US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Regional Attaché Katie Bay told RIA Novosti how they managed to find the valuable artefacts and how combating cultural property crimes remains one of the few examples of successful cooperation between the Russian Federation and the United States.
Can you tell us more about what kinds of documents these are? Why are they of value?
Katie Bay: Sure, they are decrees that were issued by Tsar Nicholas II. They were signed between 1905 and 1914, and they are all in Russian so I can't read any of what is written. But I know that they were housed at the Federal Archives in St. Petersburg where they were stolen, and then they ended up in the United States at an auction house.
Is this related to the Feinberg case?
Katie Bay: Yes, it is. Vladimir Feinberg – from the information that we received from Russian investigators – was an individual who along with some co-conspirators had [stolen them]; it was an inside job where he stole the documents. And then he was able to transport some of them from Russia to Germany; where I believe some of them had been recovered. And then obviously, somehow some of them made it to the United States.
As we know, this cooperation has been going on for years, it is not the first instance, and this was the case with the [investor] McFall and [Ambassador John F.] Tefft. So are you planning to continue this cooperation with Russian officials?
Katie Bay: Yes, for sure. We have long time cooperation going back to when we were a US Customs Service. And then after 2002-2003 when we became the Department of Homeland Security [Investigations], we continued with that cooperation and we intend for that to go on, as we do believe that documents such as these artefacts are part of ancient history and culture.
But are there any difficulties regarding the current political situation? We know that the cooperation between different security and law enforcement bodies has been frozen. For example, in cybersecurity, there have been some not so positive things going on. So what about your cooperation with Russian colleagues, in general?
Katie Bay: Generally, we work as well as we can, specifically on these cultural property type crimes. I think they stay out of it. A lot of the politicians were notified that we would conduct our investigation in the United States in an unbiased fashion. And then once we get the documents [fully] ceased and forfeited, we will notify other people who make those decisions if it is appropriate to turn them over. But we are always willing to do law enforcement work in the United States.
And what about the procedures? Are there ways to simplify the procedures, or will they continue in the current fashion between Russia and the US?
Katie Bay: I mean it is fairly simple if we receive information that there are documents that have gone missing or stolen in the United States, we will conduct our investigation as we do any other investigation. And then we will pass that information back to our Russian counterparts if we can retrieve those documents. So it is just a matter of, if they are willing to take those back – it seems to be a fairly simple process of just information and good communication back and forth, and then we understand if we can retrieve the documents.
Can you remember maybe some strange situations regarding the documents, because as we remember from the past exchanges, there was a request from the Russian culture minister about the one missing document from the military archive. And at first, they didn't say that some documents were missing, but then they discovered that the documents they had were forged, and then the Americans, returned the real documents. So do you recall any other nonstandard situations in this exchange?
Katie Bay: No. In the United States, when we do our criminal investigations, anything that, any evidence that we seize, it is all documented by a chain of custody, and we keep things locked up and secured. And then in the cases of cultural property, we work with experts at universities, museums, the Smithsonian Institution to verify the authenticity of the items to make sure that they are in fact real and not forged.
Maybe you can give us some details on how these documents were found? Maybe it was at some exhibition, as was the case, last time?
Katie Bay: These were up for auction at an auction house in Calabasas, California. And I believe they must have had an online link where the Russian Ministry of Culture can see that these documents were for sale. So they notified us of that, and we went out made contact with the auction house.
How would you estimate the number of documents that remain to be discovered in the US?
Katie Bay: In terms of monetary value or...?
I mean in terms of how many documents are still missing? Do you have the numbers?
Katie Bay: The archives would probably be more appropriate to answer that because they have a listing of everything that was taken.
How about the value, historical or other?
Katie Bay: I believe, from what I saw, that the overall value was 24 million US dollars. That was the estimate for what the Feinberg organisation had stolen from the archives.
These archives I know were sold to the auction house in California for $13000. But when we got them appraised by professional appraisers, they appraised them at around $31000-32000. But that's all done by professionals who do this for a living.
And that is for the 16 documents?
Katie Bay: Yes.
And did the owner know that these documents were stolen, or did the person who gave them to the auction house?
Katie Bay: The auction house purchased the documents from someone that we were not able to track down, due to the length of time in between the time that they were sold to the auction house, and when we were notified of that – there were about 20 years in between. So we don't know what the knowledge of the person who sold it to them was. And there were no criminal charges brought against the auction house.
Talking about Feinberg, the Russian officials expressed many concerns about him staying in Israel, and being unable to bring him back, to extradite him to Russia. So, what is your personal opinion on this case? Did the Russian side request help with extradition in the cases you are working on and have evidence for?
Katie Bay: We didn't receive any specific requests from the Russian government in regards to Mr Feinberg, because I believe you said he is in Israel. I do believe that there is an international red notice out for his arrest should he travel to a country that participates in the Interpol red notice, which the United States does.
So if he travels to the US, he will be extradited?
Katie Bay: Yes, we would contact Interpol. We would go through that formal process of extradition. It would be decided by courts.
So, maybe you can give us your impression, what do you feel about this exchange that you are participating today? Is this a sign that there can be some channels of cooperation that can bring us together?
Katie Bay: Personally, it is an honour to be involved in this, to have been a part of transporting the documents. They came to Vienna, Austria, where I am stationed. And then I brought them here to Moscow. So to be a very small part of the history of the documents is definitely an honour for me, both personally and in a professional capacity. And I think today's repatriation will reaffirm the commitment that we have between the United States and Russia to at least work on combating cultural crimes.