The art of solving crimes involving missing treasures

Sisters Jill Totenberg, left, Nina Totenberg, center, and Amy Totenberg pose for pictures with the recovered Ames Stradivarius violin during a news conference in New York, Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015. The instrument was stolen from their father, renowned violinist Roman Totenberg, 35 years ago when left his beloved Stradivarius in his office while greeting well-wishers after a concert in 1980. According to court documents, a woman voluntarily returned the violin to the Totenberg family and told investigators she did not know it was stolen. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

TOWN OF LEWISTON — From a student with an apparent obsession for his professor's Stradivarius to an art restorer with some very sticky fingers, members of an elite FBI squad scour the U.S., and even the world, to hunt down missing treasures. 

Formed in 2004, the FBI's Art Crime Team, based in its New York City field office, has scored some incredible successes in the past dozen years.

"It's a very small percentage of what the FBI does," Special Agent Christopher McKeogh, told a gathering at the Castellani Art Museum at Niagara University this past week. "But we have the support (of the bureau) to do what we have to do."

The FBI estimates that the losses from theft, fraud, looting and trafficking in art and cultural objects can reach billions of dollars annually. And those losses can range from hundreds or thousands of dollars for unsuspecting consumers looking to find a good deal on a painting or print online to millions of dollars for the victims of sophisticated thieves.

McKeogh recounted his involvement in the investigation of Robert Lui, who worked as a painter and art restorer for a large art wholesaler. 

"So Lui retired (from working for the art wholesaler) and moved to Texas," McKeogh told his audience. "And shortly after that, (his former employer) found missing art work (from the wholesaler's collection) on Lui's eBay page."

The wholesaler estimated that he was missing about 150 pieces of art. 

With evidence from Lui's web page showing that he may have taken the art, FBI agents prepared to raid his Texas home. McKeogh said his team went to execute a search warrant expecting to, probably, find more than 150 items.

"We brought enough supplies (to collect and seize) 300 items," McKeogh said.

Once inside Luiu's home, the FBI agents discovered 2,315 paintings, sculptures and other works of art taken from the wholesaler. The value of the stolen items reached close to a million dollars.

"Victims frequently have no idea of the scope of the thefts," McKeogh said. "Sometimes they don't keep good records or up-to-date inventories."

He suggested that folks who have a passion for collecting art, even if it's not of the multi-million dollar variety, use caution in their buying and maintain meticulous records.

"Here's a tip," he said. "When you hear 31 pieces of undiscovered art have suddenly shown up on the market, that means they're not real."

He said the art of modern painters, like Jackson Pollack, is more likely to be copied than that of Van Gogh or da Vinci.

"The old masters are rarely copied,"McKeogh said. 

However, if your tastes run to older art works, McKeogh suggests you resist the urge to rely on forensic testing to determine authenticity. 

"It tends to be very expensive and we've found that, if you spend enough, you can get someone to authenticate (the work)," he said. "Use the (paper records of the art work's origins and sales or transfers) instead. And beware anything you buy online. Don't buy (fine) art on eBay."

McKeogh said his team has had great success in recovering and returning plundered art work from World War II. Part of the reason for that, he said, was that the Nazi's kept lots of detailed paperwork on the art they stole.

Sometimes, McKeogh, said stolen treasures are recovered when the thieves die and relatives go looking for an appraisal of their ill-gotten goods. That was the case when agents found a missing 1734 Ames Stradivarius.

The violin had been swiped from violinist and educator Roman Totenberg, the father of National Public Radio's Supeme Court reporter Nina Totenberg, after a 1980 concert. It remained missing for 35 years. 

That was when the ex-wife of former Totenberg student, Philip S. Johnson, discovered the instrument among his possessions following his death. She took the violin to be appraised and it was instantly identified as the Totenberg Stradivartius. 

McKeogh and his team stepped-in and returned the violin, estimated to be worth $5 million, to the Totenberg family. 

It's been restored and has even been played again, in concert by another former Totenberg student.

During a question and answer period, the audience peppered McKoegh with questions about the still unsolved and infamous theft from the Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The four-hour theft of 13 works of art, valued at around $500 million, is not being handled by the Art Crime Team.

Agents from the FBI's Boston field office are continuing to hunt for the two suspects who committed the crime. 

None of the art taken from the Stewart Gardner Museum has been seen, or offered for sale, in the last 27 years. That led to a final question for McKeogh — Why take stuff you can't sell?

"That's the $64 thousand dollar question," he said with a smile. "You have these valuable items but what do you do with them? You can't sell them and they're so well known, you can't just hang them on your wall. I hope some day they'll be recovered."

Recommended for you