Interview: Chris Marinello, The Art Loss Register

   |  25 July 2013  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

Paris, 25 July 2013, Art Media Agency (AMA).

For several years, Christopher A. Marinello has dedicated his professional life to recovering stolen works of art. Art Media Agency met with him to find out more about his activities in this important domain.

What’s your background? How did you come to work with the Art Loss Register?

I’ve been a lawyer since 1986, specialising in resolving art related title disputes. The Art Loss Register and I have been a good fit for the last seven years. Since its inception, the ALR has been proficient in locating stolen and looted works of art, but they needed someone to develop strategies to recover the objects while conforming to legal and ethical standards.  Over the last few years, I’ve recovered stolen and looted artworks and have mediated complex title disputes involving over €200m worth of art.

What prompts people to get in touch with you? Why does it sometimes take several years for people to come to you after a piece has been stolen?

A lot of people don’t realise we exist. That’s mainly our fault: the ALR does not have a budget for marketing and advertising, so it’s strictly word of mouth.  We often get referrals once a major recovery gets publicised, but we could sure use a media blitz in places like China and Japan where the practice of due diligence searching is not as commonplace.

Do the police, or other public bodies, ever encourage people to get in touch with you?

I am proud of my relationship with police forces worldwide, especially with the BRB and OCBC, which maintain their own excellent stolen art database and recovery team.  We are a free service to law enforcement and governments who rely on the art database to help locate stolen items.  Our work helps the police solve crimes and catch criminals. When they’re done with their criminal investigations, the artworks are often returned to us on behalf of the theft victim or their insurance company.  It is my strict policy to let the police complete their investigations before getting involved in any civil recovery or negotiation. Those involved in art recovery and do not refer to the police are, in my view, not acting legally or ethically.

How long does it take for works to be recovered? Is there an average time or is it impossible to say?

It’s extremely difficult to place an exact time on it, but we see a pattern of artworks being recovered either very quickly after the theft (a few weeks or months) or over a decade later.  Criminals often try to convert their stolen items into cash immediately after their theft. Once they see how difficult that has become, the artworks go underground or are traded at a fraction of their true value amongst thieves, and they do not surface for years.  I’m working on a handful of cases right now for items that were stolen 25 to 35 years ago.

Yes, I saw that you had a Braque which was returned after 39 years after it had initially been stolen.

It takes a lot of work, a great deal of research and patience.  We are often forced to wait out criminals or individuals who we know possess looted or stolen artworks.  Eventually, this material will find its way into the marketplace and that’s when we attempt to block the sale.

And does it become much harder to find works long after they go missing? Are you really digging through very old evidence?

We are, especially with the Nazi looted art cases that we work on. We’re looking at records that are more than 70 years old and, in many cases, incomplete.  We’re trying to put together a puzzle with a lot of missing pieces.

What are the factors which affect how long it takes for a work to be restored? What are the most difficult aspects when you’re trying to restore a work to its rightful owner?

Well, the first issue is the lack of documentation. Even police forces and insurance agencies will delete their records after a certain period of time, which makes recovery extremely difficult. We try to hold on to everything. In fact, we hold on to so much material that often police forces will contact us in an effort to locate their own archival records.

Another complicating factor involves difficult or unyielding possessors of stolen artworks that refuse to cooperate or comprehend legal and ethical principles.  It is rare that a possessor willingly returns stolen artwork without asking for a reward or some kind of remuneration.  I do my best to assist good faith purchasers of stolen or looted artwork in seeking reimbursement from the party that sold the item from them. But down the line, someone will not have adequately performed due diligence before handling their artwork. That individual or dealer is more likely to lose out than those who searched a stolen art database or conducted sufficient provenance research.

Then you have the lawyers: the more valuable the work, the more lawyers will be involved in the transaction.  It is my goal to reduce the exorbitant legal fees one could be forced to pay, litigating over stolen art by mediating the dispute competently and confidentially.  Public court battles over titles are bad for business and cause damage to the reputations of individuals and the artworks themselves. The only parties that do well are the lawyers who get paid whether they win or lose.

What are the laws surrounding art theft? Are there any aspects of the law which make your job especially difficult?

Quite often, laws in civil law jurisdictions such as France, Germany and Italy, make it more difficult for us to recover stolen art because of statutes that make it possible to obtain titles for stolen works of art. In the US and the UK, which are common law countries, the law is very much more in favour of the original theft victim.  Fortunately, art dealing takes place in and out of numerous countries, which enables us to try and find a nexus to a more favourable jurisdiction. It’s my responsibility to sort out the laws of different countries and different US states in an effort to reach a resolution to the title claims.

In many cases, a registration on the Art Loss Register or other stolen art databases will simulate a lien on a work of art. While the legal position might not favour the original theft victim, such a registration will create enough of a question over titles whereby most reputable auction houses, collectors and dealers won’t touch a work of art that is listed.  This forces the parties to sit down and discuss the issues which will hopefully result in an amicable resolution.

And do you find that that’s generally an amicable process, or is it very difficult?

It always starts out with difficulties, often like raising petulant children! But we try to convince the parties that mediation and resolution is preferable to litigation. Taking action through a lawyer in France or Italy will cost you ten to twenty thousand euros before you even get to the litigation stage. You can also forget about a quick resolution. Cases over titles to artworks can drag on for years, often outliving the parties themselves.

Are there any other legal issues which impede your work?

There are some jurisdictions, such as the Netherlands, which have very liberal good faith title laws that enable individuals to acquire titles for stolen or looted works of art.  I’d like to see these laws tightened up a bit.  It’s no surprise that many of my stolen art cases involve trafficking through cities in Holland.

Why do you think art theft is on the rise?

There are certainly economic forces involved. Over the last few years, we have encountered an increase in art theft which coincides with a decrease in budgets for security measures. We’ve seen increases in museum thefts in economically challenged countries such as Greece and Spain.  There has also been an alarming increase in consignment fraud cases, artists submitting works to dealers for sale and not getting paid for their work, auction houses going out of business, galleries going bankrupt: it’s a horrendous situation.

And where are the majority of stolen works taken from? You’ve mentioned working on cases linked to the holocaust. Is this something that forms a significant part of your work?

Most of the artworks reported stolen come from Western Europe and the United States.  That doesn’t mean that this is where the majority of thefts occur; it just means that these are the jurisdictions that know about our work and know to report items to the Register.

Art looted during World War II is a significant part of our efforts.  I work with a brilliant historic claims researcher named MaryKate Cleary, who researches cases and obtains the documentation I need to prove or disprove a claim. I also have a legal assistant named Alice Farren-Bradley, who I could not do without.  Both are crucial to my efforts.

Are there any trends in art theft? Is that impossible to say?

In my opinion, a most unfortunate trend is the rise of fakes and forgeries. Technology has improved exponentially and criminals have used this technology to create incredible fakes and forgeries that they hope to pass on to unsuspecting buyers of fine art.

One positive trend which can be linked to technology and the media is the ability to locate stolen works of art more quickly than ever before. It’s become a lot more difficult to sell stolen works in places far away from where the theft occurred. Many auction houses and dealers have an online presence, which makes it easier for us to spot and recover a stolen item.

Is there a typical art thief?

The typical art thief is nothing like Hollywood would like to portray – you know, the suave, debonair, playboy partying with beautiful people. Art thieves are nothing more than common criminals…the same criminals who would steal your credit card or your wallet. They are out there looking to make a quick bit of cash by stealing art from a museum, dealer or collector, whatever’s fast and easy.

Is there not expertise involved in art theft?

Of course, some skill is required in entering a museum or home without being detected, but art thieves often don’t think about what they will do with the artwork they steal once the crime is completed. They often trip themselves up when they try to place items in a marketplace where we can easily spot them. Let’s not forget that criminals read newspapers and watch television too.  Stories of fantastic recent auction prices fuel the desire to steal a valuable work. Picasso, for example, is such a well-known name that it’s no surprise that he’s our number one stolen artist on the database.

What’s the best way to prevent art theft? How do people go about protecting a work if they don’t want it to be stolen?

One suggested method is for collectors to register their works of arts on the pre-loss section of the database. This pre-loss database is confidential and allows us to immediately notify an owner that a work of art has been put up for sale (perhaps without their knowledge and consent). We suggest to people that they maintain proper insurance, and that they update their insurance schedules periodically. Art tends to increase in value over time, and you’d be surprised how many art theft cases we’ve had where people were exceedingly underinsured.

Of course, the best form of prevention is having proper security. There is no substitute for a well-fortified home or museum. There are security specialists out there who attempt to stay one step ahead of criminals, installing the latest in fine art security.

Finally, employing proper collection management procedures is crucial. While this might not aid in the prevention of art theft, keeping proper receipts and records will go a long way to recovering your artwork, should it ever be stolen. Almost everything today can be scanned and stored safely in a digital file, eliminating the need for paper files.

Which case or cases have mattered the most to you?

I always like to say that the case I’m currently working on is the one that matters the most.

At present, I am handling a case for the family of Paul Rosenberg, the Parisian dealer whose gallery was looted by the Nazis during World War II. Given that it is a pending matter, I cannot give out too many details, beyond what has been reported in the news.  I can say that I am hopeful that I will succeed in convincing this museum in Norway to restore the work to the heirs in accordance with the Washington Principles and Terezin Declarations.  The museum has not had much experience with such cases and I am hoping to lead them down the path to restitution.

One case I am particularly proud of is the return of a stolen alabaster bust to St Olave’s Church here in the city of London. The bust of Peter Turner (buried in the church) disappeared from the church in 1941, after it was bombed by the Nazis.  Seventy years after the bombing, we located the bust and I negotiated a release with two wily antique dealers, allowing it to be returned to St Olave’s.  The case took about a year from start to finish, and, just last month, we were invited to the church to view its reinstallation.

So it’s not necessarily about recovering the flashiest, most expensive work?

Not at all! I recently handled a Holocaust looted art case in Belgium, involving a minor work of art that was stolen by the Nazis from a 7-year-old girl in Brussels.  That girl was the subject of the painting and is now a 70-year-old woman still living in Belgium.  We were able to return this work directly to her, which was absolutely priceless.

We have thousands of interesting stories involving stolen art, but we would like the art market to know that we will continue to search for stolen and looted works of art and will remain relentless in our efforts to seek justice for victims of art crimes.

Christopher A. Marinello is currently the General Counsel to the Art Loss Register and has recently formed an independent art mediation and title resolution service based in London, which is called Art Mediation Partners.  He can be reached at +44 (0)-7702-206-913.

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