The Loss of the Italian American Art Cop
By Charles Vincent Sabba Jr.
Gabriele “Il Vate” D’Annunzio stated “one must live their life as one creates a work of art.” Robert Volpe, who was an artist, an art lover, and a NYPD art theft investigator, lived his art and life in a seamless unity, never separating any aspect of his life or police job from his art. Indeed, if Il Vate’s life was a fine work of art, Robert’s life was a priceless masterpiece. He once stated that a cop’s beat was a stage and every shift was a spectacular event. This can be seen in his many antics, such as the first time he met Salvador Dali’. Dali stared at Bobby and twirled the end of his handlebar moustache; “The Art Cop” in turn stared back, twirling his stylish moustache! Another example, recounted to me by Bobby, was when he was collecting junk on garbage nights to utilize in sculptures; Internal affairs followed him because they thought his “garbage picking” was unusual behavior; or when he was placed in a strategic surveillance position on the water front posing as an artist with an easel. The criminal targets moved and Bobby, hypnotized by the painting he was creating, missed the movement. Art was always his first priority.
Volpe investigated art crimes for the NYPD from 1972-1983. Bobby was not only a street wise cop, he was an artist as well, and being such, actually connected to artists and world habitués with ease. This approach to the art world facilitated numerous high-profile recoveries, including Byzantine ivories that were stolen from Italy and several precious works that were stolen in Budapest.
On one hand, he was a tough, N.Y. Cop who grew up in Brooklyn and possessed the cunning of a Machiavellian fox and the courage of a lion; on the other hand, he was quite urbane, attending the cocktail parties of N.Y.’s upper echelon as well as art auctions at Sotheby’s and Christies. Joel Perlman, a Manhattan based sculptor, remembers The Fox as “a tough New York cop persona, wearing a Giorgio Armani suit and a Salvador Dali’ moustache, attending art openings all over the city.” He gained people’s trust because they knew he loved art and more importantly, that he wasn’t out to hurt anyone. He believed that in art crime investigations, recovering the object was more important than making an arrest. Bobby told me that he once contacted a thief who had stolen a painting and requested its return with no questions asked; The thief sent him a nasty note. Bobby waited for the villain to depart his residence, entered the premise, “repossessed” the painting and left the thief’s original hand written note in its place. The art was immediately returned to its rightful owner.
Bobby studied art at Parsons and the Art Students League. He painted since he was young, often doing pictures of tugboats. In his last years he concentrated largely on sculpture. Bobby was a member of New York’s oldest artist club Salmagundi, which is located at 47 Fifth Ave in Greenwhich Village and was president of the club from 1991- 1994. Edward A. Brennan, who was president of the Salmagundi Club from 1987 -1990 and who was a close friend of Bobby’s, stated: “He was a very talented artist. I own one of his pieces. He was a unique guy; A big talent and a great personality. Whoever he touched will always remember.” In fact, Bobby held friendship and family as his top priority. Last year while giving a lecture at Salmagundi, Bobby closed by saying “The true works of art are the people involved in your life. Making friends is the true art of living.”