08/28/2011 04:30 pm ET | Updated Oct 28, 2011

How the LA County Sheriff's Department Used Social Media to Help Save a Rembrandt

Two weeks ago, in the seaside environs of Marina del Rey, a thief -- or thieves, it's not clear yet -- snatched a drawing purported to be Rembrandt's The Judgment from a small, exclusive exhibition at the Ritz Carlton. Just a month prior, my book, Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists (co-authored with Tom Mashberg), an examination into the many thefts of works by the great master, arrived at bookstores. In the book, we listed the 81 Rembrandt thefts from the last century. I couldn't have guessed that the 82nd would come so soon after the book was released.

The perch on which the drawing sat at the Ritz was barely cold when I started receiving calls and emails from the Los Angeles press. The national media soon followed. My message was simple: the research I conducted showed that those responsible for the heist most likely had no plan for fencing the drawing. It also showed that the best thing the thieves could do was immediately arrange a return of the piece and hope for immunity from prosecution.

Soon, the pilfered piece reappeared, dropped off by an unidentified person to the office of a local Episcopal priest. Barely 48 hours had passed before the responsible party likely realized that they had stolen a problem, not a painting. So how did the thief come to this realization? The quick work of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department was surely the key.

Art theft is notoriously under-reported. But, as Captain Mike Parker of the Sheriff's Headquarters Bureau Newsroom told me, the days of keeping such a loss a secret are quickly fading. And he attributes this to information sharing through social media and networking. When something goes missing, especially a unique item, said Capt. Parker, "it's highly unlikely that someone can keep the theft secret. These types of stories quickly go viral."

Capt. Parker's team, keenly aware of this and the fact that time is an essential factor in pursuing such crimes, went right to work. In short order, they broadcast a release using Nixle text messaging, the news media, and even Facebook and Twitter. The mission, he said, "was getting out the releasable clues and the image of the drawing to the media and the public as quickly as possible to garner as much attention as possible."

The LASD's efforts worked. Within 24 hours, the image of the stolen Rembrandt was appearing on news shows across the nation, not to mention on countless websites (today, a Google search of the terms "Rembrandt" and "Marina Del Ray" elicits 674,000 hits). While Capt. Parker remains modest, stating that it's not yet known exactly what drove the thief to return the drawing, it's difficult to imagine that the bandit and any would-be fences did not know that the heat was on. "It was definitely our intention to create a huge noise to make it incredibly difficult to move this art object," Capt. Parker said.

Clearly, Sheriff Lee Baca's LASD got it right: the days of keeping a major theft quiet are ending, if not already over. Quick, accurate, and targeted information sharing by law enforcement, using cutting-edge technology, is the key to retrieving stolen property. Kudos to Capt. Parker and his team for setting the example.