April 18, 2011

Q&A with the Los Angeles Police Department Art Theft Detail

LAPD Detective Don Hrycyk, Art Theft Detail
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin
ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

The only full-time municipal law enforcement unit in the United States devoted to the investigation of art crimes, the Los Angeles Police Department’s Art Theft Detail, was founded in 1984. From 1993 to 2008 alone, LAPD’s Art Theft Detail recovered $71 million in stolen art. During the same period, the approximately 90 burglary detectives in the entire LAPD recovered about $64.5 million in stolen goods. Current recoveries for the Art Theft Detail total more than $81 million.

In 1992, oil paintings by Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso worth $13 million were stolen from a Brentwood ophthalmologist’s home and discovered five years later in a Cleveland, Ohio storage facility by the LAPD Art Theft Detail with the help of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

In 1999, a handyman was arrested on a charge of grand theft for stealing 7,500 animation film cells valued at $1 million from a Sherman Oaks animation company; the suspect stole the pieces over time and sold them all over the country. The LAPD art theft unit found the art through searches on the Internet.

Detective Don Hrycyk (pronounced her-ris-sik) has worked on art theft and forgeries since 1994. He has a temporary partner, Mark Sommer, who has been filling in since 2009.

The website for the LAPD Art Theft Detail reported examples of a few art crimes:
One suspect posed as an independent art dealer visiting art galleries to obtain consignments of art to sell. After gaining the trust of a gallery owner, the suspect secreted the paintings out of the gallery during business hours without the owner’s knowledge. Three paintings were taken from the unsuspecting art gallery over the period of two years. 
In August 2008, a burglary at the home in the Encino area of Los Angeles of 9 paintings by artists Hans Hofmann, Lyonel Feininger, Chaim Soutine, Emil Nolde, Marc Chagall, Kees van Dongen, Diego Rivera and Arshile Gorkey resulted in a $200,000 reward offer for information leading to the recovery of the paintings and apprehension of the suspects. 
In 2004, a suspect, a former physician and Harvard professor, was arrested by LAPD’s Art Theft Detail after selling a fake Mary Cassatt painting for $800,000 to undercover officers. The suspect possessed numerous other fake artworks. A few years earlier, the suspect had reported the theft of an artwork by Willem de Kooning valued at $1.5 million yet determined to be a fake and still in the suspect’s possession. The suspect had moved to California following a criminal conviction for selling fake art in Massachusetts in 1989. He was also the subject of a federal civil case alleging sales of fake art in 1985. The suspect used brokers to sell art to private parties and to invest money in his art collection. He avoided major auction houses and art dealers and preyed on people less knowledgeable about fine art. 
In October 2010, a TV auctioneer who from 2002 to 2006 sold $20 million in forged art, including works falsely attributed to Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, was sentenced to five years in prison in a Los Angeles court. Two other conspirators were sentenced to four and seven years for claiming to sell genuine works found in real estate liquidations and forging certificates of authenticity on some artworks sold to more than 10,000 US customers through DirectTV and Dish Network.
Detective Hrycyk had previously worked in homicides and robberies. In 1997, Hrycyk and his predecessor, retired detective Bill Martin, were featured in a television show, “The Hunt for Amazing Treasure” on the Learning Channel, trying to recover $9 million in stolen artwork.

ARCA: How did you become involved in art crime investigation?
Detective Hrycyk: In the mid-1980s, I got tired of working homicide in South-Central L.A. and applied for an opening in a specialized burglary division in downtown L.A. After getting the spot I learned I would be working the newly formed Art Theft Detail. I developed an interest in art theft and art fraud investigations and took over the unit in 1994.
ARCA: What is the current focus of the LAPD Art Theft Detail Unit after more than 25 years in existence?
Detective Hrycyk: With only two detectives handling all art-related crimes in a city that is the second largest center for the visual arts in America, our focus is to be able to continue to do quality crime investigations with the resources available. Having a dedicated art crime unit has allowed us to professionalize and develop contacts in the art community that are essential to successful investigations.
ARCA: How big of a problem is art crime in Los Angeles?
Detective Hrycyk: Out of necessity, we handle not only traditional art but also a wide array of historical and cultural property, from Hollywood movie props to rare books and fossils. We just recovered a comic book valued at $1 million. When you think about it, most homes contain either an artwork, antique or collectible. Art theft is often a hidden crime because art objects are stolen all the time in routine burglaries along with cash, jewelry and other personal property. As a result, there are no accurate statistics on the prevalence of art thefts. There is no tracking of art thefts nationally. Added to this is the huge area of art fraud. Combined, these crimes keep us busy all the time.
ARCA: Is the trafficking of looted antiquities a problem in Los Angeles? What are the significant routes? Which other agencies do you work with on this problem?
Detective Hrycyk: In a city as diverse at L.A., smuggled antiquities is bound to be a problem but is primarily handled by federal law enforcement agencies that protect our borders and have international treaty obligations. Sales are often back room, private transactions. However, we often work with the agents from the FBI, DHS, ICE, Interpol and others when we receive actionable intelligence.
ARCA: Is working with international agencies important to the success of the LAPD Art Theft Detail Unit?
Detective Hrycyk: Stolen and fraudulent art often crosses international boundaries so it is important to have contacts in other countries who can work with us on difficult investigations. In a like manner, we often conduct investigations for foreign law enforcement agencies when an L.A. connection develops. It is important to convince thieves and con men that no safe haven exists for those who deal in stolen or fake art.
ARCA: What is the biggest challenge the LAPD Art Theft Detail faces in recovery a stolen work of art?
Detective Hrycyk: Finding the stolen artwork is the biggest challenge. A stolen painting sold in a private sale may hang on a bona fide purchaser’s living room wall for a decade or more before it comes up for sale again in a venue where it will come to our attention.
ARCA: What do you do with confiscated fake artworks after the suspect has been convicted?
Detective Hrycyk: We try to ensure that fake artworks never reenter the legitimate marketplace. This is easier said than done. Unlike illicit drugs and counterfeit currency, fake art is not illegal to possess. As a result, there is no consistency in how fraudulent art is disposed of at the conclusion of a criminal case. We have encountered great resistance on the part of judges to authorize the destruction of fake art and some pieces have actually been returned to suspects by the courts.
ARCA: How have you been working with the association of art dealers or other members of the art community in stemming the flow of forgeries or thefts?
Detective Hrycyk: Most of the intelligence information I receive about suspicious activities and unsavory characters comes from artists, dealers and galleries that I have established a relationship with over the years. The art community can be very closed mouth unless you are trusted.
ARCA: What piece of advice would you offer to individuals interested in pursuing a career in art crime investigation?
Detective Hrycyk: Unfortunately, there are few career opportunities presently available in the United States in the public sector. I get inquiries all the time from people who would love to investigate art crimes but at present, the pickings are slim. It is tough to break into this field. This situation is bound to change but we aren’t there yet.
ARCA: What would you most like to see the LAPD Art Theft Detail achieve in the next five years?
Detective Hrycyk: Right now, we have an open position in the Art Theft Detail that needs to be filled but we are unable to do so because of personnel shortages and budgetary considerations. With 37 years on the job, I need to find a permanent replacement that I can train before retirement. Art investigation is a specialty requiring great skill. However, there are few training opportunities in this field. I teach one of the few courses available to burglary detectives throughout the state of California.
This interview is published here with permission from The Journal of Art Crime published by ARCA.  This interview will also appear in the Spring/Summer 2011 issue of The Journal of Art Crime.  For more information or to subscribe to The Journal of Art Crime, click here.

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