By Amy Zelcer, J.D. Candidate

Approximately two weeks ago, Matthew Taylor of Vero Beach, FL was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) after being indicted on seven felony charges related to art theft and fraud. Taylor targeted an art collector in Los Angeles, and the alleged crime makes him the interest of a new and growing law enforcement mechanism: the FBI’s Art Crime Team.[1]

The indictment accuses Taylor of stealing two paintings from a Los Angeles gallery: “Seascape at Twilight,” a Granville Redmond painting, which he later sold to a different gallery for $85,000 and “Park Scene, Paris,” a painting by artist Lucien Frank. Taylor was seen several years later in possession of the stolen Lucien Frank painting at a gallery in Vero Beach.[2]Additionally, Taylor was charged with defrauding an art collector out of millions of dollars by selling him over 100 forged art works for over $2 million. These included works of art that he falsely claimed were by artists such as Claude Monet, Vincent, van Gogh, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko. The indictment alleges that Taylor altered paintings from unknown artists to make them appear to be the works of these famous artists and then sold these works at inflated prices. Taylor obscured the signatures of the original artists and then forged the signatures of famous artists. He also affixed onto the canvasses fake labels from famous art museums to make it appear that the works had once been part of their collections. [3]

Taylor’s crime is just one of a vast number of art crimes committed each year. Art crime includes theft, fraud, looting, and trafficking across state and international lines. These crimes account for up to $6 billion each year in losses, making it the third highest grossing criminal enterprise worldwide, behind only drugs and arms trafficking.[4] In response to the growing problem of art crime, the FBI established a rapid deployment Art Crime Team in 2004. The team is composed of 13 special agents and is coordinated through the FBI's Art Theft Program, located at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Department of Justice has assigned three special trial attorneys to the Art Crime Team for support with prosecuting perpetrators of these crimes.The FBI also runs the National Stolen Art File, which is a computerized index of reported stolen art works for the use of law enforcement agencies around the world.[5]

Still, the Art Crime Team is relatively new, and it must deal with several challenges that make locating stolen art and prosecuting the perpetrators of art crimes difficult. First, art theft is often greatly underreported.[6] Victims of theft fear that publicity about robberies will damage a gallery’s reputation as a secure place to sell and display work. Victims also fear that publicity about a theft could encourage thieves to target the same gallery for further robberies because of expected weak security or that stolen art could be driven further underground if news of the robbery is widespread.[7]

Second, even once a crime is reported and a piece is located, there are conflicting and difficult standards for recovering the work of art for its original owner.  When the FBI Art Crime Team tracks down a stolen work of art, the work is often in the hands of an innocent purchaser. This poses an issue for courts. Should the property be awarded to the original owner or to the subsequent innocent purchaser? The law with regard to this question is thorny.[8] Under United States common law, because a thief does not acquire title to stolen property, he cannot convey title to another purchaser, even if that purchaser is a bona fide purchaser.[9]  However, there are statutes of limitations that can protect subsequent purchasers when the original owner sues for possession of the stolen chattel.[10] Determining when the statute of limitations clock begins to tick is a relevant issue. Some courts have held that the statute of limitations begins to run when the owner knew or should have known the facts necessary to recover the property.[11]  Other states such as New York, however, have laws that provide more protection of the original owners’ rights of recovery. In New York, the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the owner of a stolen artwork demands its return and is subsequently refused by the possessor.[12]

Because the laws in different states and countries vary, the results are often inconsistent, which does not effectively deter the purchasing of stolen goods. Some scholars have suggested that a different approach to recovering stolen works of art could provide greater deterrence to thieves.  It has been suggested that statutes of limitations should not apply to victims of art theft if these owners have taken appropriate action to protect their legal titles by reporting the thefts to the police and registering the work with the FBI’s National Stolen Art File. Now that such a computerized theft database exists, there should be a more stringent requirement for buyers to check the registry and investigate the title of works of art before purchasing.[13]

Details have not yet been released regarding the specific stolen works in the Taylor case and who holds original title to the works; however, these issues are certainly relevant as this particular case moves forward and more information is released.