Art Recovery Group: Tracking Stolen Art

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Henri Matisse Profil bleu devant la cheminée (Woman in Blue in Front of a Fireplace) dated 1937 which was returned to the Rosenberg family.

‘Profil Bleu Devant la Cheminée’ (Woman in Blue in Front of a Fireplace) by Henri Mattisse was the star of the Henie Onstad Kuntsenter modern art museum in Høvikodden Norway. Thousands of people saw the painting on display with no idea that it was originally stolen by Nazis.

But Chris Marinello, founder of Art Recovery Group, took it away from Norway. “Fortunately I don’t speak Norwegian because I don’t think they were saying nice things about me.”

In 1941, the painting was stolen from art dealer Paul Rosenberg when he fled Paris for New York. After 50 years in the Norwegian museum, Marinello helped return the painting to the Rosenberg family, the heirs of Paul Rosenberg and rightful owners of the picture. This was just 1 of 460 works lost by the Rosenbergs.

Since its launch, Art Recovery Group has returned several pieces of stolen high value art to their owners. It also helped settle an amicable claim for Maurice de Vlaminck’s 1909 work ‘La Voile Blanche à Bougival’ (White Sails at Bougival), another picture seized by Nazi authorities. This week it announced that it had helped negotiate the sale of two sculptures stolen from a New York gallery 32 years ago.

This is very impressive for a start-up. There are still boxes to unpack and furniture to move, but two days after moving in to its new offices in London’s Mayfair Art Recovery Group is very much open for business. While the company is new, the people running it are extremely experienced in negotiating the return of stolen art. In fact, many of the senior team did this for years at Art Loss Register, one of the best known art recovery firms.

Christopher Marinello, the company’s CEO, started the company in 2013 after seven years at the Art Loss Register. Alice Farren-Bradley, recoveries and claims director at the Art Recovery Group also joined from the Art Loss Register, as did Ariane Moser, client relations director at the group, who joined the Art Loss Register from ArtBanc.

While he learned a lot at the Art Loss Register, Marinello is now fully focused on his new company. Based in London, and with offices in India, the Art Recovery Group consists of two businesses, Art Recovery International, which negotiates the return of stolen or lost art works, and ArtClaim, a database of stolen art.

Art Recovery International tends to attract the most interest and is one reason why Marinello was called ‘The Sherlock Holmes of the Art World’ by Vocativ magazine (Marinello is not an opium addict, however), but ArtClaim is the backbone of the company. In some ways, Marinello and his team are really the expert librarians of stolen art.

Tracking stolen art

ArtClaim went live at the end of 2014 and launches in the US this week. The brand new database was built by IT company Sozatech and uses cutting-edge image recognition software from LTU Technologies. Marinello says the company was recommend by a law enforcement agency and so far, it is LTU Technologie’s only private user.

Owners, insurers and law enforcement agencies can register stolen art on ArtClaim for free (they can also register works they still have to help manage their collection). Potential buyers can then check the database before buying an art work.

This sounds simple but the database is extremely complex. As well as image recognition there are over 500 search fields.

The group also has a team of trained art historians based in Delhi dedicated to searching for stolen art. The team goes through works looking for the possibility that they may be stolen, allowing for pieces to then be given a certificate of due diligence.

A lot of information is required for each item that is submitted for registration. The team puts together a detailed description of every work in what Marinello describes as “taking a picture and translating it into verbal pixels,” using a strict glossary of terms to avoid confusion in searches. The process is time consuming, but makes the searches much more manageable and improves the user interface.

As well as bulletin alerts and notifications the database is constantly growing with 7,000 new records added every month and an international network of provenance researchers and analysts.

Several governments and law enforcement agencies have already loaded their own lists of stolen works. Despite only being around for a few years, the database hosts a competitive number of records but the company emphasise the importance of quality over quantity.

As well as the services provided for works that are stolen or missing, ArtClaim also offers collection management services. The collection management service allows for works to be registered, so that if they do crop up on the market they can easily be identified and returned to where they belong. This is more commonly employed by institutions like heritage properties that may see many visitor’s passing through them each day and be unable to take inventory of items regularly.

Registration for missing works of art on the database is free. There is a set rate of £100 per individual item which can be offset by a reduced rate for adding items in volume. For the collection management services, which allow for works in storage, on loan or in transit to be registered within the database as a security in case of loss, the fee is £20 per item which again may adjusted based on volume of items registered.

Recovering stolen works

“The recovery side may look the most sexy and glamorous, but it is hard, hard work,” says Marinello. “There is a lot of paperwork and you may have to wait a long time.”

“The recovery side may look the most sexy and glamorous, but it is hard, hard work,”

Marinello, who has been a lawyer for 29 years, says that they work hard to achieve amicable agreements. “When I started out I would be given 11 cases a day and the only way to get through that case load was to settle 10 of them,” he says. “It was about sitting people down and negotiating and that is what I do now.”

“In some countries the law is not on our side. I have had conversations with people who have ended up with pieces in Italy, for example, who have said: “There is nothing you can do to stop me selling it in Italy,” says Marinello. “I tell them that they are right, but the fact that you can never sell it abroad means it is tainted, so let’s work something out.”

Marinello says they work hard to make sure people think they have been reasonable. “It isn’t always easy but you never know when the party having to give up a work might end up being the next victim of loss,” he says. “We have had cases where we have had galleries unhappy and then called them back saying: “We have found that piece you had stolen five years ago.”

Along with their own team, Art Recovery International also works with fully licensed private investigators all over the world. He stresses that they do not make payments and always work with authorities. “When your clients are insurance companies and law enforcement you need to be whiter than white.”

“When your clients are insurance companies and law enforcement you need to be whiter than white.”

Marinello and his team have a lot of experience of dealing with art seized by the Nazis. In the next week, the company expects to take back one of the pictures from the collection of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son Hildebrand Gurlitt, a Berlin art dealer during the Nazi era.

“We have impeccable records, we even have a photo of the owner in front of the picture, but still it takes more than two years for its clear owner to get the picture back. Surely they have waited long enough?” says Christopher Marinello, CEO of Art Recovery Group.

When asked about whether the end of returning Nazi looted art is in sight, Marinello referred back to the importance of due diligence and the need for more effort to be made by all parties internationally. “Until a worldwide commitment is made – we won’t be successful in returning all of this stolen art. The Washington Principles were 15 years ago and people are still not respecting them.”

“Until a worldwide commitment is made – we won’t be successful in returning all of this stolen art.”

Art crimes increases

Marinello says the last few years have seen a rise in art crime. “Museums, governments and individuals have been cutting security costs and criminals have taken advantage,” says Marinello.

He also warns that vast numbers of art looted from Syria, Egypt and Libya is coming on to the market. Art Recovery International has even returned works to one museum that did not realise they were missing.

While antiquities are particularly high risk, Marinello says that buyers need to be careful when buying any art. “This is the last wild west. There is no regulation. Buyers need to do due diligence when buying. If you don’t do any research, there is the risk it looks like that you did not want to do any deliberately.”

He is optimistic however. “There is a new generation of dealers that readily appreciate how important reputation is,” says Marinello. “They understand the power of the internet and they take things seriously.”

“There is a new generation of dealers that readily appreciate how important reputation is”

Marinello has been involved in many cases, but his favourite is one of the less visible. And also one that he did for no fee.

In 1941 a bomb exploded in the Church of St Olave’s in the City of London. The Church was rebuilt, but an alabaster statue of Dr Peter Turner – a doctor who once tended to Sir Walter Raleigh when he was imprisoned in The Tower of London – was missing. Some 69 years later it reappeared as an auction lot. The auctioneers pulled the item from the sale and Marinello became involved.

After complex negotiations with dealers in the UK and Netherlands, the statue was returned to its original spot in June 2013, 70 years after it disappeared. “This was a fascinating case for me, especially as I had come over from the US, so it was a great introduction to the UK,” says Marinello. “And you can go into St Olave’s now and see it back where it was meant to be.”