Bonnie Magness-Gardiner doesn’t fit the popular notion of an FBI crime-solver.
In 2005, with a background in archaeology and art history rather than law enforcement, Magness-Gardiner joined the bureau as its only full-time staffer dedicated to the theft of artwork.
Since then, she has been working behind the scenes to provide support to the FBI’s 14-member Art Crime Team, whose members are often assigned to investigate thefts of fine art and to recover the stolen property. She will give a free talk about art theft in the United States and how local art owners and collectors can protect themselves against it at 8 p.m. today in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery as part of its monthly First Fridays event.
Since the inception of the Art Crime Team in 2004, it has recovered some 2,650 objects valued at about $150 million. But that represents just a sliver of the art theft that occurs on a regular basis at residences, galleries and museums across the country.
“We’re always happy when something turns up and we can get it back, but the recovery rate is between 5 and 6 percent, which is about normal for any stolen property,” Magness-Gardiner said in a phone interview. “The thing with art is it can turn up 15 or 20 years after it is stolen, so it’s very important to have a catalog of it somewhere.”
That catalog, which Magness-Gardiner is in charge of maintaining, is called the National Stolen Art File, a compendium of some 7,000 pieces of artwork that serves as one of the most useful tools to date for the potential recovery of stolen art.
“Most art theft in the United States is from residential burglaries. They’re not necessarily specialized cat burglars, specialized art thieves. But anybody who would have works of art in their house, they might be targeted by a burglar just looking for whatever – electronics or cash or jewelry – they’re going to take your art, too, because it can be cashed in and you can get money for it,” she said. “The difference between the theft of electronics or a car and art is that a work of art does not have a serial number on it, so they’re much more difficult to track. Thus, we have a National Stolen Art File to try and track them down.”
In her talk to local collectors, business owners and gallerygoers, Magness-Gardiner will highlight case studies, such as the theft and subsequent recovery of a Rembrandt self-portrait from the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, Sweden, and a case involving a New York City art dealer who cleverly passed off copies of Matisse and Chagall paintings as the genuine article in the ’90s.
Selling low-profile artwork with values of less than about $50,000 is much easier than selling important work by well-known artists, Magness-Gardiner said, because the likelihood that it will be purchased by an unwitting buyer on the legitimate marketplace is much higher. As for high-profile work, she added, the task of selling it becomes much more challenging because of the publicity that typically surrounds major art thefts.
“The people who steal it generally steal it for the money. They don’t value it as art. They value it as what it can mean to them in cash. If it costs them in terms of effort and materials, I don’t know, $10,000 to steal it or less and they get 10 percent of its value and its value is a million dollars, they’re still making money off of it because they got it essentially for free,” she said. “How they cash in on it is very difficult. It’s not an easy thing to pull off.”