|A. Andrews Jewelry Box, Circa 1869-1878
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the theft of a historic, gold inlaid jewelry box worth more than $800,000 from the Oakland Museum of California. At the time I lamented the loss of this artifact from the California Gold Rush Era because it represented not just the theft of an astonishingly beautiful object, but also the theft of our history, the heritage of future generations.
The baseness of this act was underscored for me because I’d just introduced my five-year-old grand nephew, Joaquin, to the world of fine art through a visit to the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento on a rainy day in December. Joaquin was enchanted by the collection and we spent several hours wandering through the galleries, talking about what we were seeing.
I knew the chances of recovering this art were slim, that great art works are stolen all the time, never to be seen again. The FBI reports that art and cultural property crime—which includes theft, fraud, looting, and trafficking across state and international lines—is a looming criminal enterprise with estimated losses running as high as $6 billion annually.
To recover these precious pieces—and to bring these criminals to justice—the FBI has a dedicated Art Crime Team
of 14 special agents, supported by three special trial attorneys for prosecutions. And it runs the National Stolen Art
File, a computerized index of reported stolen art
and cultural properties for the use of law enforcement agencies across the world.
The painting, Madeleine Leaning on Her Elbow with Flowers in Her Hair, was stolen during an armed robbery on September 8, 2011. An oil painting by French Impressionist Pierre Auguste Renoir, it was stolen during a home invasion robbery in Houston—and is estimated to be worth $1 million. It is the newest addition to the FBI’s Top Ten Art Crimes list.
“We hope that adding the Renoir to the FBI’s Top Ten list and publicizing the reward of up to $50,000 for information leading to the recovery of the painting will prompt someone to come forward,” said Peter Schneider, a sergeant with the Houston Police Department who is a member of the FBI’s Violent Crimes Task Force in Houston.
The FBI established the Top Ten Art Crimes list in 2005. Since then, six paintings and one sculpture have been recovered, including a Rembrandt self-portrait and another Renoir work titled Young Parisian stolen from Sweden’s National Museum.
Although Renoir’s lovely Madeleine has yet to turn up, the case of California’s million dollar jewelry box has been solved. Last week Oakland police recovered the artifact from a parolee with a long criminal history. The man is now in jail awaiting trial.
Displaying the jewelry box under Plexiglas, with an armed guard standing by, museum Director Lori Fogarty said at a press conference last week that the box, which was stolen in the 1970s and recovered years later, would be returned to public display.
“It is our mission and our responsibility to share California’s history with the public,” Fogarty told the media. “If we were just a treasure trove, a mausoleum for objects, we wouldn’t be serving our mission.”
Visit OMCA, 1000 Oak Street, Oakland, CA 94607.