New York Artist Praises “The Pope of Stolen Art” For His Role in Paintings’ Recovery

Agents from the FBI and the police department in Southold, New York turned a cache of paintings over to the attorney of Max Moran last month, marking a partial end to a years-long search for items that had been taken from the artist’s Long Island studio in 2004 and 2006. Though the artist once described regaining the works as “next to impossible” (his archives — in addition to actual paintings and sketches — were included among the purloined items), he has since recovered enough to show off the works in an exhibition at the Barn Gallery in Jamesport, New York. The relief and elation did not end there.

Robert Wittman, a founder of the FBI’s art crime team hired by Moran as a private investigator in the course of his search, was recently interviewed for a feature on CNBC titled “Art for the Taking.” Watching previews of the show that have been airing for the past few weeks, Moran noticed a police officer standing next to a painting that had been one of several stolen and recovered from homes in eastern Long Island in the spring of 2011. By early September, he was able to track down the paintings he recognized in Ohio, finally confirming they were his own when two of the works were found on reports by the Southold Police Department and the FBI.

These 10 were the first to be recovered by local law enforcement rather than the FBI, though by Moran’s account, they could not have been found without Wittman’s involvement. “He’s the pope of stolen art,” he told the Riverhead Patch. “He got more done in four days than the FBI and police did in four years.” This, in addition to the handful of honest collectors who eagerly turned his paintings over for free once Moran had convinced them they were stolen, has lifted the artist’s prognosis about the future of his search. “I’m hopeful that these are the first of many paintings to be returned,” he told the Riverhead Patch. “There are some good citizens who wouldn’t think of keeping stolen property.”

— Reid Singer