The Art Detective Who Recovers Stolen Masterpieces : The Indicator from Planet Money Art crime is a big business, and it requires special skills to investigate. Enter Christopher Marinello, one of the world's foremost experts in art recovery.

Have A Missing Matisse? Call The Art Detective

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STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: So, Darian, I do not know if you've happened to catch this, like, art theft special that was on Netflix, this little series they did.

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: I have not, but given what you've been telling me about it, I really want to watch it.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Well, in short, it just details the theft of a bunch of these, like, priceless Rembrandts and other works of art from a Boston museum a few decades back. The paintings, by the way, are still missing. They are still out there somewhere.

WOODS: And art crime is a big business. Many of these works are worth tens of millions of dollars. And like any other type of crime, art crimes require special skills to investigate. Christopher Marinello is a lawyer by training but says you could call him an art detective.

VANEK SMITH: How long have you been in the business?

CHRISTOPHER MARINELLO: Oh, boy. I think my first art case was well over 34 years ago.


VANEK SMITH: Are those church bells?

MARINELLO: Yeah (laughter). We have a church behind us.

WOODS: Chris does a lot of pro-bono work helping small museums and victims of Nazi looting get works of art back, but he will typically be hired by galleries and wealthy collectors and insurance companies to investigate a theft, find and get back stolen works of art.

VANEK SMITH: So it sounds like your job is a little bit like Rene Russo in "The Thomas Crown Affair."

MARINELLO: I'm sorry you brought that up, but it's exactly like that.



VANEK SMITH: Oh, yes (laughter).

MARINELLO: That's my role. I'm the Rene Russo character.


WOODS: And I'm Darian Woods. Today on the show, the art detective - a conversation with Chris Marinello about who steals art, who buys stolen art and the time he spent four hours locked in a room with a missing Matisse.


VANEK SMITH: The world of stolen art - how big is this world? Like, what kind of an industry is this?

MARINELLO: Well, it's very much a international business. I mean, I've got cases right now going on in India, Bolivia, Colombia, Czech Republic, the U.K., France. I mean, it just - you know, I can't think of a country where we're not working right now - Iceland. We're not working in Iceland right now.

VANEK SMITH: But every other country you can think of?

MARINELLO: But just about everywhere else.

VANEK SMITH: Stealing art seems complicated. Like, where do you sell it? It seems like it would be a really - a small market.

MARINELLO: No, actually, it's a huge market. In fact, art theft is the third biggest crime that's committed in the world behind drugs and weapons or money laundering.

VANEK SMITH: Art? Really?

MARINELLO: Art, yeah. And the thieves have expanded, and there are all different kinds of art crime now. There's fakes and forgeries. There's financial crimes dealing with art. I mean, there was - a museum and an old master dealer in London recently were involved in a dispute where the hackers broke into the computer and took control of the invoicing and redirected the funds that the museum had paid for a painting.


MARINELLO: So there are - yes, yes. This is a new art crime evolving every single day.

VANEK SMITH: How has it gotten so big? What is it about art, stealing art, selling art on the black market that is appealing?

MARINELLO: It's all about the money. I mean, people in Hollywood would like us to believe that art crime, art theft is sexy and exciting and...

VANEK SMITH: It's a little sexy and exciting.

MARINELLO: Well, you know...

VANEK SMITH: It's much more interesting than stealing cash.

MARINELLO: ...The people I deal with are just awful, horrible common thugs, the same people that would steal your wallet or that would steal from their own mother. There's no romance involved, not a lot of excitement, an enormous amount of paperwork and dealing with...

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

MARINELLO: ...Law enforcement and insurance companies and fighting with lawyers. And the idea that there's some sort of Dr. No collecting artwork in some underwater layer is just complete fantasy. These guys want cash.

VANEK SMITH: Who's buying? Who's buying the stolen art?

MARINELLO: Well, mostly idiots.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

MARINELLO: I'm sorry, but there's different degree of idiots. You've got people who know that something is dodgy and they take a chance on it, thinking that they may be able to get a higher price somewhere. But right after something is stolen, what usually happens is I get a call from somebody who says, oh, I know where this is. You know, is there a reward or...

VANEK SMITH: Oh, do you have like a network of shady art folks who are like, I heard that they're moving a Picasso?

MARINELLO: I do know a lot of people like that who contact me regularly with tips. In the criminal world, it's all about showing off and making money. And if there was some Dr. No-type person, he would never be able to show off his collection because some criminal would be there having dinner, and they see something stolen, they're going to report them. They're going to rat him out.

VANEK SMITH: Do you ever get, like, calls or texts - I don't know - I was over dinner at Joe's house, and, like, he is a Rembrandt in his bathroom?

MARINELLO: I had a guy call in. His name was Darko (ph).

VANEK SMITH: Oh, my gosh. This is so great. I mean, I know you said it's not cinematic, but that's pretty great.

MARINELLO: When I heard that, I thought it was fake. But he did call and send me images of the stolen paintings. And so I set up a sting operation with law enforcement, and we facilitated the reward payment to this tipster. We were able to recover the paintings, which were quite sizable in value, about $20 million worth of artwork.


MARINELLO: Oh, yeah. I mean, these were very high-end works of art, including a Picasso thrown in there. So these were...

VANEK SMITH: A Picasso's thrown in there. Wow.

MARINELLO: Yeah. These were important paintings.

VANEK SMITH: I'm wondering, like, if there's one case in particular that stands out in your mind as, like, one of your favorite cases or the case that surprised you the most.

MARINELLO: I did get a call once from a church in the U.K. that had a sculpture that was stolen after the Nazis bombed their church in 1941. And the sculpture ended up at an auction house outside of London, and the church asked me if I would help them get it back. And so I volunteered to help them, and I ended up dealing with some of the most horrific personalities in the art world, dealers from Belgium and the Netherlands that had handled this sculpture and a drug dealer in the U.K. who was arrested for smuggling cocaine inside of sculptures. And I was able to get one dodgy dealer to exchange some objects to the second dodgy dealer to get him to give up his claim to the sculpture. And to see, you know, the church leaders and members of the community say, you know, thanks, it's rare that I get that.

VANEK SMITH: Was there a moment ever when you kind of came face to face with a work where you were like, wow?

MARINELLO: That happens a lot. I spent four hours locked in a room in Norway with a very important Matisse that had been looted by Hermann Goring. And I was terrified that somebody was going to steal it before I handed it over, so I stayed in the room waiting for them to arrive. But while I was in that room, I had a good amount of time to really inspect it and appreciate it. So it was - wow. But I have cases like this every week.

VANEK SMITH: Like, what do criminals look for in art that they steal?

MARINELLO: Criminals are looking for big names that they know they can convert to cash. That's the main reason why Picasso is the No. 1 stolen artist. It's all money.



VANEK SMITH: Oh, I hear the church bells, which means I've kept you on the phone for an hour. I just have one final question, which is, who is your favorite artist?

MARINELLO: Maybe Bellini, a Venetian artist who, by the way, also happens to be - one of the most important pieces that I'd like to see recovered is the Bellini that was the altar piece for the Church of Madonna dell'Orto in Venice. It was stolen. I'd like to see it returned. People don't realize that, you know, that really wasn't meant just as a work of fine art hanging on the wall of the church, but people worshipped. It helped them connect to God. And that's you know, it's - when people steal things, they don't realize what they're stealing.

VANEK SMITH: Right. Even, I would say, non-religious art connects us to something bigger. That's why we value it, I think.

MARINELLO: Yeah. That's true.


VANEK SMITH: Christopher Marinello is the founder and CEO of Art Recovery International. It investigates art crimes all over the world.

This episode of today's INDICATOR was produced by Jamila Huxtable and fact-checked by Sam Cai. THE INDICATOR is edited by Kate Concannon and is a production of NPR.


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