Exclusive interview with Julian Radcliffe, director of ALR.
When was ALR established? In what framework and for what purpose?
Julian Radcliffe: Art Loss Register was founded in 1991. The original idea was proposed to me by Sotheby’s, who wanted a central database where they could check whether items that would be offered for sale were stolen or not and at the time they had been using a small charity in New York, a not-for-profit organisation that had run out of money. I visited that organisation and we took over the database they’d started.
Who were the founding members?
Julian Radcliffe: The original shareholders were Sotheby’s, Christie’s, the art dealer organizations, insurance companies, and the management. We had representative shareholdings from our major clients, which are the insurance industry and the art trade.
What is ALR’s role these days?
Julian Radcliffe: The role of the Art Loss Register is to provide the central database for the art trade (merchants, auction houses, experts, museums) to check that the artwork they are buying, selling, valuing, and exhibiting is not obtained from a criminal source. Our objective is to reduce the theft of art by making it more difficult for that art to be sold. If everybody checked the provenance of everything they bought and sold in the art market it would become virtually impossible to sell on stolen items, which would subsequently render art theft extremely unattractive.
We also assist the police and the victims of crime and their insurers in recovering stolen art. The insurers record losses with us and obviously get the financial benefit of our recoveries. However, the victims are often uninsured and in that case, they will contract with us to register their loss and hopefully get it recovered.
Lastly, and most importantly perhaps, we try to resolve the problems which are created by a match. When we match a stolen item we don’t just say to the victim, the perhaps-good-faith purchaser of the item and the seller, “You’ve got a problem.”, we sit down and try to mediate or resolve the problem or if necessary refer it to the police when there has obviously been criminal activity.
What kind of resources do you have at your disposal? What are your methods?
Julian Radcliffe: Our first resource is the database. We try to register all the thefts that take place globally. Clearly that’s very difficult because we have to be in contact with thousands of different police forces and millions of different victims of art crime and so we will probably never achieve 100% registration of thefts, but we are certainly the largest and most comprehensive database that there is. The database currently contains around 220,000 items.
One side is to build up the data. The other side is to search all those items which are being offered on the internet or sold at fairs or by auction houses. We do about 300-400,000 searches a year. Each time we issue a search certificate featuring the name of the items being searched, with a description by the client, with any additional information we may be able to discover as people rarely give us as accurate a description as those provided by our art historians. We also make notes on known fakes. We then say: “We have searched our database. It is not on the database. This is not a guarantee that it was never stolen. It is certainly not a guarantee that it is not a fake.” In other words, the search certificate is not an indication of authenticity. It simply needs to be as detailed as possible to check the item as thoroughly as possible. Quite often we do additional research so that even if an item is not on the database, if we are suspicious about it or if, for example, the provenance shows that it was on the European continent between 1938 say and 1945, then we will check to see if it went through any of the dealers who are known to have handled Nazi art.
When we realize a work has been stolen, we first check that it has not already been recovered, as sometimes happens. We check to make sure it is not a fake, because sometimes when a work is stolen a copy is made and sold as the original. Our main task is to obtain the provenance of the picture. We go down the line of all the buyers and sellers, all the people who’ve had anything to do with the picture, because ultimately we’ll come across somebody close to the thief. This intelligence is very important to us and collecting that intelligence and using it is part of the support we give to the police.
What kind of relationship do you have with the police?
Julian Radcliffe: The police are one of our main partners. Some of our staff work as part-time police officers in the United Kingdom. We do a lot of training for them, we provide technical assistance, and act as undercover buyers, we go on raids, and we catalogue items they find in suspicious circumstances. We have a close working relationship with them.
What kind of turn-around do you have?
Julian Radcliffe: If you submitted a search to us on our website now and you said it was urgent, it could be returned within 12 to 24 hours. If you are a police officer, then you can do it with the office and the search certificate can be produced in a matter of minutes.
What kind of delicate situations do you have to deal with?
Julian Radcliffe: Because we’re well-known publicly we have quite a number of informers who contact us and sometimes via the police, sometimes directly. We have what we call the “Public Policy Principles”, which mean that we will not pay a ransom or pay an informer without the agreement of the local police force, because clearly one way to encourage further art crime is to pay the thieves a lot of money to return the item. In certain countries it would be illegal, so the handling of informers is something we do very carefully in conjunction with the police. The other extreme might be if somebody bought a picture twenty years ago, in good faith and paid good money, from a reputable dealer, but we now find that it was stolen and there is a question as to whether the holder has good title to it.
What would be the work of the highest value recovered?`
Julian Radcliffe: The highest value item that we have recovered was a Cézanne, which we sold for £18 million for the victim. That case is still continuing because although we got the most valuable picture back, it took us several years to get the rest of the pictures back from that theft and we are now pursuing the individual who tried who sell the stolen pictures, to get money back for the victim to reimburse all the costs and there is a trial on in America in a month’s time or so.
I am in Holland at the moment. We have 10 cases running here whereby the items were stolen in Holland or we have recovered them in Holland. We have recovered two pictures that were stolen the other day in Rotterdam. We have some other pictures that we about to recover outside Holland, but stolen in Holland a number of years ago.
Over the years we have recovered several thousand items, from jewellery to paintings, silverware, books, toys, violins, etc., for a total worth of about £100 million and at any one time we’re negotiating of the order of 150 cases, which take on average 2-3 years to resolve…
Do you have any major unsolved cases?
Julian Radcliffe: There are a lot, I am afraid! £80 million of art and antiques was stolen by a gang called the Johnston brothers in the United Kingdom over seven or eight years. Most of the gang is now in jail, but only a small fraction of those stolen items have been recovered, some of which was recovered through our efforts. We expect to recover more, but there is still much to do.
Another major theft, from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston, is still far from being solved. We believe that 15% or so of the items stolen was destroyed. This is because they become too hot to hold, or they get damaged accidentally, or they very often get hidden by an individual and then he dies or forgets where he hid them. That happened with some good pictures in Ireland that were stolen by a gang who buried them in the forest and then could not remember in which part of the forest they had hidden them. I fear that we will never recover 100% of all the items stolen from the museum. In twenty years we have recovered a mere 15% of the valuable pictures and probably only 1 or 2% of the other items. We have huge scope to improve that recovery ratio, which will be driven up if the art trade systematically searches everything they buy and sell.
Do you feel that you are making good headway in your fight against art crime?
Julian Radcliffe: We have certainly helped to put a number of criminals into jail who would not have been caught if we had not found them trying to sell stolen pictures, and that includes two lawyers, for example, both of whom went to jail for seven years for trying to sell stolen pictures. The assistance we give to the police is invaluable, because for most police forces stolen art is a low priority compared to terrorism or crimes against persons, physical damage to people.
The other thing I think we have done is begin to raise standards in the art trade. In the past there were many people who turned a blind eye and bought or sold stolen art, or were not able to check and in fact many items were being consigned to Southeby’s and Christie’s almost directly by the criminals. Now it has become accepted that if you do not check with us you can risk your reputation if it is found you are selling stolen items. I think that is our second greatest achievement.
Now the criminals know that we are searching, and the auction houses and dealers have improved their procedures. That means that the thieves have to sell these items to a smaller dealer so at a lower valuation, because you get the best valuation at the top of the art market. These days the criminals even hurry to apply to us under a false name for a search certificate before it has been noticed that the item has been stolen in order to pass the item on quickly. By trying to counter our procedures, they are proving that we have had a significant impact on art crime. That is why all our searches have a full audit trail and we have a contract and bank details and so on for anyone who is using our searching facility.
Where does the future of ALR lie?
Julian Radcliffe: We certainly expect to diversify and increase our market penetration in the existing operation. We are developing a database of fakes so that we are able to say to somebody, “Watch out. This artist has been faked.” or “There was a fake of an item that looked just like this.” We are also developing the existing database into areas such as books and watches and other such areas where there are many items stolen. There are a whole range of areas that we were unable to catalogue due to a lack of time so we obviously started with the higher value pictures. There is plenty of work still to be done!