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Interview with Guita Abidari on the Art Loss Register

Their director of marketing talks on the database against crime

As the major international body recording stolen art, the London-based Art Loss Register (ALR) is uniquely placed to monitor trends in art theft. It now records over 100,000 stolen works of art, worth a massive £1,000 million. Guita Abidari, director of marketing, who is responsible for insurance liaison, talks about the ALR’s role in the battle against crime.

Every time there is another major art burglary, the press says that art theft is on the increase. Is this true?

In Britain there was a slight increase in art theft in the early 1990s, but it seems to have gradually gone down since the mid 90s. Figures presented at Interpol conferences suggest that this trend is also reflected in North America and the rest of Western Europe (other than France). This is partly because insurers and the police have made headway in galvanising the public about security precautions. The other factor is that we are through the recession, and there is a correlation between rising unemployment and theft. But in Eastern Europe there is substantial looting of cultural objects.

What do your statistics reveal about art theft and the victims?

Of the works of art registered on our database, 54% were stolen from private homes. A further 12% each were taken from museums and commercial galleries. Churches suffered 10% of the thefts, a high proportion, but many of the losses are from churches in Italy and Eastern Europe.

How does the ALR work and how is it funded?

The ALR was set up in 1991 as a joint effort by the insurance world and the art trade, to create a central register of stolen art and antiques. Details of losses come mainly from owners, the art trade, insurance companies and national police forces, and we then inform them when an item surfaces.

Three-quarters of our revenue comes from insurance companies, mainly in the form of annual subscriptions and to a lesser extent from recovery fees. The other quarter of our revenue comes from the art trade and from uninsured collectors who register and pay recovery fees.

How many works of art have been recovered through the ALR?

Since 1991, we have helped recover 1,000 items with a market value of over £50 million. Pictures represent the most important category, accounting for 51% of the total, followed by furniture and silver, each accounting for 10%. Then there are sculptures at 8% and clocks at 6%.

What are the most usual circumstances of a recovery?

Just over half the recoveries come through auction searches. We receive copies of auction catalogues a month or so before the sale, and check all lots against our database. When we find a match, we alert the auction house and verify that the item is still missing. The police are then informed and the lot is withdrawn from the auction. We screen all catalogues from Christie's, Sotheby's, Phillips and Bonhams, as well as many of the major sales for auction houses in Europe and America. Altogether we now check 400,000 lots a year. On average, one in every 4,500 items offered at auction are registered as stolen on our database.

Just under a third of recoveries are made after we are contacted by police or customs. Many matches are also made for collectors and dealers. Public awareness of the legal consequences of owning stolen art has increased in the last few years, so we are doing more searches for these groups.

What are you doing to help tackle the problem of World War II loot?

In the past year that we have begun to register looted works of art. This is funded separately from our other work, mainly by Sotheby's and Christie's and from donations. We register items from lists compiled by governments and from information from former owners and their heirs. There are now 5,000 missing works of war loot on our database. In the past month alone, we have tracked down seven paintings, four of which have been recovered. These include Bonnard's “Interior”, which is being claimed by the Rosenberg family.

Museums are becoming increasingly concerned about the risks of acquiring or exhibiting works of art which may have been looted. How can they protect themselves?

The problem is particularly acute for US museums, which buy much more than those in Europe. Over a dozen US museums now have arrangements with us to check art acquisitions, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Earlier this year the National Gallery in London also asked us to check works which have an unclear provenance for the 1933-45 period (see The Art Newspaper, No. 90, March 1999, pp.16-17).

Hiscox and Nordstern have just revamped their Defective Title Insurance for museums, with cover of up to $50 million. One of their conditions is that museums check potential acquisitions with the ALR.

Art is sometimes used as collateral for loans, and this can open the door to fraud. What can be done to tackle the problem?

Four years ago we were approached by several insurance brokers, representing banks or clients who wanted to obtain loans using their collection as collateral. Sometimes the work of art is stored in the bank's vault, but in the case of a commercial gallery a picture often needs to be on display so that it is available for sale. The ALR can now register such works on its liens register, which means that the bank knows that the item will not be sold through an auction house or dealer who checks with the ALR, unless the sale has been cleared. Our liens register is a niche service, but we have several hundred works in this category.

What about other new developments?

Last March we attended the Maastricht fair, and TEFAF invited us to become a member of their vetting committee for next year. This will involve searching all items of fine art on display against our register.

Will you be putting the register of stolen art on the internet?

There are pros and cons. It would be a good thing for the bona fide researcher to have information on art thefts. We know that dealers are a major part of the chain in the circulation of stolen art, so we want to make it as easy as possible for them to make an instantaneous check with the ALR. But it is a bad thing for the culprit to know if a stolen item is on our database. If the thief were thinking of putting the stolen item into a major auction house, then he would surely use another route.

The major stumbling block for the ALR is the problem of controlling searchers on the internet. Who is the searcher? What information do they have on the item they are searching? We need to determine what kind of controls we can install on our internet search engine, but we expect that these difficulties will be overcome soon.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Database against crime'