December 8, 2006 by

Robert Volpe

6 comments

Categories: Artists, Law

Robert Volpe was the Sherlock Holmes of the art world. The veteran detective was the sole member of the NYPD’s Art Identification Team, the only squad in the entire country dedicated to solving art-related crimes.
Volpe spent 12 years outwitting criminals, discovering forgeries, breaking up stolen art rings and hunting down missing masterpieces. He found artwork pilfered from the New York Public Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and recovered two Byzantine ivories worth $1.5 million that were stolen from an Italian museum. The Hungarian government once requested his assistance in locating two Raphaels, and five other paintings, worth a total of $40 million. Volpe not only helped the authorities recover the stolen pieces, but nab the art thief as well.
The Brooklyn native always had an interest in the arts. A painter and sculptor, Volpe was just a teenager when he sold his first paintings to a local art dealer for $250. He studied at the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan, the Parsons School of Design and the Art Students League.
Volpe served with the Army in Vietnam until 1964, then joined the NYC police department. After walking a beat and patrolling the 9th district, he worked undercover for several years investigating organized crime and drug dealing, including the infamous heroin smuggling operation known as the “French Connection.” When he switched to the Art Squad in 1971, the move earned him the nickname “Rembrandt.”
Volpe’s most famous cases were chronicled in the 1974 book, “Art Cop,” by Laurie Adams. His work was also featured in the 2003 memoir, “Framed: Hollywood’s Dealer to the Stars Tells All,” by art dealer Tod Volpe. The pair were not related, but their paths crossed in the 1970s when Robert found a piece of art that was stolen from Tod.
Volpe retired from the police force in 1983, but continued to lecture at museums and universities. He also offered his expertise to law enforcement agencies all over the world, including the FBI training facility in Quantico, Va.
Art and law enforcement apparently ran in the Volpe family. Robert’s wife, Grace, ws an art instructor. And Justin Volpe, the youngest of his three sons, joined the NYPD as a police officer. In 1999, Justin pleaded guilty to sodomizing a handcuffed Haitian immigrant named Abner Louima with a broken broomstick. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Ever dedicated to his family, Robert Volpe drove 1,200 miles each month to visit Justin in the federal lockup in Rochester, Minn.
Volpe died on Nov. 28 of a heart attack at the age of 63. Justin was not allowed to attend his father’s memorial service due to “security reasons.”

6 Responses to Robert Volpe

  1. Emilio Benitez

    Rest in peace. Robert was a great detective and a true father to his son Justin. I’m a ret. detective and knew Bob from the job.

  2. micah

    What a story, another person chewed up and spit out by life, I have only heard great things about this man, I hope his son finds some peace in prison. what a hard thing to go through, take care rembrandt

  3. Jim Hennessy

    I’m saddened that Justin was not permitted to attend the memorial service.
    Life is a series of ten million mistakes.. and it is not for me to judge anothers stupid actions, I’ve done my share of them.
    I wish I had met Mr. Volpe in this life, I’m certain he was a remarkable man. may he rest in peace.

  4. Leslie Mayo

    I met Robert in 1986 when I was a senior in college and was in the fortunate position to invite him to speak on the recovery of stolen art at my University. He made a huge impression on the audience that night, but no one was more taken by his stories than I was.
    He had a huge impact on me and I still have my personalized license plate from 20 years ago on my wall that reads: Art Cop.
    He was an incredible man and we kept in touch for years. When Justin was arrested, I never heard from Bob again.
    I miss him very much.

  5. Michael C. Vassallo

    I take my hat off to Mr. Volpe – not only for his dedication and bravery while on the Art Squad but also for his loyalty to his son. It’s a shame he had to pass away before Justin’s dismissal from prison – I know he was determined to still be alive at that time, and that must be hard for Justin as well.

    I wish the family peace and happiness.

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