Monday, November 20, 2006

A Phone Call Leads the F.B.I. to a Stolen Goya (by Randy Kennedy, the New York Times)

J. M. Pastor/European Pressphoto Agency

A Phone Call Leads the F.B.I. to a Stolen Goya

Published: November 21, 2006

F.B.I. officials in Newark and Philadelphia said yesterday that they had recovered a Goya painting that was stolen from a truck this month while it was being transported from the collection of the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio to a major exhibition now on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan.

Officials said the painting was recovered unharmed Saturday in central New Jersey after a lawyer called the F.B.I. and told investigators where they could find it while saying that he could not tell them anything else about the theft.

As of late yesterday, no arrests had been made. Because the investigation remains active, officials would not say exactly where or how the painting had been found.

Contrary to earlier law enforcement theories that the theft was carried out by insiders, they did say it appeared that the thieves probably had no idea what kind of art-historical loot they had stumbled upon when they broke into the truck overnight in a parking lot at a Howard Johnson Inn near Bartonsville, Pa.

“This time of year, close to Christmas, they probably thought they’d found a truck filled with PlayStations and broke in and started looking for the biggest-looking box,” said Steve Siegel, an F.B.I. agent who serves as the spokesman for the bureau’s Newark office. “Basically, it’s a target-of-opportunity typical New Jersey cargo theft. There are literally predators — for lack of a better word — who when they see a tractor-trailer or a cargo vehicle parked for any length of time start snooping around.”

Officials at the Toledo Museum of Art said the painting, which was insured for $1 million, would not be included as a late entry in the Guggenheim show, “Spanish Painting From El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth and History,” a sprawling exhibition of some 135 paintings by Spanish masters that opened Friday. Instead, the work, painted in 1778 and titled “Children With a Cart,” will be returned to Toledo.

“We are ecstatic that the painting has been recovered, and we look forward to bringing the Goya home and sharing it again with our community,” Don Bacigalupi, the director of the Toledo Museum of Art, said in a written statement.

Lisa Dennison, the director of the Guggenheim, said the museum would have liked to put the painting into the show but added that it was “understandable that the Toledo Museum would want to bring the stolen painting back to its home after this nerve-racking experience.” She pointed out that the show includes 21 other works by Goya.

The crated painting was stolen either late on the night of Nov. 7 or early on Nov. 8 from a shipping container in the truck while it was parked in an unlighted lot near the Howard Johnson motel. The two drivers checked around 11 p.m. on Nov. 7, according to the motel manager, Faizal Bhimani. He said the white midsize truck was left in a lot adjacent to the hotel, out of sight of the motel’s rooms and the main office.

Law enforcement officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that when the drivers returned to the truck about 6:30 a.m. on Nov. 8, the locks had been broken and the painting was gone. Neither the two museums nor the investigators have identified the shipping company responsible for transporting the painting.

Federal investigators had first said they believed that thieves armed with detailed shipping information were behind the theft.

While that theory appears to have been wrong, other law enforcement officials cautioned that it was not yet known definitively that the thief or thieves had no information about the shipment of the painting.

While Mr. Siegel would not say exactly where the painting was recovered or provide details about how the agents had found it, he did say that it was recovered without a search warrant. He added that several people had been interviewed about the theft, but he provided no details.

Officials declined to identity the lawyer who alerted the investigators and would not say how he learned of the painting’s whereabouts. Nor would they say whether the lawyer was connected with anyone involved in the theft or whether he would be paid the $50,000 reward offered by an insurer.

It was not known whether the authorities had learned the identities of the thieves.

One law enforcement official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said charges in the case could be filed as early as next week in United States District Court in Newark. Possible crimes could include interstate transportation of stolen property and theft of major artwork, each carrying a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

William K. Rashbaum contributed reporting from New York and David Johnston from Washington.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

For a World of Woes, We Blame Cookie Monsters (by Gina Kolata, the New York Times)

Corrections Appended

FIRST we said they were ruining their health with their bad habit, and they should just quit.

Then we said they were repulsive and we didn’t want to be around them. Then we said they were costing us loads of money — maybe they should pay extra taxes. Other Americans, after all, do not share their dissolute ways.

Cigarette smokers? No, the obese.

Last week the list of ills attributable to obesity grew: fat people cause global warming.

This latest contribution to the obesity debate comes in an article by Sheldon H. Jacobson of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and his doctoral student, Laura McLay. Their paper, published in the current issue of The Engineering Economist, calculates how much extra gasoline is used to transport Americans now that they have grown fatter. The answer, they said, is a billion gallons a year.

Their conclusion is in the same vein as a letter published last year in The American Journal of Public Health. Its authors, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, did a sort of back-of-the-envelope calculation of how much extra fuel airlines spend hauling around fatter Americans. The answer, they wrote, based on the extra 10 pounds the average American gained in the 1990’s, is 350 million gallons, which means an extra 3.8 million tons of carbon dioxide.

“People are out scouring the landscape for things that make obese people look bad,” said Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale.

And is that a bad thing? Dr. Jacobson doesn’t think so. “We felt that beyond public health, being overweight has many other socioeconomic implications,” he said, which was why he was drawn to calculating the gasoline costs of added weight.

The idea of using economic incentives to help people shed pounds comes up in the periodic calls for taxes on junk food. Martin B. Schmidt, an economist at the College of William and Mary, suggests a tax on food bought at drive-through windows. Describing his theory in a recent Op-Ed article in The New York Times, Dr. Schmidt said people would expend more calories if they had to get out of their cars to pick up their food.

“We tax cigarettes in part because of their health cost,” he wrote. “Similarly, the individual’s decision to lead a sedentary lifestyle will end up costing taxpayers.”

Eric Oliver, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, said his first instinct was to laugh at the gas and drive-through arguments. But such claims often get wide attention, he says, and take on a life of their own.

“This is like, let’s find another reason to scapegoat fat people,” Dr. Oliver says.

At an annual meeting of the Obesity Society, one talk correlated obesity with deaths in car accidents, and another correlated obesity with suicides. Dr. Oliver, who attended, said no one in the crowd of at least 200 questioned whether the correlations were really cause and effect. “The funny thing was that everyone took it seriously,” he said.

Katherine Flegal of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also wryly cautions against being quick to link cause and effect. “Yes, obesity is to blame for all the evils of modern life, except somehow, weirdly, it is not killing people enough,” she said. “In fact that’s why there are all these fat people around. They just won’t die.”

The message in the blame-obesity approach, said James Morone, a political science professor at Brown University, is that it is so important to persuade fat people to lose weight that common sense disappears.

“Anything we can say to persuade you, we will say,” Dr. Morone added.

So is it working?

It doesn’t seem to be. Fat people are more reviled than ever, researchers find, even as more people become fat. When smokers and heavy drinkers turned pariah, rates of smoking and drinking went down. Won’t fat people, in time, follow suit?

Research suggests that the stigma of being fat leads to more eating, not less. And if reducing the stigma suggests a solution, that’s not working either.

“One hypothesis about getting rid of stigma is having more contact with the stigmatized group,” Dr. Brownell says. But with obesity, the stigma seems to be growing along with the national girth.

He cites a famous study in the 1960’s in which children were shown drawings of children with and without disabilities, as well as a drawing of a fat child. Who, they were asked, would you want for your friend? The fat child was picked last.

Now, three researchers have repeated the study, this time with college students. Once again, almost no one, not even fat people, liked the fat person. “Obesity was highly stigmatized,” wrote the researchers, Janet D. Latner of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, Albert J. Stunkard of the University of Pennsylvania and C. Terence Wilson of Rutgers University, in the July 2005 issue of Obesity Research.

One problem with blaming people for being fat, obesity researchers say, is that getting thin is not like quitting smoking. People struggle to stop smoking, but many, in the end, succeed. Obesity is different. It’s not that the obese don’t care. Instead, as science has shown over and over, they have limited personal control over their weight. Genes play a significant role, the science says.

That is not a popular message, Dr. Brownell says. And the notion that anyone can be thin with a little effort has consequences. “Once weight is due to a personal failing, a lot of things follow,” he said. There’s the attitude that if you are fat, you deserve to be stigmatized. Maybe it will motivate you to lose weight. The opposite happens.

In a paper published Oct. 10 in Obesity, Dr. Brownell and his colleagues studied more than 3,000 fat people, asking them about their experiences of stigmatization and discrimination and how they responded.

Almost everyone said they ate more.

Corrections: Nov. 5, 2006

An article last Sunday about a tendency to blame obesity for a range of problems misattributed the journal that published a letter about how much extra fuel airlines use carrying fatter Americans. It was the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, not The American Journal of Public Health. The article also misspelled the name of a Brown University political science professor who commented that the intent of such studies is to persuade the obese to lose weight. He is James Morone, not Marone.