Recovery rate for stolen art as low as 1.5%
Art crime is a low priority for police forces, and concerns surround the Art Loss Register
By Melanie Gerlis and Javier Pes. Art Market, Issue 252, December 2013
Published online: 27 November 2013
The rate of recovery and successful prosecution in cases of art theft is startlingly low, with one expert putting it at only 1.5% globally, The Art Newspaper has learned, underlining the challenges of identifying and returning stolen works.
The global cost of crimes linked to art and antiques was recently estimated at £3.7bn a year by the UK’s Association of Chief Police Officers. Noah Charney, a professor of art history specialising in art crime and the founder of the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, which organised a symposium on the subject at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum this month, says that statistics are hard to come by because police forces seldom distinguish between stolen art and other stolen goods. “A Rembrandt is classified with a CD,” he says.
At the core of the problem is the low importance that most police forces attach to such crimes; the exception is Italy’s Carabinieri, which claims that its force of 350 officers recovers around 30% of lost art. The theft of property in general “has a low priority in Britain and across Europe”, said Dick Ellis, the former head of the Metropolitan Police’s Art and Antiques Unit, at the symposium. In the UK, for example, the Metropolitan Police has just three officers dedicated to art crime (down from 14 around 20 years ago). In the US, the FBI has around 14 agents trained to investigate art crimes, although they do not work on these exclusively. Attempts to pool information on stolen works to create a comprehensive, international database have failed, largely because of a lack of funding.
Without proper public funding, the onus is on private firms, who charge a recovery fee of as much as 30% of a work’s value. Here, there are also areas of contention, particularly surrounding the issue of paying informers for leads on stolen works. This area is a “legal minefield”, said Claire Hutcheon, the head of the Met’s Art and Antiques Unit. “Art cannot be recovered at any cost,” she said.
Loss of trust
At the centre of the debate about art recovery is the London-based Art Loss Register (ALR), which, under the management of Julian Radcliffe, operates the world’s largest private database of stolen art. Radcliffe says his company has 300,000 items on record (by comparison, Interpol’s Stolen Works of Art database had around 40,000 records at the end of 2011). He says that recovery rates within a couple of years of thefts are “bound to be low” but that around 15% of high-value works will have been recovered after 25 years, with the rates for other types of art and antiques “much lower”. Around 20% of works will never be recovered, he says, as they have probably been destroyed.
The ALR has been under fire recently, however; insurance companies and others have expressed concerns about the quality of information on its database and its recovery practices, including paying informants and charging victims for leads. Radcliffe says that he “never withholds information for a fee”, which he says would be “close to extortion”. He says that if he thinks the ALR has a lead on a stolen work, he tells the police. “[Victims] may then go to the police, but unfortunately may then find that they are not interested,” he says, given the police’s limited resources.
When it comes to paying informants, Radcliffe says that there are times when this is the only way to get the necessary evidence. “There is an important difference between paying a ransom to the thieves themselves, which is unacceptable, and paying an informer, who may have a criminal past but may not be involved in the theft or the handling of the stolen property, [and] who may help to get the item returned and the criminal convicted,” he says.
There have been recent staff defections from the ALR, including the firm’s legal counsel, Chris Marinello, and its finance director, Tony Le Fevre. Radcliffe says that although some staff have left, they have been replaced and that there is “no fundamental change in the business”.
Marinello has founded Art Recovery International, a competing company in London, and says he wants to bring “transparency to the rather murky world of art recovery”. “It is our policy not to pay ransoms, nor do we pay criminals… [which], in my view, creates a market for stolen art,” he says. “There is no reason to make such payments. I have recovered stolen and looted art and resolved title disputes involving art worth more than £200m through ethical and strategic negotiation.”
Others are not so sure that the profit-based system is best. Mark Dalrymple, a specialist fine-art loss adjuster at London’s Tyler and Co, says: “There is a certain need for an international database. There currently is one [the ALR], but all [parties] would prefer a not-for-profit funded system.”
Dalrymple and Dick Ellis both cite Larmtjänst, a non-profit organisation in Sweden, as an example of a model that could work internationally. The organisation benefits the insurance companies that fund it by assisting in the recovery of property (art accounts for only a small proportion), in co-operation with international law enforcement.
Meanwhile, in the UK, the Association of Chief Police Officers last month launched a working group dedicated to national heritage and cultural property crime. The launch was accompanied by a report; its recommendations included establishing a national database for tackling such crime, with one dedicated officer for each constabulary (there are 43 in the UK).
In support of the initiative, Mike Harlow, the legal and governance director of English Heritage, said: “Heritage crime is not just a financial crime where profits and insurance companies suffer the only loss… this is crime that erases history, threatens the viability of churches, defiles the memory of our war heroes and melts away our great art and artefacts.”
Johannes Vermeer, The Concert, around 1658-60: In one of the most notorious unsolved art-museum robberies, two thieves disguised as police officers stole 13 works from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, on 18 March 1990. It has been described as the greatest art theft in American history. Works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Degas and Manet were stolen, the most valuable being Vermeer’s The Concert. The value of all the missing works has most recently been estimated at around $500m, with the Vermeer accounting for around $200m of the total. The latest opinion is that the works are in either Boston or Ireland.
Henry Moore, Reclining Figure, 1969-70: The Henry Moore Foundation received an insurance payment of £3m for Reclining Figure, which was stolen in December 2005 from its site in Hertfordshire, north of London. The fear is that the two-tonne sculpture has been melted down for its scrap value, which would be just a few thousand pounds. It might be possible to make another cast, but this would raise legal and technical difficulties and is unlikely.
Jean-Baptiste Oudry, The White Duck, 1753: This oil painting by the French Rococo painter Jean-Baptiste Oudry is still missing after it was stolen from Houghton Hall, Norfolk, in 1992. Considered to be the artist’s masterpiece, the work was the most significant item taken from the home of the Marquess of Cholmondeley (three other paintings, two Louis XVI clocks and a Louis XVI Sèvres vase by Antoine Dulac were also among the hoard). The painting was valued at £5m in 1992.
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