THE FBI HAS LAUNCHED A NEW TEAM DEVOTED TO COMBATING ONE OF THE WORLD'S MOST COSTLY CRIMES--ART THEFT

The Italian shopkeeper was lucky. Usually stolen art goes unfound for a decade or more--if it gets recovered at all: up to 90 percent of all stolen art is gone for good, according to the FBI. Interpol, the international police agency, considers art theft one of the biggest global crimes, behind only the drug trade, international arms dealing and money laundering. Hard statistics are all but impossible to come by since art tends to appreciate in value, and some missing works might even be classified as priceless. But estimates from the FBI, Interpol and the Los Angeles Police Department's Art Theft Detail put the value of fine art stolen every year between $5 billion and $8 billion. "The numbers are incredible," Assistant U.S. Attorney Bob Goldman tells NEWSWEEK.

The FBI has decided to do something about it. Last November, the bureau announced that it is forming a new team to deal explicitly with art theft. The brand-new unit has already had its first taste of success. Just last month it recovered some pieces of more than $2 million in art stolen from a Missouri storage unit last October. More than 100 pieces, including paintings, prints and sculptures by Pablo Picasso, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and others, were discovered stashed away in a St. Louis suburb. Robert K. Wittman, the new team's senior investigator, has been on the art-theft beat for 15 years and says he has had a hand in recovering some of the $100 million of art and artifacts by the FBI over the last four years. "The fact that you can put something back into a museum and kids can look at it, that's what's neat," he says. "That's why this is important."

Still, the U.S. is late getting into the art-recovery game. Countries from France to Britain to Germany have long had law-enforcement teams specializing in art theft. Italy's Carbinieri boasts a squad of more than 200 officers and is helmed by a colonel in epaulettes. The FBI's new team is eight men strong, with each agent covering a swath of territory and working with local police to provide resources and expertise that may be lacking in, say, Omaha, Neb. Several incidents precipitated the creation of the squad: first was the brazen 1990 burglary of Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in which two men ripped paintings from their frames, making off with nearly $400 million of artwork, including three Rembrandts, a Vermeer, a Manet and five works by Degas. Sen. Ted Kennedy subsequently pushed through the Theft of Major Artwork statute, making it a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison for stealing any museum art more than a century old or worth at least $100,000.

The second event that spurred the unit's creation was looting in Iraq following the ouster of Saddam Hussein. "Past history does show if there's theft of significant objects, some of the objects will end up in the States because there are big-money collectors here," says Goldman, one of two federal prosecutors on the team, which is currently training in Philadelphia. "It's taken a while to show there is a significant need for this [unit]." The Art Loss Register, the world's largest database of stolen art and antiques, is a list of 140,000 missing artifacts that, according to art historian Amanda Hannon, grows by 10,000 new entries every year.

Where, exactly, does all this stolen art go? Last year armed thieves burst into an Oslo, Norway, museum and made off with one version of Edvard Munch's masterpiece, "The Scream." Police have made one arrest in the case, but the whereabouts of the painting is still unknown. "The Scream" is so famous, though, that no legitimate art dealer or gallery would ever touch it. "You'll never see 'The Scream' come to auction," says Corroon of Christie's. The movies offer the Dr. No myth--that art ends up in the hands of some nefarious private collector like the James Bond villain who displays a stolen Goya in his lair--but experts stress that reality (surprise, surprise) belies the Hollywood portrayal. "There's no legitimate market for stolen art," says Sharon Flescher of the International Foundation for Art Research, a nonprofit research and education group. "It might, in theory, be used for money-laundering purposes or as collateral in the criminal world. Or thieves might try to ransom or barter the art back or try to claim a reward, if there is one."

Be that as it may, one intinerant French waiter, Stephane Breitwieser, received a 26-month prison sentence this month for stealing hundreds of works of art worth more than $1 billion from galleries in France, Germany and Switzerland, which he says he merely wanted to hang on his own walls. He lived with his mother, who destroyed them because she was afraid the police would find them.

Indeed, the execution of theft is rarely the sophisticated stuff of "The Thomas Crown Affair." The Isabella Stewart Gardener thieves used cheesy mustache disguises and brute force to pry paintings out of their frames, ripping the canvas of Rembrandt's "The Sea of Galilee" and probably reducing its value in the process. Most art theft in the United States is committed during a burglary, almost always of private residences, or by the falsification of paperwork. In 2001, a Beverly Hills, Calif., ophthalmologist was sentenced to 37 months in prison after being fingered by the LAPD and FBI in an art-insurance scam. Steven Cooperman was convicted of faking the 1992 theft of Pablo Picasso's "Nude Before a Mirror" and Claude Monet's "The Customs Officer's Cabin in Pourville" and collecting $17.5 million from his insurance companies. "I love Hollywood's idea of theft," chuckles Detective Don Hrycyk of the LAPD, which before the creation of the FBI team was the only law-enforcement agency in the country with an art-theft detail. Over time, through careful paperwork forgery, through fake prints or smuggling, he says, stolen art can end up in private collections or even museums.

Hrycyk, who has led the recovery of $53 million in stolen art since 1993, is currently on the lookout for a first-edition Superman comic book valued at $191,000. "In the manual for my unit, it states that we are supposed to handle paintings, limited-edition prints and sculptures," he says. "Over the years, suddenly we have to handle a case involving an expensive tapestry or dinosaur bones."

Before his unit was formed, he says the police tended to look at stolen art as just another type of property theft. But a stolen piece of art, whether it's famous or not, is something more than a stolen car or a swiped television set. Art is a reflection of our better nature, a permanent one-of-a-kind expression of what makes us human. Through his years on the job, Hrycyk has learned that a special expertise is required for dealing with stolen cultural artifacts. And the FBI is not the only other agency now subscribing to this idea; Ohio State University is planning an invitation-only training initiative for local law-enforcement representatives from across the country to learn about the issues unique to stolen art. With new initiatives like these, perhaps fewer masterpieces will disappear into the chiaroscuro of crime.