Internet may shed light on shadowy art thieves FBI and Interpol to display stolen works on Web sites

August 17, 1998|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

The FBI and Interpol have taken an interest in art. In coming months, their Web sites will feature hundreds of pictures of the world's greatest masterpieces -- from Degas to Rembrandt to Van Gogh.

And they are all stolen.

Interpol calls the new program "Les Oevres D'art Les Plus Recherchees" -- the Most Wanted Works of Art. Its aim is to use the global reach of the Internet to track down missing paintings, sculptures, etchings, tapestries and any other priceless object that's disappeared into the shadowy world of international art thievery.

"Our key focus is to get the word out that a piece has been stolen," said Lynne Richardson, an FBI program analyst who coordinates the bureau's National Stolen Art File. "The Internet is going to change the way we do that."

An estimated $3 billion worth of stolen artworks are unaccounted for around the world, according to authorities with the Art Loss Register, a London-based company that keeps a database of more than 100,000 missing pieces.

Thieves have stolen 121 works by Rembrandt, 250 by Chagall, 180 by Dali and 115 by Renoir, according to the register, which is used by police agencies worldwide for clues in art cases. The database is compiled by a private firm funded by art dealers and insurance companies.

The "hottest" works of art often are shipped to other countries for sale, requiring international policing efforts to get them back. The Internet gives authorities the ability to cross borders electronically and put out the word that fabulous art offered for sale may be the result of a fabulous heist.

Richardson, a former museum registrar at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello homestead who the FBI hired to guide its art-tracking efforts, started posting pictures of missing artwork on the World Wide Web in June. She is working closely with Interpol, the international police agency based in France, which also is preparing a Web site containing dozens of notorious art crimes.

"It will be broken down by category, so that if you click on 'sculptures,' you'll see all types of missing sculptures that were stolen," said Interpol Senior Analyst Angela M. Meadows. "The hope is that someone here or in another country may come across the item and recognize it from the picture."

It's doubtful that Picasso envisioned today's computer age and the way that the Internet pervades so much of everyday life. But if he were alive today, he would be able to search for stolen masterpieces -- including his own -- through the Web. Authorities estimate there are more than 350 stolen Picassos missing throughout the world. Many are lesser works, including etchings the size of a slide of film, but 88 of them are paintings, said Anna Kisluk, director of the Art Loss Register office in New York.

Some Picasso pictures will be posted on either the FBI or Interpol Web sites, which are in their fledgling stages. But the two law enforcement agencies have high hopes that the sites will eventually make a dent in the business of art thieves.

The criminals and their crimes are diverse, running the gamut from smash-and-grab robbers at Florida truck stops to heavily armed masked bandits looting European museums.

One of the first cases to be put on the FBI Web page is the biggest art heist in history -- a robbery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston on March 18, 1990. Two men dressed as Boston police officers tied up museum guards and hauled off 11 masterpieces worth about $300 million. Among the works taken were Vermeer's "The Concert," Rembrandt's "Storm on the Sea of Galilee" and Degas' "Program for an Artistic Soiree." None have been recovered and the intruders, both wearing false black mustaches, have not been arrested.

"All logical leads have been followed through with no positive investigative results," said the FBI Web page entry, which advertises a $5 million reward for recovery of the works. Each of the stolen paintings can be viewed with a click of a mouse.

Another major unsolved case that will likely be featured on the Web pages is the January 1995 theft of Titian's "Rest on the Flight to Egypt," considered one of the 16th-century Italian master's greatest works. The $8 million painting was snatched by thieves from the guarded home of Lord Bath in Wiltshire, England.

Officials familiar with art crime are quick to point out, however, that the bulk of the thefts involve criminals who lack style and sophistication -- to put it mildly.

In London, for instance, a petty thief named Russell Grant-McVicar walked into the Lefevre Galleries in March 1997 and asked an employee if a particular painting was a Picasso. When he found it was, he threatened the employee with a sawed-off shotgun, grabbed the painting and ran out to a waiting taxicab.

The painting was the "Tete de Femme," valued at roughly $1 million. It was recovered and Grant-McVicar was arrested after he left an important clue behind in the cab -- the painting's frame, covered with his fingerprints.

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