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Police cracking down on a hotbed of hot art in Quebec Add to ...

“The way this works is that criminals sell it through the auction house to another criminal buyer in the audience at the auction. It makes sense, because the auction house gets a percentage – say, a million dollars. But the criminal organization has just laundered $15-million. Not bad.

“The painting weighs one pound and is 16 inches wide. That’s a lot easier than travelling with cash,” Mr. Lacoursière said.

The detective’s work on how organized crime used stolen art led Quebec’s provincial police force to recruit him in 2003. He was given additional resources and allowed to pick a partner. He chose a young detective named Jean-François Talbot, with an eye toward training him as his successor.

In the meantime, evidence linking stolen art to organized crime continued to pile up. In 2006, a stash of more than 2,500 paintings was found stored in the warehouses of two drug dealers in Quebec City. “Every month these guys were placing hundreds of paintings in auction houses across Quebec. They were using the system to launder their blood money. Place a man in the audience who inflates the price and buys the painting. Auction house gets its percentage, money is cleaned,” Mr. Lacoursière said.

He began to use technology aggressively, building a database with thousands of e-mail addresses of the world’s cultural experts, art lawyers, agents with the FBI, Scotland Yard and Interpol – and dozens of criminals he’d arrested or made contact with over the previous 15 years. His database also holds hundreds of pictures of stolen and forged artwork.

“This is all part of what I call ‘Art Alert,’ an early-warning system,” he said. The idea was to electronically share as much information as possible with as many people in the art community, fast, in order to keep up with the organized criminal element.

“Criminals now have a lot of tools. They use auction houses and art galleries, and they are fast. A painting can be stolen here and sold across the world in a day. In those cases, it doesn’t work if I file a report to Interpol and wait for them to send out that information. That can take months. With Art Alert, I can e-mail the auction houses directly. When I want to know something, I e-mail Christie’s or Sotheby’s in New York and in London. They know me now and they get back to me immediately.”

Mr. Lacoursière became a lead source of intelligence in Canada and one of the few people in the world who understood the scope of international art theft. He said that smuggling art from one country to another was far easier than smuggling bank notes or bank drafts. Customs officials weren’t trained properly to identify stolen art, and paintings were a breeze to move across oceans. That was good news for organized crime groups, he said, because paintings were being used more frequently as currency for the purchase of drugs and as payment on loans.

Between 2004 and 2007, Mr. Lacoursière and Sgt. Talbot opened 300 cases. In Quebec, art theft and crimes related to the black market are worth about $20-million annually, according to their data, but no statistics are available for any other province. At the end of 2008, Mr. Lacoursière retired.

Sgt. Talbot took over the Quebec unit, which expanded to include two more detectives. It is still the only force in Canada investigating art theft full-time. In 2011, the London-based Art Loss Register database held a list of more than 300,000 stolen artworks globally. In the U.S., the FBI had created its Art Crime Team, with a dedicated manager, and a special FBI website. The only municipal force in the U.S. with a dedicated art-crime detective is in Los Angeles, where Donald Hrycyk has recovered more than $80-million worth of stolen art over the last two decades.

“We have a very good picture of what’s happening in the criminal world in terms of art,” Mr. Lacoursière said, shortly before leaving the force. “Criminals use art in many different ways, for many different purposes. We know the Mafia and biker gangs have specialists for telemarketing, for fraud, for credit cards, and now they have specialists for art too.”

He added: “There are 25 full-time art thieves working in this country that I know of. I arrested a guy who has been in prison in seven different countries, and he told me, ‘I like Canada. If I get caught here, you have the nicest prisons.’”

Joshua Knelman is author of the book Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives through the Secret World of Stolen Art, published this month by Douglas & McIntyre.

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