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Recovering Cultural Property Across the World: Interview with the FBI Art Crime program manager Tim

It was a crisp spring day in rural Indiana. Probably the wildflowers were just beginning to peak their heads above the soil; the birds were chirping hungrily for worms. And, in a home off Rush County Road 850, an FBI command vehicle was parked while a group of tents was erected.

On this day, and over the course of the week to come, the FBI’s Art Crime team recovered over 7,000 cultural artifacts from the home of 91-year old Don Miller. These items ranged from “arrowheads to shrunken heads and Ming Dynasty jade.” They came from Native American lands and from “China, Russia, Italy and Greece,” and at least two-dozen other countries that the FBI has identified to date. Miller had curated a museum of sorts from his extensive world travels. The FBI believed that much of the collection had been illegally or improperly obtained. He cooperated with the Bureau, though, and was never charged with a crime in conjunction with this raid; he died about a year after the recovery.

This is the biggest, perhaps most culturally significant case Mr. Tim Carpenter —supervisory special agent and FBI Art Crime program manager — has been a part of in his 20 years in law enforcement, and 10 years on the team. To some degree, the case’s significance arises from the “sheer volume of [Miller’s] collection,” he tells ARTpublika. “We’re still sifting through that… It’s kind of a career case, and I suspect they’ll still be working on it after I retire.”

This specialized program was founded in 2004, “partially due to the looting of Baghdad Museum.” This inciting incident, as it were, highlights the global aspect of these cases. Carpenter estimates that perhaps more than 50% of their work has an international element, and “every year it seems like we’re engaged more and more internationally.” The FBI Art Crime team works collaboratively with Interpol, Europol, NGO’s, and other governmental organizations, because “cultural property crime is a global phenomenon.”

Carpenter explains: “The U.S. is a major consumer market not only for legal art trade, but also illegal art trade. Much of what flows into the U.S. comes from foreign countries, so we do spend a lot of time working with our foreign partners. We collaborate on investigations, share notes and intelligence, and we provide training to one another because we can all learn from one another.”

In this vein, for the first time ever, the Art Crime team is conducting their annual training outside of the U.S., in Bulgaria this August. The focus will be “heavily on the antiquities trafficking trade.” Past themes have included “authentication issues” as well as “conservation and object handling.” Carpenter elaborates: “That’s a really important piece — how do you handle the cultural property? You don’t just put it in a brown sack and throw it into an evidence locker. Lots of special care and consideration [is required] when we seize or otherwise obtain these pieces. The worst thing that can happen, [for instance], is you take a 5,000 year old artifact that survived the looting process, was transported around the world, is seized in a law enforcement action, and then the FBI comes and breaks it. So we spend a lot of time training them how to properly handle it and package it, and also store it, so it doesn’t become a pile of dust.”

Of course, the “bread and butter” of the team’s mission is to solve art theft crimes. They treat these like “just a traditional criminal case, the basic whodunit,” Carpenter tells ARTpublika. “A theft from a major institution or museum, we’re going to come in and treat [that] like a traditional criminal case. That means we might do a crime scene analysis [with an evidence recovery team], we’ll interview staff, interview the public.” Besides thefts, though, the team investigates art forgery cases, which are somewhat “different — [while] every criminal case has the same undertones, forgery cases are a little more challenging. In [these cases], victims don’t always like to come forward — in theft cases they almost always come forward… Victims may be reluctant to cooperate or come forward, and I think some of that is probably related to embarrassment, bad press and so forth. They don’t want to draw attention to themselves and show that they were victimized.” Besides the variance in victims, they solve forgery cases a little differently, too. “For [these] cases we’re going to rely heavily on expertise and rely heavily on laboratory analysis.”

Does “laboratory analysis” mean fingerprinting? Sometimes. “We just successfully solved a case by pulling fingerprints off a forgery... We identified the piece as a forgery based on the fingerprints,” Carpenter tells us. But more commonly, it involves a scenario like this: “Let’s say you have an artist that’s trying to forge a 17th century [period] painting. That’s a complex painting and you have to make it look authentic. How do you get canvas [to look authentic]? How do you get the frame look like a period piece? What about the pigments? What techniques do they use? We break those elements down in a laboratory analysis. We might take a really small sample of paint, and through lab analysis we’ll look at it under microscope to show that paint or dye didn’t exist until 1970, for instance.”

Occasionally the team will take a case not explicitly related to theft, forgery, or antiquities trafficking, such as “art crime cases related to money laundering, terrorism financing, bankruptcy, [other] frauds related to art—we have investigations that touch into all of these different arenas.” In addition, the art or cultural objects relevant to their investigations can vary widely. The FBI’s Top Ten Art Crimes list includes theft of paintings by Cezanne, Rembrandt, and Degas, to be sure. But it also lists the theft of a precious violin. Previous cases have involved wine fraud—i.e., selling cheap wine in high-end, rare vintage bottles—as well as “stolen lunar rocks,” a stolen “copy of the Bill of Rights that belonged to North Carolina, [as well as] manuscripts, coins.” “If it’s culturally significant,” Carpenter explains, “we might take the case.” This doesn’t necessarily have to do with its monetary value, though when it does involve a threshold like this, it has more to do with the jurisdiction of the “U.S. Attorney’s office in that region.”

So what does it take to join the team? What does Carpenter look for in his special agents? “It’s great if you have a Ph.D. in art history or [a background in archaeology], but the most important thing is a passion [for art] and that you’re a good investigator. Most people assume that to be an Art Crime team member you have to have some academic training, a Ph.D.… [but] what I need first is a good criminal investigator, someone who just understands, as an agent, how to put together a solid criminal case. Everything else can be taught. [And] they have to have a passion for art, or they have to understand the importance of art.”

This is certainly true for Carpenter. “I was a fledgling artist as a young guy who wanted to go to art school,” he confesses. “But I enlisted in the military instead… which eventually brought me around to the FBI. Early in my career I had an opportunity, was in the right place at the right time, and worked on some art crime cases… but it’s also because I had a passion for art based on my earlier training.” He’s part of a team that began with eight folks, but is now growing into a group of 21 dedicated agents.

For his part, Carpenter is involved in headquarters oversight, budget oversight, policy implementation, training development, and briefings. He also keeps “executive management apprised of operations” and “develops a lot of liaison for the program.” “A big piece of this,” he says, “is knowing who to call. I often say I’m not an expert on anything excepting finding experts.”

But at the end of the day, the most rewarding part of being a member of the FBI’s Art Crime team comes “anytime you can return one of these objects to someone… Maybe not a [culturally] important piece, maybe not even one of high [monetary] value, but [one that] has sentimental meaning… It’s the look on their face when you give it back to them.” This work “is important to agents on a personal level, and I’m glad we can dedicate resources to it.”

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