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For further reading:


Stealing History
by Roger Atwood


Thieves of Baghdad
by Matthew Bogdanos,
with William Patrick


The Gardner Heist
by Ulrich Boser


The Rescue Artist
by Edward Dolnick


The Irish Game
by Matthew Hart


Museum of the Missing
by Simon Houpt
and Julian Radcliffe


The Rape of Europa
by Lynn H. Nicholas


Vanished Smile:
The Mysterious Theft
of the Mona Lisa

by R.A. Scotti


The Lost Chalice
by Vernon Silver


The Medici Conspiracy
by Peter Watson
and Cecilia Todeschini


by Sharon Waxman


by Robert K. Wittman,
with John Shiffman


Click on an image or scroll down for more information:

elgin marbles lady georgiana cavendish mona lisa adele bloch-bauer euphronios krater euphronios kylix vermeer letter jacob de gheyn moche backflap lady and gentleman galilee chez tortoni vermeer concert munch scream iraqmuseum iraqmuseum iraqmuseum iraqmuseum moore braque leggier picasso matisse modiglani

Elgin marbles The marble sculptures of the Parthenon frieze and pediment (a.k.a. "The Elgin Marbles")

by Brian Williams

Click on images to enlarge.

The much-anticipated new Acropolis Museum (1) in Athens, Greece, opened to the public on June 21, 2009. Its four floors display the treasures of the Athenian Acropolis, from the Archaic age to ancient Greece's Classical era to the Roman conquest and the Byzantine Empire. The top-floor gallery is devoted solely to the marble statues and reliefs of the Parthenon, the building on the Acropolis that has come to symbolize the pinnacle of ancient Greek civilization. The museum's Parthenon Gallery (2) is designed to match the size and shape of the original monument, and through the floor-to-ceiling windows visitors can see the Parthenon itself atop the Acropolis a few hundred yards away. But the gallery is only half-full; of the 189 surviving statues and reliefs that once adorned the Parthenon, 90 are in the British Museum in London (Waxman, 2008). White plaster casts of the London marbles have been installed next to the originals still in Athens, and the stark contrast between the originals and the reproductions has been deliberately played-up (3) (Sherr). A few years before the museum opened, then-Greek Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos declared that the gallery would remain empty "as a constant reminder of this unfulfilled debt to world heritage" (Waxman 244).

The Greeks have since changed their stance regarding the empty Parthenon gallery, but they have reason to be angry. The Parthenon marbles that reside in London today were spirited away when the country that invented democracy was under foreign occupation. It was at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Greece was under the control of the Ottoman Turks, when Thomas Bruce, Seventh Earl of Elgin and the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, visited Athens. Lord Elgin wanted to tour the Acropolis, but at the time, it was not the tourist destination that it is today, and it was closed to the public. To visit the Acropolis, Lord Elgin needed written permission from the sultan. This permission slip, known as a firman, allowed him to enter the Acropolis, sketch the monuments, excavate the foundations of some of the ancient buildings and "take away any sculptures or inscriptions which do not interfere with the works or walls of the Citadel (Waxman, 2008, p.225). But some scholars doubt this firman ever existed. Dr. Jeanette Greenfield, author of The Return of Cultural Treasures (1998), writes:

Although there has been debate as to the extent that the firman empowered Lord Elgin, the real issue in my view, centres around the fact that the original firman was never produced by Elgin in the House of Commons Parliamentary Select Committee in 1816. Only a copy written from memory was produced. There is no direct documentary proof of the right to remove the marbles (as cited at

The "copy written from memory" that Greenfield mentions is an Italian letter currently in the possession of William St. Clair (4), a historian at Oxford University in England. Whether the Italian document is a copy of a firman that did or did not exist is ultimately irrelevant, because it "confers no authority to remove sculptures from the building or to damage them in any way," writes St. Clair in his book, Lord Elgin and the Marbles (as cited in Waxman, 2009, p.225).

another view of marbles The British Museum, who is currently in possession of almost all of the Parthenon sculptures outside Greece, tried to settle the legal debate by stating on their website: "Lord Elgin's activities were thoroughly investigated by a Parliamentary Select Committee in 1816 and found to be entirely legal." But this is like a criminal stating at his trial: "I conclude that I was acting in accordance to the rules that I set forth." Is it fair to argue that Lord Elgin's actions were justified under English law, even though he was in Greece at the time?

Firman or not, Lord Elgin arrived at the Acropolis with a demolition crew and extracted the best surviving sculptures from the Parthenon's pediments and half of the carved reliefs of the frieze. As Waxman puts it, the sculptures Lord Elgin removed were "not mere decorations," but integral to the structure, compelling a British tourist to write in 1819:

I had the inexpressible mortification of being present when the Parthenon was despoiled of its finest sculpture. Instead of the picturesque beauty and high preservation in which I first saw it, it is now comparatively reduced to a state of shattered desolation (As cited in Waxman, 2008, p.227).

In addition to the defacement of the Parthenon, Elgin removed one of the six figurative columns from the Caryatid Porch of the Erechtheion (5)—a smaller Acropolis temple, adjacent to the Parthenon—and shipped it to England. He attempted to remove a second one, but it was destroyed in the process.

The opinions of modern scholars regarding Lord Elgin's actions on the Acropolis in the early 1800s vary depending on who you ask, and it should be no surprise that whether one believes what Elgin did was a rescue operation or a crime depends on the nationality of the scholar. Sir John Boardman, regarded as "the most distinguished British art historian of the classical world" (Scarisbrick, 2006), believes Lord Elgin rescued the Parthenon statues. Elgin took only the sculptures or fragments that lay on the ground or were otherwise "easily removable" from the structure and transported them to the "safety of London" (Boardman, 2005, p.97). And that is where they should stay. Boardman believes that "the country which has done so much to preserve and understand the Greek heritage is an appropriate setting in which [the statues] can continue to exercise their benign influence" (Boardman, 2005, p.97). Greek scholars disagree. In his 1979 guide to the Acropolis, archaeologist George Dontas introduces the controversy under the heading "Misappropriations of the sculptures of the Parthenon by Lord Elgin" and goes as far as describing Elgin's actions as the desecration of a corpse (p.60). In 2009, Greek Culture Minister Antonis Samaras was similarly expressive in his judgment of Lord Elgin's actions. "Archaeologically, it is tantamount to murder," he said (as cited in Sherr).

another view of marbles England has long claimed that Lord Elgin saved the sculptures. They cite the neglect the Acropolis suffered during the Turkish occupation of Greece in the years before Lord Elgin's visit. They also cite the corrosive damage that air pollution and acid rain has done to Athens' monuments in the years since Elgin's campaign. Ironically, Lord Elgin did save the Parthenon sculptures from further deterioration by taking them off the Acropolis and shipping them to London. One simply has to compare the condition of the London marbles with the few badly weathered sculptures still in place on the Parthenon. Of course, Lord Elgin could not have possibly foreseen what pollution would do to the ancient monuments hundreds of years later.

Besides, Lord Elgin was not acting in the interest of archaeological preservation, and those who seek to defend his actions by claiming he wanted to preserve the sculptures are practicing historical revisionism. Lord Elgin, like many European aristocrats in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who toured the countries of the ancient world, was interested in bringing home trophies; artifacts he could use to decorate his estate and gardens (; Waxman, 2008). But the process of removing and shipping the marbles to England cost Lord Elgin £60,000; much of it was money he borrowed and had no way of paying back. Parliament offered to purchase the sculptures for £30,000, but Elgin refused. But in 1816, Parliament approached Elgin with a second offer: £35,000. It was only five thousand pounds more than what they offered him a decade earlier, but this time, Lord Elgin accepted (Waxman, 2008, p.229-31). They were installed in the British Museum and unveiled to the public a year later. As for the Turks: they were driven out of Greece twenty years after Lord Elgin's last visit to Athens. In 1833, the newly independent Greek government began repairing the Acropolis and requested for the first time that England return the Parthenon marbles, but their request was denied, as it would be repeatedly for the next 175 years.

The 1938-39 Cleaning Controversy

another view of marbles Until 2009, the British Museum's primary argument against returning the sculptures to Greece has been that it is better equipped to care for them, and that Athens has no suitable space to display the marbles (Sherr, 2009; Waxman, 2008). But the British Museum's conservancy of the sculptures has not been without controversy (6). In 1939, after word got out that the British Museum may have damaged the marbles while attempting to clean them, the museum's trustees tried to keep the story out of the papers, which only intensified the scandal. The statement the trustees belatedly released to the press did not assure the public. They admitted that the sculptures were cleaned using "unauthorized methods" without the knowledge of the supervisors in charge of the cleaning, but "to anyone but an expert their effect is imperceptible" (Jenkins, 2001, p10). These "unauthorized methods" involved scraping the surfaces of the sculptures with copper tools in order to remove the layers of black soot that had accumulated on the surface of the sculptures from decades of exposure to the smoky London air and the coal-fired furnaces of the museum (Jenkins, 2001).

tools In the museum's defense, experts have trouble agreeing over the extent of the damage, if any, that was caused by the 1937-8 cleaning. The resultant "whiteness" of the sculptures after the cleaning looked unnatural to the public, who were not used to seeing the sculptures without their outer layers of soot (Jenkins, 2001). The scandal was more of a result of a botched public-relations job on the part of the museum trustees—which the museum is the first to admit—than any willfully negligent action taken by the museum's employees tasked with cleaning the sculptures. But the museum is quick to disregard those who bring up the 1930 cleaning scandal as restitution "lobbyists" looking for another reason to demand the sculptures be returned to Greece.

The cleaning controversy raises legitimate questions that need to be asked, such as: What is a museum's role in preserving ancient artifacts? Does it preserve the artifact in the exact condition in which it was found, or should it attempt to restore the object to its original state? Archaeologists have argued time and again—especially in cases of looted antiquities—that context is everything when it comes to understanding the nature of these objects, and that even the dirt encrusted on their surfaces is crucial evidence. It is true that the museum was attempting to clean off dirt that had collected on the sculptures since their installation in the museum, but how much of the sculptures' ancient surfaces were scraped off with the soot? "What we do not want to be told is that evidence was there once, but was taken off because it didn't look very nice," writes Ian Jenkins in his 2001 article about the cleaning scandal (p.30). But Jenkins is no restitutionist; he believes the Parthenon sculptures should stay where they are, and is openly critical of anyone who suggests otherwise. Here, he sums up the controversy surrounding the actions of the British Museum in the 1930s:

The British Museum does not defend their mistakes, nor claim a right to a record of impeccable curatorship. No museum could. The British Museum is not infallible; its history is pretty much a formula for the human condition itself, a series of good intentions marred by the occasional mistake (p.30).

In other words, the British Museum knows what is best for the Parthenon statues, but one cannot blame them for screwing up once in a while.

Greece is still waiting to reunify the Parthenon's ancient masterpieces; statues that have not been seen together as they were in antiquity for more than two hundred years. But even after the New Acropolis Museum opened, the British Museum still has not begun negotiations with Greece. "There are no plans to return the sculptures," the museum said in a written statement to Sherr in 2009.


Boardman, J. (2005). Greek Sculpture, The Classical Period. New York: Thames & Hudson, Inc.

The Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, (n.d.). (4)

Dontas, G. (1979). The Acropolis and Its Museum. Athens: CLIO Editions

Jenkins, I (2001). Cleaning and Controversy: The Parthenon Sculptures 1811–1939. The British Museum Occasional Paper, 146. London: The British Museum Press.

Scarisbrick, D. (2006, May). A Classical Warrior (7). Apollo Magazine.

Sherr, L. (2009, Sept.15). Greeks lobby for return of Parthenon marbles to Athens (3). World Focus.

Waxman, S. (2008). Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7: Retrieved March 27, 2011.

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lady georgiana cavendish Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Thomas Gainsborough

Click on image to enlarge.

Coming Soon. We're all busy grad students. Thank you for your patience.

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monalisa Mona Lisa (La Gioconda), Leonardo da Vinci

by Brian Williams

Click on image to enlarge.

On August 21, 1911 Vincenzo Peruggia, a former employee of the Louvre, swiped the Mona Lisa off the wall and ran out of the museum with it tucked under his coat. It wasn't discovered missing until the next day when a museum visitor asked a guard what happened to the painting. The guard simply assumed the painting had been taken down to be photographed, but it wasn't until a few hours later that the guard found out the painting was not with the photographers. By the time the police were called the painting had been missing for more than 24 hours.

The theft caused a world-wide sensation, and when the Louvre reopened - with added security measures - it received a record number of visitors coming just to see the blank wall where the Mona Lisa once hung.

Peruggia hid the Mona Lisa in his Paris apartment for two years before he was caught trying to sell it to the Uffizi gallery in Florence, Italy. Naturally, the painting was recognized and Peruggia was arrested (1). (Incidentally, the police spelled Peruggia's name on his mug shot as "Perruggia." Some historians spell his name "Perugia.")

Mona Lisa stolenPeruggia claimed he stole the painting to return it to its native Italy, but his patriotic gesture was called to question at his trial when prosecutors asked him why he tried to sell it to art dealers and collectors in the United States, England and finally Italy. Later a sensational theory surfaced suggesting the true motive for the theft; supposedly Peruggia was hired by Eduardo de Valfierno (2), an Argentine con man who called himself "the Marques." According tho the story, de Valfierno hired art-restorer-turned-forger Yves Chaudron to make six copies of the Mona Lisa which he was going to sell to collectors as the original as soon as Peruggia stole the original from the Louvre and the theft made the papers. This story was never verified, and Peruggia, the "patriot," spent only a few months in jail.

For more information about the de Valfierno case, visit the Forged Gallery.


Scotti, R.A. (2009). Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of the Mona Lisa. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

More articles: Top 25 Crimes of the Century (3) ...Finding that Mona was Missing (4)
Mona Lisa, c'est partie! (5)

1, 2: Retrieved February 1, 2009.
3, 4: Retrieved August 2007.
5: Retrieved July, 19, 2009.

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adele bloch-bauer Adele Bloch-Bauer I, Gustav Klimt

by Brian Williams

Click on image to enlarge.

Neue Galerie link


Scotti, R.A. (2009). Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of the Mona Lisa. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

More articles: Top 25 Crimes of the Century (3) ...Finding that Mona was Missing (4)
Mona Lisa, c'est partie! (5)

1, 2: Retrieved February 1, 2009.
3, 4: Retrieved August 2007.
5: Retrieved July, 19, 2009.

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Euphronios krater The Sarpedon krater, Euphronios

by Brian Williams

Click on images to enlarge.

On Friday, January 18, 2008, at the Italian attorney general's office in Rome, authorities held a press conference (1) to announce the end of their thirty-six-year fight with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to recover the famous, highly controversial Sarpedon krater. Sculpted by ancient Greek ceramicist Euphronios around 515 B.C.E., the vase was described by the New York Times as "the finest example of painted pottery by the greatest known vase painter of ancient Greece" (2009).

In 1972, the Met had purchased the illicit krater fully aware that it had been taken from an undiscovered tomb in Italy by tombaroli, or tomb robbers. Enough evidence has surfaced over the past thirty years to convince the Italians that the Met's director at the time, Thomas Hoving, curator Dietrich von Bothmer, and the antiquities dealers who brokered the deal with the museum—Robert Hecht and Giacomo Medici—knew of the vase's illicit origins. So when Medici and Hecht were charged with illegal antiquities trafficking in 2005 (2), the Italian government opened negotiations with the museum to return not only the Sarpedon krater, but also many other looted objects Medici and Hecht sold to the museum. By 2006, the Italian government had finally convinced the Met to return the famous krater without having to resort to legal action. Despite being relieved the museum would avoid a trial, "the whole process of how Italy prosecuted its case in the United States is shabby," said Met director Philippe de Montebello in 2008. He criticized the Italians for not communicating directly with the Met but instead voicing their accusations of antiquities trafficking to the press. The museum did not want to be dragged into a potentially humiliating public trial, so—despite de Montebello's claim that the Italians had only "circumstantial evidence"—they acquiesced (Waxman, 2008, p.198). The krater would be given back.

The infamous Sarpedon krater had been looted from an Etruscan tomb near modern-day Cerveteri, Italy, in 1971. The krater's return was the culmination of a decades-long investigation by Italian authorities into the artifact's illicit origins, and the case uncovered a scandalous trail of illegal activity that led straight to some of the world's most renowned curators and museums. The case is also notable for Italy's dogged persistence in bringing to trial those who smuggled the Euphronios krater and other looted relics out of the country, and it marked the end of an era in which dealers and museums could trade in illicit artifacts without consequence. In the end, two art dealers and a museum curator would be prosecuted. Italian authorities used these hard-fought convictions to pressure the Metropolitan Museum of Art—one of the richest and most influential museums in the world—to return the krater to Italy.

hoving bother The museum had presented the Sarpedon krater to the world in November 1972. The New York Times Magazine featured the krater on its cover, and it even made an appearance on ABC TV's Today show accompanied by then-director Thomas Hoving (Slayman, 2006; Watson & Todeschini, 2006). The unveiling immediately generated controversy: archaeologists, art experts and officials in Italy demanded to know where the museum had acquired such a well-preserved artifact that had been previously unknown to scholars. Director Hoving claimed that the museum purchased the vase from antiquities dealer Robert Hecht for $1 million—a near-record price—who himself acquired it from a collector in Lebanon named Dikran Sarrafian. According to Hecht, Sarrafian’s father purchased the krater in London in 1920, well before there were any laws in Italy—or any country, for that matter—that restricted the exportation of cultural treasures (Slayman, 2006; Watson & Todeschini, 2006). But the Italians' investigation into the provenance claimed by the museum revealed that there were many inconsistencies, not least of which was that Sarrafian, Hecht and Hoving could not agree on the details of the purchase, from the date that the artifact was restored to the condition it was in when Sarrafian sold it to Hecht (Watson & Todeschini, 2006). In 2001 Hoving admitted in an article he wrote for (3) that, at the time, he and curator Dietrich von Bothmer knew exactly where the krater was from: a looted tomb in Cerveteri. The article was appropriately titled "The Hot Pot":

…Hecht seemed to actually have gotten his hands on a complete krater by Euphronios. None existed amongst Euphronios' surviving 27 vases. First thing into my mind was, "If so, then the thing had been illegally dug up and smuggled."

I zapped "BVDs" [Hoving's nickname for Dietrich von Bothmer, the Met's Greek and Roman curator] with my belief that the Hecht vase HAD to have been found in an Etruscan tomb near Rome. Etruscan tombs were often filled with Greek goodies. The Greeks disdained being buried with their stuff.

He smiled patronizingly and said, "Oh, Tom, Cervetri and the other Etruscan sites are carefully guarded nowadays and what’s more they’ve been plundered dry years ago."

Bullshit I thought, but didn't say so to Dietrich (Part 1).

tomb In 1972 the authorities discovered the ancient Etruscan tomb near modern-day Cerveteri, Italy, where Euphronios' Sarpedon krater had lain undisturbed for 2,500 years. They saw the damage done by the tombaroli in their frenzy to extract all the objects of value. The tombaroli had destroyed carved ancient stone reliefs, mistaking them for doors behind which more piles of treasure might lie. Then they hastily reburied the tomb, throwing back down into the tomb objects that were too large to carry.

The tombaroli had taken the Sarpedon krater to Giacomo Medici in Rome. As soon as he saw the unusually well preserved, almost complete artifact, Medici knew it would earn quite a profit on the market, and did not want to "pass up what would be the greatest purchase of his career" (Silver, 2009, p.50). He paid the tombaroli 50 million lire, or about $88,000, and then sold the krater to Robert Hecht for $350,000, who in turn sold it to the Metropolitan Museum for $1 million (Silver, 2009). From the very beginning of the Met's negotiations with Hecht, it is clear that all parties knew the krater had been freshly dug from an ancient site in Italy and was illicit.

Then, in 1994, a seemingly unrelated case led the Carabinieri to uncover a crucial piece of evidence that would help them crack down on the unregulated antiquities trade. On January 20, in the small Italian town of Melfi, three men walked into the Melfi museum, held the guard at gunpoint, stole eight ancient Greek terra-cotta vases, and escaped in a car registered with Swiss license plates (Watson & Todeschini, 2006). The trail of evidence led the Carabinieri to the apartment of a man named Danilo Zicchi, where they found a hand-drawn organizational chart of the illegal antiquities trade in Italy. It was stunningly detailed; beginning at the bottom of the page with the names of the gangs of tomb robbers wandering the countryside, up the ranks to the mid-level dealers, and finally listing at the top of the chart the highest-ranking dealers who sell to museum curators and collectors in the United States and Europe (Watson & Todeschini, 2006). Investigators recognized two names at the top of the chart: Robert Hecht and Giacomo Medici. Furthermore, a tomb robber came forward who claimed he had extracted the vase from an undiscovered tomb near Cerveteri, Italy, and sold it to Medici. This tomb robber was able to positively identify the Euphronios krater as the one he had excavated (Silver, 2009; Watson & Todeschini, 2006).

organigram So the authorities began investigating Medici and his possible role as an artifact smuggler. Medici had set up his antiquities business in Geneva, Switzerland, and as a result was protected by stringent Swiss laws restricting investigations by foreign law enforcement agencies. So, it wasn't until 1995, when the Carabinieri had collected enough evidence, that the Swiss gave them permission to raid Medici's warehouse in Geneva (Watson & Todeschini, 2006). The evidence the Italians found in Medici's warehouse was damning. Shelves and cabinets full of recently unearthed relics lined the walls. In another room investigators found Medici's files. Medici had meticulously recorded every transaction, including dates, the names of purchasers, and prices. He had binders filled with photos he had taken of every artifact he sold. Incredibly, he had even recorded the step-by-step restoration process: the first photo showed a recently-unearthed artifact, in pieces and showing dirt still caked-on in places, the second showed the reconstructed piece before it was cleaned and the cracks filled and painted, and the final photo showed the fully cleaned and restored artifact, ready for sale (Watson & Todeschini, 2006). A number of these artifacts were recognized as being on display in museums such as the Getty in Los Angeles. The Carabinieri seized all of Medici’s files.

medici The Carabinieri also had the testimony of the tombaroli who originally discovered the Sarpedon krater. Their description of the vase they extracted from the Etruscan tomb in Cerveteri and sold to Medici matched the Met’s Sarpedon krater. They recalled the first time they saw the krater with a "man who was bleeding" painted on its side (Silver, 2009, p.43). They were even able to correctly recall the number of figures on the vase: eleven (Silver, 2009, p.288). The tombaroli came forward because they were angry that Medici and Hecht received $1 million from the Met for the krater, after Medici paid them only $88,000 (Silver, 2009, p.50). They believed Medici deliberately underestimated the krater's market value when he bought it from them.

With the evidence gathered from the Geneva raid, Italian prosecutors arrested Medici in 1997. They now also had enough incriminating evidence to indict Hecht as well as Marion True (4)—the Greek and Roman curator of the Getty Museum who purchased a number of illicit artifacts from Hecht and Medici—for conspiracy to traffic in illicit antiquities. In 2001, the Carabinieri raided Hecht's apartment in Paris and seized his journal, in which he wrote that he bought the krater from fellow antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici, not Sarrafian (Slayman, 2006). In 2005, Medici was convicted of, among other charges, neglecting to report archaeological discoveries, receiving contraband, illegal export and conspiracy. He was sentenced to ten years in prison and a fine of 10 million euros (Watson & Todeschini, 2006). Hecht's trial is ongoing, but True's ended in October 2010 (5) when the statute of limitations expired. According to Watson and Todeschini, Medici's sentence "was by far the heaviest punishment ever handed out in Italy to someone involved in the clandestine trade of illicit antiquities trading" (2006, p.283). This sent a clear message to the Met in New York: return the krater, or we will press charges. So, despite his denial that his institution did anything wrong, Met director Philippe de Montebello agreed to return the krater to Italy (Kennedy & Eakin, 2006; Watson & Todeschini, 2006).

marion true In defense of his museum's past actions, De Montebello said that there is no connection between the purchase of looted art and the continued looting of archaeological sites (Waxman, 2008). He says that looting has occurred since antiquity and it continues even after museums stop purchasing unprovenanced artifacts. Shockingly, he credits the black market with preserving ancient artifacts (6). Although he is right about the history of looting and the fact that there is still a market for illicit antiquities even without the collaboration of museums, he is wrong to believe there is no cause/effect relationship between buying looted objects and the destruction of ancient sites. Tomb robbers are not archaeologists. The Sarpedon case, as well as the Peruvian Backflap case and other cases of illegal excavation around the world, have shown that robbers cause considerable damage to archaeological sites. But De Montebello is unmoved. "How much more would you learn from knowing which particular hole in — supposedly Cerveteri — it came out of?" he asked. "Everything is on the vase."

de montebello "I get very angry with the hypocrisy of the Philippe de Montebellos," said Lord Colin Renfrew, former head of Cambridge University's archaeology department and founder of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre (7) (as cited in Waxman, 2008, p.255). "The most scandalous thing about the Met is the way they lead collectors like Shelby White, encouraging them to buy all these looted pieces and then exhibiting them." Lord Renfrew is referring to New York millionaire and art collector Shelby White, who with her husband Leon Levy donated such a substantial collection of ancient Mediterranean artifacts to the Met that the museum named their newly-renovated Greek and Roman galleries after them. Visitors can wander the Leon Levy and Shelby White Greek and Roman Hall and view artifacts without a known provenance. In December 2006, five months before the Levy and White Hall opened, Philippe de Montebello gave a lecture at the Met about the antiquities controversy. "It is as if antiquities are no longer the patrimony of all mankind, but of someone else's particular heritage," he said (as cited in Waxman, 2008, p.176). This notion that ancient artifacts represent humanity's common history and therefore do not belong to one particular country is often argued by museums. But Lord Renfrew does not buy it. "The only place I hear that argument, in those words, are from people who are trying to justify their crimes. I only hear that from Philippe de Montebello, or apologists, often quite well-paid apologists," he said (as cited in Waxman, 2008, p.255).

white levy gallery Since the Met's purchase of the Sarpedon krater, museums have largely stopped buying unprovenanced artifacts, but the looting continues. When archaeologist Dr. Walter Alva spoke to the Peruvian Congress in 2000, he estimated that Peru had lost more of its archaeological heritage in the previous twenty years than in the four and a half centuries since the Spanish conquest (Atwood, 2004). "Invasions of archaeological sites go on with impunity," he said. "At this rate, we can be sure that within five years we will have lost eighty percent of our surviving patrimony…" (Atwood, 2004, p.216). And after the Met purchased the Sarpedon krater for a record price in 1972, the plundering of archaeological sites in Italy increased dramatically. "We were told that the tombaroli of Italy 'went crazy' when they heard the price that had been paid for the Sarpedon krater and redoubled their efforts to search out whatever loot they could find–just in case," said Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini, authors of The Medici Conspiracy (as cited in Waxman, 2008, p.198). Watson and Todeschini also noted a marked increase in the antiquities market of ancient pottery created by Euphronios in the years immediately following the Met purchase.


Atwood, R. (2004). Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Bowman, B. A. (2008). "Transnational Crimes Against Culture: Looting at Archaeological Sites and the 'Grey' Market in Antiquities." Journal Of Contemporary Criminal Justice 24(3), 225-242.

Silver, V. (2009). The Lost Chalice: The Epic Hunt for a Priceless Masterpiece. New York: HarperCollins.

Slayman, A. L. (2006, February 6). The Trial in Rome. Retrieved on May 12, 2010, from

Watson, P. & Todeschini, C. (2006). The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities – from Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums. New York: PublicAffairs.

Waxman, S. (2008). Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7: Retrieved March 26, 2011.

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euphronios kylix The Sarpedon kylix, Euphronios

by Brian Williams

Click on image to enlarge.

The Sarpedon krater was not the only artifact dug out of the ancient Etruscan tomb near Cerveteri by tombaroli in 1971. Other Greek vases were unearthed, but the exact number and condition of the tomb's contents will never be definitively known. The testimony of the tombaroli (Italian grave robbers), and the few scant clues found at the plundered tomb site are all scholars have to go on. We can only speculate about what was buried there by the Etruscans 2,500 years ago.

euphronios kylix closeup So what else was taken from the tomb? According to the men who handled the Cerveteri loot, including Medici, Hecht and Francesco Bartocci, one of the tombaroli, the krater was found with a few other vases painted by Euphronios, Most notable among these was a kylix, or chalice, that is even older than the famous krater. Experts date this kylix to the beginning of Euphronios' career, sometime around 520 B.C.E., making it one of the oldest signed works of art in history (Silver, 2009). The kylix also depicts the death of Sarpedon, but the composition is different than that of the krater. Here, Euphronios painted the gods Sleep and Death carrying Sarpedon over their shoulders in a gesture that is stiffer and less graceful than the scene he painted on the krater.

The Sarpedon kylix was something of an enigma, and for years after its discovery scholars could only guess where it could be, and if it even existed at all. It made its first public appearance at the Getty Museum in 1980, courtesy of an "anonymous loan" (Silver, 2009). The donor was Bunker Hunt, a Texas billionaire and collector of ancient coins, medals and Greek vases. He had purchased the kylix from antiquities dealer Bruce McNall—whose business partner was Robert Hecht—for $700,000 (Silver, 2009). Hecht said he bought it from Medici for $25,000, sometime "before the sale of the krater" to the Met in 1972 (as cited in Silver, 2009, p.234). McNall had advised Hunt to loan the kylix to the Getty in order to establish a convincing provenance if Hunt ever decided to sell it at auction (Silver, 2009).

euphronios kylix damage After it was displayed at the Getty, the Sarpedon kylix was part of an exhibition of Hunt's artifacts, titled Wealth of the Ancient World, that opened at the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, then travelled to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Dallas Museum of Art. Then, in 1989, Hunt filed for bankruptcy. He owed $1.5 billion to his creditors, so he decided to sell his collection of antiquities at Sotheby's auction house in New York. At the auction, the Sarpedon kylix was sold to a bidder, listed only as "European Dealer" in Sotheby's records, for $742,500 (Silver, 2009). The anonymous bidder was later identified as Giacomo Medici, who bid fiercely against other buyers at the auction, including the Met, in order to reclaim the kylix he originally sold to Hecht, who he believed had swindled him (Silver, 2009). Sotheby's shipped the kylix to Medici's warehouse in Geneva, Switzerland, where he stowed it in a fireproof safe until the Carabineri seized it during their 1995 raid.

The kylix was finally in the hands of the authorities. But while the Italians were photographing it, they dropped it, shattering it into hundreds of pieces. Fortunately the damage is reparable, according to Daniela Rizzo, the archaeologist currently in possession of the kylix at the Villa Giulia Etruscan Museum in Rome. But the museum must wait for the legal issues surrounding the kylix to be resolved before they can reconstruct it. So, until then, the fragments of the long-sought-after Sarpedon kylix sit in the museum's storage room.


Silver, V. (2009). The Lost Chalice: The Epic Hunt for a Priceless Masterpiece. New York: HarperCollins.

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the irish vermeer Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid, Johannes Vermeer

by Brian Williams

Click on image to enlarge.

This Vermeer has had the honor of being twice stolen from Russborough House (1) in rural Ireland and twice recovered before it was permanently moved to the National Gallery in Dublin. Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid was the most valuable painting owned by Sir Alfred Beit (2) and his wife Clementine, who bought Russborough in 1952 to house their substantial collection of paintings, antiques and furniture.

Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid was first taken in 1974 by Bridget Rose Dugdale, English heiress-turned-IRA-freedom-fighter, her boyfriend and two other members of the Irish Republican Army. On the evening of April 26, Dugale knocked on the door at Russborough posing as a stranded motorist, allowing the men - armed with AK-47s - to rush in and overpower the servants and Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, who were reading in the library. They pistol-whipped Sir Alfred, calling him and his wife "capitalist pigs," and after the Beits and the rest of the household were tied up, Dugdale and the men marched through the house, cutting and prying paintings out of their frames. Along with Lady Writing a Letter, they took 2 paintings by Gabriel Metsu, 2 oils and a sketch by Rubens, a Hals, a Velásquez, Goya's Doña Antonia Zárate, Madame Baccelli by Gainsborough and 9 others. In all, Dugdale's gang got away with IR£8 million worth or art; at the time, the greatest heist in history. A majority of that sum belonged to the Vermeer.

The police caught up with Dugdale about a month later and recovered the paintings she had stolen from Russborough. She pleaded "proudly and incorruptibly guilty" (3) in court and was sentenced to 9 years in prison.

The Beit collection was whole again, but only until 1986, when another Irish criminal set Russborough House in his sights. He was Martin Cahill (4), known in the papers as "The General" and by the 1980s was the leader of the Dublin criminal underworld. Sought by the police, hated by the IRA, and feared by everybody else, Cahill was on top of his game when he decided to take the Beit paintings for himself. At midnight on May 21, he brought sixteen of his henchmen out to the countryside and staged the heist. They entered the house in the rear, cutting a square of glass from a french door. As he stepped inside, Cahill set off a motion-activated alarm which rang at the police station in the nearest town. Amazingly, two police officers were driving past Russborough when the call came through. They turned up the front drive in minutes. They awoke a servant, who searched the room where the alarm was set off but he saw nothing, and the police left. Once the coast was clear, Cahill got to work. He was in and out in 10 minutes, stealing 18 paintings valued at IR£30 million, beating Dugdale's high score and capturing from her the record of the greatest heist in history. Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid was once again on the run.

Cahill's crime was a greater challenge for police - they didn't catch up with the stolen paintings until 1993, and 2 are still missing. The remaining paintings, including Lady Writing a Letter, were finally recovered (5) in the trunk of a car in a parking deck in Antwerp following an undercover sting operation made possible by the collaborative effort of police departments from Ireland, England and Belgium.

After its Antwerp adventure, the Vermeer didn't return to Russborough. It traveled to the National Gallery in Dublin to become part of the permanent collection there. Sir Alfred had arranged to donate his collection to the National Gallery the year that it was stolen by Cahill. The paintings made their way to the museum singly and in groups, as they were recovered by police.

But Russborough wasn't left alone for long. It was robbed again in 2001 (6), and then a fourth time in 2002 (7). The five paintings taken in the 2001 theft were recovered only a week before the house was robbed again in 2002. The two paintings taken in 2002 were recovered soon after and were the last of the Beit collection to be given to the National Gallery.

For more information about the Russborough heists and investigations, read Mobsters in the Manor House.


Hart, M. (2004). The Irish Game: A True Story of Crime and Art. New York: Walker & Company.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7: Retrieved July 20, 2009.

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jacob de gheyn Jacob de Gheyn III, Rembrandt van Rijn, a.k.a. "The Takeaway Rembrandt"

Click on image to enlarge.

Coming Soon. We're all busy grad students. Thank you for your patience.

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moche backflap Backflap, Moche culture, ca. 100 B.C.E. to 700 C.E.

by Brian Williams

Click on image to enlarge.

The FBI's Art Crimes Task Force (1), headed at the time by Robert Wittman, were instrumental in recovering a solid gold, ancient artifact that had been looted from a Peruvian archaeological site in 1987 and smuggled into the U.S. The existence of the artifact, called a "backflap", had only been speculated by archaeologists in the decade following the plunder of the site before antiquities smugglers working out of Miami, Florida approached dealers in New York in 1997 looking for a buyer (Atwood, 2005; Looters had uncovered the backflap while plundering an ancient Moche burial site located just outside the Peruvian village of Sipán. The Sipán site is a tomb complex built for three rulers of the ancient Moche culture, which flourished on the northern coast of Peru between 100 B.C.E. and 700 C.E., and is one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century, comparable to the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb in Egypt ( Unfortunately, looters had discovered the site before archaeologists did, and in the process of extracting all the gold, they destroyed objects that they perceived as worthless, including ceramic pottery, textiles and human remains.

The Moche backflap, the largest pre-Columbian gold artifact in existence, followed a long trail through the underworld of antiquities smugglers and dealers before it surfaced in the United States in 1997 (Atwood, 2005). At first the looters who dug it up--brothers Ernil, Samuel, Juan, and Emilio Bernal--had trouble finding an interested buyer, despite showing it to Peru's most insatiable antiquities dealers and collectors (Atwood, 2005). "It was spectacular, but it was too well known by then," said the wife of a textile industrialist in Peru. She added, "It wasn't the sort of piece you could put in your dining room and show your friends" (Atwood, 2005, p. 78). It was finally sold in 1992 through a dealer who had been consigned by the Bernal brothers to Manuel Bacigalupo, a hotel owner in Chiclayo, Peru, for the rumored price of $80,000 (Atwood, 2005). Manuel gave it to his brother Luis in Lima, who stashed it in his factory. The factory closed in 1993, but the backflap stayed hidden inside the empty factory, its whereabouts unknown to the outside world (Atwood, 2005).

Luis Bacigalupo was heavily in debt, and in 1994 decided to settle his debts by giving the backflap to Jorge Ramos Ronceros, a Peruvian bureaucrat and family friend. Bacigalupo also introduced Ramos Ronceros to Denis Garcia, a dealer working out of Miami, in order to ensure a sale to a buyer in the United States, since looted Sipán artifacts were notoriously too difficult to sell in Peru (Atwood, 2005). Right away Garcia and his associates began passing around photos of the backflap to prospective buyers. A man named Robert Bazin came forward expressing interest in the artifact, so Garcia scheduled a meeting. Garcia could only show Bazin photos of the backflap, since it was still in Ramos Ronceros's possession in Peru, and they had not yet figured out how to smuggle such a large artifact out of the country. Regardless, Bazin and Garcia agreed on a price of $1 million for the artifact (Atwood, 2005).

It wasn't until 1997 that Garcia finally called Bazin back. Bazin, angry at Garcia for taking so long to get back to him, told him he was no longer interested in the deal, but agreed to pass Garcia's name on to an associate of his (Atwood, 2005). Bazin's associate Bob called Garcia and eagerly agreed to do business with him. To Garcia's delight, Bob already had a buyer interested in the backflap; a man Bob jokingly called "el Hombre de Oro"--the Gold Man--because he was so interested in purchasing gold artifacts (Atwood, 2005). What Garcia did not know, though, was that he was dealing with undercover FBI agents: Bob was Art Crimes Task Force Agent Robert Wittman. Bazin was also an FBI agent, but he had retired from the Bureau in 1997, which is why, when Garcia finally called him back, he directed Garcia to Wittman (Atwood, 2005). And Bob's buyer, "the Gold Man," was none other than U.S. Assistant District Attorney Robert Goldman.

On September 5, 1997, Garcia and his young associate Orlando Mendez met Bob and his "associate" Aníbal Molina--another undercover FBI agent brought into the investigation because he spoke fluent Spanish--at a rest stop off the New Jersey Turnpike, halfway between New York and Philadelphia (Atwood, 2005; The two smugglers told the undercover agents that they would have the backflap in the U.S. in a matter of weeks. The plan was to fly the artifact from Lima to Panama, where another man, Frank, would escort the backflap the rest of the way (Atwood, 2005). Both parties agreed the new price for the backflap would be $1.6 million (Atwood, 2005;

After the meeting, Garcia and Mendez flew south to Peru to finalize the deal with Ramos Ronceros. After paying Ramos Ronceros $100,000 (transferred from Mendez's bank account to Ramos Ronceros's account in New York), Garcia enlisted the help of an old friend and ex-policeman to get the illicit artifact through Peruvian customs and onto the plane bound for Panama (Atwood, 2005). Once in Panama, Garcia and Mendez met up with Frank for the journey back to the United States. Frank was in fact Francisco Iglesias, the Panamanian Consul General in New York. Using his credentials and influence as a diplomat, he escorted Garcia and Mendez--with the backflap stuffed into a suitcase--right past the customs agents (Atwood, 2005). Back in the United States, Garcia and Mendez contacted Wittman to finalize the plan for the trade. Iglesias wanted to do business at the Panamanian consulate in New York, but Wittman, thinking on his feet, had to convince them otherwise. As a federal agent, Wittman would not be able to enter the consulate without written permission from the Panamanian government, and doing so could undermine the entire investigation (Atwood, 2005). So a deal was reached where both parties would meet again at the same rest stop in New Jersey.

On October 7, 1997, back at the rest stop, Wittman and Molina were surprised to see Garcia and Mendez arrive in a gold sedan with diplomatic license plates. When Iglesias got out, he gave the undercover agents his diplomatic business card (Atwood, 2005). The agents were surprised; they had already guessed that Garcia and Mendez had enlisted the help of somebody at the consulate to get the artifact into the country, but they were not expecting it to be the Consul General himself (Atwood, 2005). The three smugglers showed Wittman and Molina the backflap in the suitcase. The undercover FBI agents said they wanted to authenticate the artifact with an expert in Philadelphia before handing over the money; Garcia and Mendez--anxious to finish the deal--reluctantly agreed to follow them (Atwood, 2005).

In Philadelphia, the two undercover agents pulled into a hotel parking lot, followed closely behind by the smugglers and the backflap in the diplomat's car. Once out of the car, the three smugglers were surrounded by police and U.S. Customs agents, thrown to the ground, and handcuffed. Garcia and Mendez were taken into custody, but Iglesias was released. At the time, the FBI did not have proof that it was Iglesias--and not, perhaps, a lower-ranking consulate secretary--who smuggled the artifact into the country (Atwood, 2005). Iglesias fled to Panama and has never returned to the United States. A warrant was eventually issued for his arrest on charges of conspiracy, smuggling and interstate transportation of stolen property, but because the U.S. has no extradition policy with Panama, Iglesias has not been brought to trial (Atwood, 2005, p.182). The case, though, created a scandal in Panama, and the Panamanian government stripped Iglesias of his diplomatic title (Atwood, 2005).

Back in the U.S., Garcia and Mendez were shown the evidence against them: videotapes and audio recordings of every conversation they had with undercover officers since 1994. Both men pled guilty to conspiracy, smuggling and interstate transportation of stolen property and were sentenced to nine months in jail (Atwood, 2005).

On July 15, 1998, the backflap--illegally excavated in 1987 and in the possession of looters, smugglers and disreputable art dealers for a decade--was handed over to Peruvian archaeologist Dr. Walter Alva during an official ceremony and press conference in Philadelphia (Atwood, 2005). Dr. Alva thanked the FBI agents who recovered the backflap and took it home with him to Peru, to display it in the museum he built (2) to protect and display the artifacts of Sipán.

route of the backflap References:

Atwood, R. (2004). Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World. New York: St. Martin's Press.

FBI - Art Theft Program: Recovery - Peruvian Backflap. Retrieved on May 12, 2010, from

1, 2: Retrieved July 11, 2010.

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vermeer concert 1990 Robbery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

by Brian Williams

Click on images to enlarge.

This account of the Gardner Museum heist begins as many others do: in the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, two men dressed as police officers approach the side door of Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (1). At the door, the men identify themselves as policemen to a museum guard over the intercom and tell him they are responding to a call about a "disturbance in the courtyard" (Boser, 2008, p.3; Esterow, 2009; Kurkjian, 2005). The guard buzzes them in. Once inside, the men shove the two young guards on duty against the wall and handcuff them. "Why are you arresting me?" one asks. "You're not being arrested. This is a robbery," answers one of the thieves. "Don't give us any problems and you won't get hurt" (Boser, 2008, p.5; Esterow, 2009; Kurkjian, 2005).

After the thieves restrain the guards in the basement--where they were found the next morning, cuffed to pipes with their eyes and mouths duct-taped shut (McCarthy et al., 1990)--they ascend the stairs and head to the galleries. The thieves take their time: they spend more than an hour moving through the dark building, taking paintings off the wall and ripping them from their frames, leaving shreds of canvas and paint chips in their wake. Eighty-one minutes later, they walk out of the museum with thirteen works of art worth, at the time, $300 million. Today, twenty years after the theft, the stolen Gardner art is estimated to be worth a half-billion dollars (Boser, 2008, p.9, 68-69; Esterow, 2009).

Despite the boldness of the crime and the international attention it has received, the trail leading to the robbers and their prize is cold. The FBI has received thousands of tips over the years, interviewed hundreds of suspects, and followed leads all over the world. Even with a $5 million reward (2) for information about either the stolen art or the thieves, the FBI still has yet to uncover a single solid lead. The suspect list has been whittled down over the course of the investigation, but it is still frustratingly inconclusive. Dozens of theories have been formulated over the years--the art is sitting in a warehouse somewhere in Boston, it was hidden in a wall inside the museum itself, it was stolen by agents of the IRA and taken to Ireland--but all have led nowhere. This is a crime with a woeful lack of physical evidence. We have none of the surveillance video shot by the museum's security cameras during the robbery; the thieves took the tapes with them (McCarthy et al., 1990). Investigators found a few fingerprints on the frames, but these could have been left by any number of museum staff members before the robbery. The thieves didn't leave a single footprint or even a discarded cigarette butt at the scene (Boser, 2008, p.97). But investigators have in their possession a few tantalizing clues. The following two sections summarize what we know and what we don't know about the greatest theft in history (Boser, 2008, p.9; Kurkjian, 2005).

What We Know

The thieves had knowledge of the museum's layout and security system

The men who broke into the museum the night of March 18 came prepared. Judging by the guards' accounts of the robbery in the police report, it appears the thieves knew there was an alarm button under the security desk at the side door. When they entered, they asked the guard to step out from behind the desk to show them his I.D., thus separating him from the alarm button. That alarm was the museum's last line of defense and the only way outside authorities could be alerted that the museum was being robbed. They knew that the museum's motion detectors were tracking their movements: they took the computer printout from the security office that had recorded their path through the galleries (Boser, 2008, p.9; Kurkjian, 2005). They also knew that the museum's security system was not wired to a nearby police station. This is evident in the fact that they spent almost an hour and a half in the museum. The thieves knew they had no need to hurry.

rembrandt_galilee Was it an inside job? Or perhaps the museum guards were accomplices? According to the police report, the thieves promised the guards a reward if they kept quiet (McCarthy et al., 1990). The thieves checked on the trussed-up guards in the basement before they left, asking if they were comfortable, or if the handcuffs were too tight (Boser, 2008, p.9, Esterow, 2009). Both guards were given polygraph tests; one passed. The other guard--the one who let in the thieves--scored an inconclusive (Boser, 2008, p.94). This guard was also unwilling to discuss details of the descriptions of the thieves with police (McCarthy et al., 1990). But investigators never uncovered solid evidence to implicate the museum guards. What is obvious, though, is the Gardner Museum's security staff was inadequate in their role as the museum's primary defense. Young, inexperienced, and underpaid, they were wholly unprepared to protect the museum in the event of a break-in. Despite being instructed that they were to never let anybody inside for any reason, they assumed that this rule did not apply to police officers (Kurkjian, 2005). Nevertheless, the guards admitted to sneaking their friends in late at night, drinking on the job, and coming to work high (Boser, 2008, p.4). Since the robbery, the Gardner Museum has invested in training and strengthening the guard staff and upgrading their security system (Mashberg, 2008).

We know the path the thieves took through the museum

As previously mentioned, the thieves were aware the museum's security cameras and motion detectors were tracking their movements through the building. They took the surveillance videos and computer printouts with them, but were not aware this information was also stored on the system's hard drive, which is how investigators know the order in which the paintings were stolen and the exact time of the thieves' entrance and exit. One curious detail that investigators noticed while studying the motion detector data: Manet's Chez Tortoni was among the paintings stolen that night, but the thieves never entered the Blue Room, where the painting had been hung (Boser, 2008, p.94; Figure 1). According to the data, the last person who entered that room was one of the guards during their rounds. Is this further evidence that one or both of the guards on duty that night were involved in the crime?

Witnesses saw the thieves outside the museum before the robbery

On the night of the robbery, the two thieves were spotted sitting in a car on Palace Road, near the museum (Boser, 2008, p.1). The witnesses, high-school student Jerry Stratberg and a female friend, had just left a St. Patrick's Day party in one of the college dorms near the museum when they spotted two men sitting in a car, dressed as police officers. Stratberg approached the car to get a better look. He made eye contact with the one he later described as having Asian eyes (Boser, 2008, p.2). They had been drinking, and being under-age, were immediately wary of the presence of police officers, so they wandered back over to their group of friends and walked away. When Stratberg heard about the robbery at the museum, he and his friends went to the police station to report what they saw, but Stratberg didn't think the police took him seriously. "They made it clear that they were talking to minors who had been drinking, and it seemed like they kind of discounted what we said," said Stratberg (Boser, 2008, p.194). Stratberg said that the police never followed up with him or showed him mug shots of the suspects. Incredibly, the police did not show the two museum guards on duty the night of the robbery any suspect photos either. One of the guards went as far as to discredit the police sketch of the suspects that was drawn according to his description. "It was awful," he said (Kurkjian, 2005). Not a single eyewitness to the biggest art theft in history was shown photos of the suspects.

What We Don't Know


In the twenty years since the robbery, the FBI has yet to bring indictments against any of the individuals on their suspect list. Although the actions of the museum guards on the night of the robbery aroused suspicions, investigators ultimately concluded that they were not capable of planning such an audacious crime (Boser, 2008, p.94). Geoffrey Kelly, the FBI agent currently tasked with solving the Gardner case, described the thieves' actions as "professional" (Esterow, 2009). So authorities have focused their efforts on investigating the professionals, the big-name career criminals in Boston at the time of the theft.

rembrandt_lady The biggest name in Boston's underworld was James "Whitey" Bulger (3). For thirty years, Bulger controlled every major criminal enterprise in the city, from loan-sharking and fixing horse races, to drug dealing and contract-killing. Given his influence in Boston's underworld, it is very likely that he knows who committed such a high-profile crime as the Gardner theft. "Nothing would have happened at the Gardner without Whitey Bulger having a hand in the crime somewhere," said Charley Hill, former Scotland Yard investigator. "It's as simple as that" (Esterow, 2009). But so far no evidence has surfaced that proves he was at all involved in the robbery. Bulger has been a fugitive since 1995 and his current whereabouts are unknown.

Another person of suspicion is Myles Connor (4), a native Bostonian and convicted art thief who admitted he considered robbing the Gardner Museum in the late 1980s. Conner went as far as discussing with his associate Bobby Donati what they would take: Connor wanted Titian's Rape of Europa, Donati wanted the finial (Boser, 2008, p.141). Their plan involved dressing as police officers to get inside the museum, but Connor was arrested and sent to prison before they could commit the robbery (Boser, 2008, p.141). When interviewed in 2000, Connor named Donati and ex-con David Houghton as the men who robbed the museum. Connor said Houghton visited him in prison and told him about the heist (Boser, 2008, p.141). Connor suffered a stroke in 1998 and much of his memory of the events surrounding the robbery is lost.

The most likely suspect though is David Turner (5). Born and raised in suburban Braintree, Massachusetts, Turner did not grow up on the tough streets of blue-collar Boston, like Whitey Bulger. After high school Turner started spending time with Boston mobster Carmello Merlino, became a career criminal, and is currently serving 38 years in prison for armed robbery. He has been described by authorities and peers as very smart but also dangerously violent (Boser, 2008, p.104).

Turner's associate Merlino was arrested in 1992, and in an attempt to reduce his sentence, told authorities he could return the stolen Gardner art. Although investigators ultimately concluded that Merlino did not have control of the art, the investigation into Turner's possible involvement in the robbery heated up even more when an FBI informant said that Turner had been one of the thieves. What's more, according to this informant, Turner stood to receive 40 percent of the reward money if the paintings were returned (Boser, 2008, p.105).

More compelling evidence for Turner's involvement in the Gardner heist comes from one of the eyewitnesses. When Boser interviewed Jerry Stratberg for his book, The Gardner Heist (2008), he showed Stratberg photos of several of the men who had been suspects over the years. Stratberg pointed to the photo of David Turner, identifying him as the man he saw in the car on the night of the robbery. Stratberg noticed Turner's distinctive almond-shaped eyes as being similar to the eyes of the suspect he saw on the night of the robbery, which he had originally described as Asian. But Turner has never admitted to robbing the Gardner Museum or knowing where the art is hidden, even in an attempt to reduce his current prison sentence (Boser, 2008, p.107).

Why did they take what they did?

Anthony Amore, the Gardner Museum's current security chief, asks himself this question. "While one guy was stealing the Vermeer, another was in another gallery taking the Degas and the finial," he said. "Why Degas? I don't know. Maybe he enjoyed equestrian art or liked to go to the track" (Esterow, 2009). The thieves stole three of the four Rembrandts in the museum's collection as well as the only Vermeer, alone worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But there were many other valuable works left behind. In the Short Gallery, the thieves grabbed five sketches by Degas, but passed a Michelangelo drawing. They stole a finial from the top of a banner pole, but left behind two Raphaels and a Botticelli (Esterow, 2009). They also did not take Titan's The Rape of Europa, on display in a gallery on the third floor, which has been described by Peter Sutton, director of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, as "arguably the greatest painting in America" (Esterow, 2009). At the beginning of the investigation, the FBI at first believed the art was stolen for ransom, and the few smaller pieces taken--such as the Chinese ku and the finial--were intended to be used as proof of possession (Boser, 2008, p.95). But after no ransom demand was received, investigators dropped this theory.

Where is the art?

This is the 500-million-dollar question. Although the artwork has not been seen in twenty years, the absence of evidence is sometimes just as informative. For example, the fact that not a single Gardner artwork has surfaced suggests that the collection is still together and has not been split up and sold individually. If that were the case, one of the works might have been recovered by now.

manet_chez_tortoni Furthermore, investigators believe that, considering how famous these paintings are, the thieves were either unaware or unconcerned with the difficulties they would face trying to sell them. These paintings--particularly the Vermeer and the Rembrandts--would be immediately recognized at auction, and trying to sell them on the black market is likely just as risky. The thieves could be sitting on their treasure, waiting all these years for the attention surrounding the heist to subside before they try to sell it. But the absence of Gardner art sightings might mean that the artwork was taken for an entirely different purpose. There are many cases of stolen art being used as collateral in the illegal drug and weapons trades, and so the artwork remains in the possession of criminal enterprises, being bartered back and forth for illegal goods, never to resurface in the legitimate market. The IRA, as one example, is a criminal group that uses stolen art in this fashion.

In 1994, the Gardner Museum received an anonymous letter from an individual claiming they would be able to return the paintings for $2.4 million and immunity from prosecution. The letter writer claimed that the paintings were being stored in archival conditions and had not been sold (Kurkjian, 2005). But although the museum complied with the letter writer's first request for cooperation, a second letter expressed the writer's frustration with the police's response to the first letter (Kurkjian, 2005). But, after promising to get in touch with the museum a third time, the individual was never heard from again.

So is the Gardner art is sitting in a hiding place somewhere while the thieves--or subsequent possessors of the art--wait for the chance to unload the works for a ransom or profit? Did it fall into the hands of Boston's Irish mob, who then shipped it to their IRA compatriots in Ireland? Or has the art has entered the black market trade? If the latter is true, then it will be far less likely, if not impossible, that they will be recovered.


Boser, U. (2008). The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft. New York: HarperCollins.

Esterow, M. (2009). Inside the Gardner Case. ARTnews. Retrieved January 20, 2010, from

Kurkjian, S. (2005, March 13). Secrets behind the largest art theft in history. The Boston Globe. Retrieved January 20, 2010, from

Mashberg, T. (2008, March 18). Putting the pieces together. The Boston Herald. Retrieved January, 20, 2010, from

McCarthy, F. J., & Washington, C. (1990, March 18). Break & Entering of Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 1 Palace Road, Roxbury [Police report].

1, 2, 3, 4, 5: Retrieved April 24, 2010.

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munch_scream The Scream, Edvard Munch

by Brian Williams

Click on image to enlarge.

In the early morning hours of February 12, 1994, two men approached Oslo's National Museum of Art carrying a ladder. Propping the ladder against the side of the building, one of them climbed up to a second-story window and smashed it. Stepping inside, he emerged a few moments later carrying a large framed painting, and then slid it down the ladder to his partner. The two men sprinted to their getaway car with their prize: Edvard Munch's The Scream, one of the most recognizable paintings in the world, and perhaps the most famous object in Norway (Dolnick, 2005; Hart, 2004).

The museum's surveillance cameras recorded the entire robbery, which lasted less than a minute (Dolnick, 2005). The alarm went off when the thief on the ladder smashed the window, but, incredibly, the solitary guard in the museum's security office simply reached over and turned it off. He did not even glance up at the surveillance camera's video screen, which was showing the robbery as it was happening (Dolnick, 2005). A few moments later, a second alarm went off. As it happened, at that moment two police officers driving past the museum's front façade spotted the ladder still propped against the museum. A second look revealed the broken window. They immediately called for backup (Dolnick, 2005).

Inside the gallery, there was glass everywhere, and a telltale empty spot on the wall where The Scream had been hanging. It had previously been hung in a more secure spot on the third floor far from any windows, but the museum staff had moved it down to the second floor for a retrospective exhibition of Munch's paintings (Dolnick, 2005). Even though the window was alarmed, the painting itself was not wired to the security system (Dolnick, 2005). It was not even bolted securely to the wall; it was simply hung on a nail, as if it were on display in somebody's living room. To add insult to injury, the thieves had left a post card on the floor of the gallery, on which they wrote: "Thanks for the poor security" (Dolnick, 2005, p.8).

This crime brought to the public's attention the inadequacies of the museum's security system at a time when the world's media was focused on Norway. Norwegian authorities believed that it was no coincidence that the thieves chose the opening day of the 1994 Winter Olympics, hosted in Lillehammer, Norway, to steal the painting.

Leif A. Lier was the detective in charge of the investigation. The boldness of the crime led Lier and the Norwegian authorities to believe that it was a publicity stunt--an act intended to attract attention to an activist group--but a few promising leads soon led nowhere (Dolnick, 2005). A month after the theft, though, Norway's police finally had a break. An English criminal and ex-con named Billy Harward approached the Norwegian Embassy in London explaining that he could negotiate with the thieves and get the painting back, for a price. The Norwegian Embassy contacted Scotland Yard, who in turn contacted Leif Lier. Lier flew to London to meet with the Art Squad detectives and discuss their plan of action. John Butler, the head of the Art Squad at the time, and Detectives Dick Ellis, Sid Walker and Charley Hill had been following the case since The Scream was first reported stolen, but because the crime was not in their jurisdiction, they were still figuring out how they could assist the Norwegians. Billy Harward inadvertently provided the Art Squad with the opportunity to become involved in the case. But the English cops knew Harward, and they knew that he was, at best, an unreliable source. They rightfully suspected that he was only interested in getting some free money from the Norwegian government, so they removed him the investigation at the first possible chance (Dolnick, 2005).

By the time the Art Squad met Lier, they had already had a month to devise a plan: Detective Charley Hill would go undercover as a buyer for the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and spread the word that he, on behalf of the museum, was interested in negotiating a deal to buy back The Scream for a temporary exhibition at the Getty (Dolnick, 2005). Hill had extensive experience as an undercover art dealer; the previous year he and the Art Squad used the same ruse to successfully recover a number of paintings--including Vermeer's Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid--that had been stolen from a manor house in Ireland (Dolnick, 2005; Hart, 2004). For this operation, Hill would need to establish a paper trail to prove that he was an employee of the Getty Museum in case a suspicious criminal decided to look into his background. So the English detectives collaborated with the museum to create fake IDs, payroll accounts, business cards, and a personnel file on record at the Getty under Hill's pseudonym, "Chris Roberts" (Dolnick, 2005). Hill even spent time at the library researching the life and career of Edvard Munch, so that he would sound convincing as an art buyer and Munch expert (Dolnick, 2005).

The details of the operation were worked out, and the detectives were ready. The National Museum in Oslo spread the word that anybody who had information as to the whereabouts of the painting should contact Jens Kristian Thune, the museum's chairman of the board (Dolnick, 2005, p.93). On April 24, 1994, Thune received a call from Einar-Tore Ulving, an art dealer and Thune's cousin by marriage who lived in Tønsberg, Norway, about 60 miles from Oslo (Dolnick, 2005; Hart, 2004). Ulving told Thune that a client of his approached him with information about the painting. His client was Jan Olsen, an ex-con who spent about a dozen years in prison for arson. Olsen, Ulving said, was looking for a buyer for The Scream.

Thune called the Norwegian authorities, who in turn called Scotland Yard. Charley Hill, masquerading as Chris Roberts, "the man from the Getty," called Ulving and arranged a meeting in Oslo (Dolnick, 2005; Hart, 2004). On May 5, 1994, Hill, Art Squad chief John Butler , and Detective Sid Walker, posing as Hill's bodyguard, arrived at Oslo's Plaza Hotel (Dolnick, 2005; Hart, 2004). They had with them £500,000 in cash; money they would use to negotiate with Olsen for the painting. Walker deposited the money in the hotel's safe (Dolnick, 2005). The detectives were dismayed to discover that their sting operation was planned the same weekend that the hotel was hosting the annual Scandinavian narcotics officers' convention (Dolnick, 2005). They feared that the presence of so many police officers at the hotel would scare away the thieves, but they had no choice but to go forward with the plan.

The two undercover agents met Ulving and Olsen in the hotel's restaurant; Hill playing the role of a pushy American businessman while Walker lent an intimidating presence and seldom spoke (Dolnick, 2005). They watched Olsen closely, who was at first wary of their surroundings but relaxed as soon as Walker showed him the money in the hotel's safe. The four men agreed to meet the next day to discuss the exchange (Dolnick, 2005).

After the meeting, Olsen instructed Ulving to drive his car to a hidden garage tucked away in a back alley where Olsen's associates thoroughly searched Ulving's car for bugs or surveillance devices (Dolnick, 2005; Hart, 2004). That night, Ulving received a call at his house telling him to drive to a roadside café on the highway somewhere between Tønsberg and Oslo. It was sometime after 1am. There, a man emerged from the dark, carrying a large object wrapped in a blanket, and placed it in the back of Ulving's station wagon (Dolnick, 2005, p.208). Ulving knew what it was: The Scream. The stranger told Ulving to drive home, but Ulving suggested they drive to Åsgårdstrand only a few miles away, where Ulving kept a summer home, and hide the painting there until the trade-off (Dolnick, 2005; Hart, 2004).

The next morning Ulving and the stranger--whose name was Bjørn Grytdahl--met Olsen, Hill, and Walker at a restaurant to discuss the details of the trade-off. Olsen and Grytdahl would accompany Walker back to the hotel, and Ulving would take Hill to his summer home in Åsgårdstrand to pick up the painting. Once Hill had the painting, he would call Walker to tell him to give Olsen and Grytdahl the money. Of course, Hill would instead call John Butler and the Norwegian police, who would then raid Walker's hotel room and arrest Olsen and Grytdahl.

At Åsgårdstrand, Hill unwrapped The Scream and took a long look at it to make sure it was the original. He knew from his research that there were a few drips of wax on one corner--likely spattered onto the surface when Munch had blown out his candles after a long night of painting--so he checked the corner of the painting, near the figure's left elbow (Dolnick, 2005). The drips of wax were there; he had the original. Hill called Butler at the hotel, and the police raided Walker's room.

Olsen and Grytdahl were arrested and charged with the theft of The Scream. Police also arrested two other men for their involvement in the robbery: Pål Enger, a former soccer player, and William Aasheim, who was only 18 years old (Dolnick, 2005). The heist was Enger's idea; he had hoped to sell the painting to a lucrative buyer. It was Enger and Aasheim who broke into the National Museum that morning in February. All four men were convicted, but they appealed and each of their sentences--except Enger's--were overturned (Dolnick, 2005).

The Scream recovery was the last major undercover operation for Hill as an Art Squad detective; he left the force soon after and started a career as a private investigator. Then, in 1999, Detective Ellis retired and moved into the private sector as well. Over the next ten years, the Art Squad has diminished in manpower and funding, and it was just announced that Det. Sgt. Rapley has taken a job as the security director at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Metropolitan Police have not yet named a new Art Squad director (, 2010).


Dolnick, E. (2005). The Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece. New York: HarperCollins.

Hart, M. (2004.) The Irish Game: A True Story of Crime and Art. London: Chatto & Windus.

Stevenson, R. W. (1994, June 5). "The Scream" Is Back, but Where Has It Been? Retrieved on May 25, 2010, from The New York Times

V&A gets its own personal detective. (2010, June 8). Retrieved on June 9, 2010, from The Art Newspaper

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akkadian head Looting of the Iraq National Museum, Baghdad

by Brian Williams

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In March 2003, when Colonel Matthew Bogdanos of the Marine Reserves arrived in Umm Qasr, Iraq at the beginning of the U.S. invasion, his mission was to search for terrorist activity and weapons of mass destruction, as well as to conduct crime-scene investigations of bombings that resulted in U.S. casualties (Bogdanos, 2005, p.102-103). It was not the job of his interagency task force to protect or recover a collection of ancient, dusty artifacts in the basement of a museum. Bogdanos and his team of Marine Reservists, who in civilian life led jobs as police officers, detectives, lawyers and psychologists (Bogdanos himself is an assistant district attorney in New York City), traveled along the Iraqi Gulf coast investigating terrorist activity. In the city of Basra on April 15, a British journalist accosted Bogdanos. She screamed, "You macho assholes are down here looking for missiles and money, and the finest museum in the world in Baghdad has just been looted" (Bogdanos, 2005, p.109).

Back at headquarters, the headlines Bogdanos read online were alarming: "MUSEUM TREASURES NOW WAR BOOTY," wrote the Associated Press on April 12. On April 13, the New York Times reported, "PILLAGERS STRIP IRAQ MUSEUM OF ITS TREASURE: It took only 48 hours for the museum to be destroyed, with at least 170,000 artifacts carried away by looters." The Times went on: "The American and British forces are clearly to blame for the destruction and displacement of [Iraq's] cultural treasures" (Bogdanos, 2005, p.111). On April 14, the Independent reported, "Not a single pot or display case remained intact." Many early news articles featured photos of the museum's galleries, empty but for a few smashed display cases. Some commentators went much farther; Michael Petzel, the president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, said the U.S. was guilty of committing a "crime against humanity" for failing to protect the museum (Bogdanos, 2005, p.111). It was obvious to Bogdanos and his team what needed be done. One of the marines in Bogdanos' command turned to him. "Sir, that's our mission, " he said. "Damn straight it's our mission," answered Bogdanos. "We've got the only law-enforcement expertise in the country" (Bogdanos, 2005, p.110).

Born to a blue-collar Greek family in New York City, Matthew Bogdanos earned a law school degree as well as a graduate school degree in classical studies at Columbia University while on active duty in the Marine Corps. He became an assistant district attorney in 1988, and earned the nickname "Pit Bull" for his tenacity when prosecuting cases. While serving in Iraq in 2003, Bogdanos was in the right place at the right time: with his background as a prosecutor and his knowledge of ancient civilizations, Bogdanos had the right skill-set to investigate the looting of the Iraq Museum (1).

iraq national museum It took a few days for Bogdanos to persuade his commanders to allow him to go. He would have no convoy to protect his team during the trip north to Baghdad. Although the museum was right in the middle of the combat zone, he and his team of fourteen marines arrived there without incident. What they found was not what the Western press led them to expect. The news reports turned out to have been wildly inaccurate. Not only would it have been practically impossible for looters to extract 170,000 artifacts in 48 hours, as the New York Times reported, it was obvious to Bogdanos that the galleries had the capacity to display only a fraction of that number (Bogdanos, 2005, p.136). Only twenty-eight of the 451 glass display cases had been smashed (Bogdanos, 2005, p.136). Even more inaccurate were the reports that looters had emptied the galleries of every artifact. The galleries were empty because the museum's staff had moved almost everything to a safe location in the days before the invasion; the objects too big to move were wrapped with foam rubber to protect them from bomb blasts (Bogdanos, 2005, p.15). As highly exaggerated and sensationalized as the reports were, they contained a kernel of truth: there had been some looting, but it was determined that only forty artifacts were stolen from the galleries (2) by looters--a much lower figure than first reported by the press (Bogdanos, 2005 p.213; Brodie, 2008). Regardless, forty artifacts stolen were forty that needed to be recovered.

Bogdanos's biggest surprise was what he discovered in the museum's storage areas on the second-floor and in the basement: more than thirteen thousand objects had been stolen. These artifacts were small: coins, beads, and cylindrical seals, some of which were worth $100,000 apiece; and "would all fit in a large backpack," (3) making it easy for the thieves to escape with so many objects (Bogdanos, 2005, p.270; Warner, 2005). The artifacts stolen from the museum amounted to just three percent of the museum's total holdings (Warner, 2005), a far cry from the early news reports that looters had emptied the museum of its collection.

Three crimes in one

While searching the museum during the first few hours of his investigation, Colonel Bogdanos determined that the museum had fallen victim to three separate crimes, each one criminologically distinct. Each crime was committed by a distinct type of offender. The looting of the Iraq Museum is a classic example of Cohen and Felson's Routine Activities Theory (1979), which posits that are three factors which must be in place in order for a crime to occur: a motivated offender, a suitable target, and a lack of effective guardianship. According to this theory, if one of these elements is missing, then a crime is not likely to occur (Miller et al., 2008, p.99). In the case of the Iraq Museum, the motivated offenders (the looters) zeroed in on the target (the museum) because of a lack of suitable guardianship during the chaos and social upheaval of the U.S. invasion. The offenders themselves fell into three distinct categories: there were the opportunistic looters who grabbed objects indiscriminately, the professional thieves who knew enough about ancient art to be more selective in what they took, and the insiders--possibly museum staff--who had access to the most secure storage rooms in the museum (Bogdanos, 2005, p.213).

The first crime: opportunistic looters

Colonel Bogdanos and his team searched the museum one room at a time, accompanied by staff members and sometimes the media. While investigating one of the second-floor storage rooms, they found evidence that soldiers in the Iraqi Army had used the room as a sniper nest; it was suitable for this purpose because the windows were strategically positioned to allow them to fire at American troops on the street below (Bogdanos, 2005, p.164-5). Sometime between April 8 and April 12, Iraqi soldiers had entered the museum and gained access to the locked storage rooms with the assistance of a museum staff member, either willingly or by force (Bogdanos, 2005, p.166). Because there were no signs of forced entry, Bogdanos surmised that when the Iraqi soldiers retreated, they left the storage room doors open. The looters simply walked in and took what they wanted.

Right away Colonel Bogdanos and his team saw that the thieves who robbed the second-floor storage rooms grabbed objects indiscriminately; marks in the dust on the storage room shelves showed that they had swept armfuls of objects into bags, sometimes even emptying their own bags onto the floor to fill them with artifacts instead (Bogdanos, 2005, p.150). Some of the objects taken were actually fakes (which the museum kept locked away, so as to keep them out of the art market); further proof that the looters who robbed the second-floor storage rooms had no knowledge of ancient art and were only motivated by the prospect of an easy target. From a criminological perspective, the attractiveness of a target to potential criminals can be understood by applying Felson's acronym VIVA--which stands for value, inertia, visibility and accessibility--to the target (Miller et al., 2008, p.100). The Iraq Museum had thousands of high-value objects, many of which were small enough to be spirited away in a backpack--the "inertia" in Felson's acronym, which refers to the size and bulk of a target (Miller et al., 2008, p.101). As for visibility, the museum was not only a major landmark in Baghdad, it was also a symbol of Saddam Hussein's totalitarian regime, and therefore an ideal target for Iraqi citizens who wanted to lash out at their former oppressor (Bogdanos, 2005, p.212). Finally, in the chaotic days during the U.S. invasion when museum security and staff members were laying low in their homes, the museum stood empty and vulnerable (in fact, the museum's security director did not return to the museum until two years after the invasion). As mentioned above, the museum had become highly accessible after the Iraqi Army fled the museum, leaving the doors unlocked.

The second crime: the professionals

mask of warka Bogdanos's team reached the restoration room, from which a number of artifacts had been stolen after being placed there by the museum staff for safekeeping. Bogdanos noticed that this was a different type of crime than the one committed in the storage rooms on the second floor. The artifacts stolen from here were among the museum's signature pieces, well known to archaeologists, scholars, and antiquities experts all over the world. A few are famous because of their age--the Mask of Warka (left) for example, was carved in ca. 3100 B.C. and is regarded as the earliest artistic representation of a human face (Bogdanos, 2005, plate 28). As much negative publicity as the United States received for failing to protect the museum from looters, and as culturally significant as these objects are, this crime was the least serious of the three in terms of the number of artifacts stolen. Furthermore, these artifacts were world-famous and easily recognizable, which would make it difficult for thieves to sell them or smuggle them past customs agents stationed at the Iraqi border. In fact, sixteen of the forty artifacts from the galleries have been recovered as of this writing (Brodie, 2005).

mask of warka The cultural and aesthetic significance of these objects is what alerted Bogdanos to the fact that this was not a crime committed by a typical looter off the street. The scene in the restoration room was different than what Bogdanos's team saw in the second-floor storage rooms, where the looting had been hasty and haphazard. Here, it was obvious that the objects taken were carefully selected, judging by what was left behind. These thieves were professionals (Bogdanos, 2005, p.213). The fact that such high-profile pieces were stolen is evidence that the thieves were members of a sophisticated network of smugglers and would be able to get the artifacts out of the country more easily than an average citizen. Another possible scenario is that the thieves had lined up prospective buyers beforehand, as suggested by Dr. Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress. Dr. Chalabi's belief is that these forty big-ticket items from the museum's galleries were hand-picked by unscrupulous art collectors sometime before the invasion (Bogdanos, 2005, p.215). The confusion and lack of security at the museum in April 2003 was an ideal opportunity to grab them. Furthermore, Bogdanos noticed that some of the artifacts were left sitting on tables in the restoration room when nearly all of them were small enough to fit inside one of the room's safes just a few feet away. Why would the museum staff leave these valuable artifacts on the table and not lock them in a safe? Bogdanos had to consider that a staff member had intentionally left the artifacts sitting out to be picked up later by an accomplice (Bogdanos, 2005, p.275). The fact that the restoration room was located near an exit supports this theory (2005, p.275).

Like the looters, the actions of the thieves who stole the artifacts from the restoration room and galleries can be explained using Cohen and Felson's routine activities theory. They took advantage of the museum's lack of guardianship to gain access to what they wanted: dozens of high-value, easily transportable objects. The looters ended up with both authentic pieces and fakes because they lacked the knowledge to tell the difference; they also vandalized the museum's administrative offices to a greater extent than the galleries in a gesture of protest of the museum administrators' allegiance to Iraq's former regime. On the other hand, the restoration room criminals were motivated by the prospect of millions of dollars in profit through the sale of the artifacts to foreign dealers or collectors. Not only were they professional criminals, they had considerable knowledge of ancient art and antiquities.

The third crime: the inside job

seals The third, and perhaps most devastating, crime occurred in the museum's basement storage area where Colonel Bogdanos and his team discovered the theft of more than ten thousand small artifacts. The door to the locked basement storage area had even been bricked over before the invasion, but the thieves had broken through (Bogdanos, 2005, p.4, 216). Once inside, the thieves rifled through every box that had not been secured in one of the locked cabinets or safes along the wall. In fact, the thieves did have the keys to those locked cabinets, but dropped them amidst the clutter of empty boxes on the floor in the dark room. One can only imagine how long they searched for those keys in the darkness. Bogdanos's team later found the keys where the thieves had dropped them (Bogdanos, 2005, p.10). This was an incredible stroke of luck for the museum; hundreds of thousands of gold and silver artifacts were stored in those locked cabinets, some of them more than five thousand years old (Bogdanos, 2005, p.12). Still, the thieves were able to escape with thousands of valuable and culturally significant ancient objects.

It was obvious to Colonel Bogdanos and his team that looters off the street did not commit this theft; it had to have been an inside job. The thieves knew where to find the keys to both the basement storage area and the locked cabinets; only a few museum administrators had that knowledge. After the keys were found, Bogdanos asked museum director Dr. Nawala al-Mutwali where they had been stored. She led him to a corner of the room and showed him the keys' hiding spot in the back corner of a drawer, behind some index cards. Bogdanos noticed that the drawer was neat and orderly; the thieves knew exactly where the keys were and did not have to rifle through the contents of the drawer (Bogdanos, 2005, p.11). As few people knew what was stored in the locked cabinets in the basement, even fewer had known exactly which drawer contained the keys to the cabinets (Bogdanos, 2005, p.11).

Therefore, the only people with the knowledge necessary to rob the basement storage areas would be Iraq Museum administrators. Put another way, this was a "crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation," which is Edwin Sutherland's 1983 definition of white-collar crime (Miller et al., 2008, p.182). The individuals who robbed the basement storage areas enjoyed a position of prestige in Iraqi society--or at least among Saddam's ruling party--and do not fit common criminological descriptions of criminals as individuals who act out of impulse or opportunity, who associate themselves with a criminal counter-culture, or who generally lack self-control. Another component of white-collar crime, as theorized by researchers such as Chambliss (1988, 1999) and Quinney (1980), is that white-collar crimes, such as corporate fraud and negligence, inflict greater social harm than crimes committed against individuals (Miller et al., 2008, p.182). The Iraq Museum looting case exemplifies this premise; looters off the street stole approximately 3,178 objects from the galleries, restoration room and second-floor storage rooms, whereas the thieves who gained access to the underground storage areas--who had insider knowledge of the valuable contents in the museum's basement as well as how to access them--robbed the museum of 10,686 artifacts (Bogdanos, 2005; Brodie, 2008; Warner, 2005). Furthermore, 96 percent of the objects stolen by looters off the street have been recovered; by comparison, only 2,307 artifacts from the museum's basement have currently been recovered--a recovery rate of 22 percent (Bogdanos, 2005; Brodie, 2008). This suggests that the thieves who had insider knowledge and stole the bulk of the artifacts taken from the Iraq Museum in April 2003 also had enough knowledge to successfully integrate the artifacts into the art market beyond Iraq's borders.

Reports from the Iraq Museum show that artifacts stolen during the 2003 invasion continue to be recovered today, but if it weren't for Colonel Bogdanos and his team of Marines studying the museum's crime scenes and determining what was stolen, what was left behind, and who the likely culprits were, the recovery rate might have been much lower. At the beginning of the investigation, Bogdanos instituted an amnesty program allowing anybody to return artifacts taken from the museum without threat of prosecution, no questions asked . By going out to talk to the local population--and by forming collaborative relationships with the press ("After all the hype and hostility of the initial reports," Bogdanos said, "I thought the fourth estate owed me one.")--he and his team spread the amnesty announcement among the population in Baghdad (Bogdanos, 2005, p.152). Almost immediately, people began returning artifacts. Many were local citizens who claimed they were temporarily holding the artifacts for "safekeeping" (Bogdanos, 2005, p.151). Bogdanos' team recovered 100 artifacts in the first three days of their investigation alone.

Bogdanos also credits the collaboration between the international police force and UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, in the months following the looting for contributing to the recovery of more artifacts. On July 8, 2003, Interpol and UNESCO signed a cooperation agreement, bridging the gap between the international law enforcement and art communities, to achieve the common goal of retrieving the objects taken from the Iraq Museum. (Bogdanos, 2005, 307n272). The FBI set up a task force to investigate and prosecute the thefts as well. And in November 2004, Congress passed the Emergency Protection for Iraqi Cultural Antiquities Act, thereby making it illegal to import into the United States any unauthorized artifacts from any archaeological site within Iraq (Bogdanos, 2005, p.263).

lion The case of the Iraq Museum looting is an object lesson in how easily misinformation can spread in the first critical days after a high-profile crime occurs. The international press--either in their rush to print the story before checking their facts, or because of their particular political point of view--simply got it wrong. Because of this, the international indictment of the U.S. following the looting of the museum was vicious and instantaneous. Other books written about the looting--such as The Rape of Mesopotamia by Lawrence Rothfield which barely mentions Bogdanos, and The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad by Milbry Polk and Angela Schuster that, remarkably, does not mention Bogdanos at all--are quick to blame the U.S. for failing to protect the museum from looters, and therefore are unwilling to soften their criticism by giving credit to an American soldier risking his life to repair the damage done to the museum. After Bogdanos' investigation, it turned out that the severity of the crime had been highly exaggerated, and the soldiers fighting in Baghdad went to considerable lengths not to damage the museum. When the Iraqi snipers inside the museum shot at the American tanks on the street, the tanks retreated rather than engaging the enemy who were using the museum as a cover (Bogdanos, 2005, p.208-211). Even more surprising, the museum was victimized in part by its own staff members who took advantage of the chaos in the city during the invasion. Ironically, if it were not for the first few sensationalistic news reports in April 2003, Bogdanos might not have decided to hurry to Baghdad to secure the museum. Without his assistance, it's anybody's guess how long it would have taken for the truth to surface.

poster In both the courtroom and the combat zone, Bogdanos is driven by a strong desire to uphold the rule of law. Bogdanos writes in his book that he made it his mission to recover the stolen artifacts, what he called "the property of the Iraqi people" (2005, p.127). It was an uphill battle from the beginning, and he was initially criticized by reporters and members of other organizations on the ground in Baghdad who blamed the U.S. for failing to protect the museum. One UN agent told Bogdanos, "I'm not here to help you. I'm here to watch you fail" (Bogdanos, 2005, p.181). He was also determined to be respectful to the museum staff, and even though he regarded everybody at the museum as suspects, he would not treat them with suspicion (Bogdanos, 2005, p.133). To successfully investigate the theft, he would have to earn the staff's trust. His professionalism and integrity in his every action--while risking his life in a combat zone, facing insurmountable odds as well as intense criticism from the international community--is a testament to Bogdanos' courage and his conviction to do what is right.


Bogdanos, M., & Patrick, W. (2005). Thieves of Baghdad: One Marine's Passion to Recover the World's Greatest Stolen Treasures. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.

Brodie, N. (2008, October 20). 2003 Looting of the Iraq National Museum. Retrieved March 9, 2010, from the Stanford Archaeology Center at

Miller, J.M., Schreck, C.J., & Tewksbury, R. (2008). Criminological Theory: A Brief Introduction. Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Warner, F. (2005, July 3). The Single Backpack Theory: Proof archaeologists owe the U.S. an apology for their accusations on Iraq National Museum looting. Retrieved March 9, 2010, from Free Frank Warner.

More articles:
The Casualties of War: The Truth About the Iraq Museum (PDF) by Matthew Bogdanos
The Baghdad Museum Project (4)

1, 2, 3, 4: Retrieved April 22, 2010.

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moore A Reclining Figure, Henry Moore

by Dayna Jalkanen

Click on image to enlarge.

In one of the most confounding art heists to date, three men outfitted with a crane-equipped red Mercedes flat-bed truck swiped a two-ton bronze Henry Moore sculpture right off the late artist's guarded property. On December 15, 2005, around 10:00 pm, the thieves broke into the grounds of the Henry Moore Foundation sculpture park in Much Hadham, Hertfordshire in England and stole Moore's A Reclining Figure (1). Described as an "audacious theft" by Hertfordshire Police Chief Inspector Richard Harbon, the men simply drove through the park security gate, supposedly left open for a tenant, and hoisted the 11-foot long, 6 foot-wide, 6 foot-high sculpture onto their stolen truck. Audacious, indeed. A Reclining Figure had recently returned from an exhibition and was not set in its usual location on its base, but rather was placed near the park's visitor center, possibly making it easier for the thieves to steal (2).

Police speculate that the sculpture, valued at $5.3 million in 2005, may have been stolen to be melted down and sold as scrap metal (3). Considering, however, that its raw material value was estimated to be a relatively measly $5,000-$10,000, some investigators believe the theives may have intended to smuggle it to the United States where it could have been sold by "dodgy dealers," possibly as a copy, for up to $200,000. Julian Radcliff, chairman of the Art Loss Registry, even stated that it would be relatively easy for the thieves to box up the sculpture and send it across the Atlantic unrecognized and unnoticed. However, the heist received a great deal of British media attention which may have deterred the thieves from any potential plans along those lines.

In spite of the thieves having been caught on security cameras, and having been seen by a civilian in Harlow, Essex about an hour after the heist, A Reclining Figure has yet to be retrieved and the perpetrators still roam free. Police did, however, recover the truck (4) they believe the culprits used to transport their prized loot. It was found on December 18th, 2005, in Coopersale, Essex. They believe a second, smaller vehicle was also involved-- possibly a Mini-Cooper or a Daihatsu-- but that vehicle has not been acquired by the authorities.

Word quickly spread to the art community that the sculpture had been stolen, and immediately many other institutions owning large, public Moore sculptures were placed on red alert for fear of copy-cat crimes. Although no other Moore sculptures of the size of A Reclining Figure have been pilfered (the Art Loss Registry does have 47 smaller Moore sculptures listed as stolen and unrecovered), copy-cat criminals in Britain did successfully steal other public bronze sculptures (5) created by various artists including Henry Pegram and Lynne Chadwick.

Should you happen to come across A Reclining Figure, consider it your lucky day, snap a picture on your cell phone and report it to British authorities. The Henry Moore Foundation (6) is offering a reward up to 100,000 pounds sterling (about $200,000) for any information leading to the retrieval of the sculpture.

1, 2, 3: Retrieved January 22, 2009.
4, 5: Retrieved February 2, 2009.
6: Retrieved January 22, 2009.

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modigliani Break-in at the Museum of Modern Art, Paris

by Brian R. Williams

Click on images to enlarge.

Sometime in the early morning hours of May 20, 2010, a lone thief (1) broke into the museum through a ground-floor window at the rear of the building. The city had just spent $24 million updating the museum's security system, but it was malfunctioning at the time of the robbery. It had been offline for three weeks before the break-in. The interior surveillance cameras were working though—at least one intruder was captured on film—but the outside cameras were inexplicably pointed up to the roof (2). Without a working security system, the three guards on duty that night were the museum's last line of defense, but they reported that they saw nothing.

The thief was inside the museum for fifteen minutes and left out the same ground-floor window with five paintings:

paris modern crime scene

Despite being in and out in fifteen minutes, the thief had time to carefully remove each painting from its frame and pack them into a single bundle before exiting through the same window he entered. The paintings were also hung in several galleries on opposite sides of the museum, strongly suggesting that he had knowledge of the building's layout as well as a "shopping list" of which paintings he had come to steal. And the fact that the thief removed the paintings from their frames so quickly suggests that he has experience framing pictures. (This would not be unprecedented; the man who stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911 also removed the painting from its frame before escaping. Despite the Mona Lisa having two frames weighing a total of 80 pounds, it was easy for him – he was the man who had built the frames for the Mona Lisa a few years before.)

The discovery of the theft at 7 am the following morning prompted the museum community to immediately express shock and outrage. Pierre Cornette de Saint-Cyr, the head of the Palais de Tokyo Museum in Paris, taunted the thief or thieves in a television interview. "These five paintings are unable to be sold," he said (3). "So, thieves, sirs, you are imbeciles. Now return them."

Paris' art community may rightly be upset, but they shouldn't be surprised. The museum's near-total lack of security left it open and vulnerable to attack. Furthermore, "Nobody at either City Hall or the museum would speculate on insurance – prompting speculation that there was none," wrote Peter Allen for the Daily Mail Online. "'It may well be that the security was considered good enough,' said a member of staff at the museum."

Statistically, high-profile heists like this one are easier to solve, mainly because the paintings are so well-known that the thieves find them impossible to sell, even on the black market. But as of this writing, the case is still unsolved and these paintings have not yet been recovered.

1, 2, 3: Retrieved January 11, 2011.

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