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Databases of stolen art can help thwart art thieves and promote vigilance

Registering items in such databases can bring peace of mind

A number of high-profile cases over the last two years have highlighted the need for fine art and antique dealers and auction houses to assume greater responsibility for establishing good title to works that pass through their hands. Most auction houses and many members of the trade, particularly those handling material of high value, have as a matter of course gone to considerable lengths to research the provenance of their stock thoroughly and to exercise caution when any uncertainty arises over items they are offered. The implications of failing to take such measures are now becoming clearer as the trade, museums and private collectors confront the unpleasant prospect of long and drawn-out litigation should items in their possession become the subject of disputed title.

What measures, then, can individuals and institutions take in order to demonstrate that they have exercised “due diligence” in establishing good title to works of art owned or offered? The Code of Due Diligence recently drawn up by the Council for the Prevention of Art Theft (CoPAT) (see p.27), suggests a number of courses of action which will provide reassurance that an object has not been stolen and which will stand the purchaser in good stead should the item ultimately prove to be the subject of disputed ownership.

The steps necessary to acquiring this peace of mind are relatively straightforward, and the benefits in terms of fending off potentially expensive and embarrassing civil cases are all too obvious. Furthermore, now that the law enforcement authorities have all but acknowledged their inability effectively to police the theft of art and antiques crime—conservatively estimated to be worth in the region of £500 million per annum in the UK alone—it is incumbent upon the fine art and antiques trade, salerooms, museums and private collectors to become more vigilant in their dealings and to forge greater and more effective dialogue and communications with one another in order to close down the options available to professional criminals. If thieves have no outlet for their ill-gotten gains they are less likely to steal in the first place.

Among the companies already dedicated to listing, tracing, identifying and returning stolen fine art and antiques are the Art Loss Register (ALR) and Trace, run by the Thesaurus group, which uses the Active Crime Tracking System (ACTS), while other initiatives such as the CoPAT and the recently developed Getty Object Identification system (Object ID) are all helping to raise awareness by promoting vigilance and by establishing universal criteria for descriptive terminology that will be recognisable across national and cultural boundaries.

While there remains a certain level of healthy commercial competition among some of the private companies involved in tracing stolen art—most notably between the ALR and Trace’s ACTS, there is a broad consensus among interested parties that both systems have a significant role to play in the detection and return of stolen art and antiques. That does not detract from the commonly expressed opinion that the battle against international art crime might be more effectively served if these two highly efficient organisations were to pool their resources into one mighty database. In the meantime they should be in the forefront of your mind if you suspect an object might have been stolen.

Police contract

Together the initiatives mentioned above are beginning to represent an effective coalition against art crime, all the more important given the gap left by the now largely defunct police art and antiques squads. While the police authorities have begun shifting the onus back onto the professional trade associations to exercise greater diligence in the running of their business, they have not altogether withdrawn from the front line. Their specialist art and antiques operations may have been significantly scaled down, but the police remain committed to combating art theft, particularly as it is now often inextricably linked to a broader and more sinister subterranean network of international money-laundering for drug cartels and other structures of organised crime.

The most recent UK initiative has been the appointment of an art and antiques liaison officer to each of the forty-seven police authorities whose job it will be to assist individual dealers, collectors, salerooms, and art-tracing companies in monitoring thefts and gathering intelligence.

Traditional photographic records and thorough written descriptions are indispensable

It remains to be seen how the trade will respond to antiques liaison officers, few of whom have any in-depth knowledge of the art and antiques markets. Many dealers are already reluctant to initiate contact with the police and so establishing a constructive working relationship will be one of the first objectives. The lack of specialist knowledge among art and antiques liaison officers also makes the correct description and recording of objects, whether they comprise a dealer’s stock or the contents of a private collection, of crucial importance in co-ordinating investigations and monitoring the movement of stolen property. This is becoming increasingly accurate and efficient with the introduction of digital cameras and the development of a broad range of discreet microchip identification systems, smart water-marking, etc. However, traditional photographic records and thorough written descriptions remain an indispensable assistance both to the police and to computerised art tracing companies such as the Art Loss Register and Trace.

Another reassuring factor is that although the original art and antiques squads have been disbanded, the many years of hard-earned expertise gained by individual officers is being put to effective use in the insurance sector. A number of the more capable police officers on the original squads are now productively installed in loss adjusting firms where they continue to apply their expertise in crime detection, assisting the loss adjuster and continuing to investigate losses even after settlements have been reached. Victims of art theft may require speedy settlement of claims, but the majority would prefer to have their possessions located and returned. The ability to offer clients this additional investigation service is a valuable asset to loss adjusters and underwriters.

John Suter, previously Antiques Officer of the Hampshire Constabulary, joined Loss Adjusters Davies & Co. in 1983 to establish an art and antiques section which liaises with police and the art community to trace stolen valuables that are often the subject of claims being dealt with by the company’s adjusters. He attaches enormous importance to the availability of accurate records and good descriptive lists, insisting that however sound his own knowledge of the modus operandi of the professional thief, there is no substitute for photographs, descriptions and valuations in tracing stolen valuables.

Art Loss Register: select searching

The importance of accurate descriptive records is endorsed by both the leading art and antiques tracing companies: the Art Loss Register and Trace, both of whom will play an important role in the future self-regulation of the art trade.

It has been said that the first course of action in proving due diligence is to call the Art Loss Register, founded in 1991 on the initiative of the art trade and insurance industry, which remain its primary source of funding. It also takes a recovery fee of around 15% of the value of the works recovered up to £50,000 and on a sliding scale thereafter. The ALR’s impressive record in the recovery of high value works of art has made it indispensable to the major fine art salerooms whose catalogues are searched with a fine-tooth comb by the company’s multi-lingual staff of qualified art historians against a computerised database of more than 100,000 items. The database, developed in conjunction with the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR), currently lists more than £1 billion worth of stolen art and antiques, much of it illustrated, and grows by around 1,000 items per month, demonstrating the scale of the problem.

Eastern Europe a particularly fertile territory for the criminal fraternity following the fall

of communism

Following recent talks with the World Jewish Congress, the ALR records will soon include a register of art and antiques stolen from Holocaust victims. The database will also prove a significant weapon in tracing art stolen from churches, museums and private properties in Eastern Europe which has proved a particularly fertile territory for the criminal fraternity following the fall of communism. According to the Art Loss Register, art theft reports in the Czech Republic have spiralled from 100 per annum prior to the revolution to some 2,000 today. Once again, inadequate photographic and descriptive records are not assisting in tracing such losses, endorsing the importance of disseminating the international Object ID standards for describing art, antiques and antiquities developed by the Getty Information Institute. The ALR currently has offices in London, Düsseldorf, New York and Perth and the forthcoming opening of an office in St Petersburg will expand the scope of its operations still further.

Trace: working round the clock

The other leading company in the electronic monitoring of stolen art is Trace’s Active Crime Tracking System (ACTS), a mammoth electronic database located at the Thesaurus group’s offices on the Isle of Wight. The company publishes a monthly magazine, Trace, as its hard-copy mouthpiece, which is distributed to art trade professionals and law enforcement agencies. Trace claims to have recovered some £40 million worth of art and antiques since its inception in 1988 and its ACTS system has just been selected by the Belgian police for use across its regional forces.

Some ninety auction catalogues are processed daily into the ACTS system from over 450 UK and 150 US auction houses, representing over 20,000 lots input into the database each day—the equivalent of over 7,000 sales, or four million objects per annum. Unlike the ALR operation, which is largely manual, ACTS operates on a round-the-clock system of “continuous electronic matching” and its versatile databases, searchable across multiple permutations, have proved particularly successful in tracing low-value objects or objects for which only inadequate descriptions are available. Declaring itself uninterested in the value of an object (it will happily search for a £15 war medal, for instance), ACTS concentrates on volume, charges a flat fee of £68 and asks no reward. This year the company expects to go into profit for the first time.

While the ALR and ACTS remain at loggerheads, each battling to gain primacy as the most efficient mechanism in the tracing of stolen art, the industry at large looks upon them as fulfilling subtly different but equally indispensable roles. It is probably true that were they to combine their resources, the tracing of stolen art and antiques would take a step forward, but that is not likely to happen, at least not in the foreseeable future. In the meantime both the Art Loss Register and ACTS are proving a significant force in the tracing of stolen valuables. It is possible—indeed in many cases advisable—to register stolen art with both of these companies and to call on them if any doubts arise prior to purchasing objects. To do so would be a significant step in demonstrating due diligence.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Database detectives'