Effort to nab art thieves isn't neat, pretty

FBI hopes to solve Massachusetts art theft


Anyone buying artwork should obtain the history and check the names on the list and whether the owner or owners sold the artwork or transferred ownership, Ms. Magness-Gardiner said. The FBI maintains the National Stolen Art File, which is a "computerized index of reported stolen art and cultural properties for the use of law enforcement agencies across the world," according to the FBI's Web site.

The Art Loss Register also can check if artwork is stolen through its database. Any dealer, museum or collector can check with the organization's worldwide offices to see if an item is stolen. If it is not stolen, the Art Loss Register issues a certificate stating so.

The FBI also has the Art Crime Team - a 12-agent team established in 2004 after thefts of Iraqi artifacts during the fall of Saddam Hussein. The team has recovered more than 850 items worth over $65 million, the FBI Web site said.

It can take time for artwork to resurface, said Mr. Marinello, whose agency has helped authorities nationwide recover stolen artwork.

"Sometimes the least expensive ones are just as difficult to recover as the most expensive ones," he said. "The more they go from place to place the more they have a chance at resurfacing."

A Camille Pissarro painting stolen in 1978 from the home of Robert and Helen Stoddard in Worcester didn't resurface until 1998 at a Cleveland auction gallery. It now is in the Worcester Art Museum. Also stolen in the Stoddard robbery was a Childe Hassam painting that was not museum quality and was later auctioned.

Mr. Marinello, currently working on 30 to 40 cases, said he's met with some unsavory characters - here and overseas - to recover artwork. There are groups - national, international and regional areas in the United States - involved in the underground network of stolen artwork.

"Criminal gangs sometimes hold on to it and look for a reward," he said, noting their efforts generally don't work. Some thieves will do their homework, too, and know exactly what they are looking for when they enter a museum.

The robbers in the Persky theft - armed and well-organized - took furs, silverware and the three paintings, according to insurance and police reports. The value then was more than $60,000.

Ms. Persky, a nurse companion and the caretaker were all bound during the robbery. The robbers threatened to shoot them.

The insurance company, Commercial Union Assurance Cos., paid $45,000 on the policy for the oil paintings after the theft. The FBI has the paintings now, and the three oil paintings are part of a legal battle to determine ownership.

A complaint in interpleader was filed in federal civil court in Rhode Island asking a judge to determine the rightful owner. Canton-based One Beacon Insurance Group, the "successor-in-interest" to Commercial Union; Judith Yoffie of Worcester, the woman who was left the paintings in Mrs. Persky's will; and Patrick and Gail Conley are all claiming ownership.

Patrick Conley, the only party speaking publicly, said at the very least he is looking for a reward for his honesty.

The art gallery owner, William M. Vareika, who owns William Vareika Fine Arts Ltd. in Newport, R.I., supplied the Telegram & Gazette with a letter he sent to an FBI agent he was familiar with regarding the Persky paintings.

In the March 22 letter to the agent in New York, Mr. Vareika said he received several phone calls from Patrick Conley in February 2007 asking him to authenticate the paintings.

Mr. Vareika said in an interview yesterday that he never met Patrick Conley, but knew he was a Rhode Island history author and agreed to help him. Mr. Vareika went to Mr. Conley's Bristol, R.I., home and inspected the three unframed paintings. They looked real, he said, but agreed to take them back to his gallery to study them and gave the Conleys a receipt.