January 11, 2015

FBI Agents and LAPD officer discuss the recovery of 3/4 of the paintings stolen from Encino residence in 2008

Press Conference at FBI building in Westwood, CA
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin,
  ARCA Blog Editor-in-chief

Here's a holiday-delayed follow up post to the press conference on the recovery by the LAPD and the FBI of paintings stolen from an Encino residence. All comments quoted below were reviewed and approved by both the FBI and the LAPD officers involved. I would like to thank retired FBI agent Virginia Curry who made a phone call to get me into the press conference.

The FBI's Public Affairs Specialist Laura Eimiller, who organized the news conference, provided in an email dated December 20 the 'gist of the remarks made by Mr. Lewis.' With her permission, his comments at the press conference are published here:
Hello, my name is Bill Lewis, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office.   I’m joined here today by…. 
On August 23rd, 2008, the LAPD initiated an investigation into a residential theft of nine pieces of artwork that are valued at up to $12 million, though that number may change when experts further evaluate the paintings.  At that time, the company which insured the paintings had offered a $200,000 reward for information leading to the recovery of the stolen artwork.   This past September, that reward offer generated a lead overseas.  From that point, the FBI’s Art Crime Team members here in Los Angeles worked jointly with the LAPD. 
Raul Espinoza
An undercover investigation led to an individual believed to be a fence conducting the sale of the artwork.   On October 23, 2014, a meeting was arranged in West Los Angeles with undercover agents posing as potential buyers and an individual believed to be in possession of the stolen artwork, now identified as Raul Espinoza.   By the end of the meeting, nine pieces of artwork were recovered and Espinoza was taken into custody. On October 27, 2014, a felony complaint was filed by the District Attorney in Los Angeles charging Espinoza with receiving stolen property.   
Art theft is multi-billion dollar industry and something the Bureau takes seriously to protect America’s culture and national treasures.  The Art Crime Team has also recovered art and cultural artifacts from other nations when it’s found or fenced through the United States.  If you’ll notice, much of the art on display was painted in the 20s and 30s so the rich history recovered here cannot be overstated. 
Investigators believe that others are associated with this crime and know that someone has valuable information.  We are offering a reward of up to $25,000 in exchange for information leading to the arrest and conviction of individuals responsible for this crime. 
I’d like to point out that this is still very much an ongoing investigation and, because we still have work to do, we aren’t able to go into detail on much of this, nor speculate on theories.  We wanted to give you an opportunity to see the paintings while they’re in our possession as evidence, and we hope that the publicity will turn into solid leads.  I’d like to turn this over to ... 
LAPD's Hrycyk at podium with FBI's Rivas (right)
Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Art Theft Detail Detective Don Hrycyk described art theft as unprofitable, noting that after six years, the stolen art had still not been sold. Hrycyk said law enforcement speculated that whoever stole the paintings either knew the elderly owners or someone who worked in the household. The husband died within four months of the crime and the wife died this year, Hrycyk said. [Here's a link to the LAPD's announcement of the recovery.]

Bill Lewis, FBI assistant director in charge of the Los Angeles office, said that the FBI and the LAPD would not give up on an investigation until they recover the artifacts.

As to the condition of the returned paintings, Hrycyk said that some of the frames had been removed and that the paintings were in “not that bad” of condition (the artworks had been examined by a professional conservator).

FBI Agent Elizabeth Robert speaks to Spanish-speaking press
At the end of the press conference, Elizabeth Robert, Assistant Special Agent in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office, spoke in Spanish for Spanish-speaking media correspondents (the suspect, Raul Espinosa, is a Mexican national).

Elizabeth Rivas, Special Agent for the FBI, has also worked on the Mathew Taylor fraud case and assisted the Santa Monica Police in the art theft of the works of Jeffrey Gundlach. I asked her if she had any surprises in working this case. “I was surprised at how quickly we recovered the artworks when the case reopened in September 2014,” Agent Rivas said. “We had good tips and good undercover agents.”

FBI Agent Elizabeth Rivas stands next to
recovered painting by Lyonel Feininger
I also asked Don Hrycyk who has handled more than 800 cases over 20 years for the LAPD, what surprised him about this case. “It’s surprising to walk into a home and realize that there were millions of dollars of art on the wall without proper security meaning the security precautions were inadequate for the protection of a multi-million dollar art collection," Detective Hrycyk said. "This is a common problem I have seen over the years - either inadequate security or adequate security that is not consistently used (not setting the alarm, leaving doors unlocked, surveillance cameras that don't work, etc.)."

What about when the art is recovered? Any surprises?

“One painting was brought to a location strapped to the roof of a car," Detective Hrycyk said. "The thieves did not know how to care for art.”

What is the end goal of the reward?

“We want to recover the other three pieces of stolen art,” Hrycyk said. “We also want to see the link between the original burglary and the defendant (Espinosa). These people may still be connected to someone still employed in a household.”

Here are other photos of the press conference and the recovered paintings as displayed there:

Painting by Marc Chagall

Painting by Chaim Soutine

Painting by Arshile Gorky

Painting by Diego Rivera

Painting by Chaim Soutine

Painting by Kees van Dongan

Painting by Emile Nolde

Painting by Hans Hofmann

FBI's Elizabeth Rivas at podium


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