Terrorist groups used artefacts uncovered in Syria and Iraq to fund their attacks – art detective
He knows how to hunt down a masterpiece that has been lost for decades, whether it’s decorating somebody’s backyard or hidden in the murky waters of the underground art world. We talked to the ‘Indiana Jones of Lost Art,’ historian and detective Arthur Brand.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Arthur Brand, historian and detective, welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us. The media call you ‘Indiana Jones of The Art World’. But as far as I can tell from your own accounts your job isn't as action packed. I mean, it's more like a Dan Brown novel. You said that you deal with the underworld and obviously you're risking your life sometimes. So what were like the most dire threats you've received? I don't know, the Colombian necktie or “we know where your family leaves”... Do you take these threats seriously?
Arthur Brand:Sometimes you get threats. It's normal in the underworld, in the criminal world. They cannot go to a judge. They do not have access to justice. So they have to use threats. So they also do it to me. But I don't take them too seriously. You know, if you keep your word with criminals or with somebody else, most of the time you're quite safe. But it does mean that I do have to keep my word and, of course, I have to be cautious.
SS: But does keeping your word always depend on you?
AB: Yes, because if they don't keep their word what can I do?... But it's very important to keep my word. These people, like I said, they cannot go to the police, they cannot go to a lawyer or to a judge. So they have their own criminal laws and you have to accept those laws and those laws are to keep your word and don't betray them, things like that.
SS: So from what I understand you have a reputation there, right? That's why these shady people trust you? You earned their trust, your reputation in a world like that by just keeping your word or is there something else that you have to do for them to trust you?
AB: No it's the reputation. Every time when I meet new people I have to gain that trust over and over again because I always say: in the underworld, in the criminal world they only trust their own mothers. They don't trust each other because your friend of today can be your enemy of tomorrow. So it's building up a reputation. And they now know that I keep my word. I have had some big cases and I always kept my word. So they know what I do, they know how I do it. But, again, every time you have to gain the trust again.
SS: Tell us how it's happening so we can visualise it. You sit down to talk to them - is it in a fancy place, like, fancy restaurant in public or by the fireplace at home with a bottle of wine or, I don't know, it's some kind of a strip joint back room with cocaine all over the table? Or maybe just exchanging messages on the dark web? How do you, guys, communicate? Where do you meet to actually do business?
AB: Well, first of all, when I have a lead and I know which criminal I have to call I try to find his number, his telephone number, because they are not in the yellow pages. So then I give them a call and they are in shock because they think “how does Brand know?”, and then they send an intermediary to me. Most of the time these people are just runners for the big bosses and they come with the balaklava or whatever. And we always meet in dark places. I can get a call at 10 at night and then somebody says “Mr. Brand, we expect you at that place in two hours”. So sometimes you don't know who you are going to meet. It's mostly in dark places. It's not that we meet in a restaurant because there was always cameras etc. They're always afraid that they are being followed. So I always have to go to shady places.
SS: How intertwined is the underground art world with the legal art world? Can somebody working at Sotheby's appraising department also do some work on the side for the mafia?
AB: Well. You’re coming close. It's not that particular example but, for example, the museum directors who have changed the entire collection for fakes. The legal art world and the illegal art world meet each other because when you make a fake, for example, or you want to have it sold at Sotheby's or at Christie's, if you buy stolen antiquities recently unearthed in, let's say, Syria which are illegal, if you tried to sell them at an auction house, in the past there have been examples of these two worlds coming together. And it's not for nothing that the CIA has said that the illegal art world is the fourth biggest illegal criminal business in the world. We are talking here about many many billions. And the thing is the supply of art and antiquities is always smaller than what they want. So people have to have access to the criminal underworld because they are the persons who can supply looted antiquities, for example. So it's a shady world, the art world. And, to be honest, some of the most respected people in the legal art world have ended behind bars because they were doing things they weren't supposed to do.
SS: So let me ask you this. Were you ever tempted to leave the art piece you found to yourself? You must have been! I mean it, have you ever had an impulse to just own that masterpiece, have it for yourself?
AB: Of course, I had a Picasso at my wall - it was stolen and I recovered it. And before handing it over I wanted to put it at my wall for one night. I thought it was 25 million dollars worth but it turns out that it is worth 70 million dollars, this Picasso. So I had it there on my wall and I was looking at it and I thought... It was a little bit tempting to keep it but I'm not like that. You cannot do it. I'm working to recover stolen art but, of course, you can imagine when you are watching such a Picasso at your wall that you think “well, I could retire if I would like to”. It’s tempting, but I will never fall for it.
SS: Never say never. I'm just kidding. So objects of art - they aren't too easy to take care of, I mean, handling big paintings require very good care when you have to keep them at the right temperature, the packaging, statues can be pretty big and heavy and with a well-known artist these things could be more or less easily recognisable. How do they move such delicate cargo around?
AB: It's horrible. It's really horrible. When you look at a painting of Picasso in a museum you see a beautiful painting. They see a dollar bill of 10 million euros or whatever. So sometimes they cut it out of the frame. They roll it up the wrong sides, always to the wrong side and they move it in the trunk of a car. They hide it in the woods or under the bed of grandmother who has a very high temperature in a home. So it's horrible. And that's the point. Normally when art thieves break into a museum they steal art. And the next day they think they can sell it to somebody. But you cannot sell stolen art. Everybody knows the piece, so then mostly they destroy it. But in some cases they don't. And they start to use it as a payment in the criminal underworld. But even then after 5 or 10 years the painting falls apart because it's not stored well. There was a very well-known case, a Caravaggio that was stolen in 1969 in Palermo in Sicily, a very important painting. And somebody from the mafia just said a few years ago that they had stored it in a barn. And when they wanted to pick it up it was gone because the rats had eaten it. So we are not talking here about museum curators, we are talking here about people who treat their car better than than a piece of art which they have stolen.
SS: I suppose the piece of art for them is just money and nothing else. But it doesn't represent any others.
SS: You had a case once with the fake Olmec head where you proved that an artifact thought to be thousands years old was a forgery. Nevertheless, it has the certificates from all the best labs. Is it a one of a kind case, or can it afford to be so good that even experts take it for a real deal?
AB: It's absolutely more common than rare. 30 percent on the art market is fake. Either it's complete fake or they have messed with it. This Olmec head, as you said, all the laboratories in the world and all the experts had declared it to be 3000 years old. They had put a value of 50 million euros on it and then I found pictures of somebody carving this head and, as you know, 3000 years ago there were no pictures, you could not take a picture, so this meant that the head was quite new. So that showed that all these experts and all these laboratories they try to do their best but the forgers are quite good and sometimes you can buy certain experts, so that makes it even more complicated. The forgeries are very good and, on the other hand, who can you trust in the art world? Because if you can sell a piece for 15 million dollars you don't ask yourself too many questions if it’s real or not, you can make 15 million dollars. So that's a big problem in the art world.
SS: Alright. Do you prefer to deal with a high profile cases, finding big names, or like researching for less-known but still high-value art works more than for Picassos and Botticellis?
AB: Well, it depends. I found the Visigoth reliefs, stolen from a church in Spain, world heritage, and not many people know about the Visigoth but when you start to read about it and... It was really a Dan Brown story. They were stolen from a church that dated from the 7th century. The church was forgotten for more than a thousand years and it was rediscovered in 1921, so it was a time capsule. So when you start to read about antiquities of art every piece has its own beauty. Some people prefer Picasso above Rembrandt or whatever, but there is always a story attached to it. There is always a history and when you read about it every piece is beautiful. I can tell you one example, there was this porcelain service which I'm normally not interested in, that was stolen in World War Two from a Jewish family and I retraced it in the collection of the Royal Dutch family which was quite a big scandal. And normally I was not interested in porcelain but when you start to search such a beautiful piece and you find it and you read about it, it becomes something very beautiful. So everytime now that I go to a museum I look first at the porcelain.
SS: So, Arthur, just recently you found an actual Picasso stolen years ago from a Saudi sheikh’s art and you say you heard the rumors of the painting being used as a collateral in the Dutch underworld, then got in touch with the people of the owner and basically had it delivered right to your home. But why would they just do that, I mean, drop it for free?
AB: You must see it like this, in many cases art, when it's stolen, is being used in the underworld as a payment. So one criminal owes another criminal money and he gives him a painting, a Picasso, and says: “This Picasso is from my grandmother, it's very beautiful, I'm going to bring you the money in a month”. But they don't come. So this guy thinks: “I have this Picasso”. But then he starts to sell it and people tell him: “It's stolen, be careful”. So then he does the same tricks with the next criminal and it goes around and around and around, and sometimes when I know who has it at a certain moment I approach them and I make them an offer they can't refuse. I tell them: “Look, this Picasso is stolen. I know you have it. I know you are not a thief. You had nothing to do with the theft…”
SS: But then my question is: if this is like a well-known technique where people just give paintings as a collateral instead of money and then you figure out it's stolen and the one who owes you money never comes back with money and it's a common thing, you're saying, so criminals must be aware of that. So why is it still like a thing of paying off if you know that you can't sell that painting and if you know that probably they're giving you the painting and the money will never follow?
AB: Yeah, well, in some cases one criminal cannot pay the other criminal so the other criminal says: “Well, then give me a Picasso or whatever”. Anything better than no money. So there are a lot of reasons why this is being accepted as a payment. Not only in the underworld. Also in some legal deals paintings are used as payments. Of course, not stolen paintings but they are being used as payment so there are people who have a nice art collection who go to a bank and ask for a loan for this art, so art paintings, statues are commonly used to get money for a loan or whatever or as payments, and the underworld has adopted that and also follows this thing how they did it.
SS: So the Picasso you found, Buste de Femme, is believed to have changed up to 20 owners before you recovered it. In cases when artworks are tracked after decades of disappearance is it even possible to define who had stolen them in the first place?
AB: No. And that's one of the reasons why I think we in Holland are quite successful,the Dutch police, because, you know, after two years or five years or ten years the piece has changed hands so many times that the current owner has no idea... You might know who gave it to him but it could also be an unknown criminal group. So you'll never come back to the original thieves. So forget about that. What we did in Holland is after a certain period of time we focus on the art, to recover the art, and not go after the thieves. And don't forget, in most cases this art is stolen without anybody get murdered or anybody get harmed. It's quite like a normal burglary, only that in this case they don't steal your television - they steal a Picasso. But officially it's just a burglary. So after a couple of years,10 or 20 years, it's not about getting the thieves - you will never get them. Probably the statute of limitation has ended. So you cannot even prosecute them. So then the focus should be at getting the art back and especially because these guys carry these art around in the trunk of their cars. So you have to hurry to get this art back at all because if not...
SS: So in 2018 the United Nations warned that ISIS was doing some industrial-scale looting in Iraq and Syria. And the general concern is that the stolen artifacts could soon surface whether on the black market or even in legitimate auction houses. Did you encounter any objects of this kind in your work? Are they easier for smugglers to get in?
AB: Absolutely. I was warning of this already in 2006 when I wrote a book and I already mentioned it. Nobody took it seriously. But now it's quite serious. They call it blood antiques. The problem is this, these groups like the Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISIS, they conquer a certain area which is full of treasures. So they start to dig and sell these treasures on the black market. And they use that money for funding their attacks. And the problem is this, Greek face, for example, is not that they are only found in Greece because two thousand years ago Greece was an empire. They traded with everybody so a Greek face that is found, for example, in Syria or a Greek statue which might come from ISIS, it's very hard to prove that this Greek face comes from Syria and not from, let's say, Greece or Italy. So there are a lot of ways for these people to falsify paperwork etc. So then it comes on the legal market and people buy it. Museums have bought it in the past. You can find them at auction houses. You can find them at art deals. We made a few documentaries about that. We’ve hidden cameras and some of these art dealers confessed that these pieces came recently from, let's say, Afghanistan. So that is a quite a big trade. And it’s sad because they use these beautiful treasures from the beginning of our civilization, 2-3-4 thousand years old, they use it to destroy our current civilization. So how sad is that.
SS: So you actually had a case of stolen artifacts - the two stone reliefs from the church known as Santa Maria de Lara, the latter that you returned. In this case the thieves couldn't sell these reliefs for what they were. So they sold them as garden ornaments. Could Iraqi and Syrian artifacts also end up being sold as some exotic nothings, like, how hard would it be to actually track them down in someone's garden, for instance?
AB: Very hard because there was a difference between the case you just mentioned. These Visigoth reliefs from Spain they were world heritage, they were known, pictures existed. So they could not sell it anymore for what it was. They sold it as garden ornaments. But with the stuff that is coming from the soil in, let's say, Syria, these pieces have been in the soil for two thousand years, no pictures exist. So nobody knows that they have been just unearthed, let's say, last year. So these pieces come to the markets, let's say, in Germany, they attach a paper to it in which it’s stated that this piece belonged to an old English noble family 50 years ago and they sold it in 1980 to the current owner. So then people think this piece is legit, it's not stolen recently from Syria. So it's quite easy. It's very difficult for the police to prove that a certain piece which is now being offered at an auction house was recently illegally excavated in Syria. It's very-very difficult.
SS: Back in 2015 you were working on the recovery of 24 paintings from Ukraine. Now the museum that the paintings were stolen from offered the Ukrainian side a 10 percent finder's fee. But they expected a heftier sum. The talks fell apart back then and only five out of 24 paintings were returned. I mean, how often does the money issue get in the way of bringing the stolen art back? What happens with artworks in this case?
AB: Well, in many cases, you know, in this case the Ukrainian militsiya who had them in their possession and the Ukrainian secret service that was involved too, let's say, 20 people had possession of these stolen paintings out of the Netherlands. So what happens is that these people negotiate with these paintings and they blow it up. They say these paintings are worth 5 million. And the next is 10 million. And in the end they are worth 50 million in their minds. So they spend this 50 million already amongst each other. And then I come to negotiate and I say: “Look, we are not talking here about 50 million but about half a million.” So they don't say: “Oh, well, here you have them.” No, they get pissed. They start to shout, they start to threaten you. So money always comes in the way of these cases. Unfortunately, people always think that when they steal art they can make money, but in most cases they don’t make money.
SS: Let me ask you something: you are saying that you don't make much money out of this trade. I'm actually really surprised that you're not like super rich. You deal with artifacts that cost tens and hundreds of millions of dollars. I mean how come there's no money in it for you?
AB: Well I earn my money with other things. I advise art collectors. I said that 30 percent of the art market is fake. That's my job. I help Jewish families to recover art stolen in World War Two. I write books, I give lectures. That's where I make my money. And these big cases that make headlines all over the world - that's not about money, I normally don't get paid, maybe an hourly rate. And that's because I don't owe them. They were stolen from somebody else. I am not entitled. If there was a reward I'm not entitled to the reward. It's not me who is the current owner or the previous owner. So those stories... There are, for example, many cases, the Dutch case of the Dutch museum you just talked about which turned up in Ukraine, these stolen paintings - they were not insured. The Dutch museum was not very rich, it’s a small museum so when they asked me to do it they paid me an hourly rate. And I'm happy with that. And when I sometimes can put a Picasso on my wall worth 70 million dollar for a night it gives enough satisfaction, and I'm not dying from hunger or something like that.
SS: Alright. Thanks for reassuring me because I was worried for you. Anyways it’s been a really wonderful interview. Thank you so much for this insight, such an interesting talk. Good luck with everything. We were talking to Arthur Brand, art detective and historian, discussing his most famous cases and the shady ways of the underworld art market.
AB: Thank you.