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Detective Has a Talent For Discovering Lost Artworks

Associated Press

Auguste Renoir, Mary Cassatt, Toulouse Lautrec, Aphrodite.

Not names that normally appear on a police blotter. Yet they have all crossed the cluttered desk of Police Detective Bill Martin.

With Los Angeles now a world-class art center, the soft-spoken officer has developed one of only two art theft investigative units in the country. Today, the two-member department boasts a recovery rate more than three times the national average.

During his almost 20-year LAPD career, the New York City native has done a little of everything, from gangs to burglary and auto theft. But he discovered his calling in 1980 when he was first assigned to the burglary and auto theft division.

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“I kept seeing reports for a lot of high-dollar artwork stolen, but I never saw any being recovered,” he said in a recent interview. “No one specialized in it, no one even knew about art or the art community.”

So Martin rolled up his sleeves and began a cross-index system to make it easier to track the stolen art.

“Lo and behold, we started to recover some,” he said. You didn’t have to paint him a picture.

Today the cross-index system is a computerized program that lists more than 900 art-theft cases in Southern California. He estimated that more than $2 million in art is stolen annually in Los Angeles.

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Nationwide, only about 12% all art thefts are solved, but in Los Angeles, the average is about 45%, Martin said.

“Yes, it’s very high, but there’s a certain amount of luck involved,” Martin said modestly. “We’ve been doing real well, but I don’t expect it to stay that high.”

His first memorable coup involved a collection containing poster prints by French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec worth about $250,000. They were reported stolen from a plastic surgeon and after an extensive investigation, the doctor was arrested for insurance fraud, Martin recalled with a satisfied smile.

The team’s current casebook includes investigations involving thefts of work by French Impressionist Pierre Auguste Renoir and Mary Cassatt, possibly America’s most famous woman painter.

Recently, at Interpol’s request, he determined that the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu had broken no U.S. laws in the acquisition of a 5th-Century statue of the Greek goddess Aphrodite. Italian authorities are investigating whether the piece, on loan to the Getty Museum, was illegally removed from an excavation in Morgantina, Sicily.

The detective, whose desk is the only one in the crowded department to be decorated with a Renoir print and two vivid Leroy Neiman postcards, admitted that his assignment sounds comparatively glamorous.

“By and large we deal with a lot less seedy clientele than other detectives,” Martin said. “It involves meeting with a lot of upscale people.”

But the investigations can go from one extreme to the other, added Martin, who recalled calling in a SWAT team to help recover some rare 14th- to 19th-Century Japanese swords.

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