Fighting art crime: a view from the coalface


Is your art collection safe from theft? If it work is taken, what are your chances of ever seeing it again? Just as importantly, might that beautiful painting you bought actually be stolen goods?

Annual UK theft losses of art and antiques are estimated to be in the region of £200m, and the worldwide figure is thought to be in excess of £1bn.

A significant portion of these items are stolen from the owner’s home, but a large amount of work goes missing in transit, from museums and from storage facilities.

For Julian Radcliffe, chairman of The Art Loss Register (ALR), these works are not necessarily gone for ever. The ALR is the world’s largest private database of lost and stolen art, antiques and collectables. Its range of services includes item registration and search and recovery services to collectors, the art trade, insurers and worldwide law enforcement agencies.

The ALR’s pre-eminence in the field of stolen art has allowed it to be instrumental in the recovery of over £160m ($320m, €230m) worth of stolen items, some of them very high profile, such as Cézanne’s Bouilloire et Fruits, one of seven paintings stolen from a private residence in Boston in 1978, and recovered as part of the Bakwin Case.

The Cézanne resurfaced in 1999 when a retired lawyer attempted to sell the work using a Swiss lawyer and Panamanian shell company to hide his true identity.  Unable to sell the work, the lawyer attempted to extort money from the theft victim who appointed the ALR to recover all seven works on his behalf.

In 1999, after working closely with the FBI and Swiss Police, the ALR recovered the Cézanne, which was subsequently sold for $29.3million. Over the next ten years the ALR recovered the six remaining works, the last of which was returned to the theft victim in 2010.

Not every tale of art loss ends so happily. Julian Radcliffe, chairman of the ALR, estimates that a significant proportion of the more valuable works stolen will never be recovered since they are destroyed as too hot to hold.

“They are potential incriminating evidence and the criminal holders come to the conclusion that it is too difficult to ransom or sell them,” he says. “Often they get damaged and they do not realise that they can be restored.”

Often pictures are hidden, the person who hid them dies and they are never found. In Ireland, criminals hid stolen artworks in a forest and could not remember exactly where.

However, around 20% of stolen works stay with the criminals as a way of doing a deal with the prosecutor if they are arrested on another charge.

“When the criminal is close to death we sometimes get an approach to surrender the item,” adds Radcliffe.

The ALR estimates that 25% of stolen works are sold to innocent private owners either directly or though the trade, sometimes without their true value being known, and they will only surface years later as ‘sleepers’.

“Probably another 20% are held by the trade who may have bought them some years ago and now fear that they cannot be sold on as a search may reveal that they are stolen,” says Radcliffe.

The ALR conducts around 500,000 paid searches a year and a further 50,000 at its discretion.

“Each year we endeavour to extend the searching net so that it becomes more difficult for stolen art to be sold and thereby make the crime less profitable for the criminals,” says Radcliffe.

Any person can register a lost or stolen work of art provided that they have a crime reference or police report number and others such as missing or in dispute if full information is provided.

A small fee is charged to prevent nuisance registrations and the website requires the victim to sign a contract and to warrant that they are the owner and have provided full disclosure – for example, that they are insured.

No other charges are made unless the item is recovered, when there is a success fee normally based on a percentage of the ultimate net benefit to the victim – that is, the value of the item when recovered less any costs.

Registrations come directly from the victims, and from insurers, police, media reports which are followed up and historical archives. About 12,000 items are added each year to the current total of 400,000.

“We know from anecdotal evidence that the existence of our database is making it more difficult for criminals to sell stolen items and is depressing the price,” says Radcliffe. “We know of a criminal who paid more for an item since he was told erroneously that it was not on the database and when he tried to sell it he was arrested.”

Most matches are made from searching by the art trade but other identifications are made by the police, members of the public who are suspicious, collectors, and journalists.

Every day the ALR achieves many matches, which have to be investigated with the victim, police, insurer, and current holder and the chain of buyers and sellers before they can be confirmed as a real match.

“The location of the item is just the start,” says Radcliffe. “The actual recovery process requires extensive effort including the original research on the identity of the item which is often challenged as a copy, arguments factual and legal on whether the owner is a good faith purchaser, and jurisdictional issues, since the great majority of major recoveries are in a different country to that where they were stolen – and in many cases, there is eventually a compromise.”

The perpetrators of art theft are generally part of a food chain which starts with low level criminals, often with a drug habit, who are expendable and used to jail sentences – although there are some who specialise in jewellery theft by distraction and swopping, who are well dressed and more sophisticated.

“Those who take on the stolen items are usually in all types of crime – fraud, smuggling and theft,” says Radcliffe. “They weigh up the risks and profits like a businessman. Knowing that art is a low priority for police, theoretical values can be high even if selling the item on is difficult. Sometimes there is an element of bravura.”

There is some good news from the world of art theft: Radcliffe notes that over the 20 years from 1993 to 2013 there was a significant reduction in theft from homes, due to better security driven by insurers. Locks, alarms safes and a reduction in the attractiveness of items in the home – particularly electronic goods, which are now of low value – has helped fuel the decline.

“However, well-known collectors can attract targeted theft, not for specific items but because they are high net worth,” he says.

Because of this, it is advisable to keep a low profile and to allow limited access to the house for staff and visitors.

Radcliffe recommends keeping very good records of items, including images of the back as well as the front of each object. Burglar alarms and safes will also help.

“I would advise getting insurance since with insurance comes security advice and other benefits,” he says.

While it might seem safer to keep your art collection stored away, this is not always the case: many thefts involve removal by internal parties in storage facilities.

The ALR’s role is not restricted to the retrieval of stolen works: it can also play a crucial part in the process of buying artwork, when the item’s provenance and the reputation of the seller are two key issues to consider.

“The minimum level is to obtain a certificate from the ALR and to have fully documented and proven provenance – that is, a chain of uninterrupted ownership from the artist onwards,” he says. “Even the quality of the ownership needs addressing since there may be hidden issues such as family disputes on wills or divorces which come to light late.”


Julian Radcliffe

Julian Radcliffe