Questions for the Art Loss Register

September 22 2013

Image of Questions for the Art Loss Register

Picture: ALR

There's an interesting article in the New York Times on the Art Loss Register, which I hope makes people ask some questions about that organisation. In a fairly devastating run through some of the ALR's more unusual actions, the article highlights what to me is the ALR's fundamental flaw - that despite sounding like a pure and benign 'register' of stolen art, which anyone can check before deciding to buy something, it aspires to make its real money by taking a cut out of any art it returns. This can lead to some significant conflicts of interest. For example:

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.

For me, the most worrying aspect of the ALR's position is its global, quasi-judicial ability to arbitrarily declare a work of art 'stolen', sometimes without there being an actual police or court judgement that a work is in fact stolen. So a perfectly straightforward ownership dispute can see the ALR working on behalf of one party, from whom it will get a fee if it helps return that work, and then prevent the other party doing anything with the work by declaring it 'stolen', and thus effectively worthless.  

It is clear that the art world needs an art loss register of sorts. But this should be a simple database searching company (using information from courts and police forces), and not get involved in returning works for a fee. I don't see why it shouldn't be possible for the art trade and law enforcement agencies, collectively, to fund such a body on a not-for-profit basis.

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