The murky world of the art detective

The Times 9 August 2014
By Alexi Mostrous

Picasso’s Tête de Cheval is rehung in the Sprengel Museum, Hanover, four years after it was stolen

The theft of artworks is now the world’s third most lucrative crime. Old Etonian Julian Radcliffe tracks down stolen Picassos and Cézannes – so why is he such a controversial figure?

In December 2007, an art exhibition opened in Pfäffikon, a small lakeside town in Switzerland, around 20 miles east of Zurich. The exhibition included 20 original Picasso paintings, as well as more than 150 etchings, prints and linoleum cuts by the artist, all of which had been loaned to the Pfäffikon cultural centre by the Sprengel Museum in Hanover. This type of arrangement is not uncommon across Europe; large museums and galleries will often allow their works to be shown in smaller provincial institutions. But such generosity carries a certain amount of risk: big galleries used to showing precious artworks will often boast elaborate alarm systems and large numbers of security personnel. Smaller galleries will often not. Plus, owing both to their great number and great value, works by Picasso are stolen more often than any other artist’s. So when the paintings came to Pfäffikon, it was not just a boon for local art lovers, but a potential opportunity for thieves.

It was one they seized. On a cold Wednesday night in early February 2008, the alarm at the Pfäffikon cultural centre sounded. Police arrived to find that two of the Picassos were missing. One was Tête de Cheval (Head of Horse) from 1962, the other was Verre et Pichet (Glass and Pitcher) from 1944: works that, between them, had an estimated value of more than £2.5 million. The Sprengel Museum immediately offered a reward for any information leading to the recovery of the paintings. Investigators hypothesised that the thieves may have remained hidden inside the gallery until after it had closed, but they could not be sure. The authorities were left with no firm idea as to how the crime happened, who had carried it out or, most vitally, how to get the Picassos back.

This last question quickly came to be pondered by a raffish figure from within a shabby office in London. The International Art and Antique Loss Register occupies the first floor of an anonymous five-storey block in Farringdon and is considered by many, despite outward appearances, to be the world’s foremost art detection agency. Founded by Julian Radcliffe, a slender man aged 65, the Art Loss Register (ALR) claims to have returned more than £150 million worth of paintings, artefacts and sculptures to their rightful owners in the 22 years since business began.

Radcliffe’s pale face, though often inscrutable, breaks into a smile when discussing his own exploits, and he clearly enjoys the sense of danger that comes with his status as an internationally renowned art detective. He has a caddish charm and the sort of self-confidence you would expect of an Old Etonian. Throughout his anecdotes – which mix references to hardened European criminals and attempted arrests by South American police – Radcliffe portrays himself as a Briton trying to bring order to foreign chaos. An Oxford graduate, Radcliffe was first employed as an insurance broker for Lloyd’s, specialising in political risk, before going on to found a company that would evaluate security in dangerous countries and regions. He later spent some time working as a hostage negotiator. In his pinstripe suit, he’s a little like something from a Graham Greene novel.

Radcliffe formed the ALR following a conversation with a director of Sotheby’s auction house who bemoaned the lack of a comprehensive worldwide database of all stolen and missing artworks. Such a database would ensure that reputable art dealers and private collectors could check that any piece they were purchasing did not, in fact, belong to somebody else. Over the past two decades, Radcliffe has built the ALR into a vast roll-call of stolen art, with more than 400,000 objects currently listed. Dealers and collectors pay Radcliffe fees to check the register.

Were the ALR a business built solely around this database, then Radcliffe would be a useful, if uncontroversial member of the art world, something like a particularly proactive lost property clerk. But Radcliffe is no clerk, and he and his company enjoy a far more glamorous sideline, earning hundreds of thousands of pounds a year tracking down and recovering stolen art on behalf of insurers and victims of theft. It works like this: Radcliffe’s network of sources around the world tip him off about the locations of stolen paintings. For a substantial fee, they may provide “information” which somehow leads to the stolen artwork landing in Radcliffe’s hands. The ALR man has collected paintings left for him in the boot of a car and by a layby. It’s a system shrouded in mystery but then, Radcliffe claims, it gets results.

In 1999, Radcliffe identified and reunited with its owner a stolen Cézanne, Pitcher and Fruits, which had turned up in Panama and which went on to sell at auction for £18 million. This month, Christie’s will sell several Old Masters stolen in 1987 from the gallery of art dealer Robert Noortman, which were recovered thanks in part to the ALR. Radcliffe worked with Dutch police to set up a sting operation, resulting in two criminal convictions and the recovery of all but one of the pictures.

But what makes Radcliffe such a contentious figure is his work with a shady network of informants in Serbia, whom he uses to recover stolen artwork, sometimes without obtaining explicit police approval, and occasionally in the knowledge that part of the payments he makes to these informants will filter back to the art thieves themselves.

While the ALR states publicly that it never pays anyone involved in the original theft, privately Radcliffe admits to me that the situation is rather different.

“You have got to understand that we are operating in the real world,” he says, sitting back in an old leather chair in his office when we meet. “The law tries to treat all this stuff as black and white and actually, in most cases, it’s shades of grey. The public policy has to be: we don’t pay … But in certain cases some payments have to be authorised. We keep them to a minimum.”

Radcliffe estimates that 20 per cent of stolen art is destroyed or lost for ever. It’s a useful statistic to keep in mind; collectors and institutions want their paintings back in one piece, and often they don’t mind how this is facilitated.

“The only thing I care about is my artworks, and Mr Radcliffe can do what he wants with whom he wants,” says Jean-Louis Loeb-Picard, a millionaire property developer. Loeb-Picard had employed the ALR following the theft of more than €3 million (£2.3 million) worth of art from his Parisian apartment, and under such circumstances he was not squeamish about Radcliffe’s methods. “It’s my right to do what I have to do to recover my works,” he maintains.

To use police language, theft victims are allowed to pay rewards “for information leading to the recovery of a stolen object”. That is not in itself controversial, even when payments amount to thousands of euros and the informants have criminal records.

Indeed, having a good network of informants is crucial to Radcliffe and other art detection companies’ ability to track down stolen art. Both the police and private companies regard the payment of rewards as often the only way to recover paintings.

But while rewards are uncontroversial, paying money to anyone directly or indirectly involved with the original theft is anything but. Some payments may not only be illegal but, like a government paying a kidnapper to turn over his hostages, may actually fuel art theft rather than prevent it.

The art recovery industry, murky and unregulated though it may be, is further boosted by the fact that police budgets for fighting art crime have been slashed, leaving organised gangs – especially gangs from Eastern Europe – able to tap into a global market worth billions. Art crime is now ranked the third highest-grossing criminal enterprise, behind drugs and arms dealing respectively. In 2013 figures suggested that thefts of art and antiques in the UK alone totalled more than £300 million. “I am not naive,” says Loeb-Picard. “I don’t insist on the matter. I know. Why would the criminal give back the works if they are not paid? But I asked two different lawyers, ‘Am I right to give money to Julian Radcliffe, knowing that part of the money may be going to criminals?’ My lawyers said I could do what I want.”

Radcliffe’s methods have provoked criticism at the highest level of European law enforcement. Some criminal investigators view him as little more than a fence, one who provides a means for the very people who stole the art to sell it back to their victims.

“Radcliffe ruins everything,” says Thomas Erhardy, head of the BRB (Brigade de Répression du Banditisme), the Parisian police force tasked with investigating serious crime. “He doesn’t play by the rules. All he wants is his percentage. He’s in contact with thieves. I simply don’t trust him.

The Frenchman has crossed paths with Radcliffe several times. He accuses the ALR of creating a dishonest market in stolen art, one that flows from the thieves who steal it in European cities, through Serbian intermediaries, onwards to Radcliffe and the ALR, and finally back with the insurance companies or victims themselves

Radcliffe bats away the criticism. “Erhardy may call me tomorrow and ask me to help on a case,” he says. “But for very good political reasons, he’s got to be critical of us in public.” He denies Erhardy’s claims, however, saying he has never handled stolen goods or himself acted illegally, and insists that he seeks permission from relevant police forces before paying over money.

In some rare cases, the ALR accepts that money will be paid directly to criminals, but only as part of what they have come to term the “Balkan strategy”. This approach involves secretly offering sums of money, which the ALR claims are relatively small, to criminals to recover pictures on behalf of their rightful owners, while at the same time using its extensive database to make it impossible for those same criminals to sell to anyone else. Radcliffe insists that no payment has been made for thefts after 2010 and that his strategy has been effective at reducing crime.

“There are fewer than 12 cases out of more than 1,600 in the past 21 years in which we suspect the payments made to intermediaries might have been passed on to those involved in the original theft,” says Radcliffe.

“We absolutely understand that some of the cash paid results in money going back to people who may have been involved in the original crime. No one is fooling anyone about the fact that [an intermediary] will pass on some of the money.”

Radcliffe says he has taken legal advice and the position is not always clear. Ultimately, “It comes down to intent. A prosecutor would find it very difficult to say what you are doing was wrong if it was part of a clear strategy to reduce crime.”

Thanks to a series of internal aides-memoire written by Radcliffe between 2004 to 2012, and leaked to The Times, it is possible to reveal for the first time just how far the ALR is willing to go to recover stolen masterpieces.

In 2011, on the trail of the Pfäffikon Picassos, Radcliffe flew into Belgrade to meet some of his contacts who claimed they knew of the paintings’ whereabouts. A few hours after arriving, he found himself being hustled into a car by a young Serb he knew only as “X”. The Serb had already warned Radcliffe “No police”. They drove in silence into the hills behind the Serbian town of Krusevac.

“We climbed up through open fields with a small church just on the right,” Radcliffe wrote afterwards. “‘X’ told me not to remember where we were since the pictures would only be there for ten minutes. At a junction we went into a house which he seemed to know well.”

The pair then entered a garage where they were met by a heavy-set man, who moved aside a lawnmower before carrying out two pictures wrapped in a large zipped cover. Radcliffe examined the contents. One was Tête de Cheval. The other was Verre et Pichet. He had been led to the missing Picassos.

The question is, who had helped get him there in the first place? After seeing the two stolen masterpieces for himself, Radcliffe met three of his Serbian contacts at a nearby restaurant. The first was a tough-talking man called Wolf Minic, a 48-year-old chain-smoking private detective with contacts deep within the country’s criminal underworld.

Minic introduced Radcliffe to a prominent Serb businessman aged about 60, whom everyone knew simply as “the Boxer”. He boasted of once fighting Evander Holyfield. According to ALR notes, the Boxer had “financed many gangs of thieves overseas” and had “directed criminals to steal in Zurich”. But now, apparently, he wanted to “go clean”. The final contact was a young café owner called Marko, who appeared to be in charge. He showed Radcliffe pictures of other allegedly stolen artworks, telling him: “There are many other cases if we give him a list of what we are after.” As the men talked, Radcliffe noticed a man standing guard with a submachine gun. Eight months after he first met him, Serbian police filed criminal charges against Marko “due to the fact that he possessed stolen paintings”, according to a spokeswoman for the Ministry of the Interior in Serbia.

Through Minic, the ALR paid them tens of thousands of pounds for information on a number of stolen artworks.

Speaking today, Radcliffe says he then had “no grounds to suspect” that any of his Balkan contacts had any direct involvement in art theft – although Marko was obviously in contact with people who were – and that he was comfortable doing business with them. Minic says that, “Marko is trusted by both sides,” and, “The Serbs know that he was not involved with the crime.” That same year, the three men helped Radcliffe locate Constructivo Blanco, a painting by Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres-García, a work worth a six-figure sum. After the painting was returned, its insurers, Catlin Insurance, paid the ALR €60,000 in fees and expenses. €30,000 of this was kept by the ALR and the other half distributed between the Boxer’s group and the “criminal holders”.

Radcliffe says that the insurance company knew this was the case. In a note of his meeting with a Catlin representative, Radcliffe recorded that he and the insurance company agreed that at least some of the money would go “to the thief”. A Catlin spokesperson strongly denied this, and said the company would never have authorised such a payment. Radcliffe’s response is to suggest that the established art world authorities – the police, the insurers – cannot afford to admit what everyone else knows is the truth.

“Catlin have got to take that public position,” he says. “We kept the insurers fully informed and they knew that some payment would eventually end up with criminals.” Catlin continues to deny this.

When it comes to art recovery, Radcliffe is by no means the only game in town. Despite locating the two missing Picassos, it was not the Old Etonian who would ultimately take the credit for the safe return of the paintings. Radcliffe tried to obtain a contract to recover them with AXA Art, the insurers, but was rebuffed. AXA preferred to deal with a competitor of his, Dick Ellis, with whom it had a long-standing relationship. Ellis is a former police officer who set up the Art and Antiques Squad at Scotland Yard and now runs his own art recovery business, the Art Management Group. In person, Ellis exists as an almost exact counterweight to Radcliffe: ruddy-faced, bald and thickening where his competitor is pale, slender and with a sweep of well-groomed hair. You wouldn’t have to guess who is the ex-policeman and who is the aesthete.

Ellis even used the same contacts – Marko, the Boxer and Minic – to obtain information about the Picassos’ whereabouts. In fact, Ellis has an even closer relationship with the three. In 2011, he set up a company in Serbia called Art Management DOO with the Serbs listed as directors and equal owners. Like Radcliffe, Ellis maintains that these men are simply intermediaries in a part of the world where the legitimate and the illegal often intertwine.

“If you are investigating crimes and using information, then it’s quite common for the informants to have criminal connections,” says Ellis. “Marko is clearly well connected, but the degree to which he’s criminally involved is unclear to me. Despite my having provided law enforcement investigators with his details I saw no evidence to connect him criminally with any of these activities.” (He declines to say if he was aware that charges had been filed against Marko in 2012, however.)

The line between paying a ransom to a crook and paying a reward for information leading to a painting’s recovery is, in this world, easy to blur. Radcliffe believes that Ellis knew perfectly well that some of the fees he paid his contacts during recovery of the two Picassos would end up in criminal hands.

“AXA stated publicly that they had not paid criminals, on the rather shaky grounds that the payments were for information, not for stolen art,” he noted. Ellis says this description is “manifestly inaccurate and wrong”.

On a clear winter’s day, I meet a third player in this field, at a café beside Richmond Bridge in London. Charley Hill has operated as a private art investigator since 2002, having previously worked with Ellis at Scotland Yard. In 1994, he posed as an American collector as part of a sting to recover The Scream by Edvard Munch, which had been stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo. Today, he is seeking to recover a number of gold snuffboxes stolen from Lord Rothschild’s Waddesdon Manor home, collectively worth £5 million, goods that Radcliffe also happens to be on the trail of.

A mild, bespectacled figure, Hill boasts good contacts within the traveller community, and has enlisted James Quinn McDonagh – a championship bare-knuckle boxer – to set up introductions with individuals connected to the Rothschild thefts. “He and I are after all of Jacob Rothschild’s gold boxes, the Ashmolean Cézanne, and the Caravaggio stolen in Palermo in 1969,” says Hill. “He gets me into the travellers.” There is no suggestion that McDonagh had any involvement in the snuffbox thefts, but the very presence of a bare-knuckle boxing champion only serves as a reminder of the types of characters often involved in the recovery of artworks. In 2004, Radcliffe’s own notes show him visiting the Hyatt Regency Belgrade to meet someone known only as “the Boss Man”.

“He had thin aquiline features, slim build, balding, speaks Russian, certainly knowledgeable about where the pictures were stolen,” he noted. The Boss Man’s associates took Radcliffe “to a ground-floor office with a caged locking door where they showed me a Van Dyke stolen from a castle”. On another occasion, Radcliffe met a Bosnian general and an arms dealer, both of whom “controlled” stolen works of art, he said. He paid one group of “holders” €50,000 and another €25,000, ALR documents record.

Again, you wonder whether these artworks would ever be recovered without paying such people. “Paying criminals a ransom has to be wrong,” says Hill. But paying people for information “leading to the recovery of masterpieces” would be in the public interest. “You wouldn’t get it back any other way,” he says. “None of us are fools.”

Two individuals close to the Art Loss Register told me that Radcliffe’s forays into the Balkans were as much a desperate attempt to wrestle his company into financial health as an idealistic endeavour. The ALR, which has not made money for six years, had liabilities of more than £1 million in 2012.

“Distributing money to these individuals in Serbia I thought was wrong,” says one source close to Radcliffe, who wishes to remain unknown. “It’s in an absolute financial mess. If it wasn’t for Julian’s personal cash infusions the company would be insolvent.” (Radcliffe says he is confident the ALR will eventually make a profit.)

Last year, the ALR’s general counsel, a man called Chris Marinello, defected in order to set up his own art detection agency, Art Recovery International. He too questioned the methods of his former company. “The direction of the ALR, with these ingrained practices and questionable affairs of its management and board, was not aligned with my vision of how a due diligence business (or any business for that matter) should be run.” Upon announcing the creation of Art Recovery International, Marinello stressed that his own company would be run “ethically, responsibly and with respect for the rule of law”. Radcliffe is not surprised a competitor would criticise the ALR.

But even an experienced police officer such as Erhardy has, in a roundabout way, benefited from information sold by men like Marko. In November 2012, a Serbian thief called Goran Arsic stole a €500,000 Delacroix painting called The Arabs of Oran from a gallery near the Louvre. In May 2013, Dick Ellis travelled to Paris to seek permission from Erhardy and a French judge to recover the painting. When this was granted, Ellis travelled to Belgrade where, with the assistance of Marko, he was able to locate the stolen painting. Even though telephone records linked Arsic to Marko, Erhardy states he was satisfied that Ellis had acted appropriately. “His goal can help my goal,” the Frenchman says. A year after the original theft, Erhardy arrested Arsic in Paris.

Nevertheless, Erhardy maintains that the very nature of the art recovery industry means it is unlikely ever to become less murky. “Everyone is happy and everyone gets money,” he says, speaking of the cycle of theft, recovery and payments. “But you have to stop the situation otherwise you are encouraging more thefts.” Which may be true. But then, if you were to wake to find that two of your Picassos had gone missing, who would you call? There is no shortage of men ready to help you get them back. At least, for the right price.
© website copyright Central Registry 2023