Art and cultural property crime includes theft, fraud, looting, and trafficking in the art and antiquities market across state and international lines. The field of “art theft” has become very sophisticated in the last 30 years, moving beyond the use of middlemen or “fences” who sell the hot goods to indiscriminate individuals or private gallery owners. Today, some of the larger art heists are carried out as part of a shadow economy that encompasses professional counterfeiting, fake certificates, money laundering, terrorist financing, and other federal crimes.
The U.S. Department of Justice, and the FBI in particular, as well as many state prosecutor’s offices, have assigned specialized units to crack down on the problem. At the federal level, a database known as the National Stolen Art File (NSAF) has been established to gather the details about all of the missing and stolen art and cultural property nationwide. Stolen objects are submitted for entry to the NSAF by law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. When an object is recovered, it is removed from the database.
The FBI has also formed a rapid deployment Art Crime Team composed of 16 special agents, each responsible for addressing art and cultural property crime cases in an assigned geographic region. The FBI has primary investigative jurisdiction for all federal criminal laws except cases in which responsibility is, by statute or otherwise, specifically assigned to another agency. The FBI has responsibility for the following federal statutes:
- 18 U.S.C. § 659 – Theft From Interstate Shipment
Makes it a federal offense to steal or obtain by fraud anything from a conveyance, depot or terminal, any shipment being transported in interstate or foreign commerce. The statute also prohibits the “fencing” of such stolen property.
- 18 U.S.C. § 1951 – Interference with Commerce by Threats of Violence (Hobbs Act)
Makes it a federal offense to obstruct interstate commerce by robbery or extortion or to use or threaten to use violence against any person or property in interstate commerce.
- 18 U.S.C. §§ 2314, 2315 – Interstate Transportation of Stolen Property
Prohibits the transportation in interstate or foreign commerce of any goods with a value of $5,000 or more knowing the goods to be stolen. These statutes also prohibit the “fencing” of such goods.
- 18 U.S.C. § 668 – Theft of Major Artwork
Makes it a federal offense to obtain by theft or fraud any object of cultural heritage from a museum. The statute also prohibits the “fencing” or possession of such objects, knowing them to be stolen.
- 18 U.S.C. § 1170 – Illegal Trafficking in Native American Human Remains and Cultural Items
Prohibits the sale of the human remains or cultural artifacts of Native Americans without the right of possession of those items in accordance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
- 18 U.S.C. §§ 641, 2114 – Theft of Government Property
Makes it illegal to steal or embezzle any government property or to commit robbery of government property. Prosecutorial guidelines are established by the United States Attorney in each federal judicial district.
Not Everybody Is an Art Thief
Just because the government has developed sophisticated anti-crime programs doesn’t mean that everybody arrested and charged by the government is automatically guilty of a criminal offense. In fact, the field of art theft is still plagued by many problems which result in delayed investigations, flawed prosecutions, misdirection and miscommunication. Often, the wrong person is arrested; false leads are pursued.
Scene of the Crime
The location of the “theft” or removal of the art or cultural property is a great importance in such cases. In may not appear like a typical crime scene. It may be inside a museum or a gallery or a person’s home. The extent to which the scene of the crime has been protected or altered by visitors, staff, or others before and after the discovery of the theft may be crucial to the defense of the defendant charged with the crime.
Witnesses, Transactions, Forensics
Of great interest in the defense in any art theft case will be all of the forensic evidence that can be mustered from the scene of the crime and the surrounding environment and surrounding circumstances. The government’s investigation is not enough. A legal investigation will need to be conducted on behalf of the defendant. Among the many, many questions to be asked: Who came and went from the premises in the weeks and months prior to the theft? Who had access to the premises? Who worked at the premises? Who stopped working at the premises prior to the theft and for what reason? Who did business with the facility, and what business? What pictures and videos were taken by anybody at any time, for any occasion held at the premises prior to the date of the theft? Was there any security videos running on the day of the theft? Were such videos running on adjoining properties?
The answers to these questions will assist attorneys in evaluating whether a defendant can avoid any charges.
If you or someone you know has been implicated in an art theft or culture property offense, please contact the Law Offices of Mark S. Guralnick at 1-866-337-2900 for a free case evaluation.