For years they operated largely under the radar, though the work they did had the potential to capture the public’s imagination.
Fraudulently obtained Super Bowl rings.
The return of paintings stolen from churches in Peru.
A man who recycled modest art he bought online into more expensive works by expertly crafting fake provenance documents.
Now the agents for the Federal Bureau of Investigation who have the very specific job of investigating art crime have something of a higher profile, in part because of a case the Art Crime Team began tracking last summer.
It broke into public view with a raid on the Orlando Museum of Art, where agents seized 25 works that the museum had said were created by Jean-Michel Basquiat, an extremely popular artist. His work routinely fetches millions of dollars at auction. But enough questions had been raised about the history of the Orlando works that agents began investigating their authenticity.
The investigation is continuing, but the Art Crime Team, which in recent years has expanded to two dozen agents stationed around the country, is now at the center of an art scandal being watched around the world.
Recently, two of the team’s investigators, Special Agent Elizabeth Rivas, who headed up the art crime unit in Los Angeles until retiring last year, and Special Agent Allen Grove, who succeeded her, agreed to answer questions from The New York Times.
They declined to comment on the Basquiat case, citing the ongoing investigation. But they discussed the origin and purpose of the Art Crime Team, and the public’s increased interest in it. Here are edited excerpts from the interview.
Can you start by telling me the origin story of this team?
RIVASStarting in 2003, around the time of the war in Iraq, there was a lot of looting that was going on at the Baghdad Museum and in some of the other cultural areas in Baghdad. And at that time, our F.B.I. headquarters saw the need to identify a team of agents that could assist by trying to help identify artwork and antiquities that were being stolen. The hope was that we, the F.B.I., could help return anything that had been stolen and had entered this country.
Long before that, F.B.I. agents had worked art cases. But the formalization of the team started from the war.
Why is this work important?
GROVE Obviously, a lot of what we’re doing is not necessarily life or death, but these paintings and cultural items and the types of artifacts that we deal with last long beyond our work in this organization — and, frankly, beyond our lifetimes.
It is also something that the F.B.I. can uniquely cover. We’re a national organization, but also we have global contacts throughout the government. And it does become complicated, especially with the antiquities trade, which has its tentacles in all types of countries and various dubious entities.
There seems to be an uptick in interest in this kind of work. …
RIVAS We’ve been doing this for a while. It’s just being publicized more. It’s also a lot busier as fraud and thefts increased during the pandemic. And it takes a while for our cases to get to the prosecution level. So I think a lot of the cases and the great work that we were doing is starting to come to light.
GROVE I’ve noticed a lot of documentaries and podcasts now are dedicated to art crime and antiquity cases. It speaks to the global intrigue with some of this, but also the unique characteristics of a lot of these types of cases that separate them from a drug case or a typical white-collar case. These cases fall outside of what we often hear for criminal stories: murderers and horrific violent crime. They always seem to involve interesting characters.
Tell us about some of the most interesting cases.
RIVAS What started a lot of this was probably the Knoedler Gallery case. This significant gallery in New York, one of the oldest and most prestigious, was selling fakes. And the fact that the F.B.I. identified that and worked on prosecuting the individuals that were involved, I think it brought to light that there was such fraud in the art market.
Then there was the Rudy Kurniawan wine-fraud case. Some of the larger-scale fraud cases that the Art Crime Team has worked has brought to light the fact that it isn’t a regulated market, and that there are problems and a lot of fakes.
There is also a fraud case about a gentleman who lived in West Hollywood and represented himself as coming from money. He bought art on the internet for hundreds of dollars and then would resell these pieces for hundreds of thousands of dollars. And he created the fake provenance documents for the artwork. He ended up pleading guilty and got 60 months in jail for mail fraud, wire fraud and tax fraud.
GROVE Agent Rivas invited me to the search in that case, and under a desk, within a suitcase he had, were several embossment seals that he could use for his certificates of authenticity. Finding that was definitely an “aha” moment.
How is this work different or the same from the work that you did earlier in your careers? You say you both like art; did you like art when you started?
RIVAS: The majority of my career has been spent working white-collar cases like frauds. A lot of the art crime cases are the same types of fraud: It’s going to involve some form of money. It may be a Basquiat today, a Picasso tomorrow, but whatever frauds were committed, I’m going to tackle it as I would any financial crime investigation.
So how do you become an art expert on the fly?
RIVAS My love of art comes from just traveling and going to museums. I don’t have an education in it.
There was an L.A.P.D. detective that I worked with who ran L.A.P.D.’s art theft detail for well over 25 years. I would get names of experts from him. I learned a lot from him, and from other art crime team members that had been on the team before I joined.
We also have our art crime training, usually every year, where we learn about how to work these cases — lessons learned from other agents.
Before you started, did you know what a Basquiat was?
RIVAS Yes. If am I looking at fakes involving a specific artist, I usually have read the books and I’ve seen all the documentaries. I do my research. If I don’t know, I learn. It’ll help enhance the investigation the more you learn about the artist and their style.
GROVE A lot of it is on-the-job training. We have specific Art Crime Team trainings when it comes to handling cultural property. There are very specific ways that we have to handle artwork if we’re going to put it into evidence. You treat a Basquiat painting differently than you treat a Glock 19 handgun.
RIVAS We are experts on experts. We consult with experts, depending on the artist or the medium, and we rely upon them to help us.
How many crimes can your team go after at once, and how do you determine which crimes to pursue?
RIVAS Ourtips come from everywhere. Call-ins, victims who have bought something online, others that have suffered a loss.
In determining the cases, we’re looking at whether a crime occurred, and what is the statute of limitations. Also, what is the object? Is it something important to Americana history, like the ruby slippers from the “Wizard of Oz” that were stolen from a museum?
Each United States Attorney’s Office is going to have a different threshold for criminal cases that they want to prosecute. We have a little bit of a benefit if it involves a significant piece of artwork.
What kinds of art crimes are most common?
RIVAS A majority of our time is spent on fraud. The fraud could be something sold as authentic that isn’t — that’s probably the largest crime. And it’s not just art. It could be sports memorabilia. It could be collectible stamps.
The charge could be wire fraud, mail fraud. It could be a money laundering case. It could be somebody who’s doing all this and committing tax evasion.
GROVE There are thefts as well. If we have a stolen item crossing state lines, then we have a federal nexus.
You mentioned a federal database of stolen art.
RIVAS Yes, it’s called the Stolen Art File. You can type in an artist’s name and you can see what objects are in the database. It has been very helpful. Someone will Google the name of the artist or the title of whatever is being sold, and they’ll see that it’s stolen, and then we’ll get notified.
Any parting advice for collectors, or warnings for those in the art space who may be inclined to commit a crime?
RIVAS It is very hard sometimes for victims to believe they had been defrauded. A lot of fraudsters ingratiate themselves, and are very kind and thoughtful, and appear to be very sincere people. And I think many of the victims cannot believe that they were defrauded or that person would ever have done it to then. There’s just a large element of trust.
For collectors: Review the provenance, and if the price is too low and it’s too good to be true, it’s likely not authentic. Do your homework. I think everyone in the art world is looking for that one piece that they found at a storage locker or at a flea market, and it’s a real Picasso. The chances of those finds are so slim. So many people are looking and believe that they bought something that’s real. And, sadly, it’s not.