Heist School

Kevin Van Aelst

Published: May 31, 2010

On Friday, May 21, the day after five paintings worth roughly $125 million, including works by Braque, Matisse, Modigliani and Picasso, were discovered stolen from the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, an ebullient scandalmonger known as Turbo Paul, who runs two art-theft blogs, sent me an e-mail message: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

Cheers, Turbo Paul. You scare me.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by Turbo Paul’s giddiness. I have read his faintly evil blogs, Art Hostage and Stolen Vermeer, almost since they started in September 2006. Where Art Hostage is a general-interest chronicle of art heists, Stolen Vermeer is about the nefarious heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. “I read Paul’s stuff,” Robert K. Wittman, the former senior investigator of the F.B.I.’s art-crime team, told me by telephone. “But I never read it for ideas or tips. I always read it because it is entertaining.”

The minute I saw the Paris heist in the news, I knew Turbo Paul would be psyched: traffic to Art Hostage would spike, his brain would rev high and he would get to peddle innuendo and what he presents as underworld intelligence. When news of big heists break, “I am at my toxic best,” he told me. A self-described former dealer in stolen antiques, he says he now actively works “to recover the art.”

This lifted-eyebrow, if-you-know-what-I’m-saying voice makes his blogs irresistible, as does the fact that Turbo Paul knows everything about  cops and robbers — or seems to. Sure enough, by May 22, he was proposing what the Paris heist meant; who was sending signals to whom; who was humiliated by the heist and who had the last laugh. He said his blog was besieged by visitors with prestigious IP addresses, and when I asked, he passed on the routing information of his readers: Justice Department, State Department and F.B.I.

After the Paris heist, Turbo Paul had also, evidently, conversed with all kinds of unusual suspects, giving intelligence, getting it, pretending he knew more or less than he did.

On his blog, he dispensed some unsolicited advice to the French authorities at the Banditry Repression Brigade of Paris (B.R.B.-P.P.), warning them that their covert strategies to recover the art had been compromised: “Undercover B.R.B. have been made, so your presence is hindering the quick return. Stand down and don’t make the arrest as this will not guarantee the safe return of the art. They won’t fall for the  same sting used to get back the two Picassos stolen in 2007 from Picasso’s granddaughter.”

Undercover B.R.B. have been made! They won’t fall for that 2007 nonsense. This sounded more like a ransom note than a blog post. That effect is vintage Turbo Paul, who told me by e-mail: “I regard myself as a firewall between the underworld and law enforcement.” I admire the way Art Hostage sends half-coded signals to disparate populations. I further appreciate how, like a good airport thriller, the blog hints to those of us who know nothing about $100 million heists that we’re missing something — potentially everything — about this great big world of good and evil.

Were you really a crook? I asked Turbo Paul, emboldened by the speedy and anonymous Skype chat, his favored means of communication. “Of course,” he wrote back quickly. “I was good as an organizer, tried to be a burglar but was too noisy, so better to sit at a hotel waiting for the stolen art to arrive.” Turbo Paul sees himself as Fagin, the “receiver of stolen goods” in “Oliver Twist” ; he even named his son Oliver.

For his authority and his notoriety, Turbo Paul says he is grateful above all to Google, which, as he sees it, has given a onetime truant a place at the front of the class. For his blogs themselves, he uses Blogspot, which is Google’s blogging platform. He said he trusts Google’s secure servers and privacy policies to protect him from snooping, censorship and interference. “I will always stick with Google blogs,” he wrote, “because I come under the Goggle security, and it stops hackers, govt ones mainly, trying to disrupt my blogs.”

Dickensian Web characters have every reason to love Google. It stokes and protects the intricate ecosystem that is their habitat. (I doubt there will ever be a Turbo Paul iPad app.) By supporting his blog and clocking its page views, Google inserts Turbo Paul into history — the history of art-theft investigation, that is, which is the only history he cares about.

And sometimes Turbo Paul really does seem to be at the center of the action. Consider one of Turbo Paul’s recent stories. In April, he told me by Skype chat, Art Hostage received a number of visitors who came to the site after conducting Google searches about a valuable clock that was stolen in September 2009 (a theft that Turbo Paul blogged about). Among the visitors, to judge from the IP addresses, was the police in Yorkshire, England. Turbo Paul realized that an investigation was heating up. When a blog reader came to him with questions about the clock and whether there were any efforts to recover it, he didn’t respond. A short while later, the clock was recovered and a man was arrested.

What happened, exactly? Turbo Paul directed me to an April news story: a man named Graham Harkin had indeed been arrested and charged for the theft of a 17th-century Thomas Tompion ebony clock, valued at $292,000, from a historic home in the northwest of England. Turbo Paul connected some dots: the reader who asked about the investigation, he claimed, was Harkin himself. “Now transpires, Harkin was trying to get advice from Art Hostage before he was caught with the clock,” he wrote. Turbo Paul could have scuppered the undercover operations by replying to Harkin, he stressed, but he hadn’t.

Maybe I’m just a sucker for Dickens and silver-tongued nutters, but it’s people like Turbo Paul who, to me, exemplify the possibilities of the open Web. Turbo Paul’s blogs have opened my eyes and mind to new ways of seeing the world and new vocabularies for discussing it. Do these blogs solve crimes? I don’t know, just as I don’t know whether the Web has been “good for democracy,” as some assert or deny. I tend to believe Turbo Paul, however, when he says that the “Web has been a wonderful tool for forensics as both sides talk in a back-channel manner and issues can be resolved that otherwise would fester in an Internet-free world.”

But I especially believe Turbo Paul when he describes the sensory-emotional experience of his work, which is like the sensory-emotional experience of fantasy and fiction and novels. After talking me through his work, Turbo Paul wanted to make sure I understood his napalm excitement, which I originally balked at. “Virginia, now can you understand the napalm quote and what context I make it in? I so love this Web weaving, its gives such a rush when things are fluid, let alone if a result is obtained!”

Turbo Paul, I get it. I so love this Web weaving, too.

Points of Entry: This Week’s Recommendations

Robert K. Wittman founded the F.B.I.’s national art-crime team. Now, with John Shiffman, he has just published a riveting account of his work: “Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures.”

The Web is fundamentally an 18th-century place. Turbo Paul himself claims inspiration from Jonathan Wild, the London criminal who passed as a superhero policeman in the 1700s. Henry Fielding’s rollicking novel “Jonathan Wild” conjures the scene.

“The Italian Job,” “Topkapi,” “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “The Sting,” “The Good Thief” and “Dog Day Afternoon.” If you missed any of these superb heist movies, take the summer to catch up on Netflix.

April 13th, 2013

Posted In: Art Thief

Alleged Italian Temple Thief Arrested in Bali
Made Arya Kencana | September 07, 2010

Bali. Police in Bali have arrested an Italian national on suspicion of looting local treasures.

Badung Police chief detective Adjutant Comr. Soma Adnyana told the Jakarta Globe on Tuesday that they had found 110 sacred Hindu objects, known as pratima, in the residence of Roberto Gamba, 50, on Jalan Bumbuk, Kerobokan on Thursday.

Gamba has lived in Bali for more than 10 years and is a known collector, Adnyana said.

Another 24 pratima were recovered from a Denpasar warehouse rented by Gamba on Monday night, he said.
A second warehouse in Seminyak is yet to be searched.

Adnyana said they had recovered sacks of ancient Balinese coins, antique kris (ceremonial daggers) and gold statues.

The Italian reportedly told police that he had been collecting the objects from locals and from Jakarta since 2006 and denied suggestions that he knew the items were sacred and looted from temples.

Police, however, are not amused.

“He bought the pratima cheaply, for between Rp 500,000 [$56] and Rp 1 million,” Adnyana said. “The evidence strongly suggests that he is a dealer who buys stolen objects.”

He said the recovered items could be worth at least Rp 2 billion ($222,000).

Police are also seek a French national who allegedly works as Gamba’s accomplice.

September 8th, 2010

Posted In: Art Thief, law enforcement and investigation

Millionaire Swede behind Auschwitz sign theft?

09.06.2010 16:27

Anders Hoegstroem, currently in custody in Poland in connection with the theft of the “Arbeit macht frei” sign from the Auschwitz museum last December, claims that a millionaire fellow Swede was the crime‘s mastermind.

According to the private RMF FM radio station, Hoegstroem, the 34 year old, former neo-Nazi currently being held in custody in the southern city of Krakow, claims that 58 year old Lars Goran Wahlstrom was the person who initiated the theft.

Wahlstrom – a millionaire thought to have bankrolled the neo-Nazi National Socialist Front which was founded by Hoegstroem in 1994 – allegedly persuaded Hoegstroem to hire Polish thieves, who dismantled and cut into pieces the “Arbeit macht frei” sign from the Auschwitz museum gate in December with the intention of smuggling it to Sweden.

Lars Goran Wahlstrom is thought to have lived with Hoegstroem as his legal guardian.

The Prosecutor’s Office in Krakow would not comment on the allegations, first mooted in the Swedish press back in January. “We can’t provide information on that subject,” said prosecutor spokeswoman Boguslawa Marcinkowska. She added, however, that the Prosecutor’s Office in Krakow intends to ask Sweden for legal assistance and consent for a Polish prosecutor to participate in police enquiries in Sweden.

Poland issued a European arrest warrant for Hoegstroem to be brought to Poland to answer charges in February. A Swedish court allowed his extradition in March. Five Polish men aged in their 20s and 30s were arrested by police after they buried the 16-foot wrought-iron sign cut into three pieces in woodland near Torun, northern Poland. (pg/mg)

June 10th, 2010

Posted In: Art Thief

Tales From the ‘Mind-Blowing’ Room of Accused Tenderloin Art Thief Terry Helbing

By Joe Eskenazi, Tuesday, Jun. 8 2010 @ 2:59PM
Categories: Crime

Last week we wrote about how accused art thief Terry Helbing’s amazing single-room occupancy hotel room was the stuff of legend in the Tenderloin — even before the 53-year-old was arrested and accused of pilfering more than $100,000 worth of art.

Today we got a hold of Jeff Buckley, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic community organizer who recently visited Helbing. And, even a month or so after dropping by the accused thief’s room, Buckley was still clearly blown away. “I’ve seen a lot of hoarders’ rooms. I’ve seen bedbugs, cockroaches, and seen mold grow. But I have never, ever seen a unit like that,” he told SF Weekly. “And I don’t think I’ll ever see one again. It was mind-blowing how beautiful it was.”

Helbing’s room was small — as are all SRO hotel rooms. But it not only featured museum-quality artwork; Helbing had rigged up museum-quality lighting to accentuate his treasures. “He had very artistically put up this lighting system that brought out certain qualities to the paintings you wouldn’t have ordinarily seen when you came into the room,” recalls Buckley. “He played with shadows. I was speechless.”

In addition to an astounding job with lighting, Helbing had also somehow rigged up a pulley system to suspend his mini-fridge over his toilet. That, too, was a first for Buckley.

Helbing’s flat, other than the jaw-dropping artwork, was actually pretty spartan. He had no furniture save for his bed. He also had a TV. He had a closet, which he claimed was full of “other exhilarating artwork.” Buckley recalls a small grandfather clock and five or more lush, Persian or Oriental rugs stacked on top of one another. The paintings, naturally, were of stunning quality.

While reports of Helbing’s alleged thievery “make him seem like some kind of criminal mastermind,” Buckley says his former client was no Moriarty. Helbing had a tendency to repeat phrases again and again and again. And he also habitually stuffed wadded-up pieces of paper in his ears and wandered around town that way.

Helbing pleaded not guilty on Friday to one count of grand theft, two counts of being in possession or receiving stolen property and one count of burglary — all felonies. He is being held on $95,000 bail. Police cleared out his amazing room last Wednesday after he was arrested at the Botanical Garden one day earlier; staff there had witnessed Helbing wandering off with art from the Botanical Garden library at an earlier date and summoned police when he returned. A number of pieces missing from the library were recovered from Helbing’s flat.

“I hope Terry gets some mercy,” Buckley said of Helbing’s pending prosecution.

Follow us on Twitter at @TheSnitchSF and @SFWeekly

June 9th, 2010

Posted In: Art Thief

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June 8th, 2010

Posted In: Art Thief

Man behind medals theft named

By Jared Savage

One of the thieves who stole 96 medals from the Waiouru Army Museum in 2007 is a career criminal who has hundreds of convictions for fraud and dishonesty charges.

The Weekend Herald can reveal Ronald van Wakeren’s identity after a court order suppressing his name ended yesterday when he was sentenced in the Auckland District Court for an unrelated fraud totalling $500,000.

Van Wakeren has admitted his part in the Waiouru theft, although strict suppressions remain in place for the man police allege was his accomplice and who is still before the courts.

There are also strict suppression orders covering evidence relating to the police investigation into the theft of the medals, dubbed Operation  Valour.

Van Wakeren was sentenced to 11 years’ prison for the medal thefts with other dishonesty and fraud charges in October last year, but he has amassed more than 200 convictions.

He was jailed yesterday for 4 years on the latest charges, which will be served concurrently with the sentence he is already serving.

The latest fraud involved more than $500,000 being taken from a clothing company using stolen online banking passwords and forged passports.

The company’s bank accounts were accessed and the money transferred to a series of false accounts that were disguised as payments to a courier company. Van Wakeren was on bail on a fraud charge when he stole the medals and was sent to jail three days after the heist while the medals were safely hidden. After a public outcry at the loss of the medals a $300,000 reward was offered for their safe return.

In February 2008, the medals were returned after a deal brokered by barrister Chris Comeskey. Details of the reward remain secret but part of it was paid. The police continued their investigation and in October 2008 Van Wakeren and another man were arrested for the medals thefts.

Van Wakeren pleaded guilty in September 2009 and was sentenced the following month.

At the sentencing he apologised, an action for which he was given credit for by the judge. He said he did not mean to target anyone individually.

“I apologise to all servicemen past and present who served for this country.

“I did it for my own personal gain and I sincerely apologise for everything I’ve done,” he said.

Herald archives show Van Wakeren first hit the headlines in 1990 on forgery and car theft charges.

A decade later, he was caught assuming the identities of two people so he could take out mortgages on their homes and pocket the money.

Van Wakeren was sentenced to 2 years in prison for that fraud, but started a similar scam in October 2003 shortly after his release.

He attempted to scam $180,000 from the HSBC bank using stolen and altered passports to get mortgages on houses he didn’t own – but was caught before the loan application could be signed.

* Stole 96 medals from the Waiouru Army Museum with an accomplice last year.
* Committed a $500,000 fraud on a clothing company.
* Has more than 200 convictions, many involving fraud and forgery.


June 5th, 2010

Posted In: Art Thief

Johnson gang leader faces longer sentence
10 May 2010
THE ringleader of the notorious Johnson family gang, who played the
key role in a series of audacious thefts at stately homes across the
UK, faces an increased prison sentence.

The judge in a confiscation hearing is convinced 34-year-old Danny
O’Loughlin knows where at least some of the stolen art and antiques
are hidden.

On April 30, following a lengthy and detailed hearing at Reading Crown
Court, Judge Christopher Critchlow said O’Loughlin – “probably the
leader” of the Gloucestershire gang – had made £1,229,748 from the
theft of £30m in art and antiques from properties including Ramsbury
Manor in Wiltshire, Warneford Place in Swindon and The Manor, in
Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire.

Under the Proceeds of Crime Act of 2003, O’Loughlin – currently
serving the 11 year sentence he received in 2008 – was told he must
hand over £113,200 within six months or face an additional 25 months
in prison.

But, facing a £7m confiscation order, other Johnson family members,
who had received sentences of between eight and 11 years for
conspiracy to commit burglary two years ago, were thought to have
pocketed much smaller sums.

The defence counsel successfully argued they were of limited means
because they sold the stolen goods for a fraction of their value and
spent the money on a “hand-to-mouth existence”.

The gang claimed, for example, that they made just £15,200 each from
the raid at Ramsbury Manor, the home of property tycoon and
connoisseur collector Harry Hyams and the site of the most valuable
domestic burglary ever committed in the UK. An independent expert put
the value of the 300-plus items taken from Ramsbury at £23m. The gang
said they had accepted just £76,000 for the cache from a ‘fence’.

In total, the court decided Richard ‘Chad’ Johnson, 34, had made
£135,768 from criminal activity during the period April 2005 and
October 2006; Michael Nicholls, 30, had made £155,978 while Albi
Johnson, 27, had made £25,602.

As it was deemed the men had no current assets, each received only
nominal penalties of up to £178 although under the terms of the
Proceeds of Crime Act, they are now liable for life to have any money
they may come into seized by the authorities. They left the court
saying the outcome was “better than a not guilty verdict” having given
the judge a ‘thumbs up’.

The case of 55-year-old Ricky Johnson was dismissed as the judge was
unconvinced the family patriarch had actively taken part in the

Judge Critchlow conceded that Ramsbury treasures such as an early
Tompion bracket clock c.1675 (for which a value of £240,000 was given)
and a silver-mounted ebony barometer by Daniel Delander (£650,000)
were now lost to the black market. But he found it “improbable” that
the family did not have further antiques stashed away.

It emerged at the hearing that, in a bid to persuade the judge to be
lenient, O’Loughlin had arranged for stolen items valued at £643,000
to be returned while he was behind bars.

O’Loughlin’s surrender of 93 pieces was thought to be the first time
someone being pursued under the Proceeds of Crime Act has volunteered
information from prison that has led to the recovery of stolen
property. The court heard that some of the stolen antiques were
recovered from the Cleeve Prior Travellers’ Site, where all five
members of the gang lived. Of the 93 items, 42 were from Ramsbury,
Warneford Place and The Manor.

Simon Burns, prosecuting, told the judge there was an “inescapable
inference” to be drawn that the family still had knowledge of the
whereabouts of more booty.

The haul of some of the stolen Ramsbury items, found secreted in an
underground bunker on the outskirts of Stratford-upon-Avon some months
after the raid in 2006, was valued here at £2.3m, approximately one
tenth of the value of the total theft.

May 11th, 2010

Posted In: Art Thief

Police seek help finding art thief

May 08, 2010 06:00 am | By Ryan Tumilty | St. Albert Gazette
The RCMP is looking for help finding art thieves who took a set of paintings from a vehicle last month.

The paintings were left in the trunk of a vehicle parked at Red Willow Park near Boudreau and Sturgeon roads on April 25 between 5:15 p.m. and 6 p.m.

During that time, someone broke into the vehicle’s trunk and took four pieces of art worth about $500.

St. Albert RCMP Cpl. Laurel Kading said officers usually recommend people lock valuables away in their trunk out of sight, but in this case that didn’t deter the thief.

“It was broken into and it is unusual to see something like that happen.”

Kading said the thief didn’t break into the rest of the vehicle, but police can’t say for certain if it was a random or targeted theft.

The four pieces of art include; Winter on the Farm and Winter Woods by Ardath Buckaway, as well as Good Food No Crowds by Jack Tessier and Duck Lake in Summer II by Diane Stone.

The RCMP is looking for anyone who might have been near the parking lot or seen anything suspicious in the area.

Kading said any information would be useful and they would also like people in the art world to keep an eye out for the paintings.

Anyone who may have witnessed the theft is being asked to call Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477 or the St. Albert detachment at 780-458-7700.

May 9th, 2010

Posted In: art theft, Art Thief

Fugitive art dealer Solly Sinai brought from France to NY to face heist charges

BY Alison Gendar

Monday, April 12th 2010, 12:57 PM
Related News

A jet-setting dealer has been dragged from France to New York to face charges he sold stolen art and antiques.

Solly Sinai, who worked out of Israel and Paris, has been linked to pieces stolen in three high-end break-ins in the late 1990s and then hawked at fire-sale prices.

The thefts include more than 200 Japanese antique miniature sculptures stolen from a Paris shop in 1997.

In a second burglary, more than 50 pieces worth more than $1 million – including several pairs of Napoleonic-era antique pistols and an antique silver bowl – were taken.

A third heist netted antique candelabra and valuable “first casts” by the artist Antoine Louis Barye.

Sinai allegedly bought the items on the black market and smuggled six of the pistols into New York in 2000 and sold them to unsuspecting dealers in California.

He also was accused of selling bronze statues and the antique bowl to other dealers in Manhattan, and hawking some of the Japanese miniatures to an antiques dealer in Germany.

He was indicted in 2004.

Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/ny_crime/2010/04/12/2010-04-12_fugitive_art_dealer_solly_sinai_brought_from_france_to_ny_to_face_heist_charges.html#ixzz0ky0mAbR0

April 13th, 2010

Posted In: Art Thief, Mailing list reports