Effort to nab art thieves isn't neat, pretty

FBI hopes to solve Massachusetts art theft

Donning black suits and wielding high-tech gadgets that can disarm alarm systems and other security measures, three robbers move swiftly through the museum gallery, snatch a $1 million painting off the wall and disappear.

That's how the movies depict it. While there is a shady underworld of national and international art thieves, experts say most art thefts are part of simple robberies.

"Very often thieves don't know what they have. They go in and grab what they can," said Christopher A. Marinello, executive director and general counsel for the Art Loss Register. "A lot of art theft is simple home robberies. They don't know what they have and later want to get money out of it."

Not every robbery nets paintings worth $163 million, as was the case when robbers took paintings by Cezanne, Degas, van Gogh and Monet from a Swiss museum recently.

Paintings that are stolen and recovered can be worth $2,000 or $300,000. No matter what the price tag, the items become part of a billion-dollar black market industry, experts said.

"Art theft is a 6-billion-dollar-a-year industry, according to the FBI," Mr. Marinello said. "We think it is more than that."

Mr. Marinello has investigated art theft cases - not just paintings - worldwide. Some cases uncover artwork stolen decades ago.

Although Mr. Marinello cannot speak publicly about the Persky case in Shrewsbury, authorities have said the Art Loss Register helped identify as stolen the three paintings taken from the Persky home in July 1976 and recovered in Rhode Island last year.

The paintings stolen from Mae Persky's home were valued at $45,000 after the robbery. The paintings are valued at roughly $1 million in total, based on recent auction prices for works by the three artists.

How the paintings ended up going from the robbery to antiques dealer William Conley remains unclear, and attempts to reach Mr. Conley have been unsuccessful. Rhode Island court records show William Conley was charged in 1995 and 1996 with obstruction of a police officer and three counts of uttering false checks under $1,000. He pleaded no contest to all the charges.

Mr. Conley used the paintings to secure a $22,000 loan from his brother - prominent Rhode Island developer and lawyer Patrick T. Conley - about six or seven years ago. He never came back for the paintings.

Last year, Patrick Conley said he had a reputable art gallery owner in Rhode Island check the paintings for authentication. After research and help from a colleague familiar with the work of one of the artists, Childe Hassam, the art dealer and Patrick Conley learned the paintings were stolen.

Tracking down the trio of thieves who first took the paintings from the Persky home can be hard. Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, the FBI's Art Theft Program Manager, said generally when a thief or thieves take artwork they don't take the paperwork showing the history of owners. That causes a break in the history of ownership, she said.

"It is very difficult to trace back to the original thief," Ms. Magness-Gardiner said yesterday. Statutes of limitations can also limit prosecution.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Rhode Island said no criminal charges in the Persky case have been filed and would not say if a criminal investigation continues.

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