All it took was daring and a sledgehammer.
The whereabouts of the painting, “Le Jardin,” remained a mystery until the work was found last year and made a celebratory trip home in January.
But law enforcement played no role. The return was facilitated by the Art Loss Register, a London-based company that over the last two decades has evolved into a little-noticed but increasingly integral part of art investigation around the world.
The brainchild of Julian Radcliffe, an Oxford-educated former risk consultant who speaks of once spying for British intelligence, the Register helps fill a gaping void: billions of dollars’ worth of art is stolen every year, according to an F.B.I. estimate, but law enforcement has too few resources to prioritize finding it.
For Mr. Radcliffe, whose other company helps recover stolen construction equipment, this presented a natural opportunity. Since it began 22 years ago, the Register has developed one of the most extensive databases of stolen art in the world, enabling it to recover more than $250 million worth of art, earning fees from insurers and theft victims.
Along the way, the company has drawn criticism from those who say its hardball tactics push ethical, and sometimes legal, boundaries. Even so, the Register continues to count law enforcement agents among its supporters. “To me, they’re very important, a very useful tool,” said Mark Fishstein, the New York City Police Department’s “art cop.”
Mr. Radcliffe’s company operates in the dim recesses of the art world, where the prevalence of theft, fakery and works of murky provenance has given rise to many businesses that promise to help clients navigate this lucrative but largely unregulated market.
But for the Register, despite its official-sounding name and pivotal role as a monitor, profits have not come easily, and the company’s future looks increasingly cloudy, threatening a core player in the recovery of stolen art.
Mr. Radcliffe said that he hopes the Registry will break even this year, but that it has lost money for the last six and has stayed afloat only thanks to his cash infusions. Now the company is losing talent, too.
During the past year, two key employees resigned; additionally, the company’s general counsel, Christopher A. Marinello, who has been as much a public face of the company as Mr. Radcliffe, says he is leaving at the end of this month, with plans to start a rival business.
Christopher A. Marinello, general counsel of the Art Loss Register, with “Le Jardin,” a Matisse stolen in 1987 and returned this year.
Among the incidents that have drawn criticism, the Register misled a client who wanted to check the provenance of a painting before he purchased it, telling him it was not stolen, when in fact it was, so that he would buy it and unwittingly help the company collect a fee for its retrieval.
It has been known to pay middlemen and informers for leads on stolen works, a practice that troubles some in law enforcement, who say that it can incite thefts. And the company often behaves like a bounty hunter, charging fees of as much as 20 percent of a work’s value for its return.
These fees do not bother the insurance companies and other clients that hire the Register to find a work. But the company has approached people and museums with whom it has no relationship. In several cases, people say the Register contacted them, told them of a lead on a stolen work, then refused to divulge any information until the subject agreed to pay a fee.
Officials at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Orleans, France, for example, said that the Register approached the museum in 2003, asserting that it had information about an Alfred Sisley painting that had been stolen from the museum. The company said it could retrieve the work if the museum agreed to its fee. Unable to afford the payment, the museum called the police instead. The work was never recovered.
“Sometimes we have to deal with the fact that, under French law, we could charge them,” said Corinne Chartrelle, the deputy for a French law enforcement unit that tracks stolen art. She was not involved in the Orleans case, but said she knew of similar instances where the Register had tried to leverage its knowledge to extract a fee.
“They are keeping information to themselves,” she said.
Mr. Radcliffe contests these allegations, noting, for example, that police investigators routinely pay informants, and adding that such disputes are rare but inevitable, given the number of players involved.
“Everyone agrees there’s a real need for this kind of organization,” he said.
Indeed, even some of the company’s harshest critics say they do not welcome the prospect of an art market devoid of the Register and its resources.
“They do serve a purpose — they’re the only private database,” said Robert K. Wittman, a private art investigator who formerly led the F.B.I.’s Art Crime Team. “When they get into trouble is when they overstep that role and try to act as if they’re the police.”
Mr. Radcliffe, who is also a gentleman farmer, shrugs off suggestions that his business could be faltering.
“I am very patient,” he said. “I grow trees. I raise cattle. Breeding cattle takes 20 years. If I think something is the right thing to do, I will do it as long as it takes.”
Outside the movies, art crime can be awfully mundane.
Rare is a thief like the dapper one played by Pierce Brosnan in “The Thomas Crown Affair,” who choreographed robberies of Monets from the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his bowler-hatted accomplices. Instead, doors are forced, windows smashed and valuables grabbed in a hurry, often by petty criminals.
As clumsy as the crooks might be, the value of stolen art is still huge compared with the law enforcement resources devoted to its recovery.
A few countries, like Italy, place a high priority on art theft, but they are the exception.
New York City and Los Angeles, hubs of the art trade, each have one detective dedicated to art crime. The F.B.I. has assigned 14 agents with special training to investigate art crimes, though most have other duties as well. Scotland Yard’s arts and antiques unit has three officers.
“It’s not violent crime,” said Saskia Hufnagel, a research fellow at the Australian Research Council Center of Excellence in Policing and Security. “There are no victims, at least ones the public would consider victims. A lot of the loss is covered by insurance.”
The authorities are also hobbled by limited and incomplete data.
The database managed by Scotland Yard lists some 57,500 stolen objects. Interpol’s database of stolen art includes about 40,000 works. The F.B.I.’s database has fewer than 8,000 objects on it, partly because the bureau relies on local police to fill in the blanks.
“It is not an absolutely complete database,” said Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, who manages the F.B.I.’s art theft program. “We get what they choose to send us.”
Each database lists items based on individual protocols, and most police agencies don’t communicate with one another; thus, someone checking whether a work is stolen would have to speak to multiple agencies.
The Register, by comparison, reports that its database includes more than 350,000 stolen, looted or missing works. In addition to an in-house staff of about 10, the company uses an Indian company to search the world for matches between the database and items for sale at auction houses and art fairs.
Theft victims pay to list their items with the Register, which also charges dealers, collectors and insurers fees to search the database to see whether a work is clean.
To law enforcement, the Register’s resources are clearly helpful. Police search the database free, and the company has helped train the F.B.I.’s Art Crime Team.
As a result, some police agencies develop close relationships with it, even recommending that victims register stolen works there.
“If I went to the A.L.R. and said, ‘Did you have any information about this painting?,’ they would give me 30 documents,” said James McAndrew, a former federal agent who tracked stolen art. “They’d have all that, where the cop on the beat would not even know to ask.”
Private Eyes, and Fees
For a man who one day would become an essential figure in the art market, Mr. Radcliffe had little exposure to art growing up, beyond some family portraits that were handed down through the generations.
In the early 1970s, he worked in London as an insurance broker specializing in political risk and later helped to found a company, in which he still has a minority stake, that, among other things, provides advice about security in dangerous countries.
He became involved with art sleuthing in 1991, a few years after a director at Sotheby’s mentioned that auction houses, whose businesses are built on consumer trust, could use a list of stolen artworks to ensure that they were not selling purloined items. It turned out that such a database already existed, managed by a tiny nonprofit organization in New York called the International Foundation for Art Research. Mr. Radcliffe persuaded the foundation to form a partnership with him, though they later split after disagreements over strategy and issues of control. (The foundation still licenses its database to the Register.)
Mr. Radcliffe now owns 68 percent of the Register; Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams are among the other owners. Last year, he said, it took in $1.25 million, mostly in fees for database searches, and much of the rest in recovery fees from theft victims and insurers that had already paid off claims. But lucrative recoveries are rare, he said, with the median value about $20,000.
Mr. Wittman, the former F.B.I. investigator, said that the appeal of the business goes beyond revenue for Mr. Radcliffe, who enjoys his access to law enforcement and his image as an art world James Bond.
“He wants to be the supersleuth,” he said.
A tall, pale, wraithlike figure with a beak nose and a poker face, Mr. Radcliffe, 65, has a taste for cloak-and-dagger theatricality. Pressed last year, for example, to divulge more about a case in the Balkans, he said: “Maybe the answer is to take you out there one day and introduce you to some of the people concerned and see what happens.”
Then he laughed sardonically.
Certainly, his efforts and others have led to a good number of successful recoveries by the Register, including the return of a valuable Cézanne, one of seven works stolen from a home in Stockbridge, Mass., in 1978.
It was found more than 20 years later after Lloyd’s of London contacted the Register with a query: A Panamanian company was trying to insure a Cézanne painting for transport. Was it stolen?
The database reflected that it was, so Mr. Radcliffe approached its owner, Michael Bakwin. His art had been located. Was he willing to pay a recovery fee?
Mr. Bakwin agreed, and Mr. Radcliffe negotiated a settlement with the Panamanian company. Mr. Bakwin got his Cézanne back in 1999. He sold the work, “Pitcher and Fruits,” a few months later at Sotheby’s for $29.3 million. The Register pocketed a $1.6 million fee.
Years later, when some of the other works appeared on the market, the seller was unmasked as Robert M. Mardirosian, a retired lawyer from Massachusetts who had once represented the thief and came into possession of the paintings when the thief was killed in 1979. He then created the Panamanian shell corporation to hide behind, according to court records.
In 2008, Mr. Mardirosian was convicted of possessing stolen property and forced to return the paintings.
Mr. Radcliffe acknowledges that to pull off this coup, he resorted to some sleight of hand. When the additional paintings surfaced, and Sotheby’s asked him whether they were stolen, he lied, saying they were not. This allowed them to be shipped to the Sotheby’s in London, where they were seized.
Mr. Radcliffe said he has only lied twice about whether paintings were stolen, and is not apologetic, likening the tactic to the police’s misleading a suspect during an investigation.
“When you’re doing a sting operation, for example,” he said, “you don’t say, ‘By the way, I’m lying to you.’ ”
Of course, the Register is not the police, a fact that its critics suggest it too often forgets.
Judy Goffman Cutler, an art dealer who became entangled in a Register hunt for a Norman Rockwell painting, has sued the company twice, contending that it harassed her for years in its zeal to collect a fee for recovering the work.
The Art Loss Register listed Norman Rockwell’s “Russian Schoolroom” as stolen.
Mrs. Cutler had clear title to the painting in 1989, when she sold it to the director Steven Spielberg. Later it was mistakenly listed as stolen by the F.B.I. and, consequently, the Register, which tried for years to recover it.
Mrs. Cutler said that the Register pursued her even after company officials had reason to know she had done nothing wrong. Neither of her suits against the company succeeded, and she is still angry.
“They knew better but chose to follow the greedy path,” she said.
Judy Goffman Cutler, who sold the Rockwell painting to Steven Spielberg, did not appreciate the label, contending that the company harassed her for years: “They knew better but chose to follow the greedy path.”
The Register has characterized its dispute with Mrs. Cutler as a misunderstanding based on faulty information it received from the F.B.I. and others that suggested that the painting was stolen.
In another case, a woman named Gisela Fischer, whose family’s Pissarro was looted from their Vienna home by the Gestapo in 1938, accuses the Register of a bait-and-switch. It first offered, she said, to find the painting at no cost, citing a longstanding policy to work pro bono to recover art stolen by the Nazis. Years later, though, when the Register developed a lead on the painting, it demanded she sign a new contract, agreeing to its fee. She refused.
“I felt I was being put in the position of a victim,” she said.
Mr. Radcliffe said that the Register must charge fees to underwrite its efforts and that its conduct is no different from that of lawyers who charge to bring restitution cases. But critics said zealousness has marred other efforts by the company.
In 2004, for example, it drew criticism over efforts to recover a 15th-century painting by an Italian artist, Giovanni da Modena, that had been stolen from a Paris gallery.
Mr. Radcliffe approached the gallery with a simple message, according to people involved in the case: He knew where the painting was and could get it back for a fee. The gallery agreed, and the painting was returned.
But the Paris police were livid when they found out that Mr. Radcliffe had used the information to extract a fee, instead of turning it over to investigators tracking the theft.
Mr. Radcliffe said he had provided details of the case to the police — but it was the Italian police, because the case was connected to a string of other robberies they were investigating. He assumed, he said, that the Italians would pass on the information to their French counterparts and could not recall the names of the officers to whom he had spoken. In any event, he said, his police supporters outweigh his detractors.
“On balance, we’re pretty helpful to them,” he said. “You know, they may not like what we do on Case A, but on Case B and C. I mean, we’ve done some very good work for the French police.”
However testy the Register’s relationship with law enforcement, people continue to use the company for one powerful reason: a lack of alternatives. Mr. Marinello, who is leaving at the end of the month to pursue his own art recovery business, said he may try to create a competing database of stolen art. For now, the Register’s place in the market is unique — and many say crucial.
“There have been questions over the years about its financial structure and the potential conflicts of interest there, but if it was to be said that it couldn’t be run because of that, what are we left with?” said Ivan Macquisten, the editor of the British publication Antiques Trade Gazette. “I can’t see that anyone in the last decade has come up with a better idea.”