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Anything Can Break Bad: An FBI Special Agent Has Learned the Difference Between the Art World and the Mafia

Meridith Savona photographed at FBI headquarters in New York City on February 26, 2016. KATHERINE MCMAHON

Meridith Savona photographed at FBI headquarters in New York City on February 26, 2016.

KATHERINE MCMAHON

With a gun in her holster and her mind in art history, FBI Special Agent Meridith Savona has been investigating art crimes for the FBI’s New York office major-crimes unit since 2010. She has seen her fair share of fraudsters and thieves, ranging from would-be dealers trying to pawn off fake Jackson Pollocks to rapacious collectors willing to pay top price for stolen artifacts. With all that she has discovered, her view of the art world, characterized by its secretive nature, is considerably less than favorable—simply put, a breeding ground for crime. But, Savona thinks it’s changing for the better, due in no small part, she believes, to the FBI’s efforts.

Savona is one of two agents based in New York specially trained in the investigation of art crimes, a multimillion-dollar industry rivaling organized crime and arms trafficking. If someone calls the FBI reporting the robbery of a painting or a fraud being committed by a would-be dealer in New York, the case would most likely wind up on her desk or on that of her colleague Christopher McKeogh. The two are members of the FBI’s Art Crime Team, a specialized unit with 16 full-time agents stationed throughout the United States which has recovered more than 2,650 items, valued at more than $160 million, since its inception in 2004.

“I always wanted to be an FBI agent,” said the 50-year-old Savona, who attended Stony Brook University and New England Law, Boston. She came to the FBI in 1996 after working in the Bronx district attorney’s office as a prosecutor. During her first 14 years at the bureau, she focused on organized crime, but when an opportunity arrived to work with major theft, specifically art crimes, she jumped on it. “I wanted to do something where I would learn something new, and this turned out to be the most interesting thing I had done in my entire career,” she said, admitting that she knew little about art when she took the job. “I could learn about art, about different mediums and about artists, but when it came to art as a business and an industry, there wasn’t a whole lot to guide me.” Under the tutelage of the now-retired agent James Wynne, Savona went about learning the ropes, discovering the differences between the art world and the Mafia.

She now spends time at museums and galleries, dragging her husband along when they go on vacation. “I am open to everything because every case is so different,” she said. “Every time I get a call on a case, it’s a different artist, it’s a different medium, and I have to start from scratch to absorb as much as possible.” Her cases have ranged from repatriating stolen Chilean tapestries to raiding an Indianapolis cache of pre-Columbian artifacts. She brings in experts when necessary, not only in art but in science as well, especially when it comes to establishing forgeries. Authenticators who may be leery of offering opinions to ordinary citizens for fear of being sued have become increasingly cooperative with her.

Savona’s first case involved Glafira Rosales and the Knoedler investigation, which proved to be a real eye-opener. “What I found was an art world that is this closed, secretive world,” she said. She discovered that art transactions were unlike almost any other retail exchange. Related cases against collateral defendants were still pending, so Savona was not at liberty to discuss the investigation in detail, but she believed that the publicity surrounding the Knoedler case may play a role in changing that closemouthed environment. “The art world has changed, and I think you will see in the future that the art world will be less secretive in the sale of paintings; you are going to see no more of these handshake deals; you are going to see a lot more transparency, and that is a big change in the art world from when I first came in.”

But the Art Crime Team’s focus is not on cutting the art world down to size, or even making the industry more transparent. The unit was founded in 2004 in response to the raiding of antiquities in Iraq, in particular the looting of rare artifacts from the National Museum in Baghdad in 2003. “Because of the U.S. presence in Iraq at the time, it was clear that somebody would have to investigate,” said Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, manager of the Art Crime Team. “It was also clear that the U.S. government didn’t have a team organized, in place, or with the expertise required to do that kind of investigation,” she said. When the Art Crime Team was established a year later, it began with just eight part-time agents.

Robert Wittman a.k.a. “Bob Clay” with Geronimo’s war bonnet, valued at $1.2 million and recovered in an undercover operation in Philadelphia. COURTESY ROBERT WITTMAN

Robert Wittman a.k.a. “Bob Clay” with Geronimo’s war bonnet, valued at $1.2 million and recovered in an undercover operation in Philadelphia.

COURTESY ROBERT WITTMAN

Retired Special Agent Robert Wittman was a key player in this development. The son of an Asian antiquities dealer, Wittman began investigating art-related crimes as an agent stationed in Philadelphia in the 1980s. In his 20 years with the bureau, he worked a wide variety of cases, often going undercover to set up “deals” to reclaim stolen artworks. He worked frequently on cases that brought him to Europe, where he noted that Italy, France, Great Britain, and Spain all had special units devoted to art thefts and forgeries, whereas the United States, which controls “40 percent of the art market,” according to Wittman, has rarely been provided a budget to pursue such cases.

“Ultimately, art theft is a property crime,” said Wittman, author of Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures and the just-released book The Devil’s Diary about the return of a missing Nazi diary to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “The hardest part of this job was to convince the FBI that there is a difference between the theft of a Monet and the theft of a Chevrolet.” Along with establishing the Art Crime Team, the FBI also instituted the National Stolen Art File, an electronic index of items valued at over $2,000, which the public can use to report their suspicions and check on the validity of questionable artworks coming to the market.

According to Wittman, a background in criminal investigation work is essential to being a good art-crime detective. “You need to know the elements of the crime and the statutes that pertain, but then it takes an interest in art,” he said. “You don’t have to be a connoisseur or a specialist, but you have to know the difference between a print versus a painting versus a giclée.” But by far the hardest thing to learn is the business of art, explained the retired agent, who often modeled his undercover performances on his father’s talents at deal making and who often found himself making “deals” on yachts, in hotel rooms, and even in parking lots.

Perhaps, Wittman recalled, his most thrilling case involved trying to track down one of the Rembrandts and the Vermeer that went missing from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. In that instance, he pretended to be an unscrupulous art dealer named Bob Clay who had flown down to Miami to meet with Frenchman Bernard Ternus. Ternus boasted of having access to numerous stolen works of art, including two Picassos taken from Diana Picasso’s apartment in Paris and a cache of paintings stolen at gunpoint from the Museum of Fine Arts in Nice.

“He said he had a Rembrandt and a Vermeer for sale, and it didn’t take a whole leap of logic to figure out that there’s only one Vermeer missing from the 36 in the world, and to know it had to have come from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum,” said Wittman. Over the course of the investigation, he met with criminals in Barcelona and coordinated with the French police in Paris and Nice from June 2006 until the final arrests in June 2008. The scariest moment came in 2007, when the crooks suspected that Wittman was an informant after the police had recovered the missing Picassos. “That particular case was fairly dangerous because the individuals involved were all doing armed robberies, and when they thought I was an informant, they threatened my life,” he recalled, describing the hair-raising meeting that took place at the Diplomat Hotel in Miami. “I had to stare them down and talk my way out of it,” he said, noting that this was one of the rare occasions when he came armed with two guns, one in each pocket.

“We recovered about $75 million of stolen art, but we couldn’t get the Vermeer or the Rembrandt,” said Wittman. “I probably got pretty close to finding them, and I thought if we could have kept going, we would have had a good shot at possibly identifying where they were, because those art thieves didn’t lie about the Picassos, so I thought they weren’t lying about the rest of the paintings.” Unfortunately, once the French police had arrested the gang for the crimes committed in France, they were uninterested in pursuing the investigation further. In the end, Ternus was sentenced to five years in the United States for transporting stolen goods, and was then deported back to France where he is serving another eight-year sentence for the robberies themselves.

Wittman’s last case, which began when he was at the FBI but continued past his retirement to 2013, was the recovery of a diary written by Third Reich mastermind Alfred Rosenberg. Wittman was contacted in 2001 by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which was supposed to have received the text along with a cache of papers from the estate of Nuremberg prosecutor Robert Kempner. The diary turned up in the possession of a man in Lewisburg, New York, who had gotten it from one of the prosecutor’s former girlfriends and was holding onto it to turn a profit. “This is my most satisfying case,” said Wittman, who, in the course of his career, had recovered one of the original copies of the Bill of Rights, an original edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and an original edition of Copernicus’s On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres. “All those were interesting, but we knew what the books contained. The diary was different because no one knew what was in there. It had never been translated or transcribed.” The recovered text contains invaluable information regarding meetings with Hitler about the “final solution” for the Jews as well as the invasion of Russia. This case is the subject of The Devil’s Diary.

Henry Mayer, senior adviser on archives at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, examines the Rosenberg diary, which spans ten years and 500 pages. U.S. HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM, COURTESY MIRIAM LOMASKIN

Henry Mayer, senior adviser on archives at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, examines the Rosenberg diary, which spans ten years and 500 pages.

U.S. HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM, COURTESY MIRIAM LOMASKIN

Even though Savona is not certified to go undercover and has not had the same high-profile experiences as Wittman, she has witnessed plenty of excitement of her own. When asked if this line of work is ever dangerous, she replied, “Sure, because anything can break bad.” Speaking of carrying a gun in her holster, she explained, “On the surface, I am confronting a person who has just committed a fraud, but I don’t know how far they are willing to go to save those millions of dollars they are making. I am the person who is trying to stop them from making millions of dollars or is going to prevent them from leaving the country. You never know how far someone like that is willing to go.”

The FBI Art Crime Team maintains a ten-most-wanted list of missing works, currently topped by the cache of 13 paintings stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990, including four works by Rembrandt and a Vermeer. A reward of $5 million has not led to any arrests or information on the whereabouts of the stolen items. Other works on the list include Caravaggio’s Nativity with Saint Francis and Saint Lawrence, stolen in 1969 from Palermo, Italy, and valued at $20 million, and van Gogh’s View of the Sea at Scheveningen and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen, together valued at $30 million, stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2003. Speaking of the Gardner Museum theft, Wittman remained optimistic. “If those paintings are still in existence, they will be recovered, because the bright spot about art is that it outlasts us, so at some point, they are going to come back on the market,” he said.

“The problem with a theft case is finding the object,” explained Savona. “Sometimes, with museums, a theft is not noticed for a period of time until later, when they are doing an inventory.” But noting that the latest museum theft case in the United States is over 20 years old, she insisted that the situation is getting far easier for FBI agents and more difficult for thieves, as surveillance and security considerations now make robberies “pretty tough.”

Fraud and forgeries are on the rise, however, especially as the Internet has made advertising with false claims and fine print that much easier. In 2015 Savona worked the case of East Hampton “dealer” John Re, who was offering a cache of alleged Jackson Pollocks for sale, claiming that they had been discovered in the basement of art restorer George Schulte. Eventually Schulte’s family reported the sales to the FBI out of concern for his reputation. Re pled guilty and was sentenced to five years. “I think the biggest mistake that people make in such cases is that they want to believe they are seeing something that no one else has seen,” said Savona. “If it sounds too good to be true, chances are it’s not true.”

A Chilean Tapestry, The Ambassadors of Rome Offering the Throne to Numa Pompilio, was recovered by the FBI Art Crime Team in 2015. COURTESY FBI

A Chilean Tapestry, The Ambassadors of Rome Offering the Throne to Numa Pompilio, was recovered by the FBI Art Crime Team in 2015.

COURTESY FBI

Repatriation of stolen artifacts is also a priority of the FBI Art Crime Team. Cases often involve relationships with Interpol and foreign governments. Today Syria has been added as a key source of looted antiquities, along with Iraq. But sometimes Special Agent Savona is called in to work on cases closer to home.

In 2014 the FBI Art Crime Team deployed special agents, including Savona, to conduct a raid on an Indianapolis home, removing thousands of cultural artifacts, including Native American items. They had been taken by a 91-year-old man, Don Miller, over the course of several decades. “We’re collecting and analyzing with the goal of repatriation,” FBI Special Agent Drew Northern said at the time of the confiscation. Larry Zimmerman, a professor of anthropology and museum studies at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, described his reaction as “frankly overwhelmed. I have never seen a collection like this in my life except in some of the largest museums.” In addition to American Indian objects, the collection includes items from China, Russia, Peru, Haiti, Australia, and New Guinea, he said. The FBI admits that the task of cataloguing and repatriating the artifacts will take years of work.

On a typical day, Savona handles 12 to 15 cases. She acknowledged that art crime is so prevalent that the FBI could have 20 agents in the New York office working on it full time. Savona spends most of her time interviewing suspects and witnesses, sometimes in tandem with a partner. “It comes down to getting people to talk to you when it is really not in their best interest to speak up,” she said. “Somehow, some way, you get them to open up. The best part of the job for me is having a partner to work with and getting a back-and-forth going until you get someone to open up. That’s really what this is all about, and it’s how you make your cases.”

Barbara Pollack is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 62 under the title “Anything Can Break Bad.”

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