Art Treasure

Art Theft and the FBI

The recent theft of five paintings from a Dutch art museum has me intrigued. One of the first things that came to my mind was the many movies that have dealt with art theft. To Catch a Thief with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly was a classic, and one of my favorites. Then there are the Pink Panther movies, as well as numerous others. I will never cease to be amazed at the value of some art.

These seven paintings included a Picasso, two Monets, and a Gauguin are estimated to have been worth more than 65 million dollars. There has been a lot of discussion about the lack of adequate security at not only this museum but perhaps at most museums. I don’t know if that is true or not. I suspect if there were 65 million dollars in gold sitting on a table, that there would be a lot of security in place. An unfortunate statistic that I read was that less than 20 percent of stolen art is recovered. As I reviewed the internet I read about an organization within the FBI that is tasked with recovering stolen art, the Art Crime Team.   

The Art Crime Team was established in 2004, comprised of 14 special agents dedicated to recovery of art theft. They have recovered more than 2,600 items of art including paintings, artifacts, and ancient maps. I have no idea what is involved in their work but I am intrigued. I have no idea what training or education is required but it sounds interesting and rewarding. I love documentaries, and if there is ever an hour episode covering this department within the FBI, I would be interested in watching it.

Few things are cherished and valued within cultures as much as their art. Art is indeed true treasure. I wanted to highlight this point when I created Treasure Trove, so I included the following situation card with the game.

Alpine Village


  I have a picture, an oil painting, hanging in my bedroom that I look at every day.  It was given to me by a very special person, my Aunt Bea.  My mom was an artist and quite good so I was around paintings all of my life.  My mom hung paintings just about every wall in the homes she has lived in.  As a matter of fact it was because of her artwork that I came to have this particular picture.

            The scene on the painting depicts a village on a quiet body of water surrounded by mountains.  The mountains are good size and the small town has a church with a pronounced steeple.  It looks like a European village so I guess it is in the Alpines.  It is one of those scenes that captures my imagination, and does so over and over. 

            As a child when I had books read to me it was often the pictures that captured my imagination more than the words.  I wish it were the other way but perhaps I am a visual learner.  I recall as a young child picking up a book on Mother Goose rhymes and staring at the cover for a long time which had a picture of a boot that looked like a house with a bunch of kids living in it.  I fantasized about what it would be like to live in that house while looking out of this or that particular window.  I don’t recall many of the rhymes, just that I liked looking at the big boot house.  It is the same with castles.  Even today a castle with all of its towers and turrets intrigues me.  Castle pictures immediately transform me to another place in time.

            My Aunt Bea had this painting in her living room for many years.  I visit her about once a year and often commented how much I liked the painting.  As the decades passed she shared with me that my mom had given the painting to her when I was a child.  My family had lived in Germany a couple of years when I was in grade school in the early 1960’s.  It was at that time my mom began her art career.  She took lessons from a number of people for many years one of whom I believe Aunt Bea conveyed to me was the artist of this specific painting.  So it seems the artist did this work while we were indeed living in Europe.  I still do not know if he is famous or not; I doubt it, I just know I like the painting. 

            First of all, I like the serenity of the village.  It looks quiet.  I could envision myself on the lake in a little row boat fishing.  I am not a fisherman but if I lived in that village I would be willing to give it a try.  I could also imagine myself sitting by the marge of the lake skipping rocks.  I learned the word marge a few months ago, it means the edge of, so I thought I would show off by trying to use it in context.

 I fantasize I can hear the church bells chiming.  I can even smell the farmer cleaning the manure out of his barn.  I can see myself ice skating on the frozen winter lake, as if I would know how to do that.  What about hiking to the top of the mountain?  And most of all, where would I want to live in this secluded chalet?  There are all kinds of little houses with their little windows here and there.  My imagination convinces me these dwellings each have their share of nooks and crannies. 













As my aunt Bea got into her 80’s she wanted to make sure I would have this painting in the event of her death, so she gave it to me.  It probably has very little value monetarily, but it will be one that I will treasure.  I not only like looking at it but it will also always remind me of my aunt Bea and her love for me.  It’s my own personal art treasure.

Texas Painting

McArdle's The Battle of San Jacinto

            In early 2010 a family in West Virginia found a dust covered painting in their attic depicting a battle scene.  The artist was H.A. McArdle and the fighting depicts the Battle of San Jacinto during the Texas Revolution.  This same artist had been commissioned in the late 19th century to do a mural in the state capital building depicting that same military engagement.  Later in the year the painting auctioned for $334,600 at Heritage Auctions in Dallas.  Wouldn’t it be cool to find something like that in your attic?

            In this case the individual that found the painting was John Buell, a descendant of McArdle.  He found it while snooping around the third floor of his grandparents house.  They were skeptical the painting had any worth but John was persistent enough to keep calling auction houses until one in Dallas informed it may indeed be valuable.  This story intrigues me personally.

            In 1966, my junior high class from San Antonio took a bus trip to Austin to visit the capitol.  It’s weird how after all these years I remember the tour guide pointing out the murals.  I also think the state capital was being remodeled at the time and they may have been doing some new murals.  I’m not sure if I actually saw one of McArdle’s murals or not.  I do know I love history, especially Texas history, and it was a great trip.

            My family roots come from West Virginia, so I liked the reverse connection.  Also my mom was an artist and by the end of her life had a bunch of paintings in her attic.  Many were quite good and I have a number of them hanging on my walls.  Art was a treasure to her. Her escape from the harsh realities of life.  Her avenue of expression in a male dominated house.  I had three brothers, no sisters.  She has done paintings depicting scenes all over the world, but my favorites of her pictures are of the Texas Hill Country where she was raised:  Bluebonnets, oak trees, cattle, cacti, and rolling hills.


Art Sleuths

Example of Art that was stolen

      In May of 2010 art thieves stole a handful of paintings from a Paris museum and a residence in Southern France.  Their value is estimated at over 100 million dollars.  Video surveillance showed the heist in Paris to have been a lone intruder.  The security system was not working leaving investigators to suspect the culprit may have had some inside help.  After hearing the news I asked myself, “How does one ever sell stolen art?”  I also wondered, “How do art detectives recover such lost treasures?”

          Occasionally art is stolen by a disgruntled employee or someone who has a passion for a particular piece of art: painting or sculptor.  Maybe some rich control freak with an obsessive compulsion drive to collect art hires and plans such schemes.  Who knows?  I think the reason is usually greed: the money.  But that’s the problem.  This type of art is big money.  You cannot just transfer a bunch of money from one country to another, including Switzerland, without authorities being able to track it.  It is also probably hard to exchange large sums of cash without a high risk of being detected.  I suspect this type of theft was well planned and with more than one person involved.  It is also probable that the stolen pieces will be sold for a fraction of their worth to crime syndicates such as large drug smuggling outfits.  The paintings could be hidden away for many years before they are found.  For example, art stolen in World War II continues to occasionally surface.  Those who try to sell such works at some point in the future hopefully will be caught.  Unfortunately, there always seem to be those individuals who are willing to risk the stealing and selling. 

Art Frames left behind from the heist

Thomas Crown Affair movie poster

Movies to a certain degree even glamorize the thieves:  The Thomas Crown Affair, with Steve McQueen; Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief; The Pink Panther with Peter Sellers, are several that come straight to my mind.  However, what about those individuals that attempt to recover stolen art and catch the thieves?   There have been numerous detective and mystery shows for decades where the bad guys are caught but what is it like for a real art detective? 

A book review article in the New York Times by Velma Daniels (I think it was May 30, 2010) covered this very subject.  The article highlighted the fact that a book was just recently published, The Art Detective, subtitled, Fakes, Frauds, and Finds, and the Search for Lost Treasures.  The timing could not have been better.

Peter Sellers

        The author, Philip Mould, owns a London art gallery, is an art consultant to British Parliament, and is an art sleuth.  To those who work within art communities he considered by many to be, “The Art Detective.”  The New York Times article pointed out that Mr. Mould often appears on Antiques Roadshow, which I thoroughly enjoy watching.  The BBC is currently making a film about his exploits titled, “Art Sleuth.”  I will be on the lookout for this production and I hope to see him at some point on Antiques Roadshow.  I also hope he is helping with the investigation in the Paris heist.  Since Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) is no longer with us, we need all the help we can get.  Go get ‘em Inspector Mould.

On the board game Treasure Trove one of the situation cards rewards the player drawing the card 10 million for helping to retrieve stolen art.  I encourage you to take a moment and investigate the website displaying the game.         

Situation card from the game