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.

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