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.

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."

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 Cézanne 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.

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.

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."

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