Interview of the Month with UNITEL Art Loss Consultants

The Clarion List continues our series of interviews with leading art service providers. Whether you are learning about these companies for the first time or are already familiar with their services, we hope this series helps shed insight into each’s distinct niche and make the art services market in general more transparent.

This month we discussed art thefts, art recovery and art security with William P. Callahan, founder of UNITEL Art Loss Consultants. Since 1978, UNITEL has provided highly confidential investigative and security services worldwide. Find out why the US has fewer art thefts than Europe, the profile of a typical art thief, how new technology can protect collections, his insights into the black market and more.


The Clarion List: What is UNITEL? What services do you provide?

William P. Callahan: We provide security and investigative services with a specialty in Fine Arts theft and recovery of lost and stolen art and antiques

CL: When and why did you start UNITEL? What is your background?

WC: I started in 1980 upon leaving the U.S. Justice Department where I was a federal prosecutor to provide a high-level service in the private sector to law firms, museums and art collectors. I’m a lawyer by profession and also a licensed private investigator; before the Justice Department, I was a lawyer and legal aide to Richard Nixon in his NY law firm before he became President.

CL: Who are your clients and what type of cases do you investigate? Are there certain areas of the world with more art theft?

WC: Our clients tend to be the large law firms and large corporations in need of help on complex cases. We also provide services in the Intellectual property field such as international counterfeiting of goods and merchandise like counterfeit medicines, clothing, handbags, etc. The United States has a low level of art crime with the sole exception of the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum art theft in 1990. The UK and Europe have a very high degree of art theft due to poor security by museums. Through our London affiliate, we work on those crimes.

CL: What is a profile of a typical art thief in cases you have investigated?

WC: Very hard question to answer – all of the art thieves or those who steal art have criminal backgrounds or organized crime affiliations of one sort or another and no women in that category. The Hollywood stereotype of an art thief which was embodied in the movie The Thomas Crown Affair with Pierce Brosnan is pure fiction.

CL: What are the art thefts that intrigue you the most and why?

WC: A few – including, of course, the unsolved Gardiner theft. The thought of thieves cutting Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee from its frame [during that heist] is unspeakable. The theft and recovery of The Scream is notable and the 1887 theft of Thomas Gainsborough's The Duchess of Devonshire by thief Adam Worth memorialized in the book The Napolean of Crime by Ben Macintyre captures the imagination: kept as a trophy for 25 years by Worth, it was eventually returned by Worth in excellent condition to Pierpont Morgan, the millionaire owner, a happy ending that’s missing in the Gardner theft. My love of fine art is what drives me.

CL: When art is stolen never to be seen again, where do you think it goes?

WC: Unfortunately there is a large market for stolen art in Eastern Europe and Russia – an insatiable appetite. Also, much stolen art winds up as collateral for drug deals on the world market. Interpol is unable to stem this tide. Tightened security for art in museums and private collections is the only real solution to reduce these crimes.

CL: Has technology affected the industry? Has it made it easier or harder for thieves to steal or for you and law enforcement to recover art?

WC: New technology has definitely helped police forces around the world especially new electronic techniques being used by museums has helped, but the Internet has made it simple for wrong-doers to capitalize on the crimes in many ways. For example, the thieves in London who broke into a private vault reported in the media as “The Hatton Garden Vault Job” used new drilling tools to cut extremely large circles in reinforced concrete and read books on the Internet like Forensics for Dummies; but, high-tech video street cameras in London, nevertheless, led to their capture.

CL: What do you like about The Clarion List?

WC: Finally, a service that brings all the art providers and servicers together in one site.

CL: What can galleries, museums and collectors do to protect their art?

WC: Call in experts on security – for an objective analysis and threat assessment. There are unique new electronic gadgets now out like RFID technology that’s perfect for art galleries and museums – monitoring a hanging picture or all the paintings on a wall 24/7 helps immensely.

Learn more about UNITEL via their listing on The Clarion List, the leading directory of art service providers with ratings & reviews here or visit their website here.