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Database is state of the (stolen) art

A 15-year-old register of purloined paintings and other works has helped recover $138 million in missing pieces.

October 29, 2006|Stevenson Swanson | Chicago Tribune

LONDON — Your Degas has disappeared. Your Van Gogh has vanished. Your Pollock has taken a powder.

Who are you going to call?

Apart from the police, you might try Julian Radcliffe.

Radcliffe is the founder and chairman of the Art Loss Register, the world's largest private database of stolen art and a central clearinghouse of information about the shadowy underworld where purloined masterpieces may linger for decades, waiting to be sold or ransomed back to their owners.

The 15-year-old register contains records of more than 175,000 stolen objects, from paintings and sculptures to jewelry and rare antiques. Since its founding in 1991, the company has been involved in the recovery of more than $138 million in purloined art, according to Radcliffe. At any given time, the staff of about 30 employees is juggling roughly 150 active cases, with the result that the register is involved in about three recoveries of stolen artwork in a typical week.

"We just found a pair of cannons on eBay -- French 18th century," Radcliffe said. "EBay is just stuffed full of stolen goods."

Several high-profile cases have put the rarefied world of art thievery in the spotlight recently. Oslo's Munch Museum is displaying two paintings by Norwegian master Edvard Munch, including his iconic "The Scream," that were recovered in August. Masked gunmen stole the paintings from the museum in broad daylight two years ago.

And, in one of the most spectacular art heists in Russia's history, a curator at St. Petersburg's famous State Hermitage Museum was implicated in July in the theft of 221 artworks valued at $5 million.

Earlier this year, the Art Loss Register played a key role in a 28-year-old case involving seven paintings valued at more than $30 million that had been stolen from the Massachusetts home of collector Michael Bakwin. After seven years of complicated, high-wire negotiations with a lawyer who claimed to have been given the paintings by a client, Radcliffe secured the return of five of the paintings, including a Cezanne in 1999 and four other paintings in January.

The Art Loss Register is more than a passive repository of information. Radcliffe, whose background is in the insurance business, frequently finds himself flying around the globe to meet with lawyers or other middlemen with knowledge about the location of stolen works.

As for EBay, the Internet auction site deals with such a huge volume of goods that it cannot check to determine whether something is stolen property before it is listed, according to spokeswoman Catherine England. But if someone reports seeing a stolen item on the site to the police, EBay cooperates with law enforcement agencies by turning over the would-be seller's personal information.

The register and a year-old competitor called Swift-Find also have made a specialty of tracking artwork that was seized from Jewish owners during the Nazi era.

Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, who runs the FBI's program to catch art thieves, said the register's database complements the two big law-enforcement databases of stolen art, maintained by the FBI and Interpol, which only police departments and national crime-fighting agencies can use.

"I find them quite a valuable resource," she said. "And when law enforcement agencies ask me to put information in my database, I recommend that they also notify the Art Loss Register."

But the register's records are not available to everyone. To prevent thieves from using it to see if a work has been reported as stolen, the company requires that anybody who wants to run a search must agree to cooperate with the company if it finds a match in its records. And its database cannot be accessed over the Internet.

"We will not do searches for people who will not say who they are," said Radcliffe, 58. "If we were to put all our information on the Internet, guess who'd spend all their time looking at it? The thieves."

The fact that the database contains more than 175,000 items is an indication that art theft is a bigger, more persistent problem than the occasional high-profile robbery suggests.

The FBI has estimated that theft of collectible objects, from paintings to rare coins, amounts to as much as $6 billion a year worldwide. Art experts question that figure, but pinning down the size of the problem is admittedly difficult.

"We could never achieve the firm kind of number that you'd like because it's an illicit activity," said the FBI's Magness-Gardiner. "And it could vary from year to year. It depends on whether a $50-million Rembrandt has been stolen."

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