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It was only a rumour – that a £70,000 George III card table stolen from a country house in Somerset had resurfaced, five years later, in Co. Monaghan. But it was enough for Julian Radcliffe to work with. However, for Radcliffe’s Art Loss Register (ALR) to return the piece to its rightful owner, the dealer who was supposedly handling it could never know the organisation was on to him.
Enter Mr Psmith, Radcliffe’s alter ego, a wealthy man who had just bought a beautiful Georgian property for his son and daughter-in-law, and was looking for the perfect piece for the alcove in the front parlour, with a budget of up to £20,000…
Welcome to the world of the ALR, the London-based organisation that since 1990 has been tracing stolen art and putting together the largest private database of lost art in the world.
Among other exploits, Radcliffe, a former hostage negotiator, has helped proceeds from Holocaust-looted art go to the respective deprived family members, tracked down stolen Lebanese antiquities from an ancient citadel, and driven down the price of a 17th century Royal Society folio so it could be returned to the institution.
To achieve these outcomes, the ALR chairman and founder, 72, has often employed veiled threats, mind games and subterfuge, methods that are being made public for the first time in a book, entitled Lost Art: The Art Loss Register Casebook Volume One, which delves into the organisation’s files.
The ALR – which was established as a joint initiative between insurers, art dealers and auction houses to prevent the circulation of stolen artefacts on the market – has revealed the contents of its cases to Anja Shortland, professor of political economy at King’s College, London and author of Lost Art. What emerges in each story is the dedication of Radcliffe to his cause, and the importance in the art market of pieces’ provenance.
To secure the George III card table – recognisable because of its feet being carved into ‘hairy’ claws – Radcliffe, in the guise of Mr Psmith, spent more than two hours selecting less expensive items in various rooms at the dealer’s premises, in the hope that he would come across it. It was only when he accepted the offer of a cup of tea in the dealer’s home that he spotted the piece, in the main room. “It’s too good for you,” the dealer said, estimating it at £50,000. “It is a museum piece.”
As soon as Radcliffe had left the dealer, he drew a map of where the card table was in the house, and informed Wiltshire Police. But, from that point, in 2009, four years were to pass before the table was returned to its owner, the antique spending virtually all that time in a Garda storeroom. And the dealer walked free from court, despite admitting possessing the stolen table.
The dealer had even boasted to Radcliffe – or, to be precise, Mr Psmith – that his family would “smuggle anything that moved”, and the family’s connections to the IRA were well known locally. And when Radcliffe first told the Garda where the stolen card table was, they said that the dealer’s business had already received some police visits – “and they were not social calls”.
Shortland’s book details the silences, delays and adjournments that Radcliffe endured while trying to spur the Garda into activity over the case. Yet, according to the ALR’s files, such inertia from the police is not confined to Ireland and the difficulties they face in trying to maintain peace in the border area. States “have become less active in policing the art market over the last 20 years,” she writes, advocating a greater role for organisations like the ALR in the recovery of stolen art. “Police chiefs face tough decisions about how to divide their limited resources between fighting violent, drug and property crime.”
Less of a pyrrhic victory for Radcliffe than the case of the card table was the outcome of him returning a multi-million pound Cezanne stolen from a house in Massachusetts in 1978 – Radcliffe’s involvement also led to millionaire American lawyer Robert Mardirosian being jailed for seven years. But for this to happen, Radcliffe had to deal with a middleman who was claiming to be the intermediary for a ‘Russian institution’ and witnessed the Cezanne in question – Bouilloire et Fruits – being handed over from a car in a Geneva street so it could be reunited with its owners, the Bakwin family.
For more than 20 years after 1978, the trail of the Cezanne – and other, less expensive works taken in the same burglary – was cold. There had been a chief suspect for the theft – an illicit firearms dealer – but he was found dead in an underworld dispute over poker debts. Then, in 1999, the ALR was notified of a transport insurance request for a Cezanne to be shipped from Russia to Switzerland. Photos submitted showed it was Bouilloire et Fruits.
The ALR persuaded the middleman to let the Cezanne be verified at a private bank in Geneva, but asked the solicitor representing the ‘Russian institution’ to state on record that the ‘owner’ was above board and not linked to organised crime, with a signed affidavit from the owner on this score to be kept sealed in London. This deal resulted in the Cezanne being passed from a white car with darkened windows in a Geneva street.
To some, this might have been the end of the matter, but not Radcliffe. He then set about using the deal struck to wrest back the other paintings, for which he had to tell a blatant lie to one of the ALR’s shareholders – Sotheby’s auction house.
In 2005, four of the other stolen paintings were listed for auction by Sotheby’s in London, and Radcliffe let the auction house proceed with preparations for the sale, when the ALR should have flagged the paintings as stolen. Once the paintings were in London, the Bakwins claimed ownership of them in the High Court, an action that precipitated the revelation that the paintings were being sold by ‘Erie International Trading’. A private investigation by the ALR unveiled Mardirosian as the man behind Erie, and signature analysis of the sealed documents confirmed that he was indeed the ‘owner’ of the Cezanne.
Mardirosian was arrested in the US and charged with possession, concealment, storage and attempted sale of stolen art. The works were returned to the Bakwins and Mardirosian was jailed, claiming that a client of his had left the paintings with him after Mardirosian had put him up for a night in 1978. The client was the illicit arms dealer who had been killed in the poker debt dispute.
Other tales in the book include how Radcliffe had a £450,000 bureau pulled from being a marquee item at the Grosvenor House art and antiques fair at the last minute, after it was found to have been stolen from an earl by thieves linked to Irish paramilitaries.
The book also opens up the files of the ALR’s watch register, including one story about how an ALR check in 2016 of a ‘Tiger Eye’ Rolex being offered for sale to a Hatton Garden emporium led police to a criminal in possession of £300,000 worth of stolen watches. When it came to the all-important provenance of some of these pieces, all the owner could offer was that he bought them from a “Chris, Tony or Lee”.
Lost Art: The Art Loss Register Casebook Volume One, by Anja Shortland (Unicorn, £25) is published on June 21. Buy now for £19.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk, or call 0844 871 1514