Effort to nab art thieves isn't neat, pretty

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.

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.

"However, knowing that the source of the paintings, William Conley, had a dubious reputation in the field, and that according to Patrick Conley, his brother had never attempted to pay-off the loan, made me suspicious," the letter said. "I recall discussing with Patrick Conley the fact that the paintings may or may not be authentic - and that they also could be stolen."

In his interview yesterday, Mr. Vareika said he thought the notion the paintings were stolen was "far-fetched."

After a vacation, the gallery owner returned March 21 and later photographed the paintings and had a colleague familiar with Childe Hassam's work review them.

The colleague called back and said the painting was an authentic Childe Hassam, but the paintings were stolen. Mrs. Persky's husband - former Worcester Knitting Co. president Abraham Persky - bought the Childe Hassam from Knoedler's Gallery in New York in 1945, the letter stated.

The Conleys and Mr. Vareika contacted the FBI after hearing the paintings were stolen. FBI agents from the Providence office then collected the paintings after Mr. Vareika's assistant carefully packaged them. The agents also signed a receipt that they received the paintings.

"I took the paintings to research the authenticity but raised the possibility they were stolen," Mr. Vareika said. "I never thought of the possibility they were stolen. It was so far-fetched."


Loading