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US Customs art squad reassigned to war on terror

The agents who had investigated stolen art will now work on cases related to terrorism and fraud

The US Customs Art Fraud Investigation Center set up in 2000 to track and seize stolen art has been subsumed into the Department of Homeland Security. This was set up by Congress in response to the attacks of 11 September which destroyed US Customs headquarters at the World Trade Center. The agents who had concentrated exclusively on tracking and seizing smuggled art have now been redeployed to investigate cases related to the war on terrorism and financial fraud.

Although cases of stolen art will still be investigated by Customs agents, no employees will work exclusively on art investigations.

The re-organisation has not been publicised, but government officials confirmed the move to The Art Newspaper at a ceremony in late November at the offices of the newly named Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The occasion was the return of a 14th-century Hebrew manuscript looted during the Nazi era from the Jewish Library of Vienna. The work, valued at around $68,000, had been traced to an auctioneer in New York and has now been returned to representatives of the Jewish Community of Vienna.

Speaking to The Art Newspaper, ICE Acting Assistant Secretary Michael J. Garcia said, that following 11 September, “we made some adjustments given the new priorities that came our way.” These “adjustments” include redirecting the department’s efforts to focus on “financial transactions and terrorism.” The Department of Homeland Security now encompasses 22 former agencies, employs 170,000 and its current annual budget is $36.1 billion.

The Art Fraud Investigation Center was set up just three years ago to bolster Customs investigations of art theft. At its launch, the then Commissioner of the US Customs Service, Raymond Kelly, said that stolen art “is a big business that is getting bigger” and warned that the US would “not be a safe haven for stolen art”. He went on to say: “Countries realise more than ever before that antiquities have been stolen from them. They want them back. This unit is now in one place so it will be easier for us to deal with foreign governments.” Commis­sioner Kelly had announced that the squad would have an annual budget of between $800,000 to $900,000. Half a dozen agents were said to be working exclusively on art cases.

In 2000, agents working for the Art Fraud Investigation Center seized a 5th-century BC solid gold platter worth $1.2 million from the collection of the New York financier Michael Steinhardt. Italy had said that the platter had been illicitly excavated from a site in Sicily and had called for its restitution. It was handed over to Italian authorities by Commissioner Kelly and is now on view in a museum in Palermo. At the time, Commissioner Kelly estimated that the value of works seized by Customs art specialists was around $30 million, 80% of which were recovered in New York.

Last year, Customs agents seized a baroque altar allegedly smuggled from Peru which a dealer in Santa Fe was offering for sale. Agents also returned to Honduras Mayan objects which were for sale in Ohio.

Speaking to The Art Newspaper, ICE New York Special Agent-in-Charge Martin Ficke, said, that because of the looting of museums in Iraq, ICE has more active art cases than ever before. He insisted that the consolidation of resources and databases will make retrained agents more efficient. “We work these leads to exhaustion. Nothing goes uninvestigated. It is not a situation where we get a lead here in a particular area and say ‘we’re not going to do it’, because we’re investigating counter-terrorism or money or narcotics. We don’t have a specific unit now that investigates art theft, but we’ve got a lot of expertise in the office.”

Others question whether the dedication to investigating cases of stolen or smuggled art will survive the ICE age. According to one insider, agents working for the Art Fraud Investigation Center “were in active communication” with various foreign governments that protect their cultural property. “They were looking for cases and developing them. Now that will no longer happen; unless something falls on agents’ toes and they have to respond to it, that won’t take place. Legislation is just words on paper unless somebody puts some teeth in it and that’s what Customs did. Considering the amount of money that has been made available for national security since 11 September, I do not think that a few Customs people in New York dealing with art would have made a big dent on that budget.”

One critic of a conspiratorial bent hinted that aggressive investigators aggravated enough influential collectors and dealers in New York for them to lobby privately for the redeployment of the art squad: “When they finally saw the opportunity with the Bush administration’s new war on terror, they made a few phone calls to people in high places and took care of it”. The Art Newspaper has no evidence of such lobbying.

The Art Newspaper made several phone calls to ICE headquarters in Manhattan seeking information about art related investigations. More often than not, the staffers in the press department who “came from Immigration” and referred to pre-ICE Customs as “Legacy Customs” knew nothing about ongoing art cases.

Lawyers involved in art recovery hope the ICE learning process will be quick. “Customs was instrumental in numerous recoveries over the last five years, and I just hope they find a way to re-energise their efforts, which the acting commissioner said they were going to reconsider,” said Thomas Kline, a lawyer who has represented various international institutions that have sought the restitution of works of art from the US.

“Art theft is the only crime for which the victim has to become the policeman,” said Mr Kline. “There’s only so much in terms of resources that the victims can marshal. Having law enforcement involved in recovering stolen moveable objects is very important.”