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Posts published in “Crime”

Interview with Michael Blanding, author of The Map Thief

Ulrich Boser 0

Disgraced map dealer Forbes Smiley once told reporter Michael Blanding that he hoped that the stories about his thefts "would go away." That might be so. But thankfully Blanding took up the case, telling a powerful story about the nature of crime and greed. I blurbed Blanding's book called The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps with those words. Recently, I interviewed Blanding via email. A lightly edited transcript below.

Why did you write this book?

I've been a lover of maps since a young age - something about looking at map immediately makes me excited about traveling and discovering new places. So when I first heard about Smiley's case back in 2005 I was very intrigued by his story and this world of rare-map collectors it involves. In 2011, I was complaining to a journalist friend that I didn't have any good story ideas, and she mentioned that Smiley had just been released from prison and I should try and interview him. As soon as I spoke to him, I knew that I had the subject for a fascinating book that would be part psychological profile of a thief, part history of mapmaking, and part investigation into this obscure subculture.

Why does it matter?
Maps have been incredibly important documents over the centuries -- they have helped to discover new territories, define boundaries, establish trading empires, and win wars. And yet, most people don't know a lot about them. Many of these historical maps exist in only a few copies safeguarded by rare-book libraries and other institutions and so when someone steals or defaces them, they are changing our understanding of history. The fact that it was a lover of and dealer in rare maps who was doing the stealing intrigued me and made me ask what makes someone betray the thing that he loves most for personal gain. I think that is a very human story to which everyone can relate.

The_Map_Thief_cover

What surprised you the most?

While I found what Smiley did despicable, I also found him to be sympathetic and relatable in many ways. One of the most surprising aspects of his story was his attempts to essentially buy a small town in Maine during the course of his thefts, and develop it into the image of a perfect New England village. He bought the post office, and a restaurant, and general store, and ended up employing half of the town, which thought he was Robin Hood come to save their community. Unfortunately half of the town didn't share his vision, and he got in all kinds of legal battles that ended up costing him more money and, if they didn't cause his thefts, they certainly exacerbated them. 

Does Smiley's story provider broader lessons for how we think about crime and criminal justice?

Smiley's thefts were a test case in the area of antiquities theft. Because he  admitted to many of his thefts, he ended up getting a lighter sentence than some of his victims thought he should get. I can see both sides--one the one hand, authorities wanted to present an incentive to future thieves to cooperate in recovering artifacts; on the other, victims argue that by not giving a heavier sentence, the law isn't doing enough to deter future thefts. As I go into in the book, however, there were also serious questions raised about how much he cooperated with authorities and whether he actually admitted to all of his thefts or not. There are a lot of good arguments on both sides, and ultimately I leave it to the reader to decide for him- or herself.

Have there been any developments since the book was released? Have you heard from Smiley himself?

I've been very pleased to receive positive feedback from nearly everyone I wrote about, including map dealers, librarians, and some of Smiley's friends. I had really tried to present all sides fairly and accurately, so it was gratifying to hear that I had succeeded. The two exceptions were one map dealer who did not like the way I portrayed him in the book (Anyone who's read the book could probably figure out who this is), and Smiley himself-- from whom I've heard nothing from since he stopped talking to me halfway through the reporting. I did send him a copy a few weeks prior to publication and thanked him for his participation, but I never heard back from him, and I'm not sure I ever will.

Take The Bite Out Of Crime: Why Our Nation’s Needs To Get Smart About Criminal Justice

Ulrich Boser 0

Quick question: Does the nation have a crime problem? If you think the answer is yes, you would be in some very good—and very fearful—company. According to one recent poll, 74 percent of Americans believed that crime has gotten worse over the past year.

But that perception is not vaguely accurate. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Violent crime has been steadily declining for years, and the murder rate in the United States is about the same as it was in the 1960s. In fact, according to the FBI, some crimes like car theft have dropped over 18 percent over the past year.

What’s to explain this maddening gap? In many ways, the problem is a simple one: Our nation has painfully simplistic perceptions of crime and criminal justice. We watch far too much Breaking Bad; we spend way too much time gawking at reruns of America’s Most Wanted. And without a firm grip on what’s happening within our nation’s courthouses and prisons, we will not solve the pressing problems that do actually threaten our future.

And what’s become clear is that our nation’s biggest criminal justice challenge isn’t a surging wave of crime, as I've written about before. But a deeply dysfunctional justice system that is not effective, moral, or even sustainable. Our nation imprisons 1 out of every 100 adults, more than any other country in the world. One in nine young African-American males are behind bars, with more young black men going to prison each year than join the military or graduate from college. In a country that hails itself as the land of the free, we send a greater proportion of our population to jail than either Russia or China.

At same time, many of those in prison would be far better served elsewhere. Some are drug offenders who need treatment rather than jail. Others are simply mentally ill. And as our country struggles out of the greatest economic downturn in decades, we simply can not afford a penal system that eats up $70 billion a year, that forces some states to spend more on jails than higher education.

There is reason for hope; some reformers have begun to tackle this issue. But for the nation’s broken prison system—and the safety and freedom of American citizens—we must do more. Because for our country’s future, we don’t need to get tough on crime, we need to get smart.

 

Photo Source:  Henry Hagnäs via Flickr.

This post first appeared on AOL Politics. I've updated and reposted here. 

Learning From the Gardner Art Theft

Ulrich Boser 3

Earlier this week, the F.B.I. announced that it had identified the two men who robbed the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in March 1990, in the biggest art theft in American history. The F.B.I. said the criminals, whom it did not identify, had most likely moved their loot to Connecticut or the Philadelphia area.

Twenty-three years may seem like an inordinate amount of time to solve a burglary, but the Gardner case has actually come a long way from the days when it sometimes seemed to sit on the F.B.I.’s investigative back burner — and the robbery has done a lot to change the way that museums protect their art.

The robbery occurred just after midnight on March 18, 1990, when two men dressed as police officers appeared at the side entrance to the museum. There had been “a disturbance on the grounds,” the men told the night guard through an intercom.

One of the guards buzzed the men into the building, and after tying up the two watchmen, the thieves essentially had the run of one of the world’s most beautiful museums for more than an hour. Mrs. Gardner, the art collector and philanthropist who founded the institution, was devoted to the idea that art was powerfully redemptive, and she built intimate galleries to showcase her collection. She felt so strongly about the museum that in her will she insisted that nothing be changed in the galleries, not even the plaster cast of the composer Franz Liszt’s hand. Today the galleries are arranged just as they were when Mrs. Gardner died, in 1924.

On that evening, the thieves moved through the narrow hallways, past the Han dynasty bears and Louis Kronberg’s oil painting “La Gitana.” They ignored the 18th-century Indian bookstand and the 15th-century Italian fresco of Hercules.

They went for some of the museum’s crown jewels, snagging Vermeer’s “Concert” along with three Rembrandts, a Manet and a Degas. The two thieves didn’t seem to be particularly respectful toward art — they sliced two of the Rembrandts out of their frames — but they did manage to sneak away with a haul worth as much as $500 million today.

Over the years, it hasn’t seemed as if federal investigators have always made the case a top priority. When I first started reporting on the theft, for instance, the museum’s director, Anne Hawley, suggested that she had not always been satisfied with the bureau’s commitment to the case. Ms. Hawley, the director since 1989, said that the first agent assigned to the case seemed very green. “Why didn’t the F.B.I. have the capacity to assign a senior-level person?” she asked me in 2007. “Why was it not considered something that needed immediate and high-level attention?”

When the theft occurred, the museum’s security was lax by today’s standards. While the Gardner’s protections were not particularly bad for a modest-size house museum at that time, one of the guards who worked the night of the theft later admitted to having smoked marijuana before arriving for work. The museum also lacked theft insurance, which prevented it from offering a major reward immediately after the burglary.

But these problems were not limited to the Gardner. The idea that art theft is not quite a serious crime has a strange hold in some quarters. Over the years, the F.B.I.’s prioritization of terrorism after 9/11, not to mention numerous violent crimes, also may help account for the length of the investigation. But when crooks steal masterpieces, they steal part of our culture and civilization.

You can replace a wallet, an iPod, even a diamond necklace, but not a Rembrandt. The art world knows this. The Gardner offered a $1 million reward a few days after the theft occurred, and in 1997, it raised the reward to $5 million, believed to be the largest ever offered by a private institution. A few years ago, the museum also brought in a new head of security, Anthony Amore, who has become obsessed with the case. He keeps an electronic copy of his investigation files with him at all times, even outside of work.

Museum security has changed too. The Gardner has significantly upgraded its protections, and because of the theft, the American Association of Museums revamped its guidelines, recommending that institutions be more careful about whom they let in after hours. In 1994, at the museum’s urging, Senator Edward M. Kennedy helped pass a law that made it a federal crime to steal, receive or dispose of any cultural object worth more than $100,000.

The statute of limitations for breaking into the museum has expired, but prosecutors could potentially use the 1994 law to convict someone for possession of the stolen art today. (That said, the museum’s top priority is recovering the art.)

The F.B.I. has also significantly ramped up its efforts to recover stolen art. In 2004, the agency created a national art theft team, which has more than a dozen agents assigned to regions across the country. The bureau also has two agents working on the Gardner case, and last year, they made a high-profile raid on the house of a Connecticut mobster. Since the announcement on Monday, and the increased attention on an F.B.I. Web site devoted to the Gardner theft, tips and new leads have been pouring in.

As for the men who robbed the museum, there’s been some good evidence over the years regarding their identities. In my book on the theft, I pointed the finger at the Boston mobster David Turner. As part of my reporting, I examined F.B.I. files that indicated that Mr. Turner was an early suspect, and he bears a strong resemblance to the composite drawing made of one of the thieves. In a letter to me, Mr. Turner denied any role in the theft, but he also told me that if I were to put his picture on my book’s cover, I would sell more copies.

More important, there are signs that the paintings may hang on the walls of the museum again. At the news conference on Monday, the F.B.I. announced that in the years after the theft, someone took the stolen Gardner art to Connecticut and Philadelphia and offered it up for sale. This suggests that the canvases might still be in good condition.

“I think we’re all optimistic that one day soon the paintings would be returned to their rightful place,” the United States attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz, said. Let’s hope she’s right.

This piece first appeared in the New York Times.

FBI says that they know who robbed the Gardner museum

Ulrich Boser 0

Big news for Gardner obsessives:

The FBI believes it knows the identities of the thieves who stole art valued at up to $500 million from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. Richard DesLauriers, the FBI's special agent in charge in Boston, says the thieves belong to a criminal organization based in New England the mid-Atlantic states. He says authorities believe the art was taken to Connecticut and the Philadelphia region in the years after the theft, and offered for sale in Philadelphia about a decade ago.

First off, kudos to the museum--and the FBI--for continuing to running down leads in this case.

But I think the lede is really buried here. From my perspective, really the biggest news is that the bureau says that someone offered the paintings for sale in Philadelphia. That suggests that the paintings are still in good condition. It also--with less evidence--suggests that the people who control the art are willing to make a deal. Keep in mind that many people have suggested over the years that the paintings have been destroyed. That doesn't seem to be the case here.

In the end, it might take years, decades, even a century, but soon or later, I believe that these paintings will be returned. As I discuss in my book, big art theft cases often take years to solve. In the 1860s, Union Army soldiers stole North Carolina's Bill of Rights out of the state Capitol, and the artifact remained missing for 140 years. It popped up in the art underworld a few times, until in 2003, two antiques dealers tried to peddle the work for $4 million—and the FBI picked it up in a sting.

Put more simply, when it comes to art crime, hope springs eternal for good reason.

FBI says that they know who robbed the Gardner

Ulrich Boser 0

Big news for Gardner obsessives

The FBI believes it knows the identities of the thieves who stole art valued at up to $500 million from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.

Richard DesLauriers, the FBI's special agent in charge in Boston, says the thieves belong to a criminal organization based in New England the mid-Atlantic states. He says authorities believe the art was taken to Connecticut and the Philadelphia region in the years after the theft, and offered for sale in Philadelphia about a decade ago.

The FBI is to discuss the case later Monday. It has a new website aimed at getting help cracking the case at www.FBI.gov/gardner . In a video, DesLauriers says the statute of limitations has passed for the crime of art theft and authorities are focused on recovering the art.

What's most important--and seems developing--is that the bureau says the paintings went down to Philadelphia and Connecticut. Kudos to the museum--and the FBI--to continue to running down this case.

It might take years, decades, even a century, but soon or later, the paintings will be returned. In the world of art theft, hope springs eternal for good reason—cases often take years to solve. In the 1860s, Union Army soldiers stole North Carolina's Bill of Rights out of the state Capitol, and the artifact remained missing for 140 years. It popped up in the art underworld a few times, until in 2003, two antiques dealers tried to peddle the work for $4 million—and the FBI picked it up in a sting.