Computer archive helps find stolen art


LONDON, AP

The request was simple enough: Lloyd’s underwriters had been approached to insure the movement of seven paintings, including one by Cezanne, from Russia to London for valuation and sale. So Lloyd’s contacted the Art Loss Register, a small private company in London whose computer archive lists 180,000 items ranging from sculpture and silver to textiles, books, stamps and vehicles — and many of the great art works stolen or missing around the world. What the insurance company discovered in 1999 was that the works, including Cezanne’s “Fruit and Jug,” had been stolen in 1978 from the home of American collector Michael Bakwin in Massachusetts. Thus began a long investigation, including Art Loss Register researchers and negotiators, that resulted in the FBI announcing last month the arrest of a lawyer. He allegedly had obtained the art from the thief, who had been murdered by another criminal after the robbery. In the end, Bakwin got his paintings back and sold the Cezanne for US$35 million (euro26 million). Now the Art Loss Register is on the trail of two Picasso paintings stolen in Paris last week. The register, which calls itself the only comprehensive searching service for stolen art, serves museums, art dealers and auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s that want to avoid handling stolen art; and theft victims, insurance companies and police hunting for the thieves. When thieves stole Pablo Picasso’s “Maya With Doll” (1938) and “Portrait of Jacqueline” (1961) from his granddaughter’s home in Paris, their description and photo were added to the company’s database within hours. The paintings are valued together at around US$65 million (euro49 million), but the information in the register severely curtails their resale prospects and could help lead police to the thieves. In the last 10 years, information supplied by the Art Loss Register has helped recover paintings by Manet, Delacroix, Giacometti, Constable; a Queen Anne cabinet; and a Roman marble head of Dionysius. Two years ago, the Art Loss Register was vetting works to be sold at the renowned Maastricht art and antiques fair in the Netherlands, when it discovered that one of them, a painting by 17th-century Dutch artist Jan Linsen, had been missing from a German museum since 1946. In 2002, an art dealer’s routine search of the archive for a 1922 Picasso, “Woman in White,” owned by an American philanthropist, led to the discovery that it had been looted by the Nazi occupiers of Paris. Research by Art Loss Register staff in four countries provided valuable information to the complex litigation that followed over its ownership, which ended in a financial settlement. The register is also a source for Jews seeking to recover art confiscated from them by the Nazis. “We’re the only comprehensive searching service in the world for stolen art,” said Julian Radcliffe, chairman of the Art Loss Register. “But even with our database, the recovery rate for really good paintings is only around 20 percent, and the owners may have to wait 30 years. The success rate for stolen jewelry, furniture and silver artifacts is much lower.” Radcliffe said well-known art works are sometimes stolen by small-time thieves or drug dealers who quickly sell them cheap to criminal gangs that whisk them to another country and sell them through front men. It also is much easier to sell less valuable stolen art works online or at flea markets and small-time galleries that don’t subscribe to Art Loss Register, he said. The register’s 10 employees work in a modest six-story office building in London’s jewelry trade district, chosen because it is well policed and, says Radcliffe, “we are obviously fairly discreet. … There are people we have helped put in jail.” The staff members mostly manage the computer archive, which the company says is immune to hackers, and preserve the many paper files for future court cases. Some staffers are trained as unpaid auxiliary constables who can support British police going after art thieves. The company has another 25 employees at satellite offices in New York; Amsterdam, Netherlands; Cologne, Germany; New Delhi, and Bath, England. The Art Loss Register was created 1991, taking over and expanding a database that had been operated since the 1970s by the International Foundation for Art Research in New York. The register is mainly funded by theft victims and their insurers, museums, galleries and auction houses. It charges US$50 (euro38) per search.