New York — On his desk is a lineup of clipped messages. "These are the 'must do' ones," he said, holding up a set of 30 or 40 messages. "These are the 'I'll-get-back-to-them-soons,' and here are the 'week old' ones. Now these. . . ."
Detective Robert Volpe of the New York City Police Department strikes a curiously different pose from his fellow police officers at One Police Plaza in Lower Manhattan. Amid plainclothes detectives and police officials in two- and three-piece suits -- only distinguishable as police because of their holsters -- Mr. Volpe is clad in jeans, a black, shiny, open shirt, and a tan scarf around his neck.
Mr. Volpe is New York City's -- and the country's -- only police art and antiques detective, and his singularity extends from his work to his life. Three-quarters of his time is taken up investigating thefts of artwork, although he also handles cases involving art fakes, vandalism, and disputes between galleries and artists about such matters as residual rights and consignment frauds.
Mr. Volpe has been an arts detective since 1971, a policeman since 1964. "i was the first detective in the arts in 1971 and I'm still the only one," he noted. "You can see the impact I've had!"
A graduate of the High School of Art & Design in New York City, he has also studied art at Parsons School of Design. Last year, a one-man show of his work was hung at the South Street Seaport Museum, and some original graphic and acrylic works hang on his office walls. One hangs just an inch above the top of his overloaded "in" box, filled with notices of exhibitions and telephone messages from artists, dealers, and other police departments.
Mr. Volpe lives in two worlds, the arts and the police. Both take him on the street and around the world.
"I'm part of the art community," he commented. "A lot of my friends are artists." But many of his information sources are federal and international agencies -- such as Interpol, Europe's version of the Federal Bureau of Investigation -- as well as private dealers, other police departments around the country, and even other national governments.
Mr. Volpe is out of the country for five major trips a year -- attending conferences, talking with European dealers and artists, looking at museum security arrangements -- but this is "all on my own time and funding. The trips stop when I'm out of vacation time. Like two years ago, there was the world conference of CINOA -- that's the International Confederation of Art and Antique Dealers -- which I went to. Now just picture this: I go to the police commissioner and say I want the department to sponsor a trip to Paris for a conference. Who would believe me? I wanted to go, so I went."
Mr. Volpe recovers between $5 million and $10 million a year in stolen art, though he pointed out that there are "billions of dollars in art to recover." Within the past year, he tracked down $1.5 million in Byzantine ivories for the Italian government, but he is no stranger to the poor working artist.
"Some people believe that I only work on museum problems or with van Goghs" but Mr. Volpe denies this: "I dont't put a price tag on art, and I'll help whoever I can."
One person he helped was an elderly Brooklyn sculptor named Moissaye Marans whose studio and tools were robbed. A number of works that weren't stolen were vandalized. "Marans was so disturbed by the thefts and vandalism," Mr. Volpe said, "that he ended up in the hospital. I started working the streets, talking to people -- prostitutes, store owners, whoever might know something or know someone who might know something -- and gradually the works were anonymously returned. After a while, all of the works were returned. Marans said to me, 'You have brought my children back to me.'"
One case he was called to investigate turned out to be a noncrime. The Long Island Historical Society in Brooklyn reported a portrait painting to have been stolen. It was later found misplaced behind a filing cabinet.Most problems that art institutions have, he has found, come from within -- neglect or lack of cooperation by staff members -- and the cases involving dealers and collectors generally come from without, such as thefts and vandalism.
He often recommends that museums have security systems to lessen the chances of an internal foul-up or a real theft. He puts his own words into practice, too, as he is a curator of the Antietam National Museum in Sharpsburg, Md., which exhibits art, antiques, and various pre- Civil War objects.
Although he pointed out that art crimes are increasing in the United States, he noted that they occur far more frequently in Europe, which he attributed to the fact that the "US is more security conscious than Europe -- I mean, the original settlers here were into protecting themselves from the forces they left behind and it's become part of our national character -- and also Europeans have traditionally appreciated that art is worth stealing, which Americans do not."
Several years ago Mr. Volpe wrote a book based on his exploits as an art detective as well as a screenplay "which has been optioned, whatever that means." He noted that the art criminal has generally a higher IQ than the average criminal. He carries a gun when he works because "you're often dealing with millions of dollars in art and an organized criminal element. That's not the Mafia, though the five families have been known to dabble."
Since he is the only art detective in the country, doesn't every art criminal know who he is and quickly recognize him?
"Around the department they call me 'the chameleon,' because I can dress up and look completely different," he said. "This is a crazy man's job," he noted, opening up a filing cabinet drawer and putting on a Groucho Marx nose, glasses, and mustache. "But I love it, and the city benefits from my strange life style."