December Meeting Summary—Gregg S. Horner, The FBI Art Crime Program: Criminal Investigations Conducted by the Washington Field Office

Posted on Feb 3, 2015

Painting copyOn December 4th, 2014, FBI Special Agent Gregg S. Horner talked about his work from 2006 to 2013 in the Washington Field Office of the FBI’s Art Crime Team. The talk was given at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Haskell Center.

The lecture began with a brief history of this regional Art Crime Team, which was formed in 2004 and consisted of 15 Special Agents, who were assigned to the team on a case-by-case basis. Special Agent Horner went on to highlight five cases in which he was involved.

The first case involved ecclesiastical paintings from the Cuzco School, a Roman Catholic artistic tradition that sprung up in the Cuzco region of Peru in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. This style of painting was not limited to Cuzco, but also spread to other cities in the Andes, as well as to present day Ecuador and Bolivia. Because this is an indigenous art and artworks of this type cannot legally leave Peru, the paintings in question were suspected to be brought into the U.S. illegally by the South American importer who had offered them for sale. The dealer who saw the paintings, recognized what they were and tipped off the FBI. Based on their contact with the Peruvian government, the paintings were subsequently seized by the FBI; since their origin was unclear, custody of the paintings was eventually given to the Peruvian government after determining that they should not go to Bolivia, who also laid claim to them.

The second case centered on the theft and attempted sale of a Shakespeare First Folio. This was an exciting case to hear about while the audience was seated next door to the Folger Library, since the folio was actually brought there by an Englishman attempting to sell the work. Special Agent Horner told a fascinating rendition of the story, including how the thief walked into the Folger with the Folio under his arm, demanded to see the Director, and then put on an elaborate ruse concerning how he came into its possession. The Folger held onto the Folio in order to “examine it,” but of course contacted the authorities. The Art Crime Team, aided by scholars and research on the First Folio, were able to determine that the copy in question was actually stolen in 1988 from Durham University in England. Unfortunately, the binding and title-leaf had been removed sometime after the theft. The First Folio was eventually returned to Durham University, and the assailant was sentenced to 8 years in prison, which Special Agent Horner added was about as hefty a sentence as is possible in these cases.

The third case was the theft of a first edition copy of the Book of Mormon. This case was considered fairly straightforward, since the book was stolen from the owner’s vault and the owner had good documentation of the book. A particularly disturbing aspect of crime was that the assailant intended to remove and then sell individual pages from the intact book. The book was found and seized by the FBI before it could be destroyed and sold piecemeal.

In the fourth case, Special Agent Horner described the theft and sale of a steamer trunk containing uniforms belonging to the late General William “Wild Bill” Donovan, a Medal of Honor recipient and director of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).  The uniforms were sold on the internet before being brought to the attention of the authorities. The items were eventually traced back to the robbery of a storage unit rented by the heirs of General Donovan. The items were returned and subsequently acquired by the OSS Society.

The final case was the most notorious and involved the highly publicized recovery of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Paysage Bords de Seine, which was stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1951. The painting, which was brought to the attention of authorities after it was offered for sale to a dealer, was supposedly discovered at a flea market in West Virginia.  The woman in procession of the painting had not yet been born at the time of the theft, and therefore could not be charged as its thief, but only as its trafficker.  The painting was seized by the FBI and sixty-three years after the crime was returned intact to the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Summary Provided By:
Zach Long
Graduate Student in Art Conservation
Buffalo State, SUNY