Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Stolen Art Around the World - May 2011

1. FRANCE  (The Guardian, London)The mother of Europe's most prolific art thief was in court in France yesterday, charged with throwing many of the invaluable paintings her son had stolen into the local canal.
When Mireille Breitwieser, a former nurse, found out that her son Stephane, 33, had been arrested on suspicion of stealing paintings worth tens of millions of pounds from museums across Europe, she rushed into his bedroom and started chopping up all the canvases she found there, prosecutors said yesterday.
On the same day in November 2001, she also allegedly forced works of art down the waste disposal system at their home in Alsace, eastern France, put others out for the rubbish collectors to take away and hurled the rest into the Rhine-Rhône canal near the Swiss border.Police later managed to fish out about 100 badly damaged artworks, but a Brueghel painting was never recovered.She appeared in court yesterday alongside her son, who has already been sentenced to four years in prison in Switzerland after admitting stealing 239 paintings and other items from galleries, auction houses and museums in six European countries between 1995 and 2001.
The most valuable painting he stole was Lucas Cranach the Elder's Sybille, Princess of Cleves, valued at about £4.5m.
Mrs Breitwieser, 53, told investigators she had wanted to "punish" her son when she found out what he had done, by destroying what was most dear to him.
She faces charges of concealment and destruction of stolen goods, and risks five years in prison if the court in Strasbourg finds her guilty. Her son's former girlfriend, Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus, was also in court yesterday, charged with handling stolen goods.
Breitwieser, a former waiter who was extradited to France from Switzerland this year, is standing trial for a second time, in connection with the theft of 26 art objects which he stole in France, Austria and Denmark.
In his defence yesterday he insisted that he acted out of a passion for art rather than from an attempt to make a profit. "I've only stolen what interested me for my collection," he said.
"There was no desire for cupidity, no desire for lucre," his defence lawyer, Joseph Moser, said yesterday. "In this case, he never resold or sought to resell a work of art ... This was truly passion in its purest form."
Of the 240 pictures and pieces of art he stole, only 112 have been recovered, with works by Watteau, Boucher and Dürer still missing. Many of those rescued were badly damaged during the theft and concealment - although Breitwieser insisted that he had tried to "restore" the works in his collection.
"I think Mr Breitwieser will go into the record books, not only for the number of thefts he committed, but also for the destruction of art works," said Bernard Darties, head of France's central office for the prevention of art theft. Breitwieser usually slipped the stolen items under his coat, waiting for the museum guards to be distracted. From his prison cell in Switzerland, he wrote to a number of the small museums which he had targeted, offering them advice on ways they could improve security.

2. CHICAGO  Chicago Sun Times - FBI agents masters in art crimes
BY FRANK MAIN Staff Reporter/ Apr 26, 2011
Agent Luigi Mondini keeps a fake bottle of 1945 Petrus wine on his. Agent Brian Brusokas has phony prints attributed to Picasso and Dali, a fake Rodin sculpture and a bogus Babe Ruth autographed baseball.
“Sounds like I need to clean up my desk,” Brusokas said. They’re both members of the FBI’s Art Crime Team. They and 11 other agents are stationed across the United States to investigate everything from art counterfeiting to theft of all sorts of cultural objects. The team, whose work takes them around the globe, was formed after the looting of Iraq’s national museum in 2003 when 14,000 works of art were stolen.
Mondini was one of the investigators in the FBI’s Family Secrets case against the Chicago mob before joining the Art Crime Team in 2007. He followed Brusokas, who signed up a year earlier. Mondini is fluent in Italian and spent considerable time as a youth roaming Europe’s museums. He goes undercover in the team’s investigations. Brusokas, a former cyber-crimes investigator, took art classes in high school and college and collected baseball cards as a kid. “I was always interested in the arts,” he said. “Anything involving collectibles fascinated me.” Now they concentrate on making a dent in the $6 billion global black market for stolen and counterfeit art. Art thieves aren’t usually the glamorous burglars portrayed by the Sean Connerys and Catherine Zeta Joneses of the movies. “These guys are mopes for the most part,” Mondini said. “Even the museums that are looted in Europe — it’s the night watchman or the janitor and not some guy sitting in his lair and masterminding it.” One of the team’s biggest cases in Chicago involved an international counterfeiting ring that sold fake Dalis, Chagalls and other masterworks. Most recently, the investigation snared Chicago gallery owner Alan Kass, 73, who was arrested April 6 for allegedly reaping more than $480,000 in bogus art sales. But Mondini said one of his favorite cases stemmed from a trove of priceless Italian cultural objects that were piled into the attic of a bungalow in west suburban Berwyn. The FBI was contacted in 2007 about the items after the homeowner died. The investigation revealed the homeowner’s father was a professor who knowingly bought the looted items in Italy and shipped them to his son in the United States in the 1960s. The items included letters from kings and popes, parchments dating to the 1100s and ancient Etruscan artifacts. The son was unable to sell the items and they remained in his attic. As a result, some of the items were ruined by insects and mold. About 1,600 of the items were returned to the Italian government and the rest were left in the hands of the homeowner’s heirs, Mondini said. The FBI valued the cache at more than $10 million. “I went to Italy and we visited this huge library in Bari,” Mondini said. “Students were studying some of the returned objects in glass display cases. It really made it worth it.” Much of the team’s work involves educating librarians, curators and auction houses about art crime. “You might have a valuable book in a library’s special collection. If someone comes in with a fake ID and steals something, it’s hard to recover,” Brusokas said. When the agents learn of a stolen item, they can enter it into the FBI’s National Stolen Art File, the Interpol database or the private Art Loss Register in London. If a questionable work pops up for sale anywhere in the world, the databases allow law-enforcement officials to pursue it. Mondini said art buyers need to be very careful when shopping for a piece of art. He suggested asking the gallery for the history of the work — called its provenance. He also said buyers should do their own research online and even hire a reputable expert to examine the work for authenticity.
“Just like you go onto CARFAX or Edmonds when you buy a car, I would triple that when you buy a painting,” he said. “There are some really good forgers out there.” Mondini said he received a call from a tiny auction house in Bloomington, Ind., asking about the authenticity of a supposed Picasso it was commissioned to sell. “We found it on eBay and it was a fake,” Mondini said. “The auction house would have been done if it sold a bad Picasso for $2 million. It’s tough to rebound from that. I told them ‘don’t auction off any more Picassos!’ ”One of Brusokas’ favorite capers involved a Presidential Medal of Freedom made for James Lovell, the commander of the Apollo 13 space mission.
A woman was trying to sell the item on eBay. Brusokas’ investigation took him to the White House, which confirmed the medal was authentic but damaged in the manufacturing process and intended to be destroyed.
The government had made another medal for Lovell. But somehow the blemished original got on to the market. Brusokas said he recovered the original and returned it to the White House.
“Capt. Lovell is a national hero,” Brusokas said. “It was an honor to return the medal.” No one was charged in the case, but that doesn’t bother Brusokas or Mondini.
“Working art-crime cases gives you two chances to right a wrong: One, criminal punishment, which is fantastic, but number two, in a theft case, the opportunity to get the thing back to the person who owns it. It makes people very happy,” Brusokas said

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