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Friday, April 01, 2016

Stolen Art Watch, Art Loss Register's Julian Radcliffe Exposed As Criminal Fraudster, Fox Guarding The Hen-House

Art dispute paints a murky picture

Britain’s leading “art detective” has been accused of running mistresses on expenses while court documents have shone a light on an industry where payments have allegedly been made to police officers to “oil the wheels” of painting recovery.
For two decades Julian Radcliffe, an Old Etonian who controls one of the most comprehensive databases of stolen art, has criss-crossed the globe tracing stolen treasures on behalf of the rightful owners.
Court documents have shed light on this shadowy unregulated world: an industry in which criminals may be paid indirectly from insurers and the rightful owners to return the paintings that they stole.
Art crime is ranked as the third-highest-grossing criminal enterprise behind drugs and arms with figures suggesting that in Britain alone in 2013 art and antiques worth more than £300 million were stolen from galleries and drawing rooms.
The allegations, which are denied by Mr Radcliffe, have emerged during a legal dispute between the London-based International Art and Antiques Loss Register (ALR), founded by Mr Radcliffe, and a rival organisation set up by his former general counsel, Christopher Marinello.
Both operate databases that auction houses and dealers pay to consult to check if the Van Goghs or Matisses, for example, in their possession are clean. They also follow up leads in pursuit of missing masterpieces from the greatest artists in history.
Mr Radcliffe claims that Mr Mari- nello “set up a rival business by exploiting [ALR’s] confidential information and business opportunities”. He said that Mr Marinello’s company had “unlawfully obtained a competitive advantage”. Mr Marinello denies the claims. He declined to comment.
Mr Marinello is defending the claims and in his counterclaim alleges that Mr Radcliffe, who is married to Frances Radcliffe, chairwoman of the Friends of Battersea Park, had been spending £10,000 a month on expenses partly to “pay for trips with his mistresses”.
Three women, whose identity The Times has declined to reveal, are named in documents. It is claimed that Mr Radcliffe pretended that one of the alleged mistresses was an employee of Christie’s auction house whom he had to repay for staying in a private club.
Mr Marinello is alleging that his payments from the company were reduced because Mr Radcliffe did not work “full time in the best interests of the business”. He claims that while telling his staff he was working, Mr Radcliffe was “instead spending time with one or more women who were not his wife”.
Mr Radcliffe does not dispute that ALR has not made a profit for the past six years but denies having claimed £10,000 in expenses each month. He described the allegations about the mistresses as “scandalous and abusive” and has filed a confidential schedule to the High Court on these matters.
The High Court papers also disclose that an ALR board member, Simon Wood, wrote an email about how cash had been given to the City of London police. The papers state that two members of the ALR board, Simon Wood and Eric Westropp, told Mr Marinello in August 2012 that they were “aware of Mr Radcliffe’s practice of making payments to enablers, and Mr Wood wrote in an email of that date that he had been “involved with giving cash to the City of London police … to oil the wheels rather than constitute a bribe or a material reward”.
The email exchange contained in the court papers do not explain what the alleged payment was for or how it was used by the City of London police. The force said that any allegations of corruption would be fully investigated.
Mr Wood declined to respond to a question about the payment while Mr Radcliffe’s solicitors said: “Neither Julian Radcliffe nor our client [ALR] have paid money to the City of London police or any other police force.”
Police officers have questioned the techniques used by Mr Radcliffe’s company, with a senior French officer claiming that his business had created “a dishonest market in stolen art that flows from the thieves”.
Mr Radcliffe has admitted to operating a “Balkans Strategy” whereby payments were made for stolen artworks that “might ultimately be received by those who were responsible for the theft”. He said this “aimed to limit the powers of foreign criminal gangs in the stolen art market”.
Mr Radcliffe also denied that the strategy of making payments “would have been regarded by reasonable people as dishonest or corrupt”.
The counterclaim also alleges that he did not inform “the police, the loss adjuster, the insurance underwriter, or the victim” when his company recognised that a painting being sold by Bonhams was stolen. The documents allege that he ordered a “kill” on the match because of the low value of the painting, and hence commission for the company.
Mr Radcliffe does not address this allegation directly in his response but has issued a blanket denial of the claims made during proceedings.
The Murky World of the Art Detective

Alexi Mostrous
The theft of artworks is now the world’s third most lucrative crime. Old Etonian Julian Radcliffe tracks down stolen Picassos and Cézannes – so why is he such a controversial figure?

In December 2007, an art exhibition opened in Pfäffikon, a small lakeside town in Switzerland, around 20 miles east of Zurich. The exhibition included 20 original Picasso paintings, as well as more than 150 etchings, prints and linoleum cuts by the artist, all of which had been loaned to the Pfäffikon cultural centre by the Sprengel Museum in Hanover. This type of arrangement is not uncommon across Europe; large museums and galleries will often allow their works to be shown in smaller provincial institutions. But such generosity carries a certain amount of risk: big galleries used to showing precious artworks will often boast elaborate alarm systems and large numbers of security personnel. Smaller galleries will often not. Plus, owing both to their great number and great value, works by Picasso are stolen more often than any other artist’s. So when the paintings came to Pfäffikon, it was not just a boon for local art lovers, but a potential opportunity for thieves.

It was one they seized. On a cold Wednesday night in early February 2008, the alarm at the Pfäffikon cultural centre sounded. Police arrived to find that two of the Picassos were missing. One was Tête de Cheval (Head of Horse) from 1962, the other was Verre et Pichet(Glass and Pitcher) from 1944: works that, between them, had an estimated value of more than £2.5 million. The Sprengel Museum immediately offered a reward for any information leading to the recovery of the paintings. Investigators hypothesised that the thieves may have remained hidden inside the gallery until after it had closed, but they could not be sure. The authorities were left with no firm idea as to how the crime happened, who had carried it out or, most vitally, how to get the Picassos back.

This last question quickly came to be pondered by a raffish figure from within a shabby office in London. The International Art and Antique Loss Register occupies the first floor of an anonymous five-storey block in Farringdon and is considered by many, despite outward appearances, to be the world’s foremost art detection agency. Founded by Julian Radcliffe, a slender man aged 65, the Art Loss Register (ALR) claims to have returned more than £150 million worth of paintings, artefacts and sculptures to their rightful owners in the 22 years since business began.

Radcliffe’s pale face, though often inscrutable, breaks into a smile when discussing his own exploits, and he clearly enjoys the sense of danger that comes with his status as an internationally renowned art detective. He has a caddish charm and the sort of self-confidence you would expect of an Old Etonian. Throughout his anecdotes – which mix references to hardened European criminals and attempted arrests by South American police – Radcliffe portrays himself as a Briton trying to bring order to foreign chaos. An Oxford graduate, Radcliffe was first employed as an insurance broker for Lloyd’s, specialising in political risk, before going on to found a company that would evaluate security in dangerous countries and regions. He later spent some time working as a hostage negotiator. In his pinstripe suit, he’s a little like something from a Graham Greene novel.

Radcliffe formed the ALR following a conversation with a director of Sotheby’s auction house who bemoaned the lack of a comprehensive worldwide database of all stolen and missing artworks. Such a database would ensure that reputable art dealers and private collectors could check that any piece they were purchasing did not, in fact, belong to somebody else. Over the past two decades, Radcliffe has built the ALR into a vast roll-call of stolen art, with more than 400,000 objects currently listed. Dealers and collectors pay Radcliffe fees to check the register.

Were the ALR a business built solely around this database, then Radcliffe would be a useful, if uncontroversial member of the art world, something like a particularly proactive lost property clerk. But Radcliffe is no clerk, and he and his company enjoy a far more glamorous sideline, earning hundreds of thousands of pounds a year tracking down and recovering stolen art on behalf of insurers and victims of theft. It works like this: Radcliffe’s network of sources around the world tip him off about the locations of stolen paintings. For a substantial fee, they may provide “information” which somehow leads to the stolen artwork landing in Radcliffe’s hands. The ALR man has collected paintings left for him in the boot of a car and by a layby. It’s a system shrouded in mystery but then, Radcliffe claims, it gets results.

In 1999, Radcliffe identified and reunited with its owner a stolen Cézanne, Pitcher and Fruits, which had turned up in Panama and which went on to sell at auction for £18 million. This month, Christie’s will sell several Old Masters stolen in 1987 from the gallery of art dealer Robert Noortman, which were recovered thanks in part to the ALR. Radcliffe worked with Dutch police to set up a sting operation, resulting in two criminal convictions and the recovery of all but one of the pictures.

But what makes Radcliffe such a contentious figure is his work with a shady network of informants in Serbia, whom he uses to recover stolen artwork, sometimes without obtaining explicit police approval, and occasionally in the knowledge that part of the payments he makes to these informants will filter back to the art thieves themselves.

While the ALR states publicly that it never pays anyone involved in the original theft, privately Radcliffe admits to me that the situation is rather different.

“You have got to understand that we are operating in the real world,” he says, sitting back in an old leather chair in his office when we meet. “The law tries to treat all this stuff as black and white and actually, in most cases, it’s shades of grey. The public policy has to be: we don’t pay … But in certain cases some payments have to be authorised. We keep them to a minimum.”

Radcliffe estimates that 20 per cent of stolen art is destroyed or lost for ever. It’s a useful statistic to keep in mind; collectors and institutions want their paintings back in one piece, and often they don’t mind how this is facilitated.

“The only thing I care about is my artworks, and Mr Radcliffe can do what he wants with whom he wants,” says Jean-Louis Loeb-Picard, a millionaire property developer. Loeb-Picard had employed the ALR following the theft of more than €3 million (£2.3 million) worth of art from his Parisian apartment, and under such circumstances he was not squeamish about Radcliffe’s methods. “It’s my right to do what I have to do to recover my works,” he maintains.

To use police language, theft victims are allowed to pay rewards “for information leading to the recovery of a stolen object”. That is not in itself controversial, even when payments amount to thousands of euros and the informants have criminal records.

Indeed, having a good network of informants is crucial to Radcliffe and other art detection companies’ ability to track down stolen art. Both the police and private companies regard the payment of rewards as often the only way to recover paintings.

But while rewards are uncontroversial, paying money to anyone directly or indirectly involved with the original theft is anything but. Some payments may not only be illegal but, like a government paying a kidnapper to turn over his hostages, may actually fuel art theft rather than prevent it.

The art recovery industry, murky and unregulated though it may be, is further boosted by the fact that police budgets for fighting art crime have been slashed, leaving organised gangs – especially gangs from Eastern Europe – able to tap into a global market worth billions. Art crime is now ranked the third highest-grossing criminal enterprise, behind drugs and arms dealing respectively. In 2013 figures suggested that thefts of art and antiques in the UK alone totalled more than £300 million. “I am not naive,” says Loeb-Picard. “I don’t insist on the matter. I know. Why would the criminal give back the works if they are not paid? But I asked two different lawyers, ‘Am I right to give money to Julian Radcliffe, knowing that part of the money may be going to criminals?’ My lawyers said I could do what I want.”

Radcliffe’s methods have provoked criticism at the highest level of European law enforcement. Some criminal investigators view him as little more than a fence, one who provides a means for the very people who stole the art to sell it back to their victims.

“Radcliffe ruins everything,” says Thomas Erhardy, head of the BRB (Brigade de Répression du Banditisme), the Parisian police force tasked with investigating serious crime. “He doesn’t play by the rules. All he wants is his percentage. He’s in contact with thieves. I simply don’t trust him.”

The Frenchman has crossed paths with Radcliffe several times. He accuses the ALR of creating a dishonest market in stolen art, one that flows from the thieves who steal it in European cities, through Serbian intermediaries, onwards to Radcliffe and the ALR, and finally back with the insurance companies or victims themselves.

Radcliffe bats away the criticism. “Erhardy may call me tomorrow and ask me to help on a case,” he says. “But for very good political reasons, he’s got to be critical of us in public.” He denies Erhardy’s claims, however, saying he has never handled stolen goods or himself acted illegally, and insists that he seeks permission from relevant police forces before paying over money.

In some rare cases, the ALR accepts that money will be paid directly to criminals, but only as part of what they have come to term the “Balkan strategy”. This approach involves secretly offering sums of money, which the ALR claims are relatively small, to criminals to recover pictures on behalf of their rightful owners, while at the same time using its extensive database to make it impossible for those same criminals to sell to anyone else. Radcliffe insists that no payment has been made for thefts after 2010 and that his strategy has been effective at reducing crime.

“There are fewer than 12 cases out of more than 1,600 in the past 21 years in which we suspect the payments made to intermediaries might have been passed on to those involved in the original theft,” says Radcliffe.

“We absolutely understand that some of the cash paid results in money going back to people who may have been involved in the original crime. No one is fooling anyone about the fact that [an intermediary] will pass on some of the money.”

Radcliffe says he has taken legal advice and the position is not always clear. Ultimately, “It comes down to intent. A prosecutor would find it very difficult to say what you are doing was wrong if it was part of a clear strategy to reduce crime.”

Thanks to a series of internal aides-memoire written by Radcliffe between 2004 to 2012, and leaked to The Times, it is possible to reveal for the first time just how far the ALR is willing to go to recover stolen masterpieces.

In 2011, on the trail of the Pfäffikon Picassos, Radcliffe flew into Belgrade to meet some of his contacts who claimed they knew of the paintings’ whereabouts. A few hours after arriving, he found himself being hustled into a car by a young Serb he knew only as “X”. The Serb had already warned Radcliffe “No police”. They drove in silence into the hills behind the Serbian town of Krusevac.

“We climbed up through open fields with a small church just on the right,” Radcliffe wrote afterwards. “‘X’ told me not to remember where we were since the pictures would only be there for ten minutes. At a junction we went into a house which he seemed to know well.”

The pair then entered a garage where they were met by a heavy-set man, who moved aside a lawnmower before carrying out two pictures wrapped in a large zipped cover. Radcliffe examined the contents. One was Tête de Cheval. The other was Verre et Pichet. He had been led to the missing Picassos.

The question is, who had helped get him there in the first place? After seeing the two stolen masterpieces for himself, Radcliffe met three of his Serbian contacts at a nearby restaurant. The first was a tough-talking man called Wolf Minic, a 48-year-old chain-smoking private detective with contacts deep within the country’s criminal underworld.

Minic introduced Radcliffe to a prominent Serb businessman aged about 60, whom everyone knew simply as “the Boxer”. He boasted of once fighting Evander Holyfield. According to ALR notes, the Boxer had “financed many gangs of thieves overseas” and had “directed criminals to steal in Zurich”. But now, apparently, he wanted to “go clean”. The final contact was a young café owner called Marko, who appeared to be in charge. He showed Radcliffe pictures of other allegedly stolen artworks, telling him: “There are many other cases if we give him a list of what we are after.” As the men talked, Radcliffe noticed a man standing guard with a submachine gun. Eight months after he first met him, Serbian police filed criminal charges against Marko “due to the fact that he possessed stolen paintings”, according to a spokeswoman for the Ministry of the Interior in Serbia.

Through Minic, the ALR paid them tens of thousands of pounds for information on a number of stolen artworks.

Speaking today, Radcliffe says he then had “no grounds to suspect” that any of his Balkan contacts had any direct involvement in art theft – although Marko was obviously in contact with people who were – and that he was comfortable doing business with them. Minic says that, “Marko is trusted by both sides,” and, “The Serbs know that he was not involved with the crime.” That same year, the three men helped Radcliffe locate Constructivo Blanco, a painting by Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres-García, a work worth a six-figure sum. After the painting was returned, its insurers, Catlin Insurance, paid the ALR €60,000 in fees and expenses. €30,000 of this was kept by the ALR and the other half distributed between the Boxer’s group and the “criminal holders”.

Radcliffe says that the insurance company knew this was the case. In a note of his meeting with a Catlin representative, Radcliffe recorded that he and the insurance company agreed that at least some of the money would go “to the thief”. A Catlin spokesperson strongly denied this, and said the company would never have authorised such a payment. Radcliffe’s response is to suggest that the established art world authorities – the police, the insurers – cannot afford to admit what everyone else knows is the truth.

“Catlin have got to take that public position,” he says. “We kept the insurers fully informed and they knew that some payment would eventually end up with criminals.” Catlin continues to deny this.

When it comes to art recovery, Radcliffe is by no means the only game in town. Despite locating the two missing Picassos, it was not the Old Etonian who would ultimately take the credit for the safe return of the paintings. Radcliffe tried to obtain a contract to recover them with AXA Art, the insurers, but was rebuffed. AXA preferred to deal with a competitor of his, Dick Ellis, with whom it had a long-standing relationship. Ellis is a former police officer who set up the Art and Antiques Squad at Scotland Yard and now runs his own art recovery business, the Art Management Group. In person, Ellis exists as an almost exact counterweight to Radcliffe: ruddy-faced, bald and thickening where his competitor is pale, slender and with a sweep of well-groomed hair. You wouldn’t have to guess who is the ex-policeman and who is the aesthete.

Ellis even used the same contacts – Marko, the Boxer and Minic – to obtain information about the Picassos’ whereabouts. In fact, Ellis has an even closer relationship with the three. In 2011, he set up a company in Serbia called Art Management DOO with the Serbs listed as directors and equal owners. Like Radcliffe, Ellis maintains that these men are simply intermediaries in a part of the world where the legitimate and the illegal often intertwine.

“If you are investigating crimes and using information, then it’s quite common for the informants to have criminal connections,” says Ellis. “Marko is clearly well connected, but the degree to which he’s criminally involved is unclear to me. Despite my having provided law enforcement investigators with his details I saw no evidence to connect him criminally with any of these activities.” (He declines to say if he was aware that charges had been filed against Marko in 2012, however.)

The line between paying a ransom to a crook and paying a reward for information leading to a painting’s recovery is, in this world, easy to blur. Radcliffe believes that Ellis knew perfectly well that some of the fees he paid his contacts during recovery of the two Picassos would end up in criminal hands.

“AXA stated publicly that they had not paid criminals, on the rather shaky grounds that the payments were for information, not for stolen art,” he noted. Ellis says this description is “manifestly inaccurate and wrong”.

On a clear winter’s day, I meet a third player in this field, at a café beside Richmond Bridge in London. Charley Hill has operated as a private art investigator since 2002, having previously worked with Ellis at Scotland Yard. In 1994, he posed as an American collector as part of a sting to recover The Scream by Edvard Munch, which had been stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo. Today, he is seeking to recover a number of gold snuffboxes stolen from Lord Rothschild’s Waddesdon Manor home, collectively worth £5 million, goods that Radcliffe also happens to be on the trail of.

A mild, bespectacled figure, Hill boasts good contacts within the traveller community, and has enlisted James Quinn McDonagh – a championship bare-knuckle boxer – to set up introductions with individuals connected to the Rothschild thefts. “He and I are after all of Jacob Rothschild’s gold boxes, the Ashmolean Cézanne, and the Caravaggio stolen in Palermo in 1969,” says Hill. “He gets me into the travellers.” There is no suggestion that McDonagh had any involvement in the snuffbox thefts, but the very presence of a bare-knuckle boxing champion only serves as a reminder of the types of characters often involved in the recovery of artworks. In 2004, Radcliffe’s own notes show him visiting the Hyatt Regency Belgrade to meet someone known only as “the Boss Man”.

“He had thin aquiline features, slim build, balding, speaks Russian, certainly knowledgeable about where the pictures were stolen,” he noted. The Boss Man’s associates took Radcliffe “to a ground-floor office with a caged locking door where they showed me a Van Dyke stolen from a castle”. On another occasion, Radcliffe met a Bosnian general and an arms dealer, both of whom “controlled” stolen works of art, he said. He paid one group of “holders” €50,000 and another €25,000, ALR documents record.

Again, you wonder whether these artworks would ever be recovered without paying such people. “Paying criminals a ransom has to be wrong,” says Hill. But paying people for information “leading to the recovery of masterpieces” would be in the public interest. “You wouldn’t get it back any other way,” he says. “None of us are fools.”

Two individuals close to the Art Loss Register told me that Radcliffe’s forays into the Balkans were as much a desperate attempt to wrestle his company into financial health as an idealistic endeavour. The ALR, which has not made money for six years, had liabilities of more than £1 million in 2012.

“Distributing money to these individuals in Serbia I thought was wrong,” says one source close to Radcliffe, who wishes to remain unknown. “It’s in an absolute financial mess. If it wasn’t for Julian’s personal cash infusions the company would be insolvent.” (Radcliffe says he is confident the ALR will eventually make a profit.)

Last year, the ALR’s general counsel, a man called Chris Marinello, defected in order to set up his own art detection agency, Art Recovery International. He too questioned the methods of his former company. “The direction of the ALR, with these ingrained practices and questionable affairs of its management and board, was not aligned with my vision of how a due diligence business (or any business for that matter) should be run.” Upon announcing the creation of Art Recovery International, Marinello stressed that his own company would be run “ethically, responsibly and with respect for the rule of law”. Radcliffe is not surprised a competitor would criticise the ALR.

But even an experienced police officer such as Erhardy has, in a roundabout way, benefited from information sold by men like Marko. In November 2012, a Serbian thief called Goran Arsic stole a €500,000 Delacroix painting called The Arabs of Oran from a gallery near the Louvre. In May 2013, Dick Ellis travelled to Paris to seek permission from Erhardy and a French judge to recover the painting. When this was granted, Ellis travelled to Belgrade where, with the assistance of Marko, he was able to locate the stolen painting. Even though telephone records linked Arsic to Marko, Erhardy states he was satisfied that Ellis had acted appropriately. “His goal can help my goal,” the Frenchman says. A year after the original theft, Erhardy arrested Arsic in Paris.

Nevertheless, Erhardy maintains that the very nature of the art recovery industry means it is unlikely ever to become less murky. “Everyone is happy and everyone gets money,” he says, speaking of the cycle of theft, recovery and payments. “But you have to stop the situation otherwise you are encouraging more thefts.” Which may be true. But then, if you were to wake to find that two of your Picassos had gone missing, who would you call? There is no shortage of men ready to help you get them back. At least, for the right price. 

Tracking Stolen Art, for Profit, and Blurring a Few Lines

"Everyone agrees there’s a real need for this kind of organization," says Julian Radcliffe, owner of the Art Loss Register, a private company that tracks stolen artworks. Credit Martin Cleaver/Associated Press

Early in the morning of May 11, 1987, someone smashed through the glass doors of the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm, removed a Matisse from a wall and fled.
All it took was daring and a sledgehammer.
The whereabouts of the painting, “Le Jardin,” remained a mystery until the work was found last year and made a celebratory trip home in January.
But law enforcement played no role. The return was facilitated by the Art Loss Register, a London-based company that over the last two decades has evolved into a little-noticed but increasingly integral part of art investigation around the world.
The brainchild of Julian Radcliffe, an Oxford-educated former risk consultant who speaks of once spying for British intelligence, the Register helps fill a gaping void: billions of dollars’ worth of art is stolen every year, according to an F.B.I. estimate, but law enforcement has too few resources to prioritize finding it.
For Mr. Radcliffe, whose other company helps recover stolen construction equipment, this presented a natural opportunity. Since it began 22 years ago, the Register has developed one of the most extensive databases of stolen art in the world, enabling it to recover more than $250 million worth of art, earning fees from insurers and theft victims.
Along the way, the company has drawn criticism from those who say its hardball tactics push ethical, and sometimes legal, boundaries. Even so, the Register continues to count law enforcement agents among its supporters. “To me, they’re very important, a very useful tool,” said Mark Fishstein, the New York City Police Department’s “art cop.”
Mr. Radcliffe’s company operates in the dim recesses of the art world, where the prevalence of theft, fakery and works of murky provenance has given rise to many businesses that promise to help clients navigate this lucrative but largely unregulated market.
But for the Register, despite its official-sounding name and pivotal role as a monitor, profits have not come easily, and the company’s future looks increasingly cloudy, threatening a core player in the recovery of stolen art.
Mr. Radcliffe said that he hopes the Registry will break even this year, but that it has lost money for the last six and has stayed afloat only thanks to his cash infusions. Now the company is losing talent, too.
During the past year, two key employees resigned; additionally, the company’s general counsel, Christopher A. Marinello, who has been as much a public face of the company as Mr. Radcliffe, says he is leaving at the end of this month, with plans to start a rival business.
Among the incidents that have drawn criticism, the Register misled a client who wanted to check the provenance of a painting before he purchased it, telling him it was not stolen, when in fact it was, so that he would buy it and unwittingly help the company collect a fee for its retrieval.
It has been known to pay middlemen and informers for leads on stolen works, a practice that troubles some in law enforcement, who say that it can incite thefts. And the company often behaves like a bounty hunter, charging fees of as much as 20 percent of a work’s value for its return.
These fees do not bother the insurance companies and other clients that hire the Register to find a work. But the company has approached people and museums with whom it has no relationship. In several cases, people say the Register contacted them, told them of a lead on a stolen work, then refused to divulge any information until the subject agreed to pay a fee.
Officials at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Orleans, France, for example, said that the Register approached the museum in 2003, asserting that it had information about an Alfred Sisley painting that had been stolen from the museum. The company said it could retrieve the work if the museum agreed to its fee. Unable to afford the payment, the museum called the police instead. The work was never recovered.
“Sometimes we have to deal with the fact that, under French law, we could charge them,” said Corinne Chartrelle, the deputy for a French law enforcement unit that tracks stolen art. She was not involved in the Orleans case, but said she knew of similar instances where the Register had tried to leverage its knowledge to extract a fee.


The Art Loss Register listed Norman Rockwell’s “Russian Schoolroom” as stolen. Credit Erik Jacobs for The New York Times, Norman Rockwell Family Agency

“They are keeping information to themselves,” she said.
Mr. Radcliffe contests these allegations, noting, for example, that police investigators routinely pay informants, and adding that such disputes are rare but inevitable, given the number of players involved.
“Everyone agrees there’s a real need for this kind of organization,” he said.
Indeed, even some of the company’s harshest critics say they do not welcome the prospect of an art market devoid of the Register and its resources.
“They do serve a purpose — they’re the only private database,” said Robert K. Wittman, a private art investigator who formerly led the F.B.I.’s Art Crime Team. “When they get into trouble is when they overstep that role and try to act as if they’re the police.”
Continue reading the main story
Mr. Radcliffe, who is also a gentleman farmer, shrugs off suggestions that his business could be faltering.
“I am very patient,” he said. “I grow trees. I raise cattle. Breeding cattle takes 20 years. If I think something is the right thing to do, I will do it as long as it takes.”
Few Competitors
Outside the movies, art crime can be awfully mundane.
Rare is a thief like the dapper one played by Pierce Brosnan in “The Thomas Crown Affair,” who choreographed robberies of Monets from the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his bowler-hatted accomplices. Instead, doors are forced, windows smashed and valuables grabbed in a hurry, often by petty criminals.
As clumsy as the crooks might be, the value of stolen art is still huge compared with the law enforcement resources devoted to its recovery.
A few countries, like Italy, place a high priority on art theft, but they are the exception.
New York City and Los Angeles, hubs of the art trade, each have one detective dedicated to art crime. The F.B.I. has assigned 14 agents with special training to investigate art crimes, though most have other duties as well. Scotland Yard’s arts and antiques unit has three officers.
“It’s not violent crime,” said Saskia Hufnagel, a research fellow at the Australian Research Council Center of Excellence in Policing and Security. “There are no victims, at least ones the public would consider victims. A lot of the loss is covered by insurance.”
The authorities are also hobbled by limited and incomplete data.
The database managed by Scotland Yard lists some 57,500 stolen objects. Interpol’s database of stolen art includes about 40,000 works. The F.B.I.’s database has fewer than 8,000 objects on it, partly because the bureau relies on local police to fill in the blanks.
“It is not an absolutely complete database,” said Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, who manages the F.B.I.’s art theft program. “We get what they choose to send us.”
Each database lists items based on individual protocols, and most police agencies don’t communicate with one another; thus, someone checking whether a work is stolen would have to speak to multiple agencies.
The Register, by comparison, reports that its database includes more than 350,000 stolen, looted or missing works. In addition to an in-house staff of about 10, the company uses an Indian company to search the world for matches between the database and items for sale at auction houses and art fairs.
Theft victims pay to list their items with the Register, which also charges dealers, collectors and insurers fees to search the database to see whether a work is clean.
To law enforcement, the Register’s resources are clearly helpful. Police search the database free, and the company has helped train the F.B.I.’s Art Crime Team.


Judy Goffman Cutler, who sold the Rockwell painting to Steven Spielberg, did not appreciate the label, contending that the company harassed her for years: “They knew better but chose to follow the greedy path.” Credit Erik Jacobs for The New York Times

As a result, some police agencies develop close relationships with it, even recommending that victims register stolen works there.
“If I went to the A.L.R. and said, ‘Did you have any information about this painting?,’ they would give me 30 documents,” said James McAndrew, a former federal agent who tracked stolen art. “They’d have all that, where the cop on the beat would not even know to ask.”
Private Eyes, and Fees
For a man who one day would become an essential figure in the art market, Mr. Radcliffe had little exposure to art growing up, beyond some family portraits that were handed down through the generations.
In the early 1970s, he worked in London as an insurance broker specializing in political risk and later helped to found a company, in which he still has a minority stake, that, among other things, provides advice about security in dangerous countries.
He became involved with art sleuthing in 1991, a few years after a director at Sotheby’s mentioned that auction houses, whose businesses are built on consumer trust, could use a list of stolen artworks to ensure that they were not selling purloined items. It turned out that such a database already existed, managed by a tiny nonprofit organization in New York called the International Foundation for Art Research. Mr. Radcliffe persuaded the foundation to form a partnership with him, though they later split after disagreements over strategy and issues of control. (The foundation still licenses its database to the Register.)
Mr. Radcliffe now owns 68 percent of the Register; Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams are among the other owners. Last year, he said, it took in $1.25 million, mostly in fees for database searches, and much of the rest in recovery fees from theft victims and insurers that had already paid off claims. But lucrative recoveries are rare, he said, with the median value about $20,000.
Mr. Wittman, the former F.B.I. investigator, said that the appeal of the business goes beyond revenue for Mr. Radcliffe, who enjoys his access to law enforcement and his image as an art world James Bond.
“He wants to be the supersleuth,” he said.
A tall, pale, wraithlike figure with a beak nose and a poker face, Mr. Radcliffe, 65, has a taste for cloak-and-dagger theatricality. Pressed last year, for example, to divulge more about a case in the Balkans, he said: “Maybe the answer is to take you out there one day and introduce you to some of the people concerned and see what happens.”
Then he laughed sardonically.
Certainly, his efforts and others have led to a good number of successful recoveries by the Register, including the return of a valuable Cézanne, one of seven works stolen from a home in Stockbridge, Mass., in 1978.
It was found more than 20 years later after Lloyd’s of London contacted the Register with a query: A Panamanian company was trying to insure a Cézanne painting for transport. Was it stolen?
The database reflected that it was, so Mr. Radcliffe approached its owner, Michael Bakwin. His art had been located. Was he willing to pay a recovery fee?
Mr. Bakwin agreed, and Mr. Radcliffe negotiated a settlement with the Panamanian company. Mr. Bakwin got his Cézanne back in 1999. He sold the work, “Pitcher and Fruits,” a few months later at Sotheby’s for $29.3 million. The Register pocketed a $1.6 million fee.
Years later, when some of the other works appeared on the market, the seller was unmasked as Robert M. Mardirosian, a retired lawyer from Massachusetts who had once represented the thief and came into possession of the paintings when the thief was killed in 1979. He then created the Panamanian shell corporation to hide behind, according to court records.
In 2008, Mr. Mardirosian was convicted of possessing stolen property and forced to return the paintings.
Mr. Radcliffe acknowledges that to pull off this coup, he resorted to some sleight of hand. When the additional paintings surfaced, and Sotheby’s asked him whether they were stolen, he lied, saying they were not. This allowed them to be shipped to the Sotheby’s in London, where they were seized.


Christopher A. Marinello, general counsel of the Art Loss Register, with “Le Jardin,” a Matisse stolen in 1987 and returned this year. Credit Ray Wells/Art Loss Register, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Radcliffe said he has only lied twice about whether paintings were stolen, and is not apologetic, likening the tactic to the police’s misleading a suspect during an investigation.
“When you’re doing a sting operation, for example,” he said, “you don’t say, ‘By the way, I’m lying to you.’ ”
Questionable Tactics
Of course, the Register is not the police, a fact that its critics suggest it too often forgets.
Judy Goffman Cutler, an art dealer who became entangled in a Register hunt for a Norman Rockwell painting, has sued the company twice, contending that it harassed her for years in its zeal to collect a fee for recovering the work.
Mrs. Cutler had clear title to the painting in 1989, when she sold it to the director Steven Spielberg. Later it was mistakenly listed as stolen by the F.B.I. and, consequently, the Register, which tried for years to recover it.
Mrs. Cutler said that the Register pursued her even after company officials had reason to know she had done nothing wrong. Neither of her suits against the company succeeded, and she is still angry.
“They knew better but chose to follow the greedy path,” she said.
The Register has characterized its dispute with Mrs. Cutler as a misunderstanding based on faulty information it received from the F.B.I. and others that suggested that the painting was stolen.
In another case, a woman named Gisela Fischer, whose family’s Pissarro was looted from their Vienna home by the Gestapo in 1938, accuses the Register of a bait-and-switch. It first offered, she said, to find the painting at no cost, citing a longstanding policy to work pro bono to recover art stolen by the Nazis. Years later, though, when the Register developed a lead on the painting, it demanded she sign a new contract, agreeing to its fee. She refused.
“I felt I was being put in the position of a victim,” she said.
Mr. Radcliffe said that the Register must charge fees to underwrite its efforts and that its conduct is no different from that of lawyers who charge to bring restitution cases. But critics said zealousness has marred other efforts by the company.
In 2004, for example, it drew criticism over efforts to recover a 15th-century painting by an Italian artist, Giovanni da Modena, that had been stolen from a Paris gallery.
Mr. Radcliffe approached the gallery with a simple message, according to people involved in the case: He knew where the painting was and could get it back for a fee. The gallery agreed, and the painting was returned.
But the Paris police were livid when they found out that Mr. Radcliffe had used the information to extract a fee, instead of turning it over to investigators tracking the theft.
Mr. Radcliffe said he had provided details of the case to the police — but it was the Italian police, because the case was connected to a string of other robberies they were investigating. He assumed, he said, that the Italians would pass on the information to their French counterparts and could not recall the names of the officers to whom he had spoken. In any event, he said, his police supporters outweigh his detractors.
“On balance, we’re pretty helpful to them,” he said. “You know, they may not like what we do on Case A, but on Case B and C. I mean, we’ve done some very good work for the French police.”
However testy the Register’s relationship with law enforcement, people continue to use the company for one powerful reason: a lack of alternatives. Mr. Marinello, who is leaving at the end of the month to pursue his own art recovery business, said he may try to create a competing database of stolen art. For now, the Register’s place in the market is unique — and many say crucial.
“There have been questions over the years about its financial structure and the potential conflicts of interest there, but if it was to be said that it couldn’t be run because of that, what are we left with?” said Ivan Macquisten, the editor of the British publication Antiques Trade Gazette. “I can’t see that anyone in the last decade has come up with a better idea.”

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