Showing posts with label Robert Wittman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Robert Wittman. Show all posts

May 3, 2014

Bob Wittman, Diana Widmaier-Picasso, and art thefts in Paris

Majsan Boström, StarNews Correspondent (Wilmington, North Carolina) reported in "FBI agent, best selling author to discuss art cases" (April 23, 2014) that former FBI agent Bob Wittman lectured at the University of North Carolina Wilmington -- and that she joined Wittman and Diana Widmaier-Picasso for breakfast the following morning:
"We are going to talk about our books and compare notes about the theft and recovery of her grandfather's paintings," Wittman said.
Wittman explains his relationship to Widmaier-Picasso to Boström:
Wittman worked the case in which her Paris apartment was burglarized in 2007 and paintings worth $66 million were stolen while she was sleeping. "I was involved (posing0 as the wealthy U.S. buyer that the paintings were going to be sent to," Wittman said.
Three paintings by Pablo Picasso were stolen on February 27, 2007. Ms. Widmaier-Picasso spoke about the case to The New Yorker in June 2011. In other related articles, Wittman spoke about art thefts in Paris to ARTNews here and to The New York Times here.

February 7, 2013

Portrait of a Museum Theft Case: The 2007 Robbery of the Museum of Fine Arts in Nice

Jan Brueghel the Elder's
 "Allegorie de la terre"
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

Last night after looking up stolen snuffboxes on INTERPOL's Works of Art database, I curiously looked up Recovered Items and found a pair of paintings by Brueghel, Allegorie de la terre and Allegorie de l'eau, recovered in Marseille in June 2008. INTERPOL provides thumbnail images of the paintings; descriptions (in this case, for example, exterior scene with figures and animals, not religious); measurements; and the date of recovery. The rest of the information can be found from articles published online:


Brueghel's "Allegorie de l'eau"
On August 5, 2007, at about 1 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon, five masked thieves with weapons entered the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nice and left five minutes later with the two paintings by Jan Brueghel the Elder and two Impressionist works: Claude Monet’s 1897 “Cliffs Near Dieppe” and Alfred Sisley’s 1890 “Lane of Poplars at Moret-sur-Loing” ("Four Masterpieces Stolen from French Museum", The New York Times, August 7, 2007).

Alfred Sisley's "Lane of Poplars at Moret"
Ten months later, French police recovered the four paintings in Marseilles and detained more than 10 people in Nice and Marseilles ("French police recover stolen art by Monet, Brueghel", Reuters, June 4, 2008).  The sting operation had involved undercover FBI Agent Robert Wittman posing as an American art dealer ready to purchase the stolen art for more than $4 million in cash ("From the Art World to the Underworld", Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2008).  In Wittman's memoir Priceless (Crown Publishers, New York, 2010), the then senior investigator of the FBI's Art Crime Team says that as of March 2007 he had "spent nine painstaking months undercover" as "some sort of shady American art dealer" trying to recover the paintings stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

In a Factual Proffer (United States v. Bernard Jean Ternus), the defendant, in an effort to cut a deal with prosecutors and avoid a trial, admits that from August 2007 to June 2008 he and his "co-conspirators" "knowing that the Nice paintings had been stolen" "brokered the sale" of the four works to undercover FBI and French National Police agents (the legal statement details those negotiations).  When the Nice paintings were recovered in Marseilles, Ternus was arrested in Florida. On July 8, Ternus pleaded guilty to "conspiring to transport in interstate and foreign commerce four stolen paintings knowing that they were stolen":
According to plea documents, on Jan. 19, 2008, Ternus met in Barcelona with undercover FBI agents and with an unindicted co-conspirator. At the meeting, Ternus and his unindicted co-conspirator negotiated a two-part transaction with the undercover FBI agents. They would sell all four stolen paintings to the undercover agents for a total of 3 million Euros. Two of the paintings would be transferred in exchange for 1.5 million Euros, and the remaining two paintings would be transferred on a separate date for 1.5 million Euros. According to information entered at court, the defendant and his unindicted co-conspirator structured the two-part transaction to retain leverage with law enforcement in the event anyone was arrested upon the sale of the first two paintings. If this occurred, they intended to use the remaining two paintings to bargain for the release of anyone who was arrested. (Department of Justice)
Ternus had a criminal history:
In addition to the conspiracy charge, Ternus also pleaded guilty to a visa fraud charge before U.S. District Court Judge Cecilia A. Altonaga in Miami. During the plea, Ternus admitted that he fraudulently concealed his French criminal history to obtain a U.S. visa, which he then used to enter and remain in the United States. During the plea, Ternus admitted that, prior to applying for his U.S. visa, he had been arrested in France on at least seven separate occasions, and that he had been convicted in France of assault with a deadly weapon. Ternus also admitted that he knew the visa he obtained and used had been procured by falsely claiming to have no French criminal history. (Department of Justice)
In this April 2009 article by Michael J. Mooney of The Broward Palm Beach New Times, "Trail ends in Florida",  the Nice museum thieves are identified as Pierre Noël-Dumarais "an escaped felon with a long record"; a former boxer; an "Armenian drug dealer living in Marseilles"; and two others.  Mooney tells of a fifth painting targeted in the theft but left on the floor when it couldn't fit into the bag for stolen loot.  According to Mooney, Ternus, living in Florida, got involved in brokering the sale of the Nice paintings via the Armenian drug dealer two months after the theft.  Ternus, according to Mooney, came to the dubious art broker from Philadelphia (Wittman) through local drug traffickers involved in selling cocaine from Colombia. In September 2008, Ternus was sentenced to five years in prison at the Federal Detention Center in Miami.

In March 2010, Ternus' conviction was affirmed ("Art thief appeals verdict") by the Eleventh Circuit:
Ternus challenges his conviction, arguing that the foreign commerce element in 18 U.S.C. § 2314 is “jurisdictional.” He contends that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over his case because there was insufficient evidence in the record that he conspired to transport the stolen paintings in foreign commerce. Ternus’ guilty plea waived all non-jurisdictional defects in the proceedings against him.

In November 2011, the seven men on trial in Aix-en-Provenance claimed that the FBI had instructed them to steal the four paintings from the museum in Nice four years earlier.  A few days later, the French court passed out sentences of two to nine years to the guilty (Noël-Dumarais, who had used a weapon in the heist, received the longer term).

February 1, 2013

Art Crime in the Media: "Art Cops" Highlights theft of Stradivarius, The Romanoff Heist, and the Art Loss Register's Most Wanted

Here's a link to Art Cops, "A new series dealing with the theft of works of art, antiquities, books and maps from major museums, cultural institutions and collectors" (Twitter), hosted by Burt Wolf, a public television host of Travels & Traditions.

This episode, which aired on September 1, 2012 on Iowa Public Television, tells the story of "The Missing Stradivarius", the 1995 theft of a $3.5 million Stradivarius violin stolen from the New York City Apartment of Erica Morini while the 91-year-old Viennese violinist was dying in the hospital. The rare violin remains missing today.  (You can read more about stolen Stradivarius violins on the website of violinist Joshua Bell in an article by David J. Krajicek for The New York Daily News.  Mr. Wolf interviews Mr. Bell; Christopher Marinello of The Art Loss Register (and a frequent speaker at ARCA's art crime conferences); Dorit Straus, world-wide fine arts manager at Chubb Insurance Company (and an ARCA Lecturer); Bob Wittman, former FBI agent; and Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, head of the FBI's Art Crime Team.

The same episode discusses "The Romanoff Heist" when thieves stole twelve art works by Pop Artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtensteins from the residence of Robert Romanoff in Manhattan's Meat Packing District on Thanksgiving weekend in 2010.

Mr. Wolf also identifies three artworks Marinello and The Art Loss Register are "particularly interested in recovering": Pablo Picasso's Portrait of Dona Maar stolen in 1999 from the yacht of a Saudi Prince while anchored for repairs in the harbor at Antibes on the French Riviera; a portrait of Francis Bacon by Lucian Freud stolen when the Tate Gallery of London lent the painting to the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin; and the theft of a painting by Gustav Klimt in 1997 from a gallery under renovation in Italy (someone opened the skylight).

May 3, 2012

BOOK REVIEW CONTINUED: Joshua Knelman's Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives through the Secret World of Stolen Art

by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

(Continued from yesterday)

In 2008, as economic chaos grips the bond markets and art prices continue to increase, Knelman interviews Donald Hrycyk of the Los Angeles Police Department; Richard Ellis, former head of Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiquities Squad; Julian Radcliffe of the Art Loss Register; FBI Art Investigator Robert Wittman; Matthew Bogdanos who led the recovery effort for antiquities looted from the National Museum of Iraq in 2003; Giles Waterfield, the former director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery who helped to recover “the Takeaway Rembrandt”;  and Bob Combs, head of The Getty’s security.

Knelman finds cooperation with Detective Hrycyk of the LAPD’s Art Theft Detail, the nation’s only full-time municipal unit dedicated to investigating art-related crimes.  The detective discusses solved cases, methods of investigation, and takes Knelman to the evidence warehouse. Knelman recounts Hrycyk’s background from patrolling the streets of South Central Los Angeles to the detective’s patient and precise work investigating art thefts.  In 2008, Hrycyk was training his partner, Stephanie Lazarus, just as his former boss and mentor, Bill Martin, had trained Hrycyk 1986 to 1989.

In Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, art theft was a hidden crime, blending many different worlds.  It cut across socio-economic lines and could move in a heartbeat from blue-collar to white-collar criminals.  A thug who knew nothing about art except that it was valuable could steal a painting; that same afternoon, the painting could wind up in the possession of an auction house; within the week or the month, it could be sold to one of the Los Angeles art elite.

In addition to visiting art galleries, auction houses, and museums, Hrycyk read the 1974 book by Laurie Adams, Art Cop, about the work of a former undercover New York City narcotics officer, Robert Volpe, who was probably the first detective in North America to investigate art theft full-time.  Knelman writes:
Volpe’s investigations included burglaries, robberies, and consignment frauds – when an artist or patron would lend a piece of work to a gallery and the gallery would vanish or refuse to return the art.  He believed that art theft in New York in the 1970s had reached the same stage as narcotics a decade earlier.
Hrycyk tells Knelman that the unregulated art world (just like the drug dealers Hrycyk arrested for years) relied upon a code of ethics where not asking for information seems to be part of that world’s business practices.  Buyers and sellers of art use middlemen just as drug dealers do.  “It is considered rude to ask questions about the provenance of an artwork – who owned it, where it came from.  Embarrassment is often one of the leading factors for secrecy,” Hrycyk tells Knelman.

Martin retired in 1992 but it wasn’t until two years later that Hrycyk returned to the Art Theft Squad to work with a rotating string of partners until he chose Lazarus to train in 2006.  Hot Art opens with a chapter on a ride-a-long with Hrycyk and Lazarus to the crime scene at an antiques store on La Cienega and recounts the detectives’ investigation.  A year later, Lazarus would be arrested for the murder of her ex-boyfriend’s wife and this year she was convicted of the crime.  Hrycyk, one of the most senior officers of the LAPD, has no successor to continue the investigative work built upon two decades of contacts in the art market.

Knelman’s sister, a student at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, introduces her brother to her thesis advisor Giles Waterford who had been the curator at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 1981 when “the takeaway Rembrant” was stolen for the third time.  Rembrant’s very small painting titled Jacob de Gheyn III is an example of “Headache art” which attracts significant media attention.  Waterfield recounts his negotiations with a German businessman for a “Finder’s Fee” that leads to the recovery of the painting.

Paul "Turbo" Hendry tells Knelman that ‘there was one detective in London, in particular, who made his reputation dealing with headache art cases’, Richard Ellis, the man who re-started Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiques Squad.

As a detective, Ellis had been involved in a number of high-profile cases, including reclaiming a Vermeer from a criminal organizer in a chase that lasted seven years and spanned half a dozen countries.  That case was chronicled thoroughly in The Irish Game: A True Story of Crime and Art, by Mathew Hart.

Ellis’ interest in art theft began with the burglary of his parents’ home in 1972 and the subsequent recovery of his family’s property at the Bermondsey Market, London’s Friday-only open market of junk and antiques.  Ironically, Ellis was never allowed to work on the Philatelic Squad that evolved from investigating crimes in the stamp market to the unregulated antiques industry that operated as Scotland Yard’s first Art and Antiques Squad.  Knelman recounts Ellis’ strategy of reopening the department in 1989 after it had been closed for five years. Ellis cases included the recovery of paintings stolen from the Russborough house in 1986; the 1994 recovery of Edvard Munch’s The Scream stolen from Norway’s National Gallery; and Jonathan Tokeley-Parry’s smuggling of antiquities out of Egypt in the 1990s. Knelman writes:
For Ellis, the Russborough case provided the link between stolen art and organized crime, diamond dealers, and a network that stretched across Europe.  The Schultz case, which involved 14 countries on four continents, proved that the stolen art network was sophisticated and involved criminals at all levels of the trade, from the men who dig in the dirt to the men in the shops and galleries on Madison Avenue.
Ellis retired from Scotland Yard in 1999.  ‘He told me that his success as a stolen-art detective was primarily due to his ability to gather information.  He relied on a network of informants to keep him abreast of what was happening in the criminal underworld.  His squad of detectives paid cash for useful information.  “Every Friday the calls would come in.  Payday,” Ellis explained.

Book review concludes tomorrow.

September 16, 2011

Art Loss Register Theft Alert: Renoir Stolen from Private Collection in Houston

Pierre-August Renoir's
 Madeleine Leaning on Her Elbow
 with Flowers in Her Hair
 (
1918, 50.17 x 41.28 cm)
September 16 - The Art Loss Register has issued a theft alert for a painting by Renoir stolen from a private collection in Houston on September 8. The alert can be found here and reads as follows:
Pierre-August Renoir's Madeleine Leaning on Her Elbow with Flowers in Her Hair (1918, 50.17 x 41.28 cm) was stolen from a private collection during the evening of the 8th of September 2011 as reported to the Houston Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. 
A reward of up to $25,000 is being offered for information leading to the return of the painting. Anyone with information regarding this item please contact: 
Christopher A. Marinello, Executive & General Counsel, The Art Loss Register, 1st Floor, 63-66 Hatton Garden, London, EC1N 8LE, United Kingdom, Tel: +44 (0) 207 841 5780, email: chris.marinello@artloss.com 
or 
Robert Wittman, Robert Whittman, Inc., PO Box 653, Chester Heights, PA 19017, USA Tel: 610-361-8929, email: info@robertwittmaninc.com.

ARCA blog contacted Mr. Marinello and asked for more information. "Unfortunately, we cannot comment on the theft due to the fact that it is a pending investigation by the Houston PD and Federal Bureau of Investigation," Mr. Marinello responded in an email. "The Art Loss Register has 259 stolen Renoirs in its database of stolen, missing, and looted artwork. We are hopeful that the publicity given to this horrific crime will produce some leads that will assist with the recovery of this painting."

February 25, 2011

The Journal of Art Crime: John Kleberg reviews "Priceless" and "Stolen Masterpiece Tracker"

In the fourth issue of The Journal of Art Crime, John Kleberg reviews Robert K. Wittman's book, "Priceless" (Crown Publishers, New York, 2006), and Thomas McShane's book, "Stolen Masterpiece Tracker" (Barricade Books, New Jersey, 2006).

Wittman's book is about his cases in art crimes investigations with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). McShane, also a retired FBI agent, reports on various international undercover criminal investigations during his 25-year-career with the FBI. Wittman was with the FBI office in Philadelphia; McShane was with the FBI office in New York. Both men take credit for either inspiring or creating the FBI's Art Crime Team which was established in 2004 and is today coordinated in Washington as the Art Theft Program, according to the reviewer.

John Kleberg is a retired Assistant Vice President at The Ohio State University where he was instrumental in organizing the program described as well as having administrative responsibility for security, police, and other business and finance operations. He also has been a law enforcement administrator, trainer, and educator in Ohio and Illinois. His undergraduate degree is from Michigan State University, graduate degree from the University of Illinois, and he has done post-graduate work at The Ohio State University and Kent State University. He is the author of numerous articles on campus safety and security issues and is a consultant on campus security issues, including campus museums, libraries, and galleries.

To seek out this piece, and many others, consider a subscription to the Journal of Art Crime—the first peer-reviewed academic journal covering art and heritage crime. ARCA publishes two volumes annually in the Spring and Fall. Individual, Institutional, electronic and printed versions are all available, with subscriptions as low as 30 Euros. All proceeds go to ARCA's nonprofit research and education initiatives. Please see the publications page for more information.