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Reporting Art Stolen by a Known Suspect

This is a more complicated category of crime. The victim has had contact with a suspect who may have been given access to property the victim now wishes to report stolen. Unless the facts are sufficiently compelling, the transaction may appear to be civil in nature, arising from a business or family dispute. Consignments or loans of art are often in this category. Even if the detective believes a crime has been committed, prosecution may not be initiated if the prosecutor believes the facts are so ambiguous that a conviction is unlikely. Remember, a jury of twelve must unanimously agree that the defendant committed a crime. If a felony is alleged, they must agree that the defendant’s actions rise to a level warranting a state prison sentence. As a result, a victim will have to work harder to provide enough information to the police so that they can determine if a crime report should be taken.

1. Write down a chronology of the entire incident with dates of all contacts you had with the suspect to resolve the matter in order to obtain your property. This includes all meetings, phone calls, and correspondence. Jot down any response from the suspect or lack of response if the suspect is avoiding you. Remember, you must show that the suspect is intending to permanently deprive you of your property.

2. Assemble all paperwork on the incident including consignment agreements, memos, letters, and e-mails. Send a dated demand letter to the suspect with proof of receipt (e.g., certified mail, return receipt).

3. Consider the use of a dispute resolution service or attorney to mediate contacts with the suspect. Agencies that provide these services include the L.A. City Attorney’s Office, the L.A. County Department of Consumer Affairs, and the California Lawyers for the Arts. Log all contacts with the suspect and efforts to resolve the matter.

4. Avoid unnecessary delay in reporting the crime to the police. This can be a Catch-22 situation. On the one hand, the police may not initiate an investigation unless enough time has elapsed to clearly show that the suspect has no intention of returning your property. The intent to permanently deprive is one of the elements of theft that must be proven. This can be done by waiting long enough to give the suspect every opportunity to respond to demands for the return of the property. On the other hand, you don’t want the statute of limitations to lapse. In California, the police usually have three years from the date the theft occurs to finish the investigation and get a criminal filing.

5. Determine where the crime occurred. This can be confusing when consignments and fraud are involved or in cases where the property disappears while in transit. Victims often try to report crimes based on where they or the suspect live or where the business transaction took place or property changed hands. As a general rule, the crime location will be determined by where the suspect’s intent to permanently deprive the victim of property can be established.

For example, a collector in Palm Springs consigns a painting to a dealer in L.A. The agreement specifies that the dealer is obligated to return the painting in six months if unsold. When the date arrives, the collector learns the L.A. dealer has disappeared with the painting and will not respond to repeated attempts to contact him. In this case, nothing was amiss until the L.A. dealer disappeared with the victim’s property. LAPD would handle the investigation.

But suppose the L.A. dealer buys the painting from the collector in Palm Springs and pays for it with a bad check before taking it back to L.A. In this case, we can establish that the L.A. dealer intended to steal the painting when he gave the owner the worthless check in Palm Springs. In that case, Palm Springs PD would handle the investigation.

6. Make a crime report with the law enforcement agency that has jurisdiction. If you are unsure about whether the incident is criminal or civil in nature, contact a detective and discuss the facts of the case. Be sure to mention any additional victims. Criminal intent is much easier to establish when there is a pattern of conduct involving multiple victims.

7. Contact the detective assigned to your case. It may take a few days for the initial crime report to be approved, duplicated and assigned to a detective. Provide any additional information, photos, or property descriptions. Give insurance information if you anticipate that property title may change as a result of an insurance payout. Show interest in your case and discuss ways that you can assist in the investigation. You may discuss the feasibility of offering a reward or distributing crime alert flyers to dealers, galleries and auction houses where the property might surface. Keep a chronological record of your efforts to recover your property in case the issue of due diligence arises later.

8. Make sure the detective reports the stolen art to the Art Loss Register and the FBI’s National Stolen Art File. In some cases, Interpol should also be notified.