Interview: Bob O’Connell, Art Detective

school_of_athens Stanza della Segnatura, Raphael “School of Athens”, Vatican City

Q: Let’s start with the basics – what do you do for a living?

A: What I generally tell people is that I am an art historian “trapped” in the insurance industry. For over 30 years, I have worked as an art expert within the insurance realm and an insurance expert within the art world. I have owned my own business for the past 22 years and primarily investigate insurance claims for museums, galleries and private collectors insured by domestic insurance companies or Lloyd’s of London and international insurance markets. We recently added a fine art brokerage division to assist artists, dealers, institutions and private collectors with their insurance needs. I also am retained as a Loss Control Expert, an Expert Witness or a private consultant. I began collecting fine art at the age of 13, hold a Masters’ Degree in Art History and pursue my passion for art as an art expert and filmmaker.

I began collecting fine art at the age of 13, hold a Masters’ Degree in Art History and pursue my passion for art as an art expert and filmmaker

Q: It sounds like this began with a love for art. Were you exposed to art at a young age?

A: I grew up in a home where “everyone” could draw photorealistically including my father who was a political cartoonist featured on WGN in Denver. My father had a 4 minute segment between the weather and sports where he drew political cartoons and provide his own political commentary. As kids, we grew up watching our Dad draw cartoons in t.v. My Dad also created a four panel cartoon strip, entitled “Eastan West”, that featured his alter-ego spy named Eastan West (a play on words for East and West Berlin). My Dad began working for “The Company” in the 1950’s while stationed in West Berlin. Maybe this is why I am a conspiracy theorist and an Art Detective?

“NO WEAPONS ALLOWED” – investigating an armed robbery

Q: Art Detective is an interesting job title. What types of mysteries are you typically asked to solve?

A: Mysteries involving stolen works of art or mysteries involving “mysterious disappearances” and art forgeries but art fraud is my favorite mystery to solve. Art fraud is primarily a white collar crime involving insider information and determined accomplices. There are many forms of fraud, deception for financial gain, in the art world. There is fraudulent misrepresentation of artists and their artwork, fraudulent ownership and provenance of artwork and fraudulent pricing and collusion. Fraud exists in the appraisal of art for the purpose of securing an insurance policy and during the documentation of a claim presented to Insurers.

Leonardo da Vinci, “Salvatore Mundi” personally inspected for client for possible purchase

Q: It sounds like a deep understanding of art, both historical and current, is a requirement for this job. How do you maintain this expertise?

A: You also need a true passion for art across the entire spectrum. Not only do I have a passion for collecting art, I have a passion for supporting the arts. My wife, Darci, and I created an exhibition space, The Architrouve, that primarily exhibited and supported Chicago artists. We created opportunities for artists and paid them sixty-five percent of the sale price. I maintain my expertise by working as an expert witness in lawsuits involving artists, galleries, institutions and private collectors. I travel the country as well as the world working on cases while always making time to attend museums and galleries. I am also privileged to associate and work with some of the most renowned art conservators, art handlers and art minds. We collaborate on many insurance claims and private projects. I am a sponge and I truly love to learn. If I was ever foolish to think I knew “everything” it is definitely time for me to retire and I never plan to retire. Collecting art has also defined me as the process is not only about acquisition about the object but also about the relationship to the artist. Many artists have become long time friends of mine creating deep intellectual opportunities.

Art Detective and photographer, Sandro, Havana, Cuba (January 2015)

Q: What are the tools you use as an art detective?

A: The best tool I have is my instincts and a dedication to research. Persistence and patience are also great tools as not all thefts, “mysterious disappearances” and insurance claims involving art are resolved quickly. People will lie to the insurance company but rarely to the police department as that would be a felony. Peter Falk as “Columbo” has been an invaluable influence because he was much smarter than he looked and he ALWAYS had “one more question” for the person being interviewed. Learning to read people and knowing, without a doubt, when they a lying to you. Rarely, do I get my Perry Mason moments but when I have got you, I got you.

The best tool I have is my instincts and a dedication to research

Fernand Leger Reward Notice

Q: Are these cases ever high profile?

A: Yes, these cases are high profiled. I have worked on some of the largest art frauds in U.S. history involving fine art. In many instances, we coordinate our investigation with local police, the F.B.I. and Scotland Yard. All domestic insurance companies have their own internal Special Investigative Units (S.I.U.) to investigation high profile insurance claims. Putting art thieves and art deceivers in prison brings tremendous satisfaction and accomplishment. One example is the case of Steven G. Cooperman who fraudulently reported the theft of a Monet painting and a Picasso painting from his home. Insurers were ordered, by a federal grand jury in Los Angeles, a sum of $ 17.5 million on paintings only worth together $ 3 million. In less than 5 years, the paintings were recovered with the assistance of the F.B.I. Eventually Dr. Cooperman was sentenced to 37 months in jail. His jail sentence was reduced when Dr. Cooperman cooperated with federal authorities to “bring down” a New York class-action law firm named Milberg Weiss.

“VANDALISM IS COSTLY” – investigating theft

Q: Let’s talk about your role as a collector. What advice do you give the artists whose work you collect?

A: Create art everyday. Look at great art everyday. Challenge yourself and experiment with mediums. Stay true to your vision and your gut. Be inspired by life, by other art forms such as music, food, dance, literature and use all of your senses to experience the world. Travel out of your comfort zone. Take chances. Be motivated. Grant access to the collector. Personally, I prefer to have a personal and professional relationship with the artist in my collection. The act of collecting art, for me, is a three-dimensional experience that includes a dialogue with the artist.

Create art everyday. Look at great art everyday. Challenge yourself and experiment with mediums. Stay true to your vision and your gut

Artists need to know their rights and work together on power group exhibitions that benefit the group. Use social media to sell your work. Build a website. Sell outside of the gallery system and get your art out into the world. I believe in serendipity and you never know who you might sell you art to and who would later become a champion of your vertical rise in the art world. Use your art as a commodity and engage people to help raise your profile through barter. I have bartered with many artists who wish to “pay” fees with artwork.

I respect the artist/gallery relationship, however I want direct access from an intellectual perspective. Collecting art should not be a detached experience. I know many people who “collect” art and merely allow a dealer or an interior decorator to select the artworks for their collection. I need and I want to feel a personal, emotional, spiritual, guttural and cosmic connection to the object and the creator. As a collector, I want to have an influence on the artist. I want to teach the artist what I know about the business of art. I want to create a support and a dialogue, a trusted advisor to the artist.

I respect the artist/gallery relationship, however I want direct access from an intellectual perspective

Q: It sounds like the personal relationship is almost as important as your esthetic response to the work.

A: My business is about relationships. My art collection i s about relationships. I do not collect art to create a financial windfall, I collect art because it has become a roadmap of my life from visiting Acoma Pueblo, while a young graduate student in art history, a purchasing my first Acoma pot directly from the artist on the reservation. Meeting the artist, Alice Seymour, to holding the hand-built pot in my hands and paying the artist will all of my available cash. I will never forget what Alice Seymour said to me as I left her pueblo, “think of me every time you hold my pot”. There is a unique story of acquisition for every work of art I have been privileged to include in my life. I cannot imagine my life without esthetic reminders of my journey which will continue until the day I die.

Q: Artists often feel at odds with dealers and collectors. What advice can you give them, so that they and their work have the best chance of success, and their interests are protected?

A: The dealer system can be a predatory system that promotes indentured servitude which is why I spent over 10 years promoting The Architrouve and forming positive relationships with many artists. Artists in college, in fact all artists, should be taught the business of art. The dealer should not have so much control of the artist’s artwork, the artist’s money and the artist’s reputation. I believe that good collectors can be the best champions of the artists by promoting their work to other collectors, institutions and corporations. My days are spent reading insurance policies, reviewing risk management practices for underwriters and handling insurance claims. All artists should have their own fine art insurance policies. All artists should be well versed in consignment agreements and demand more input into the final version of the document.

Art Detective at the Timken Museum of Art, San Diego, CA

Q: Back to your role as a collector. How has it changed the way you look at art?

A: Being a collector has always been a voyage for me. My tastes have changed over the years as my experiences have matured. However, I will always collect works on paper, photography and indigenous art. Chicago artists are my favorite artists. As I get older, I also look at storage issues for the fine art collected over a forty year period. We currently own three properties so I guess a real estate portfolio is in my future. My view of art also is becoming more international as my business continues to grant me opportunities to travel outside of the U.S.A. I also have become more involved in collaborating with artists on private commission projects.

Art Detective working in Florence, Italy

Q: Art has changed a lot since you started in this business. Care to make any predictions about where we’re headed?

A: Art will continue to be an appreciable asset as we say in the insurance industry. Insurance companies will continue to insure collections. Art thefts will increase in frequency as will the presentation of fraudulent claims. Auction houses will continue to collude and fix “record” prices in the art market. Art will continue to be a great non-traditional asset on balance sheets. Academic institutions will continue to produce “starving artists” who lack the basic knowledge of the business of art. I periodically am asked to lecture to art departments at institutions, where I have handled insurance claims, and my mantra continues to be STOP the myth of a “starving artist” and educate the student artists how to financially succeed at the business of art. There is power and independence in knowledge.

Art Detective with Russell Young’s “Marilyn Monroe”