Art Theft a Tough Business; Raleigh Holds a Small Place in History

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When it comes to illegal trafficking, we usually think of drugs or guns. We are less likely to think of art. Yet, art crime is third on the U.S. Justice Department’s list of profitable criminal trades, estimated to be worth about $6 billion.

The number of zeroes on the estimate makes sense when you consider that famous paintings, for example, are valued at millions of dollars each. Of course, what a painting is worth and what it will sell for can be at opposite ends of the spectrum.

A painting by Henri Matisse disappeared from a museum in a South American capital in December 2002. The value of “Odalisque in Red Pants” is $3 million. The FBI recovered the painting two months ago and arrested two people who had tried to sell the painting for $740,000. The charges are conspiracy to transport and sell stolen property; if convicted, the two could spend the next decade in prison.

A former FBI agent explained that most arrests are made when someone tries to sell the artwork. High profile art is hard to hide, he said. That explains why just 6 percent of all stolen art is recovered; and this man, now running his own investigative agency, says those 6 percent are small pieces taken from churches, stolen from people’s homes or taken by a family member.

During his 20 years with the FBI, he said, the most valuable piece of art he recovered was worth $100 million and had been missing for 138 years. It is one of the original copies of the Bill of Rights, hand-written by George Washington’s clerk and signed by John Adams.

The document was kept in the North Carolina State House until 1865. Union troops ransacked Raleigh and absconded with a piece of history. The former agent did not explain where it had been hiding for the last century.

Source: CNBC, “Art Theft Recovery: From Sting Operations to Trash Cans,” Jeanine Ibrahim, Sept. 20, 2012

Our firm helps people accused of theft in situations similar to the one discussed in this post. Please visit our Raleigh larceny and shoplifting charges page to learn more about our practice.