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Rogues' Gallery

A former FBI agent relives his days as the nemesis of professional art thieves.

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When Laud "Nick" Pace died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Melrose Park six years ago, his notoriety had long since subsided, but Bob Spiel remembers him well. Back in December 1978 three Cezanne canvases disappeared from the Art Institute for a loss of $4.3 million, then the biggest art theft in U.S. history. Spiel, an FBI agent specializing in art-related crimes, focused his investigation on a shipping clerk at the museum: Nick Pace had asked a curator about the value of the paintings, a janitor had spotted him carrying a package out of the storage room, and when agents searched Pace's house near Western and Diversey they found a short story he'd written about an art theft. Five months later Pace was arrested at a hotel while trying to collect a $250,000 ransom from the museum. He spent four years in jail, the bulk of it on a weapons charge, and Spiel earned another of his six commendations from the bureau.

Now in his mid-50s, Spiel has retired from the FBI and become a private investigator and art-security consultant, working from a nondescript office building off U.S. 41 in Lake Bluff. He figures he's one of about two dozen people in the country who make a living in the profession. Three years ago he published Art Theft and Forgery Investigation: The Complete Field Manual, boiling down his three decades of public and private sector experience on theft, fencing, and fraud into "the first and only police manual on art crime." As a security consultant he teaches galleries, dealers, appraisers, museums, and collectors how to protect fine art and rare collectibles from thieves. As an investigator he helps clients research documentation, detect forgeries, and find stolen pieces; the last of these is by far the most difficult. "About 80 percent of all stolen art never gets recovered," says Spiel.

The federal government doesn't keep records on the economic cost of art theft and fraud, but Spiel estimates the annual loss at $1.3 billion worldwide. Thieves "run the gamut" from uneducated burglars to college professors, from violent thugs to cunning alarm-bypass specialists. And unlike bank robbers, most art thieves get away clean, with artwork that can fetch untold amounts at auction. Wealthy collectors, driven to own works for personal reasons and certain they can keep their acquisitions secret, will pay top dollar for hot paintings, and dealers (crooked or otherwise) will fork over cash for something valuable enough. "Gallery art is easier to sell because it's not as well-known as museum art," Spiel says. "It's the old 'grandmother's attic' story."

Spiel was raised in Lake Forest, and at Yale he earned a BA in history with a concentration in art history. "I liked it," he says, "but I never thought I'd use it again." In 1968 he completed a law degree at Northwestern and was recruited by the FBI. The bureau sent him to Minneapolis and Grand Forks, North Dakota, and eventually he transferred to the New York office, hoping to work in art theft and fraud. There was only one agent doing so full-time, but a wave of art-related crime in the early 70s forced the bureau to focus on the problem, and in 1973, Spiel finally got his chance. A year later he worked his first undercover assignment, helping to nab three thieves who'd broken into a North Carolina gallery and made off with original art by Rembrandt, Picasso, Durer, and Daumier valued at $388,000. His art background had turned out to be a real asset. "If you're posing as a criminal art buyer, you had better know something about it."

In those days one of the most notorious art-theft rings operated out of Chicago. Around 1971, Charles Richmond began stealing paintings from Marshall Field's and other department stores, then moved on to New York. According to a November 1986 story in Chicago Lawyer, Richmond was "one of the nation's most successful art thieves," suspected by the FBI of having lifted about a million dollars' worth of paintings and sculptures from high-end galleries in New York. He was busted by Spiel in 1974 and convicted of transporting stolen art over state lines. One of his best fences was Donrose Galleries, an art and antiques emporium at 751 N. Wells whose owner, Donald Paset, paid Richmond a tenth or less of a work's cash value. Federal agents raided the gallery and recovered paintings worth $75,000, including a Bierstadt, a Corot, and a Grandma Moses. Paset pleaded guilty to a federal charge of possessing stolen goods and was sentenced to six months of probation and a $4,000 fine.

(In 1982 the Tribune revealed that Donrose Galleries had been a favorite haunt of former U.S. attorney and then Illinois governor James R. Thompson and that he'd received "dealer discounts" of as much as 40 percent on his purchases there. Thompson had recused himself from the 1974 case but later accepted a $5,000 campaign contribution from Paset; Charles Richmond claimed that Paset made him hide in another room if Thompson happened to come into the gallery.)

Three years after cracking the Richmond case, Spiel transferred to Chicago, where he married and had two children. In 1981 several Michigan Avenue galleries reported thefts and Spiel recognized the suspect's description as that of his old nemesis. After Richmond was arrested, police found several paintings in his hotel room, including a $26,000 Maurice Utrillo taken from Wally Findlay Galleries and a $12,000 Milton Avery (Moon Over Dune) taken from Richard Gray Gallery. Richmond was convicted of felony theft and sent to Joliet. He sent Spiel a Christmas card every year. "I guess we had a mutual respect for each other," says Spiel. Paset hadn't learned his lesson either: in 1985, acting on another thief's tip, police raided Donrose Galleries again and recovered $100,000 worth of art and antiques stolen from Marshall Field's and Carson Pirie Scott over the previous four years. Convicted of felony theft and possession of stolen property, Paset was fined $30,000 and sentenced to 30 months' probation, with weekends in jail. Donrose went out of business two years later.

During the art boom of the 1980s, Chicago-area galleries--mostly blue-chip outlets along the Magnificent Mile--were rife with bogus limited-edition drawings and prints attributed to brand-name artists. Spiel and his colleagues cracked down on galleries and auction houses, confiscating works and checking the books. "We had stamp collections, we had coin collections, we had some library thefts," Spiel recalls. In fact the highlight of his career involved the John Crerar Library at the Illinois Institute of Technology, which housed some 800,000 books in the fields of science, technology, and medicine (it has since moved to the University of Chicago). "They had a fantastic collection of scientific books from the dawn of the printing press," says Spiel. But in 1981 an audit revealed that since the late 70s the library had lost 370 volumes, valued at more than $500,000, from its rare-book vault. Among the purloined items were a 16th-century first edition by Copernicus (worth at least $150,000) and volumes by Thomas Hobbes, Isaac Newton, Galileo, Rene Descartes, and Walter Raleigh.

Spiel discovered that 200 of the books had been sold to a rare-book dealer in San Francisco, who had already resold 150 of them for $250,000, including the Copernicus. But authorities got a name--Putnam--and matched it to one found in the library's records. In early 1983 business consultant Joseph Putna and his partner, Kay Barber, were arrested in Milwaukee after a search of their homes yielded hundreds of books from Crerar and other midwestern libraries. The thieves had befriended an elderly clerk who'd granted them unauthorized access to the Crerar's vault. Putna and Barber were charged with transporting stolen property across state lines. "It was difficult to solve, even though we had a pretty good idea of who took the books," recalls Spiel. "It was intricate to find a way to recover them--there were a lot of books--and then we had to prove that the couple did it."

Spiel has eight scrapbooks filled with newspaper and magazine clippings about his investigations and with letters, reports, photographs, and features about art heists and art scams. There's even a 1979 series of Dick Tracy comic strips based on the Art Institute caper. But by 1988, Spiel had decided to retire from the bureau and go into private practice. He wouldn't miss the drudgery of surveillance details, which could sometimes take days and lead nowhere. He could see the FBI's resources for art-related crimes beginning to dwindle. And he'd found himself in some bone-rattling situations: one time in 1981 he posed as a shady art dealer to help nab a Cook County sheriff's deputy and another man who'd stolen a truck from a Skokie art center parking lot and needed to unload 220 artworks valued at $50,000. Spiel set up a meeting in a motel parking lot in Des Plaines, though an informant had told him the thieves planned to rob and kill the buyer. Sitting in the suspects' vehicle, Spiel asked to see the art before he produced the cash, and as soon as the art appeared, the pair were busted by Des Plaines police.

"I could've stayed longer," says Spiel of his career with the bureau. "I was going to try to learn some new stuff, like maybe narcotics....But I said, maybe this is a good time to leave before I lose track of the art world and the people in it. I was kind of itching to do something about preventative work. I felt there was a need for it." (Ross Rice, a special agent in the FBI's Chicago office, speaks highly of Spiel: "He did a great job. He was an expert in his field and a pioneer in the area. It was a big loss to the FBI when he left.") His timing couldn't have been better: in 1990, two years after he opened Robert E. Spiel Associates on Michigan Avenue, thieves posing as policemen looted the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, making off with 13 (uninsured) masterpieces by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Manet, and Degas. None of the works, now valued at $300 million, has ever surfaced, making the Gardner case the priciest art theft in U.S. history. Many museums decided to step up security measures, and Spiel began consulting with a great many dealers, museums, and private and corporate collectors.

John Vlna, chief of security at the Chicago Historical Society, has known Spiel for a decade, since retaining him to investigate the theft of an artifact. The piece was never recovered and the crime never solved, but he still values Spiel's expertise. "He's given us good guidance and good information," says Vlna. "If he sees something in another museum that's better than what you're doing, he'll give you ideas--he's been in business a long time." Spiel says he can't share too much about his work, but he does offer a few caveats. "Don't rely on your alarm system without a physical barrier protecting the art," he says, "because it's so quick and easy to get it out of the premises and be gone with it. Another thing is, be careful of the people you hire in whatever capacity. A lot of people forget that. And another obvious thing is to check and make sure you have what you're supposed to have once in a while, at least of the more important stuff, instead of waiting five years."

Other clients have hired Spiel to track down purloined art, though it's not the biggest part of his business. "I had an E-mail the other day," he explains. "An artist somewhere had a piece of their art stolen. This particular one was just 'Keep on the lookout for it.' Sometimes I send back and say basically, 'We perform this as a professional service, here's our fee,' and that shrinks the population. Before you can even get going in an investigation, it's going to cost $1,000. Then you begin to understand what your problems are. So if you've lost a $2,000 piece, it doesn't make sense to hire us." But he does maintain a "wanted art" page on his Web site (www.arttheft.com), and over the years he's amassed an impressive Rolodex full of art historians, collectibles experts, attorneys, and law enforcement officials should someone ask him to hunt down a stolen piece.

In the private sector Spiel is no longer empowered to make arrests, and he gets only "different pieces" of federal and local police investigations. But the feds called on him recently when they reopened their file on one of the more baffling art thefts in Chicago history: the 1967 heist of The Studio, an Andrew Wyeth watercolor, from the now defunct Sears-Vincent Price Gallery on East Ontario. According to reports at the time, someone simply lifted the $30,000 painting off the wall and walked out the door. Police and federal agents searched for years, even after Sears ended its association with Price and closed the gallery in 1971. Then in the fall of 2000 the painting, now worth as much as half a million dollars, turned up at Christie's in New York, which discovered during a routine authenticity check that it had been stolen.

The FBI says no charges have been filed, but the painting's ownership is being contested. Last year the U.S. government filed a civil complaint in New York district court against Sears and against the painting's most recent owner, a Chicago collector who apparently bought the painting after it had changed hands several times. "My piece was merely to see if I could help Sears prove ownership," says Spiel. "The original owner hired me to make the bona fide buyer less bona fide. That's a very common situation." He wrote Christie's a report detailing the circumstances of the purchase; the case is still pending.

A stolen artwork resurfacing after 33 years is a lucky break: for every article in his scrapbook trumpeting the recovery of a lost work, many more crimes go unsolved, and the FBI is still looking for about 20 other valuable paintings and artifacts taken in the Chicago area. That statistic may not improve, either--last December the FBI announced a reorientation from crime solving to the war on terrorism, and most expect the overhaul to push the burden for art theft onto state and local police departments. With his expertise and his insight into criminal minds and methods, Spiel may spend even more of his time patrolling the darkest back alleys of the art world.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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