Every art collector needs this database. But is it manipulated by thieves?

Julian Radcliffe, founder of the Art Loss Register. (Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Museums, auction houses and private collectors around the world have a keen interest in knowing whether works of art are legitimately bought or stolen. For 32 years, they have relied on the Art Loss Register (ALR) to guarantee the provenance of pieces. But the ALR, founded by British businessman Julian Radcliffe, is not always reliable, art sleuths say, and can be exploited by criminals seeking to cover up their thefts.

With over 700,000 lists of lost and looted artworks, the ALR claims to be the largest private database of stolen artworks in the world. Institutions and private collectors search the database to make sure potential sales and loans haven’t been flagged as stolen by the ALR, and the company’s website says more than 450,000 searches are carried out each year. During this time, victims of art theft can register their work in the database or call on the ALR to help recover it.

The company also offers clearance certificates for pieces not listed in their database, which indicate that the work in question is free from loss or theft. These certificates can however be manipulated by art thieves who provide false information in order to obtain authorizations. In the past, ALR certificates have reportedly been granted for stolen Picasso paintings, Nazi-looted artwork, and convicted art traffickers selling items to major museums.

More recently, art collector Georges Lotfi was accused of using ALR certificates to fake the provenance of potentially looted antiquities in Libya.

Other aspects of the ALR, such as its for-profit structure and cooperation with criminals, have also drawn criticism. But art experts say that even if the ALR is faulty, it’s the art world’s best option for keeping track of missing artwork.

“The FBI’s stolen art database is tiny, not even more than a few thousand pieces listed. Even Interpol’s database isn’t complete,” said Robert Wittman, a A former FBI agent who specializes in art theft, he believes that the ALR offers a more comprehensive database than any provided by law enforcement.

The idea for the ALR actually came from Sotheby’s in the late 1980s, according to Radcliffe, who said the auction house approached him to create a database of stolen art. At the time, Radcliffe was involved with UK consultancy Control Risks, focusing on kidnapping negotiations. “They realized there was some similarity between this and the stolen photos issue,” he said. “You needed knowledge of the insurance industry, how to please governments and negotiate under duress.”

Radcliffe, who earned a master’s degree in politics and economics from Oxford University, had no background in law enforcement or the arts but worked as an insurance broker in London throughout the years 1970. “I knew a little about fine art insurance, but I was not a fine art lover myself,” he said.

Recover lost works of art at a lucrative price

Sotheby’s had previously worked with a stolen art catalog run by the nonprofit International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR), but the organization ran out of money, Radcliffe said. ALR was established in 1990 and has digitized the IFAR database containing approximately 18,000 records, making it a searchable database. While IFAR was and continues to operate as a not-for-profit organization, ALR took a different route. “We explained to everyone that the only way we thought the database could work successfully is if it was for profit, because we had to raise a lot of capital and put in a huge sales effort to make people use it,” Radcliffe said.

A single search of the ALR database costs approximately $95, although subscription options are offered, and an additional provenance search performed by ALR employees costs $450 for three hours of work. During this time, the recovery costs represent approximately 20% of the value of the works of art recovered. The ALR Recoveries team, which represents claimants in negotiating settlements for the return of objects, is made up of lawyers and art historians who often work alongside law enforcement.

Commercial databases aren’t necessarily a bad thing, according to Andrea Barasel-Brand, documentation manager at Lost Art Database, a Magdeburg, Germany-based nonprofit database focused on art looted by the Nazis and funded by the German government. Barasel-Brand said it’s beneficial to have other databases focused on different eras of looted art, even if they’re not free.

And while critics have argued that lost artworks should be the domain of law enforcement, some in the art world say that’s unrealistic. “The police are not capable of doing large-scale art recoveries,” said Christopher Marinello, CEO of Art Recovery International, a Venice-based company specializing in the recovery of stolen works. Art recovery ranks considerably at the bottom of the hierarchy of issues that concern law enforcement, he said.

Cooperation with criminals in the art world

Marinello previously worked for ALR before founding his own company in 2013, saying he left the database after discovering unethical practices regarding the use and payment of art dealers as a informants. “I didn’t like the way they worked,” Marinello said. Although Radcliffe said the ALR sometimes uses criminals as informants, this is only done with the permission of law enforcement. “If we do, we will have told the police that these people have been in contact with us,” he said, adding that the LRA will cease if any objections to communication or payment are raised by the forces. of the order.

However, criminals have also been known to manipulate the ALR to their own advantage. By requesting searches for freshly looted works of art, such as a recently unearthed antique that dealers know will not yet be registered in the ALR, some traffickers have been able to obtain certificates stating that a specific work is not was not found in the company database. lost or stolen work. They can then sell the looted work, claiming it has been authorized by the ALR.

In the case of Lotfi, who served as a source of art trafficking for the Manhattan District Attorney before becoming a suspect, art dealer Yemini is accused of using ALR to create a false paper trail of looted Libyan antiquities, submitting false provenances and origins of the coins to obtain certificates.

“I know from my experience in previous investigations that antiquities traffickers often use ALR to increase the value of their looted property,” Homeland Security Agent Robert Mancene wrote in a warrant. of arrest launched in August against Lotfi. “A trafficker who knows that a coin has been looted from an unsearched location knows that the ALR will have no prior record of the coin. An ALR certificate stating that there is ‘no match’ in the ALR database will then be used to help the trafficker later sell the stolen part.

Lotfi, who denied abusing ALR certificates or providing false information to the database during an interview with the Observer, has since posted a lengthy response defending himself against the Antiquity Trafficking Unit’s claims.

Certificates intended to prevent the sale of looted works of art can turn against you

ALR’s Radcliffe says its approach to certificates has changed in response to these misuse allegations, a gradual shift that began about a decade ago and has tightened over the past six years.

“Some of the antique dealers in particular thought that if they could get a certificate from us, they could wave it in front of the police and say, ‘look how good boys we are, it’s not recorded as stolen with the ALR, so he must be fine,” Radcliffe said. “Now we issue certificates with much more care. We used to rely on the person requesting the certificate to give us information , giving him too much confidence.

The ALR currently has a total of about 50 employees, Radcliffe said, with backgrounds ranging from law enforcement, insurance and law to art history, archeology and research. provenance research.

Lotfi’s certificates were granted nearly a decade ago, and Radcliffe says the most recent case of an ALR certificate being given to a trafficker was in 2016. Now the company requires detailed provenance from merchants of art in search of certificates – although the system is not infallible. “That’s not to say a smart person couldn’t get a certificate by lying to us,” Radcliffe said.

Some in the art world believe that the criticisms against ALR certificates are unjustified. “It’s too easy to point fingers at the ALR,” said Arthur Brand, an independent art crime investigator based in the Netherlands. “For freshly stolen antiquities you can create a fake provenance and ask the ALR if it’s in their database – of course it’s not, it hasn’t come up for 2000 years But is the ALR to blame?

Brand says the same problem would appear with any database, and thinks there should be more emphasis on the responsibility of museums and auction houses to do their homework on potential works instead of accept coins with red flags from.

“You can say a lot about the ALR. It’s not perfect at all, and people abuse it, but it’s the best we’ve got.

Every art collector needs this database.  But is it manipulated by thieves?