Robert Volpe
"The Art Cop"

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Bobby "The Art Cop" Volpe; 2012, 24" x 28", oil on canvas, 2012, by the artist/art theft gumshoe Charles Sabba; In the private collection of Grace Volpe.


Bobby "The Art Cop" Volpe; detail of larger oil on canvas, 2012, by Charles Sabba; In the private collection of Grace Volpe.

The first time I saw Bob Volpe, he was dressed in black with a white scarf thrown around his neck. My first impression of the saviour in our world we nicknamed the "Art Cop" was that he was a hit man or possibly Al Pacino's double in Serpico. Because of his natural charisma, it was hard to believe that he was a bona fide detective with the New York City Police Department. To me he was an archangel and I was genuinely in awe.

He first came to my aid on a snowy Christmas Eve. I had decided to take myself to Lincoln Center to listen to Handel's Messiah. Parking my car behind Alice Tully Hall, I locked the doors and windows, hiding packages, gifts and something special out of harm's way. Living in New York teaches you how to protect yourself from assaults by minimizing exposure.

Feeling exhausted from dealing with the nightmare of keeping our gallery going through the art world's down time, I decided to call it quits halfway through the concert. Sensing from a distance that something was wrong, I approached the car with caution. Moving closer, it became apparent that someone had attacked the car with a vengeance. The windows were smashed and there was glass all over the street. Losing thousands of dollars in Christmas presents was upsetting enough, but I had also lost something far more precious. A few hours earlier I had managed to rescue a very rare vase from a dealer who saw the piece strictly in terms of its monetary not aesthetic or spiritual value. A romantic landscape, the piece was a treasure unearthed. Having the piece stolen on Christmas Eve wasn't a financial loss, it was as if someone had taken part of my soul.

I was in tears when I phoned the Archangel that night and he was quickly by my side. 'Do you carry a piece?' I asked him. Bob didn't quite know what to make of me. Here I was, one of the leading art dealers in the world, asking a question like a kid meeting the Lone Ranger. He didn't say anything and started twirling his moustache. Then he reached down and pulled up his pants leg and showed the gun to me. That's when I knew the guy was for real.

A few days passed and, although I hadn't heard from him, I had faith in Bob Volpe. Then his call came, 'I can get the piece back. Do exactly as I tell you,' Volpe said. The first thing the Archangel told me was not to speak to anyone. If criminals in the artworld got wind of the fact that we knew who they were, they would have surely destroyed the evidence. 'They don't want the vase,' the Archangel said, 'these are crack addicts.' He continued,' They need money. They'll pawn the piece for ten bucks and you'll never see it again. We have to act fast.'

Acting fast, according to a fox on the good side of the law, did not mean moving in on the culprits when they least expected it, surrounding the building like on TV or talking to them through a megaphone. This was different. Dealing with art crime in the real world is nothing like the movies.

Bob had made some enquiries earlier in the week to find out exactly who had been involved in the theft from my car. Knowing who to talk to, what to say and how to say it makes all the difference as to whether you will successfully recover lost and stolen art or not. Paintings taken from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston are still missing because the feds didn't know how to speak to two well-known criminals who may have had a hand in removing them. Bobby Volpe would have known what to say and what to do. The Archangel didn't take a crook's power away. His main concern was saving the art, not teaching criminals, who are often far cleverer than any cop could be, a lesson. This is what the Archangel Volpe knew that other policemen didn't. It's also why he was a wild card who almost ended up in jail more than a few times himself.

About 2:45 pm, just before school let out in New York City, Bob Volpe and I walked briskly down a street in Hell's Kitchen. As we neared a run-down building he stopped and called for back up. He knew that things could suddenly turn nasty in a situation like this. When an unmarked car moved into position, the Archangel took me by the arm and started up the stairs. 'Stay close to me and don't say a word,' he said. 'Nod your head yes or no. I need you to make a positive ID.' I had no idea what he was talking about. What I would later learn was the Archangel had called one of the crooks and told him he was coming. He told him that he expected to leave with the vase in return for his willingness to honour a pact that they had made.

The tenement we walked through stank to high hell of garbage and bad booze; heroine and hopelessness was written all over the walls. I asked Volpe why people lived this way and he told me to keep my mouth shut and focus only what we'd come to retrieve. After he knocked three times on an apartment door, I heard footsteps coming toward us from the inside. Then the door opened a crack and a pair of eyes stared at us just the way they do in the older movies like The Maltese Falcon. Although he never usually took his gun out or let people know he even had one, this time the Archangel had it out and by his side.

'Hey Willy,' Bob said, 'What's goin' on?' The crook's eyes looked straight at me. 'This is my friend,' Bob said. The man on the other side of the door said nothing. The door closed. The footsteps went away and came back again. Then the door opened and I was able to see in to the apartment. Sitting on a mantel next to hash pipes, beer bottles and other worthless junk was my prized possession, a vase that had won a medal in Paris at the turn of the last century. I was relieved to see itand very grateful Volpe put his ass on the line for me. But then I got angry. 'This fucking bastard took my vase,' I said to Bob, 'Are you going to arrest him?' Bob looked at me as if I had two heads. He understood why I was pissed off and what was wrong with the scene, but he also understood that more works of art were at stake. The way he handled it was beyond skill.'

Bob asked the guy if everything was alright in his world and the guy started shooting the shit with him. By showing the man respect he kept the door open for the future. This was the code on the street, whether you've done right or wrong. Did we know what motivated this person to do what he did? Did we understand the circumstances of how that vase ended up in his possession? No. And we never will. It's a crazy mixed up world and it will never be right, so all we can do is play our part and hopefully balance out the scales when we can. These were the rules of the game.

Acknowledging each other with a handshake, the man handed the piece to me. Bob thanked him and off we went. My heart felt relieved, but my head was still spinning. 'Why did he give the piece back?' I asked. The Archangel looked at me, twirling his moustache. 'I made a deal,' he said.

The Archangel didn't come around for a reward. Another cop would have. He would have brought his wife in on a Saturday and expected me to look after them or educate her about style or fashion. Another civil servant would have made it clear the car he'd been driving was about to break down or that his kid needed a helping hand in school. The Archangel did the complete opposite. He reversed the scene, putting himself in a crook's place and in mine, turned the corner and never looked back. This is the way he was, glad to help and off to another adventure.

All art dealers believe it will happen to everyone else but not to them. A few years after my car was broken into, Lillian Nassau was handcuffed to a railing in her basement while thieves made off with some of her greatest treasures. Bob phoned to tell us what had happened. He also let us know what he had said to Lillian before the robbery took place, but of course she didn't listen. Lillian had installed steel plates in the walls, bulletproof glass and an intricate alarm system after she'd been hit once before, but the Archangel warned her, 'The next time they'll be coming through the front door.' Like all dealers who think they know it all, Lillian shook her head and shut the door in Volpe's face. Sure enough, however, in the middle of the afternoon on a gorgeous day in Manhattan she buzzed in would-be buyers dressed in suits and ties and that was that.

Our intruders were far more ingenious. Removing bricks one at a time over a period of weeks in our basement wall, they eventually cleared a hole the size of a slender man during early hours of the morning. The crooks who hit us knew exactly where to walk. They knew how far to go to pinpoint certain objects, move them across the gallery floor and through the hole. The next morning when I saw the empty spaces that had once held rare and beautiful things I felt as though I'd been violated. These were our children and we had cared for them as if their lives as well as our own depended on it. Brought to my knees, I reached out to the Archangel once again.

You have to understand that in the 1970s there was no protection for dealers in the arena against art theft, just as there is no real protection today against viruses on the internet. We were just as vulnerable to criminals as the buyers we were pinning to the wall every day. To have someone like Bob Volpe around, who knew what was happening beneath our feet in the underground was truly a gift to us.

The first thing the Archangel did after the robbery was note the systematic way the art had left the gallery. He also focused on what was still there, not on what was missing. Then he asked for descriptions and photos of the stolen objects and in his usual manner said, 'I'll get back to you.' After finding out the insurance company was only willing to pay cost plus a certain percentage, leaving us with a loss in profit of several hundred thousand dollars if we filed a claim, the Archangel came up with another solution.

"You can buy the stuff back for fifty grand," Volpe said. That didn't feel right for a number of reasons. First, to pay someone money for taking something from you went against our principles as Italians and second, how did we know we would get the pieces back in the same condition as when they left? Why should whoever was responsible for committing the crime be allowed to get away with it?

A few weeks later a dealer uptown had two guys on video offering our pieces to him for a price that was different from the figure quoted to Volpe. Whether the crooks would actually go through with the sale was yet another story. Volpe thought they were testing the waters, trying not only to see how the marketplace would react but also to find out the true value of the art they had taken. These were petty thieves with limited skills and knowledge of what would move quickly through the maze. They were not art experts, but they wanted to maximize their return. Possession, if you recall, is nine-tenths of the law in the art arena. Contrary to what we believed, our precious things were now beyond our control.

The dealer uptown offered to buy the pieces using our money. The Archangel Volpe told him it was too risky. Either they would take the cash and not produce the pieces or think the cops had been tipped off. The archangel had also though of something else: "They'll never go through with the deal," he warned. "They're on tape" -he was referring to the closed-circuit television cameras that take pictures of millions of people doing good deeds and bad all day long. Digging into his black book, he came up with the information we wanted. "A couple of Greeks with a diner in Queens are involved," he said. "What do you want to do?"

My partner and I thought about it hard and fast. "What happens if we don't play ball?" I asked.

"The pieces are as good as gone," the Archangel said. "They'll be in South America by Saturday." Volpe explained that the art underground works in a similar way to drug smuggling.

If we want to get to the source of art crime, according to the Archangel Volpe, we have to consider which part of the web may be weakened for some reason that day. There's always inner tension in the arena, confusion and bickering among dealers, auction houses and museums. The mentality of the players is that everyone is taking from one another in some way. Thieves know this and take advantage of it. I remember a guy who came into the gallery every Sunday who looked like a lawyer. He was well educated and I felt he was a prime target for a big sale. I was reeling him in for the deal, or so I thought. Then bob Volpe showed up one day, pulled me aside and told me the guy was an art thief, notorious for ripping off dealers on Madison Ave.

Bobby Volpe made friends with the crooks and the cops, utilizing methods from both sides that enabled him to keep on top of the art underworld. "You have to be part of the game in order to play the game," the Archangel told Judith Gaines of Boston Globe when asked to comment on the inner workings of a world fraught with fraud. "Dealers on Madison Avenue wake up in the morning, read a story in the newspaper about a guy who gets caught committing crimes and say, "Hey...I did the same thing this morning." This is how the Archangel Robert Volpe thought. He wasn't just another cop with respect for art and people. He was also a master sleuth.

This was an excerpt from Framed: America's Art Dealer to the Stars Tells All by the art dealer Tod Volpe ( who was a good friend of Bobby's, no relation). I strongly recommend buying this outstanding book. You can purchase the book here: amazon.com
 

You may learn more about Tod Michael Volpe by visiting his web site: todvolpe.com

 

 

 

   New York City is a financial center in the international art market, where phenomenal amounts of money and art changes hands daily. In the early seventies, the New York Police Department established the Art Squad ( officially known as the Art Identification Team), which was a part of the Burglary/ Larceny Division. The brass of the NYPD chose Detective Robert Volpe to head this team. Volpe was ideal for this specialized position, because besides the investigative skills he acquired on the streets of Manhattan, he was also an artist who spent most of his off duty hours in his studio painting. He studied art at the School of Art & Design, Parsons, and the Arts Students League. Being an artist facilitated his entry into artistic circles. Volpe knew how to relate to the art world habitués, because he knew their concerns and feelings when they were victimized in the often brutal N.Y. arena of art.

   Volpe, a native New Yorker, was born in Dec/1942, to third generation Italian American parents. He grew up in South Brooklyn and entered the NYPD Police Academy in 1964.

   After the academy, he was assigned to patrol in the 9th precinct, which covered the area bounded by E. Houston St. to E. 14th St., and from the Bowery to Avenue D. He walked the beat for a short time until he was assigned to a squad car with a partner.

   From Dec/1964 until Nov/1966, Volpe did undercover work in the Police Commissioner's Confidential Investigating Unit. At the P.C.C.I.U., Volpe worked on confidential investigations of Organized Crime, which consisted of undercover surveillance and wires.

   In Nov/1966 until 1971, Volpe was assigned to the Narcotics Bureau, which was located at Old Slip and South Street Station. One of the major investigations that this unit conducted was the heroin smuggling operation known as the "French Connection".

   In 1971 until his retirement in 1983, Volpe was assigned to the Art Squad and worked solely on art related crimes , such as art theft (burglaries and robberies from art galleries), dealer fraud (ex.- a dealer taking an artist's works on consignment, selling them and never paying the artist), as well as detecting fakes and forgeries, and vandalism (ex.- In 1974, Tony Shafrazi entered the Modern Museum of Art (MoMa) and spray painted "Kill Lies All" in red across Pablo Picasso's Guernica. Refer to the Tony Shafrazi Link on our Artist's Crimes Page for further info on this case).

   Robert Volpe and his partner, Detective Marie Cirile, conducted many major investigations and made several recoveries of stolen art. They viewed themselves as guardians of patrimony, and desired the Art Team to become a permanent unit in the NYPD, which unfortunately, it did not. They believed that it was important for a cultural center like New York City to have a specialized unit to investigate art crimes; A unit that was made up of detectives who were trained in art and art history who could generate leads and contacts in the art community with ease. The art community has proven, at times, to be just as tight lipped as Mob controlled Italian enclaves. Many in that community don't relate well, or take to law enforcement personnel (especially in the anti-establishment atmosphere of the early seventies). Artistic investigators were a necessary link between the Police Department and the artists who were often victimized in the arena.

   Volpe's work was written about in a book The Art Cop, written in 1974 by Laurie Adams. A more recent tribute to Robert Volpe was a chapter dedicated to him in the book Framed, written by the art dealer Tod Volpe (no relation). Robert recovered a piece that was stolen from Tod in the seventies and they have been friends ever since. In this book Tod Volpe described Robert Volpe as the Archangel of the NY art scene.