Museums, auction houses and private collectors around the world have a keen interest in knowing if artworks are legitimately purchased or stolen. For 32 years, they’ve relied on the Art Loss Register (ALR) to vouch for the provenance of pieces. But the ALR, founded by British businessman Julian Radcliffe, isn’t always reliable, say art detectives, and can be exploited by criminals looking to cover up their thefts.
With more than 700,000 listings of lost and looted art, the ALR claims to be the world’s largest private database of stolen art. Institutions and private collectors alike search the database to ensure potential sales and loans haven’t been reported as stolen by the ALR, and the company’s website says more than 450,000 searches are conducted annually. Meanwhile, victims of art theft can register their piece to the database or enlist the ALR to help recover it.
The company also offers clearance certificates for pieces that aren’t in their database, which state that the work in question is free from loss or theft claims. These certificates, however, can be manipulated by art thieves who provide false information in order to obtain the clearances. In the past, ALR certificates have reportedly been granted for stolen Picasso paintings, Nazi-looted artwork and convicted art traffickers selling objects to major museums.
Most recently, art collector Georges Lotfi was accused of using ALR certificates to fake the provenance of antiquities potentially looted from Libya.
Other aspects of the ALR, such as its for-profit structure and cooperation with criminals, have also garnered criticism. But art experts say that while the ALR is flawed, it’s the art world’s best option for keeping track of missing artwork.
“The FBI stolen art database is tiny, there’s not even more than a few thousand pieces listed. Even the Interpol database isn’t complete,” said Robert Wittman, a former FBI agent specializing in art theft. He believes the ALR offers a more complete database than any provided by law enforcement.
The idea for the ALR actually came from Sotheby’s in the late 1980s, according to Radcliffe, who said the auction house approached him about creating a database of stolen art. At the time, Radcliffe was involved with UK-based consulting firm Control Risks, focusing on kidnap negotiations. “They realized there was some similarity between that and the problem of stolen pictures,” he said. “You needed a knowledge of the insurance industry, how to please the governments and do negotiations under duress.”
Radcliffe, who obtained a masters in politics and economics from Oxford University, didn’t have a background in law enforcement or art but worked as an insurance broker in London throughout the 1970s. “I knew a little bit about the insurance of fine art, but I was not a fine art person myself,” he said.
Recovering lost artwork at a lucrative price
Sotheby’s had previously worked with a stolen art catalogue maintained by the non-profit International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR), but the organization ran out of money, Radcliffe said. ALR was created in 1990 and digitized IFAR’s database containing around 18,000 records, making it a searchable database. While IFAR was and continues to operate as a non-profit, ALR went a different route. “We explained to everybody that the only way we thought the database could operate successfully is if it was for-profit, because we needed to raise significant capital and have a huge sales effort to get people to use it,” Radcliffe said.
A single search in the ALR database costs around $95, although subscription options are offered, and extra provenance research performed by ALR employees costs $450 for three hours of work. Meanwhile, recovery fees entail around 20% of the value of artwork recovered. The ALR Recoveries team, which represents claimants in negotiating settlements for the return of items, is made up of lawyers and art historians who often work alongside law enforcement.
Commercial databases aren’t necessarily a bad thing, according to Andrea Barasel-Brand, head of documentation at Lost Art Database, a non-profit database based in Magdeburg, Germany, focused on Nazi-looted art and funded by the German government. Barasel-Brand said it’s beneficial to have other databases focused on different eras of looted art, even if they’re not free.
And while critics have argued that lost artwork should be the realm of law enforcement, some in the art world say it’s unrealistic. “The police are not capable of doing art recoveries on a major scale,” said Christopher Marinello, CEO of Art Recovery International, a Venice-based company specializing in recovering stolen works. Art recovery ranks considerably low on the hierarchy of issues that concern law enforcement, he said.
Cooperation with art world criminals
Marinello previously worked for ALR before founding his own company in 2013, claiming he left the database after discovering unethical practices regarding the use and payment of art traffickers as informants. “I didn’t like the way they were operating,” said Marinello. While Radcliffe said the ALR does occasionally use criminals as informants, it’s only done with the permission of law enforcement. “If we’re doing it, we’ll have told the police that these people have been in touch with us,” he said, adding that the ALR will discontinue if objections to communication or payment are voiced by law enforcement.
However, criminals have also been known to manipulate the ALR for their own benefit. By requesting searches for freshly looted artwork, such as a recently dug-up antiquity which dealers know won’t yet be recorded in the ALR, some traffickers have been able to obtain certificates stating a specific work wasn’t found in the company’s’ database of lost or stolen work. They can then sell the looted work, claiming it has been cleared by the ALR.
In the case of Lotfi, who served as an art trafficking source for the Manhattan District Attorney before he became a suspect, the Yemini art dealer is accused of having used the ALR to create a false paper trail for looted Libyan antiquities, submitting false provenance and origins regarding the pieces to obtain certificates.
“I know, based on my experience in prior investigations, that antiquities traffickers often use the ALR to increase the value of their looted goods,” wrote Homeland Security Agent Robert Mancene in an August warrant for Lotfi’s arrest. “A trafficker who knows that a piece has been looted from an un-researched location knows that the ALR will have no prior record of the piece. An ALR certificate affirming there is “no match” in the ALR database will then serve to assist the trafficker in later selling the stolen piece.”
Lotfi, who denied misusing ALR certificates or providing false information to the database in an interview with the Observer, has since posted a lengthy response defending himself against the Antiquity Trafficking Unit’s claims.
Certificates meant to prevent the sale of looted art can backfire
ALR’s Radcliffe claims its approach to certificates changed in response to these allegations of misuse, a gradual shift that began around a decade ago and tightened up in the past six years.
“Some of the antiquity dealers in particular thought if they could get a certificate from us, they could wave it in the face of the police and say, ‘look what good boys we are, it’s not registered as stolen with the ALR so it must be all right,'” said Radcliffe. “Now, we issue certificates much more carefully. We used to rely on the person requesting the certificate to give us information, putting too much trust in them.”
The ALR currently has a total of around 50 staff, said Radcliffe, with backgrounds ranging from law enforcement, insurance and law to art history, archeology and provenance research.
Lotfi’s certificates were granted nearly a decade ago, and Radcliffe says the most recent case of an ALR certificate being given to a trafficker was in 2016. Now, the company requires detailed provenance from art dealers looking for certificates — although the system isn’t foolproof. “That’s not to say a clever person couldn’t get a certificate by lying to us,” Radcliffe said.
Some in the art world believe criticisms against ALR certificates are unwarranted. “It’s too easy to point to the ALR,” said Arthur Brand, an independent art crime investigator based in Holland. “For antiquities that have been freshly stolen, you can make a fake provenance and ask the ALR if it’s in their database — of course it isn’t, it hasn’t seen the light of day in 2,000 years. But is the ALR to blame?”
Brand says the same issue would appear with any database, and believes more emphasis should be put on the responsibility of museums and auction houses to do their homework on potential works instead of accepting pieces with red flags in provenance.
“You can say a lot about the ALR. It’s not perfect at all, and people misuse it, but it’s the best we have.”