Art Theft in Connecticut: Gone Baby, Gone
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It’s impossible to assess the true extent of art theft in any state. The Connecticut State Police (like their counterparts elsewhere) do not distinguish stolen art from other stolen goods. Art theft is an act of larceny and is treated as such—only stolen automobiles are filed in their own separate category, so there are no available numbers on art theft in the state. Throughout the U.S., there are fewer than 1,000 reported art thefts per year, less than 5 percent of what is reported in Italy. The U.S. tends to be a destination for stolen art and looted antiquities, which are smuggled to major markets like New York, while the majority of cultural goods are taken from source countries with a far longer history of creating art. There are only a few thousand entries in the National Stolen Art Database maintained by the FBI (as opposed to over 3 million in Italy’s database), so the problem is not as widespread as it is in Europe. However, what is dismissed so often as an unimportant crime category is darker and more complex than most realize, as the links between various illicit products, from art to drugs to animal parts to firearms demonstrates.
Last May was a busy month for art theft with Connecticut ties, and one that briefly brought into focus many of the far-flung aspects of the crime. Federal wildlife agents arrested a couple in Alaska whose stash of illicit goods included illegal animal parts, machine guns and five paintings that had been stolen from a Bloomfield home in 2005. In total, the paintings were worth around $400,000. Later that month, a rash of thefts of silver and bronze objects, many of them fine artworks, took place in the Old Lyme/Deep River/Westbrook area. A theft from a Lyme home included Chinese carvings, a 19th-century mahogany box, a nine-piece Tiffany silver set, sets of English Derbyshire flatware and a narwhal tusk. In Deep River, a family lost a large bronze sculpture, weighing 250 pounds and standing 5 feet tall, worth several thousand dollars. And, still in May, Robert Gentile’s Manchester home was searched by FBI agents, who suspected he was involved in the largest art theft in history, when $500 million worth of art treasures were stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The crime has never been solved, and a $5 million reward is still outstanding. Gentile, 75, is a former member of a Boston-based mafia group led by Robert Luisi. While the police found no stolen art, they did dig up a pistol and silencer buried in the back yard.
These May episodes all bear the markings of organized crime—the silver and bronze thefts in the lower Connecticut River Valley took place over an extended area, with many locations targeted. The Alaskan couple who were found with the five paintings stolen from Connecticut were part of a larger organization trafficking in the variety of illicit goods.They pleaded guilty to selling hundreds of pounds of illegal walrus-tusk ivory, two polar bear hides and two unlicensed machine guns. And Gentile had been a well-known member of a major New England mafia family.
Whether or not you are an art lover, there is good reason to protect art. While the preservation of cultural heritage may not be reason enough for everyone to take art crime seriously, impeding the trade in drugs and arms, and even terrorist activity, certainly is. Next time you read about stolen art, don’t think Thomas Crown. It is far more likely that the art will go toward funding drug deals than decorating some collector’s bedroom wall.