Dali Art Heist Offers Insight Into Murky World of Art Crime

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A Greek man is facing grand larceny charges for allegedly stealing a 1949 Salvador Dali watercolor from a Manhattan art gallery.

Police say Phivos Istavrioglou stole the painting June 19, 2012 by stashing it in a shopping bag.

Robert Whitmas, art crime expert and author of the book Priceless How I went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures, said the theft is not a conventional one in the $6 billion art crime industry.

Whitman said most art thieves spend months mapping out their strategies before going after their target, but Istavrioglou’s alleged crime was more one of opportunity.

“Another type of heist is just basically shoplifting and in this particular case with the Dali, that was more like that,” Whitman said. “This person obviously had not thought this thing out. He had not looked at the security systems. He didn't realize he was on camera.”

Whitman spent 20 years hunting down art thieves, forgers and looters as the founder of the FBI's art crime team.

The shoplifting analogy fits. Police said they were able to identify Istavrioglou after matching a fingerprint left on the painting to one he left when he shoplifted at a Whole Foods in 2012.

Istavrioglou then allegedly mailed the painting back to the gallery. And as Whitman says, that might be because finding a buyer is not that easy.

“It's not a fungible commodity like money or diamonds. These art works, they’re unique, well known, very difficult to fence.”

But Istavrioglou, a 29-year-old from Athens, might have a passion for the arts. He was arrested after an undercover NYPD officer lured him back to New York City with the promise of a job in an art gallery.