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FBI’s ‘art cops’: In hot pursuit of Renoir, Rembrandt and ruby slippers

It was the latest of many high-profile cases for the 22-person Federal Bureau of Investigation division dedicated to solving a wide array of art-related crimes at an agency that is better known for chasing bank robbers, spies and other criminal rogues.

Solomon Koninck’s 17th-century painting “A Scholar Sharpening His Quill,” was one of many treasures belonging to the family of art collector Adolphe Schloss that were seized by the Nazi-supporting Vichy government in France 75 years ago. The portrait, which once adorned Adolph Hitler’s Munich offices, disappeared at the end of World War Two.

It resurfaced at Christie’s auction house, which tipped off the FBI unit last year that a Chilean art dealer was trying to sell it.

“The evidence was really overwhelming,” FBI Special Agent Chris McKeogh said, days after the work’s formal repatriation to the Schloss heirs in early April. “There was really no question that this was the painting in question.”

In its early days, recalled Robert Wittman, the Art Crime Team’s founding chief, being art cops was not exactly “a path to directorship.”

But after 14 years, the team is getting more respect from fellow agents after several headline-grabbing recoveries in the United States of art works and other cultural property, Supervisory Special Agent Tim Carpenter said.

“People just think what we’re doing is cool,” said Carpenter, who now runs the unit from the FBI’s Washington headquarters.

“I think we’ve changed a lot of perceptions, even within the organization,” he said. “So now my phone rings off the hook weekly for folks wanting to be on the team.”

Since it was founded in 2005, the team has recovered nearly 15,000 objects worth nearly $800 million and secured more than 90 convictions.

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