly cared for, or when they’re cut out of frames I think sometimes it does a lot of damage, and sometimes are not transported correctly and that is our percentage of loss. That doesn’t mean to say that were never going to get them back, sometimes it just stored away and they haven’t surfaced at this point, sometimes it takes a whole generation before they come back.
Martin: when eBay first began around 1997 1998, somewhere around there I bought a painting, and I was actually contacted by the FBI because the person that sold it to me had sold some fraudulent paintings. Does the art crime team keep an eye on eBay and other Internet sources for selling?
Bob: I don’t think they keep an eye on it proactively, as much as they take complaints from it. What happens if someone makes a complaint off of eBay you look at that and take that seriously. The biggest complaints that come into the cyber center are eBay fraud, that’s the biggest number of complaints. And it’s not because anything’s wrong with eBay, as to some of the material that goes on there is not correct. One thing I want to talk about if you don’t mind, we have an art crime investigations seminar that I do each year, and this year it’s from June 10 to June 15 in Philadelphia. It’s a five-day seminar where participants will be lecturing including the top criminal prosecutors as well as civil attorneys and people from the fine art industry and different aspects of the industry. As far as careers are concerned, it’s a great opportunity to kind of flush out what people are interested in.
Martin: well, that’s great in his ad on your website? That would be something I like to sit and just listen to.
Bob: yes it is.
Martin: that’s it for today Bob thank you so much for all your information.