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PROTECTING YOUR TREASURES
Advice from our Art Theft Expert

07/12/06

Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, Art Theft Program Manager

Do you collect art? Dolls? Antiques? Pottery? Coins? Stamps? Other collectible items? Consider this: more than half of these thefts are from private homes. We talked with Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, an archaeologist who served 7 years with the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and who now manages the Art Theft program at FBI Headquarters, on how to protect your treasures.

Q: If you're a collector, why be concerned about theft?
Bonnie:
Because art is an investment—-and not just the financial kind. A beautiful work of art enlivens your home and enriches your life every day. It becomes like a member of your family, something you cherish. I'd say that certainly makes it worth protecting.

Q: What specific steps would you recommend?
Bonnie:
Art and other collectibles don't have serial numbers like cell phones or stereos. So keep an inventory with detailed descriptions of the items—the type of object, title, artist, date or period, materials used, measurements, inscriptions and markings, and any other distinguishing features. Also, take photos of each item in your collection—if an object is stolen a photo will help prove it belongs to you. One quick way to do that is to lay out your collection and film it with a video camera. Just be sure to take still shots that show the unique characteristics of each work. Then, keep the inventory and photos in a safety deposit box or some other separate location. If your home is damaged by fire or flood, you don't want to lose your collection and your inventory.

Q: What about physical security?
Bonnie:
There are a few things I'd suggest. First, take a look at your overall security measures, look for potential holes, and then work to fix them. Second, if you have people working in or around your home, check their references. Finally, if your collection is displayed in your home or housed in an accessible storage area, check it regularly to make sure everything is still there.

Q: What should collectors do if something is stolen?
Bonnie:
Call the police immediately and make sure no one disturbs the crime scene. Then contact your insurance company and file a claim. If the stolen item is uniquely identifiable, has historical significance, and is valued at more than $2,000, ask the police to add it to the National Stolen Art File, a computerized database of stolen art and cultural property maintained at FBI Headquarters.

Q: How about the reverse situation: how can you keep from buying stolen art?
Bonnie:
My advice is this: if you're looking to buy antiques or artwork, stick with reputable dealers and auction houses that perform "due diligence" information. Make sure that the sellers will guarantee that the artwork has not been stolen and that they have researched the artwork's "provenance" or chain of ownership. Caveat emptor: if you don't buy from someone who can ensure a good title, you'll be putting yourself at risk of buying stolen property. If you do and law enforcement comes calling one day, you'll lose your artwork and the time and money you invested in it.

Resources: FBI Art Theft Program | Related stories