By Gregory B. Hladky
4:35 PM EDT, September 18, 2013
Connecticut seems to be riding a wave of art crime.
A Madison gallery owner pleaded guilty earlier this month to selling fake Chagalls and Picassos. In August, an assistant to Jasper Johns was charged with stealing the Sharon, Conn.-based pop artist's works and selling them for $6.5 million.
Plainville art restoration and conservation expert Tim Hall says one of his wealthy clients came in just a few weeks ago with a painting he'd bought for $12,000. It turned out to be a copy worth about $300. After some negotiations with the Connecticut seller (details of which Hall doesn't want to discuss) his client "recovered his money" and no charges were filed.
And in March, FBI agents announced they know who stole an estimated $500 million worth of paintings from Boston's Gardner Museum 23 years ago and that those purloined masterpieces spent some time in Connecticut.
Alleged Connecticut mobster Robert Gentile wasn't directly named as one of the thieves, but a federal prosecutor said in court that Gentile had failed a polygraph (lie detector) test about involvement in the Gardner job. The feds also searched his Manchester home a while back and word was they were looking for those paintings. (They didn't find them.)
Gentile, who is in jail accused of other crimes, denies any knowledge of the theft , even though the 20-year statute of limitations has now run out and the FBI is offering a $5 million reward for recovery of the artworks.
For all the recent headlines and behind-the-scenes action concerning thefts and fakes and forgeries, Hall isn't convinced that art crime is actually any worse today than it was years ago.
"I've never encountered a stolen piece… that I know of," says Hall, who's been in the restoration game for 26 years. Hall sees "probably two or three a year, fakes or someone trying to pass a copy off as an original," but adds that average seems to have held fairly steady for a long while.
Geoff Kelly is a long-time member of the FBI's Art Theft Team, and he also doubts there's any sudden increase in art crime. "We haven't seen any upswing," says Kelly, who's based in Boston and has been working on the Gardner museum case for a decade.
He thinks stolen art cases may seem to be more common now because more stolen art is being discovered through online data bases like the London-based "Art Loss Register" and the FBI's National Stolen Art website.
Kelly says that "30 or 40 years ago people were unwittingly dealing in stolen art," but that is far less common today.
So all these high-profile cases popping up now may only be coincidence. Connecticut, after all, has had some sensational art-related crimes in the past, and is likely to see more in the future, and with good reason.
We've got a hell of a lot of very wealthy folks living here and plenty of quality museums, which means there's a humungous pile of very valuable stuff lying around Connecticut to tempt thieves and con artists.
Lots of those One Percenters love to spend their loot on expensive paintings, lithographs, sculptures, pottery, jewelry and other types of art and artifacts.
"Some have a lot of money but not a lot of knowledge," says Hall, which means they can be easy marks for people like David Crespo.
He's the former Madison gallery owner who pleaded guilty on Sept. 3 to a federal mail fraud charge. The feds say Crespo was selling fakes and claiming they were real Picassos and lithographs by Marc Chagall.
Crespo made the mistake of selling one of those "original lithographs" by Chagall to a federal undercover operative for $2,000. He had a whole back-story for the alleged limited-edition lithograph, including a "Certificate of Authenticity" that valued the work (a piece entitled "The Presentation of Chloe") at $12,750 for "insurance purposes," and claimed it had come from the estate of his longtime friend, Richard Riskin.
There was no Riskin. Prosecutors said the piece in question was a "photo-chemical production" from a book. When they searched Crespo's Brandon Gallery, federal agents found whole packages of "Chagall" prints and papers with practice Chagall signatures on them.
Crespo could face up to 20 years in prison when he's sentenced this November.
There are all kinds of con artists like Crespo looking to sell fakes and copies to people with more money than expertise. His scam was comparatively crude compared to some of the great art forgers of the past, but that appears to be true for a lot of art crime these days.
Hall says it's become amazingly cheap to get artists in China or Taiwan to make copies of great art "for like $100… on real canvas, with real paint."
"They put them in pizza ovens and bake them until the paint cracks, and it looks real old," he says.
Kelly also notes that huge advances in copying "technology is making it more difficult for us to detect forged works."
"It's of such high quality… it's difficult for anyone but a real expert to tell if it is in fact a forgery," he adds.
Hall says most of these fakes are fairly easy to spot if you have the knowledge and experience. "A painting 150 years old is real hard to copy… It's almost impossible to fake if you know what to look for," he says.
One of the best copies Hall ever personally encountered was a work allegedly by Peter Paul Rubens. "It was done in Armenia, then smuggled into the U.S., then made to look old," he says. "It was very well done."
Potentially, a high-quality Rubens fake could be worth a fortune. (In 2002, one newly discovered work by the artist sold for $76.2 million.) Hall says the owner of that expert Rubens copy he saw never did sell the forgery.
Really high-class art forgers, of course, have been able to fool the experts. Confessed fakers like Ken Perenyi (author of the recent book Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger) often claim that one of their primary motives, aside from the money, is to prove that the mavens of the art world aren't as expert as they claim to be.
With some much art around and so much money to be made selling it, art theft seems inevitable.
"Anything that's marketable can be stolen," says Edwin C. Schroeder, director of Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in New Haven. He should know: in 2005, an incident at Beinecke uncovered an expert thief who confessed to stealing something like 100 rare maps from libraries and museums.
The thief's name is Edward Forbes Smiley III, a dealer in rare maps who was arrested at the Beinecke Library in June 2005 with three of Yale's maps in his possession. He was ordered to pay $2.3 million in restitution, helped identify where most of the maps ended up, and spent more than three years in prison.
Schroeder says the Smiley thefts (some claim he stole $100 million worth of rare maps over the years) "brought home again the importance of security" to all kinds of museums and libraries.
Like most museum and library directors, Schroeder won't talk specifics about the changes Yale made in the wake of the Smiley case. He says the security upgrades often involve a combination of responses involving technology, staffing and policy.
Another big issue for most institutions, he says, is money. "What can you afford to do?"
In major museums and libraries, there can be tens of thousands of pieces of valuable art, books, manuscripts, etc. The difficulty is preventing someone like Smiley, an expert with access to such collections, from walking out with stuff or substituting fakes.
"How do you verify… When do you check?" Schroeder says are the questions lots of security experts ask themselves every time another theft is discovered. He points out there's recently been "a whole other round of security upgrades" as a result of newly revealed thefts at historical societies in New York and Maryland.
In the past, it wasn't uncommon for embarrassed libraries and other institutions to keep quiet about thefts. Today, Schroeder says, "libraries [and museums, etc.] are more open," in part because they hope the legitimate arts and antiquities markets can help them recover the stolen items.
It's unlikely any sort of security would stop the kind of theft James Meyer allegedly committed.
He was the long-time assistant to Jasper Johns who was arrested in August and charged with stealing an estimated 22 works by the artist and selling them through a New York gallery. Meyer, who has pleaded not guilty, allegedly told gallery dealers Johns had given him the art works, and required that buyers keep the purchases secret for at least eight years.
Meyers' arrest shook up the Connecticut and New York art world, in large part because he'd been an assistant to Johns for 27 years. His well-known connection with Johns may have been the reason why the alleged thefts weren't discovered earlier.
Experts say it's very tough for most thieves to sell well-known artworks.
"Art is a very, very difficult item to liquidate," says Hall. "Most of the time, professional thieves have a buyer before they steal it."
With major, well-known works, like those taken from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990, any buyer would also have to be willing to keep it totally secret and having it only for his or her private enjoyment.
Kelly says the Hollywood-esque idea of professional thieves stealing art to order is overblown. "More commonly, art theft is more of a crime of opportunity," he says, with those thieves "just as likely to go out and steal a car."
There is also a known pattern among some crooks to steal valuable works of art simply to have something to bargain with if they get caught for other crimes. The idea is that a thief could offer to return the art in exchange for a lighter sentence.
"That does happen… It's a valuable insurance policy," says Kelly. He adds that there's been speculation that sort of "crime insurance" was behind the Gardner heist.
The feds believe they know who the Gardner thieves were. They believe the works by Rembrandts, Vermeer, Degas and other artists moved from Massachusetts to Connecticut to Philadelphia. They also think the artworks have changed hands several times.
One obvious Connecticut connection is Gentile, a 75-year-old reputed gangster with ties to the Philadelphia underworld. His Manchester home and yard were searched by the FBI in 2012 and he's in prison on federal drug and weapons charges.
FBI officials declined to directly name anyone as being part of the conspiracy that resulted in one of the biggest art thefts in history. They say revealing names could frustrate their efforts to recover the stolen art.
Kelly says there were "confirmed sightings of the paintings a little over a decade ago."
The statute of limitations has run out for the Gardner theft, but there is no statute of limitation for possession of stolen property, which makes it real tough to dispose of that stolen art.
At the same time, prosecutors have said they're willing to discuss immunity for anyone who comes forward with information. And there's that $5 million reward hanging out there.
So Kelly doesn't hesitate when asked about the odds of one day finding those lovely works of art that were ripped off the walls of the Gardner museum.
"We're very confident," he says.
Edouard Manet's "Chez Tortoni," another stolen artwork. (Image courtesy Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum)
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