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Specially Trained Officers Go After Stolen Artworks : L.A., N.Y. Detectives Work a High-Class Beat

November 29, 1987|G. LUTHER WHITINGTON | United Press International

The sign on the door reads Burglary Auto Theft, but the tanned, blond detective wearing a golf shirt and sitting at a long table is thinking of the latest going prices for Van Gogh paintings at New York auctions.

Detective Bill Martin, the Los Angeles Police Department's art-theft investigator, shares a cramped space at Parker Center with a dozen detectives who know the subtle differences between Trans Am and Camaro chassis but would not know an Impressionist from a Cubist.

In New York, at 1 Police Plaza, Martin's counterpart, New York Police Department Detective Thomas Moscardini prefers suits to knit sports shirts and has his own office decorated with Monet and Kandinsky reproductions.

Multimillion-Dollar Trade

The savvy Moscardini and the casual Martin are as different as their cities, but they share the same aim: to stem a multimillion-dollar illegal art trade flourishing in the United States.

They are also an elite pair.

Among the nation's thousands of police detectives, they are the only two who specialize in art thefts.

Most police forces, such as the Chicago Police Department, assign art-related cases to regular burglary detectives, the majority of whom handle mostly residential burglaries.

"Stolen art is second only to narcotics trafficking as the world's largest illegal business," Moscardini said. "A detective investigating art thefts needs to be plugged into the art world to know what's happening."

Martin, who collects original oil paintings, took art history and appreciation courses at Sotheby's, while Moscardini studied art at a New York college and trained as a commercial artist before joining the police force.

But Martin, who is still getting acquainted with the Los Angeles art community--meeting dealers, curators and private collectors--has plugged into more than the art world.

Art-Theft Computer

The affable Martin smiles and proudly points to the nation's first police-owned art-theft computer, installed at his suggestion by the Police Department as a "direct response to the growing art community in Southern California, which has been matched by a growing number of art thefts," he said.

The computer, a 30-megabyte AT capable of retaining 20 million characters, stores information indexing artists and stolen paintings culled from Interpol, the FBI and art organizations.

The Police Department first formed its art detail in 1980, years after New York already had a full-time detective tracking art thefts.

"It was needed, and we went from zero recoveries to recoveries valued at over a million dollars a year," Martin said. "The computer should make recoveries a lot easier."

The International Foundation for Art Research, which maintains an art-theft archive, reported 1,649 objects stolen around the world with 207 recoveries in 1980. Last year, 2,686 objects were reported stolen, while 396 were recovered.

"The value and amounts of art stolen are just incredible," Moscardini said.

"We're talking millions of dollars worth," Martin added.

The executive director of the art research foundation, Constance Lowenthal, who has long advocated more police specialization in art crimes, called the two detectives' work invaluable.

"This computerization of art thefts, long overdue, can only help to close the net on illegal trafficking in stolen art," said Lowenthal, who is seeking funds to computerize the nonprofit organization's theft archive.

Solved 6-Year-Old Case

Martin and Moscardini recently teamed up via telephone to solve a 6-year-old case of a Georges Rouault painting stolen from an art gallery in the famed Ambassador Hotel.

The 1937 painting, "Christ," was reported missing in 1981, when someone walked into the unattended Dalzell Hatfield Gallery and walked out unnoticed with the painting.

The painting, valued by Christies at between $250,000 and $300,000, was brought into the auction house's Beverly Hills office in July but sent off to New York for auction before being detected as stolen.

A routine check by the auction house and a few phone calls between Martin and Moscardini revealed that the painting had been stolen.

Moscardini recovered the stolen painting and Martin is "close to making an arrest," he said.

On a recent day, Martin sat filing a new case into the computer system. A wealthy Los Angeles collector had been robbed of about 10 artworks, including a Picasso etching.

Didn't Have Photo

"(The collector) didn't have a photo of the etching, and she wouldn't tell me how much it's worth," Martin said. "I need to know (the worth), but what am I going to do, stand there for hours and argue with her?"

Moscardini, Martin, Lowenthal and various art-theft experts said many thefts could be avoided and that recovery could be expedited if gallery owners and collectors would take simple steps.

"You wouldn't believe how many dealers and collectors call me all the time to tell me about a stolen work, and they don't know the measurements and they don't have even a (photograph) of the painting," said Gilbert Edelson, director of the American Assn. of Art Dealers.

"They'll say: 'It's a landscape. You know, trees,' " Edelson said.

Although Martin and Moscardini work full-time trying to catch art thieves and recover stolen art, they said dealers and collectors need to keep good records of all art, including photos, dimensions and descriptions.

"Things are happening," Moscardini said. "We as police are becoming more knowledgeable, but the dealer and the collector must help us out by keeping documentation and photos of their pieces."

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