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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.

By Mark Rice-OxleyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 1, 2006


Ask Julian Radcliffe if he has always been an art lover, and you get a boyish grin. Maybe it's a silly question. This is a man who has been hunting down works of art and restoring them to their rightful owners around the world for 15 years. So it's a surprise to learn that Mr. Radcliffe has only recently started his own modest collection. But, as he says, you don't have to know your art to catch a thief. "I often say I'm in this not because I love art but because I hate criminals."

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Since he set up the London-based Art Loss Register (ALR) in 1991, an inventory of stolen and missing works of art, Radcliffe has helped recover more than $100 million worth of stolen property.

The ALR is the largest database of looted treasure in the world. It catalogs more than 170,000 uniquely identifiable items, from Picasso and C├ęzanne originals, to sculptures, jewelry, silverware, furniture, and even classic cars and toys. It logs stolen items and searches its database when suspect items turn up.

It helps local police, Interpol, and insurers tackle what is estimated to be a $5 billion-a-year racket. ALR's efforts make thieves, fences, and shadowy dealers think hard about how to dispose of their ill-gotten gains. "We don't see ourselves as making the odd recovery; we see ourselves as leading the whole campaign against stolen art," says Radcliffe, bustling about his modest first-floor office in the heart of London's jewelry district. The phone bleats on a desk deep in paperwork. Radcliffe ignores it. "We recover, we provide the central checkpoint, and we deter by making it difficult to sell the stuff."

ALR's efforts have made a big difference, says Graham Saltmarsh, a former Scotland Yard detective with experience tracking down stolen art. "It's the first port of call for everyone involved in the recovery of art," says Mr. Saltmarsh, who now works as a consultant in art risk for the Cromwell group. "It's a great resource for the police and those of us in the private sector. We couldn't survive without them."

ALR may have altruistic motives, but it turns a profit, too. It costs about $50 (more for an exceptionally valuable work) to register a missing piece on ALR's database. When would-be buyers wants to verify that a painting, for example, is not stolen, they pay a fee from $50 to $100 for a search of ALR's database. A "clean" item is issued a certificate. When a piece is restored to its owner, a commission (typically 20 percent of the item's value) is levied.

Radcliffe has resisted calls to put the database online. "A lot of people say this would result in more recoveries, but it's not true. Thieves would check it, too, and make sure that suspect items remain out of view."

Searches are done by the 25-member ALR team. Key words - the artist's name or a striking feature of the work - are entered. Any matches bring up thumbnail pictures and brief descriptions. Typing in "Picasso," for example, yields 600 hits. Apparently there's a lot of plundered cubism out there.

When missing items are identified by ALR experts - in auction catalogs, at fairs, or brought to their attention by potential buyers - Radcliffe pounces. By notifying the seller that he cannot sell an item identified as stolen, he begins a delicate negotiation that he hopes will bring the artwork back to its owner. Radcliffe has as many as 200 "live" cases at any one time.