How the FBI's National Stolen Art File Reunites Lost Works With Their Rightful Owners
In the photo released by the FBI, a young man appears in side profile, his teeth clenching a pipe. Agents are searching for him—he was last seen in the San Francisco Bay area in 2003. In another case, they're looking for a figure with a long nose, dimpled chin, bushy eyebrows, and tufts of curly hair, last seen in Milwaukee in 2018. A “Seeking Information” poster from the same FBI unit shows a masked man in a cowl, crowned by two bat ears, rushing forward as a cape flutters behind him.
These are just some of the cases in the National Stolen Art File, a public database of more than 5500 missing items of cultural value, including artwork, jewelry, antiques, artifacts, and memorabilia. It's a project of the 25-person FBI team investigating what the bureau classifies as “cultural property crimes.” The idea is that if some dealer or collector comes across a suspicious item, they can easily consult the database and, if it's determined the item is stolen, help reunite it with its lawful owner. The young man with a pipe is a Norman Rockwell painting of a college student stolen from a California home in 2003; the figure with the curly hair is a Pablo Picasso etching that went missing in 2018 from a Milwaukee tea shop, where it was hung to attract potential buyers; and the cowled figure is one of five prints by New Orleans artist Nicole Charbonnet, this one appropriating a vintage Batman comic book, taken from a truck in 2019.
“The database is really a depository for people to do their due diligence research,” Colleen Childers, the management and program analyst of the FBI's Art Crime Team, tells Mental Floss. Auction houses and museums can cross-reference “items that they are looking to buy and sell to check to see if they have been stolen.”
The FBI began keeping files on stolen artwork in 1979 as part its oversight of interstate commerce. Some black and white photographs and picture-less descriptions from those paper files are now part of the database, which has grown to include works by Claude Monet, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dalí, and Rembrandt; Super Bowl rings; Stradivarius violins; and 1930s comic books. Like any display of world-class museum items, there are standards for what makes a piece worthy of the National Stolen Art File: It has to be valued at $5000 or more, have some historic or artistic value, and possess some feature(s) that would make it identifiable.
Each entry in the database has an image and some information about the item’s maker, age, and appearance. Every picture tells a piece of a story, and each story is an individual mystery. Who detached an 8-foot metal Rod of Asclepius (the snake-around-a-stick symbol) from an Illinois medical clinic? What happened to a handful of Peruvian pin-up artist Alberto Vargas’s lustiest ladies? Who stole an entire wall’s worth of 19th-century Chinese paintings of ships? Is a 2500-year-old stone statue of a woman holding a child recovered from the ruins of Ancient Carthage now in a storage unit somewhere?
Crimes of Opportunity
The concept of art theft may conjure an image of thieves spelunking down from a museum skylight in the dark of night, but FBI Special Agent Tim Carpenter, the supervisory agent in charge of the unit, tells Mental Floss that most thefts are less intricate. “It’s not usually The Thomas Crown Affair,” Carpenter says. “These are mostly crimes of opportunity.”
Usually the thief takes the item because circumstances allow them to ... and then they have no idea what to do with it.
Some items can be sold for a fraction of their actual worth for their aesthetic value, Childers says, but the market for high-end collectibles, fine art, and historic artifacts is guarded by appraisers and experts who track the history of any items before they purchase them. “Things like this don’t typically pay out well in the end,” according to Childers, “because if you are trying to sell a piece that’s stolen, everyone knows it’s stolen.” The black market for stolen art is also largely a fictional invention.
Some items have been in the National Stolen Art File for decades, and were probably destroyed for this very reason. Others are hidden away, the secret of someone who took them on a whim and can’t sell or return them without facing charges. Sometimes, this is a lifelong burden.
In 2017, a man wanted to have his late father's Robert Motherwell painting appraised, so he contacted The Dedalus Foundation, an organization founded by the abstract expressionist. With help from the FBI’s cultural property crimes unit, The Dedalus Foundation determined that the untitled painting, which featured two black streaks on a red surface, was one of several works that went missing in 1978. In that same year, after using The Santini Moving Company to move and store his art for two decades, Motherwell decided to hire another company. Soon after that, the artist realized dozens of his pieces had gone missing. It was the son of a former Santini employee who said the Motherwell painting had been in his father's possession for 20 years.
“They go underground forever,” Carpenter said. “It’s not uncommon for pieces like that Motherwell piece. I could point to a dozen recent cases like that, where we will uncover a piece that has been missing for 40 or 50 years.”
Another such case involved a Willem de Kooning painting, which was stolen from the University of Arizona in 1985. According to a police report from the time, a man distracted a guard who later found an empty space on the wall where it had been hanging. The painting, a female figure done in de Kooning’s characteristic harsh strokes, apparently adorned the bedroom wall of a quiet New Mexico couple for a few decades. After they both passed away, it ended up in a stash of their household items, which were sold to an antique store for $2000. The painting, worth at least $100,000, is now back at the university.
Carpenter said a similar circumstance played out in the recovery of a Norman Rockwell painting of a young boy resting in the sun, which had been taken from a New Jersey home during a 1976 robbery. The painting came into the possession of an antiques dealer in 2017, and he helped return it to the heirs of its rightful owners. No arrests were made.
To Display or Discard
Michael Goforth, co-owner of DeLind Fine Art Appraisers and steward of the Picasso etching stolen in Milwaukee, has an idea of how the theft played out. The piece, titled Torero, hung in an upscale tea shop whose proprietors allow Goforth to display art, relatively unguarded, for a few weeks.
“They probably saw it once, got a look at the signature and then came back and grabbed it,” Goforth said. At 20-by-15 inches, it would fit beneath a coat. (Because of his name recognition, prolific output, and the shoplift-ready size of many of his works, there are a lot of stolen Picassos out there, including 34 listed in the National Stolen Art File alone.)
“I just came back from lunch one day and it was gone,” Goforth tells Mental Floss. He thought perhaps his partner had allowed a potential buyer to borrow it to see how it would look in a home collection, a rather common practice. “I asked my partner, ‘Is the Picasso out on loan?’ and he said no, and we both turned white.”
DeLind was attempting to sell the piece on behalf of a private collector, who was hoping to receive between $30,000 and $50,000 for it.
The thief, like many before them, will probably find there’s no place to sell a Picasso that won’t contact the authorities when they realize it's stolen. “I just hope they don’t destroy it,” Goforth says. “It was a really lovely piece.”
Nicole Charbonnet, whose Batman print was stolen along with four others, said the pieces were being shipped back to her after they were displayed briefly in a gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. At least one work by another artist was in the same shipment. She said the thieves ransacked the shipping company’s truck somewhere near Dallas.
“I was very upset,” Charbonnet says. “They don’t have any particular sentimental value; I work all the time and trade art for money.”
Months after the theft, Arthur Roger, owner of the Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans, received a call from a blocked number. The person on the other end inquired if he would buy a few Nicole Charbonnets. Roger said one of the prints may have had a label with the name of his gallery on it because he had displayed them there. They asked a lot of questions. “I think that they were looking for information,” Roger says. “Who would buy them and for how much?” Roger immediately contacted Charbonnet and the FBI.
Charbonnet said the thieves also called the gallery in Santa Fe where the works had been displayed. Failing to sell the works and apparently possessing some conscience, they arranged to leave the cache of art somewhere in the Dallas area for pickup. (The gallery did not return calls for this story; and an FBI spokesperson said they could not comment on the case.) Charbonnet said she was told that when a shipping company hired by the gallery went to pick up the art, it was not there.
Charbonnet, who describes herself as “a midlevel artist,” hoped the pieces would fetch $10,000 each. “I can sell my works in galleries and at shows,” she said, “but there is not a big secondary market for it.”
She was hoping they would be someone’s pleasure to display. Now they’re someone’s burden to discard.