Auction houses and dealers failing to cooperate with investigators over stolen items, says expert

The Observer 4 June 2023
By Dalya Alberge

Specialist in recovery of missing and looted art and antiques accuses businesses of protecting commissions and fees ahead of restoring legal ownership

Too many auction houses and dealers are failing to cooperate when they are found to be selling stolen items, a leading lawyer has warned.

Christopher Marinello, a London-based specialist in recovering stolen, looted and missing art and antiques, told the Observer that “most are uncooperative at first” and some are “so desperate to protect their commissions that they will do anything to avoid cooperating”.

He spoke of his astonishment that “buyers have no recourse if something they purchase turns out to be stolen”, with auctioneers and dealers ignoring approaches, knowing that the police are unlikely to investigate.

“Somebody’s got to do something about these auction houses and dealers that think they’re above the law,” he said. “They know full well, when they write to me saying, ‘Sorry, we have to wait to hear from law enforcement’, that law enforcement are overwhelmed with international terrorism, protests and political issues and that the last thing they care about is stolen objects and where they are.”

Among the current cases is a Richard Mille watch, valued at about £260,000, which was stolen in Milan last year from Mark Oleynik, a UK resident – only to surface in a Hong Kong auction staged by Antiquorum of Geneva, Switzerland.

Marinello, founder of Art Recovery International, tried repeatedly last month to contact Antiquorum on Oleynik’s behalf, offering to share the police report and confirmation from Richard Mille that the watch’s serial number was recorded on their internal stolen watch database.He also asked the auctioneer not to release the watch back to the consignor “now that you know it is considered stolen property”.

His emails and telephone messages have gone unanswered, although the watch was quietly withdrawn: “That’s the thing. Antiquorum refuses to respond in any way other than removing it from sale. For all we know, they could have returned the stolen watch to their consignor or the thief.

“They’re more concerned with their business, with earning commissions than they are in cooperating. Look how much they stand to lose. They get 15% from the seller, plus photo charges and insurance. They get up to 25% from the buyer as well. So when I come along and say ‘It’s stolen’, of course they don’t want to respond to me.”

Oleynik is now bringing a criminal complaint through the Geneva prosecutor’s office to accuse Antiquorum of selling stolen property.

Marinello said: “If Antiquorum returned that watch to their consignor, instead of holding it – because I notified them that it was stolen – they could be charged with moving stolen property.”

In London alone, more than 6,000 watches were reported as stolen to the Metropolitan police in 2022, according to recent data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Watchfinder & Co.

In another case, a Tudor signet ring, engraved with the date of 1554, showed up for sale in London in August last year, having been stolen in 2021. When the dealer was challenged, he simply returned it to his “consignor”. It remains missing.

It had disappeared just after Max Michelson, a UK specialist in antique jewellery, bought it in Germany. He had shipped it to the UK, only to discover that thieves had made a hole in the parcel.

He said: “Because we’re no longer in Europe, all the paperwork is on the parcel. So they can see the contents and the value, which is around £40,000. They can pick and choose. This is a 16th-century ring, a rare and interesting piece of jewellery.”

He tried in vain to contact the dealer who was offering it: “I was introduced to someone who claimed to represent him. They said they’d been instructed to not cooperate with me. They wouldn’t let me see the ring. They said, ‘tough, basically, it’s theirs now’.”

The Observer contacted Antiquorum for comment but they did not respond.
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