Bears with Children (1985) Norval Morrisseau

(Untitled) Bears with Children
Norval Morrisseau
c. 1985, acrylic on canvass, approx. 48″ x 96″

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The art of the con:
Canada a hub for art fraud, theft
  

Canada has become a hub for art theft, fraud and smuggling, yet it lacks police and prosecutorial muscle to combat those crimes, according to an article coming out in next month’s Canadian Criminal Law Review. Bonnie Czegledi, an international art and cultural heritage lawyer in Toronto, writes that art-related crimes generate billions of dollars around the world, rivalling the trade in drugs and weapons.

“There’s a patina of loveliness of the pieces themselves. It’s hard to imagine it could be a dirty business,” Czegledi said in a recent interview.

“But they can take as ugly of a route to the marketplace as guns or cocaine.”

Czegledi said Canadian law enforcement agencies should follow the FBI, which in 2004 created a team of specially trained investigators across the U.S. to deal with all forms of art crime. Three prosecutors were also assigned to the team.

The team played a key role in the arrest last week of a New York man, Thomas A. Doyle, in a high-profile fraud case with a Canadian connection.

According to court documents filed in Manhattan federal court, Doyle negotiated with a Japanese investor and a Vancouver-based broker to purchase “Portrait of a Girl,” a painting by French artist Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, from a third party for $1.1 million.

The investor agreed to pay $880,000 and hold 80 per cent ownership interest in the painting, while Doyle agreed to pay $220,000 for 20 per cent interest. They would then re-sell the painting for a profit.

But unbeknownst to the investor and broker, Doyle, who has a previous grand larceny conviction, is alleged to have earlier negotiated with the third party to purchase the painting for $775,000, court documents say.

The art trade is a very specialized field and having investigators who know how to analyze art pieces and understand the marketplace has been hugely beneficial, said Bonnie Gardiner, program manager of the FBI’s art theft program.

“Normally, when an art theft takes place, if you don’t find the perpetrator in a few days, it may take years, sometimes generations, to get the work back,” she said.

In Canada right now, there are four specially trained art-crime investigators — two with the RCMP and two with the Quebec provincial police — located in Montreal. They joined forces in September 2008.

Two members of the team are studying part-time to get art-history degrees.

While they offer assistance to investigators across the country, their work is primarily focused on art crimes committed within Quebec.

Last week, the team secured the conviction of a 52-year-old Quebec City man, Richard McClintock, who had imitated the paintings of well-known Quebec artists and passed them off as originals.

Quebec provincial police Sgt. Jean-Francois Talbot said McClintock sold two paintings to a gallery for about $3,000 each, claiming that they were originals by Montreal artist Marcel Barbeau. But gallery staff became suspicious and contacted authorities.

Ninon Gauthier, Barbeau’s wife, said she knew instantly that they were fakes.

“It was so unusual. It couldn’t be his work. The way he paints is like his signature. Even the signature was fake,” said Gauthier, who is an art historian and critic.

“It’s frustrating because, first of all, if people are selling bad paintings with my husband’s signature, it affects his reputation. They’re intruding in his market. It’s not good for the artist, it’s not good for the dealers, and it’s not good for the collectors.”

When police raided McClintock’s apartment, they found 85 other forged paintings. Had they been originals, they would have had a commercial value of $1.5 million, police said.

McClintock was sentenced to eight months of house arrest and was banned from entering any art gallery in Quebec for two years.

While Gauthier is happy with the conviction, she says more needs to be done to deter art criminals. Expanding the number of art-crime investigators would be a start, she said.

The problem must not only be in Quebec,” she said. “I’m sure there are some fakers in Toronto and Vancouver. There is a need for such teams.”

Sgt. Pat Flood, a spokeswoman at the RCMP’s national headquarters, said the agency has not made any decisions about expanding the program beyond Quebec.

“Since this initiative is only midway through its inaugural period, the RCMP feels it would be premature to comment on its merits at this time,” she said.

Czegledi said Canada doesn’t just need more specialized investigators; it also needs prosecutors and judges to get tougher on art criminals.

In 2008, several gold pieces by the late Haida native artist Bill Reid were stolen from the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology and then later returned. No charges were ever filed in that case, Czegledi writes in her article.

Robin Baird, acting spokesman for the Crown prosecutor’s office, said Tuesday there was not enough evidence.

Czegledi also cites a case from 2006, in which a pair of 18th-century gem-encrusted slippers that had belonged to the first Prince of India were stolen from Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum.

Prosecutors had pressed for jail time for the thief, Miko Petric, but the judge sentenced the man to 18 months of community service and six months of house arrest instead.

“White collar criminals respond to fear of incarceration,” Czegledi writes. “Until the negative consequences of stealing cultural property become more severe, the illegal trade will continue to thrive.”

Art crimes in the headlines:

  • – May 2008: Several gold pieces by late Haida native artist Bill Reid were stolen from the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology and later recovered. No charges were filed due to “insufficient evidence.”
  • – Sept. 2009: Thieves broke into a Yorkville, Ont., gallery and made off with rare paintings by Quebecois artist Pierre Gauvreau and valued at more than $50,000.
  • – May 2010: Five paintings, valued at more than $100 million, were stolen from the Modern Art Museum in Paris.
  • – Aug. 2010: A Van Gogh painting called “Poppy Flowers” and valued at $50 million was stolen from a museum in Cairo. Several were charged.
  • – Aug. 2010: Reports surface that 21,000 Bulgarian antiquities, including coins and jewels, were seized in Montreal. As of Tuesday, Department of Canadian Heritage officials were still unable to confirm any details.
  • – Aug. 2010: A Greco-Roman marble bust that had been smuggled into Canada was returned to Egypt.
  • – Sept. 2010: A Quebec City man was sentenced after selling imitation paintings as originals. His forged paintings, if real, would fetch $1.5 million, police said.
  • – Sept. 2010: A New York man was arrested on suspicion of orchestrating the fraudulent purchase of “Portrait of a Girl,” a painting by French artist Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. A Vancouver broker and Japanese investor were duped in the deal, police said.

Douglas Quan
Postmedia News
September 14, 2010
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