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He's a master at recovering Old Masters

Julian Radcliffe's Art Loss Register has been able to reunite $100 million worth of stolen art with rightful owners. His secret: a list.

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Perhaps his most famous case climaxed last month when a court case in London unveiled the whereabouts of six paintings stolen almost 30 years ago from the Stockbridge, Mass., home of Michael Bakwin. The ruling followed six years of tortuous, clandestine dealings with an elusive lawyer who says the works were stowed in his attic by the thief, whom he had represented.

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The lawyer, Robert Mardirosian, says he had been holding out for a reward, but that he will now return the paintings.

"It's the highest-value item we've recovered, and probably the oldest theft we've dealt with," says Radcliffe. It was also the most complex, he adds.

Recoveries range from the banal to the spectacular. The Bakwin case involved art worth more than $30 million, including a Cézanne painting returned early in the negotiations. An 18th-century bookcase worth more than $600,000, swiped in Ireland 16 years ago, was seized at a London art fair when an expert spotted it five years ago. Three paintings by Renoir, Cézanne, and Gauguin were recently returned to a Buenos Aires museum after the ALR blocked an attempted sale. They had been snatched in Argentina's biggest-ever art theft in 1980.

On a more prosaic level, Radcliffe says a dealer approached ALR a few weeks ago about a clock someone was trying to sell him. The ALR searched its database and, sure enough, the piece turned up as stolen. Radcliffe swung into action, posing as a would-be purchaser so he could make a positive I.D. in person. The police swooped in. The clock was recovered.

Sometimes crooks instead demand a ransom for an artwork's return. This is where negotiations come in, Radcliffe says.

"The first thing to do is to convince them that they can't sell the stuff for any decent money because of the database," he says. "So then they've got to surrender." Many, he says, still refuse. "So then you say 'We'll pay your legal fees.' And so it goes."

In complex cases, it can be difficult to determine if one is dealing with a crook holding out for a ransom or a mostly innocent party seeking a reward. Stolen art may change hands a few times before it's identified as such. Innocent parties are entitled to get their money back and so are more likely to surrender a piece. Crooks are less apt to yield. They want money.

"You have to have a policy that you stick to and agree with the police," Radcliffe adds. "Otherwise you start paying out money and you don't get the item back. You are fueling future crime."

Despite recent successes, Radcliffe knows that ALR's tentacles only reach so far. Dozens of countries have no formal dealings with it, making detection and retrieval difficult. The Western art trade is steeped in confidentiality. Dealers are slack about performing the searches that would determine whether a piece is stolen or not.

So where are all the missing items of priceless antiquities that Radcliffe knows are out there?

"In bank vaults," he surmises, or "sitting very innocently in someone's house, destroyed perhaps if they're too hot to keep, or just lost - buried and then the thieves can't find where they put them."