He has recovered many stolen art and antique masterpieces among which are ‘Adolescence’ by Salvador Dali, two bronze horse sculptures, by Josef Thorak, that flanked the door of Hitler’s Reichstag, 1300-year-old Peruvian artifacts, and now St. Mark’s mosaic stolen from the Kanakaria church in Cyprus in 1974 after the turks invasion. Arthur Brand, also known as ‘Indiana Jones of the art world’, is passionate about art history and is serious about keeping his word.
Arthur, I have read several articles about your investigations. Still do you consider yourself an art historian or more an art crime investigator?
Art and antiquities tell us a lot about our past and of course it is beautiful. I started as a collector but I found out that there are so many crimes in the art world. Just imagine 30% of the art that is being sold at the auctions or through the art dealers are complete fake. Having all these fakes among us we get a very strange perspective on the real art. I consider myself an art historian but somebody has to do what I’m doing now.
What is your main role in art crime investigation?
On one hand you have a collector, a government or a museum whose art has been stolen, on the other — a criminal underworld. I have to stand in the middle and try to make a good outcome for both sides. For example, somebody stoles from the museum. The police investigation 2 years later lead to the fact they know who did it, but the can not prove it. We know that stolen art travels from one criminal group to another for 4-5 times. Sometimes group number five gets the stolen art as a payment but they do not know that it was stolen. Otherwise, the piece of art should be destroyed immediately to leave to trace. After just five years you will not find the thief but you can still find the art. My main focus is to make a solution after the police investigation stops. In 99% art thieves are not violent at all.
The other problem is the longer, for example, painting stays in the underworld, the worst it is for the art piece because it should be stored in proper conditions, in the certain environment but not under somebody’s bed.
Do you collect any art or historical pieces?
Not any more. I stopped collecting a long time ago as I see a lot of bad things in the art market.
Can you identify fake?
I can read all the signals. Let’s take two Van Gogh painting that were made the same year. The first work has its traces — we can see its history, that is was in that catalog, then it was sold to that art dealer and so on. The fake doesn’t have it all. Now smart people start to fake the history of a piece but usually when I look at the provenance I can say that something is wrong. Unfortunately, I know many cases when someone proposes to invest in art and buy experts to tell the fake story and get hundreds of times more than this piece actually costs. This is what I see on a daily basis.
How many artefacts have you found so far?
Well, there was one case where we found about six thousand pieces at a time, so I can not count the total number (smiles). But the estimated value of all the stolen I found is about 150 mln euro.
Is your job dangerous or it always goes flawless like in a movie?
It could be very dangerous if you don’t know what you do. If you know what you are doing, the danger is limited. My goal is not to get people arrested but to get stolen art back. I have to comply to two rules — I have to follow the law and keep my word.
I assume your reputation in the black art market is very well-known. Have you ever received any threats?
Of course, I have. In the criminal world they do it automatically as we say Good day to each other. When criminals have the information they possess a stolen art, they start acting irrationally as now they have another problem — to sell it quickly without telling of its origin or to destroy it. The most important thing is to get the art out of the criminal hands as soon as possible. I approach the group and explain that I know you didn’t still that art and no one is going to charge you for it but you have to let it go. I always offer them anonymity and in many cases that really works. In 99% of the cases I tell who I am (another 1% I should go undercover) and that I’m here not to get them but to solve a problem.
How do you choose what item are you going to search for next?
I have about 20 cases. Some cases are almost there, the other — I just started. As soon as I get a lead by working with the informants, criminals, I start approaching.
During your investigations you deal with different countries and mentalities — who were the most helpful to you?
Have you heard a story about my fight with the Ukrainian government? … I had to fight the secret service and the local government and proved they were involved at the end.
I got a lot of help from certain people in Cyprus during my research. However, I also had some negative experience as Cyprus is divided into many fractures and politics are never good for the art.
Speaking about the Byzantine mosaics that was stolen from Cyprus. How did you manage to find the piece?
I spent about three years to get this piece back. Most help I got from Maria Paphiti, the art historian and specialist of Byzantine art, but when I passed on the piece to Cyprus and the stolen finally got back, me and my partner were attacked in the media by those who were competing with Maria and wanted to return the mosaic by themselves. These were just two or three articles but still I find it strange. So now I have good and bad experience.
What was the reaction of the Turkish side?
I was surprised they took it very gentle. Every turkish newspaper wrote about the homecoming of St. Mark mosaic. They didn’t deny anything and actually were glad the art piece is finally back.
Was the piece in a good condition?
When the turks stole the mosaic from the church they removed it very brutally. This piece mosaic had to be restored eventually but when I found St. Mark it was in a great condition as the British family that owned it did a great job in preserving the art.
How did the negotiations about St. Mark mosaic go?
When they bought the mosaic in the 1970s they were assured it was legal and, frankly speaking, no one thought about stolen art at that time. No Internet, not information, nothing. When I told that very well-known and decent family that their family art piece was stolen, they were shocked. According to the French law, they could have keep it as they bought it in good faith. Or they could ask for the full price they paid in the 1970s. But they did want to make a special gesture for Cyprus and didn’t want their money back. The only thing is that in this 50 years they made some restoration and storage spendings and that small amount was paid to them for keeping the mosaic safe. The amount was paid by Cyprus.
Could you give me a small hint about what are working on right now?
I am working on the very important art piece of Spain. It was stolen about 10 year ago and I’m going to recover it in London. It is a part of the cultural heritage that belongs to the country.