The Importance of Art Loss Register Searches
The Art Loss Register searches for and recovers stolen art, antiques and collectibles of all kinds, from all over the world, from both recent times and decades past.
Last summer saw the return of an Astrolabe, which can be classified as an early “astronomical computer” used to tell time and map celestial objects, to Sweden’s Skokloster Castle Museum, where it was stolen in 1999. It was valued at over $400,000 and had been at the castle for over 300 years.
The suspected thief is the notorious ‘KB man’, (Royal Library Man) a former head of the rare books department at Sweden’s Royal Library. He admitted to stealing millions of dollars worth of rare books and manuscripts from Swedish Museums from 1986-2004, which he sold to support his lifestyle of Armani suits, Cuban cigars, and Mercedes Benzes. A few weeks after his arrest, the KB man committed suicide by blowing up his apartment. The explosion also caused a dozen serious injuries to his neighbours.
The Astrolabe came into the hands of a private collector from Italy, who checked it against the ALR database when he intended to offer it for sale in London. At this point, the ALR matched it against the stolen piece, and they were able to recover this fascinating instrument.
The Art Loss Register is the world’s largest private database of stolen and missing art, antiques and collectibles. Searching items against the ALR database is thus considered a minimum level of due diligence for collectors, museums and the trade prior to a loan or sale. The certificate one obtains following the completion of an ALR search is a universally recognised document demonstrating clear title, based on the information available at the time.
As a collector, searching with the ALR will allow you to demonstrate undisputed ownership of an artwork, and reassure the institution to which you are lending that your loan has a clear provenance.
When a search is submitted, the ALR will check the item in question against the ALR database and any other relevant sources (e.g. databases listing World War 2 losses), and examine the work’s provenance to establish whether it may be subject to a possible claim or may have been at risk during the period 1933-45. After conducting a careful risk assessment, the ALR will decide whether to issue a certificate stating that all checks are clear. You may then present your artwork to an institution together with a certificate to demonstrate clear title.
If you are informed by the ALR that a claim exists on an item in your possession, the ALR will offer its expertise in the resolution of title disputes, and assist in the restoration of the item to its rightful owner or in the resolution of any claim, in as discreet and efficient a manner as possible.
As a curator, checking items with the ALR during the early stages of planning an exhibition will help you to avoid legal problems arising from a claim made on an item reported as stolen, missing or subject to a lien.
If a work has previously been stolen, a public exhibition, like a public sale, presents an opportunity for the original owner to make a claim. Therefore, checking the item with the ALR beforehand offers the best means of defence against future claims, particularly at a time when the work will gain exposure.
It is advisable to request an ALR certificate for an item before confirming its inclusion in an exhibition to help you avoid problems at a more advanced stage of planning. You may also choose to request another search for the same item prior to the exhibition, to ensure that no further claims have been made during this time and to obtain an up-to-date certificate.
A search with the ALR is considered a minimal level of due diligence, and should be undertaken in addition to your own research.
Problems of authentication are becoming an increasing concern within the art world, and in recognition of this, the ALR has developed a database of authentication issues (e.g. fakes and forgeries), which many experts use and contribute to.
In the event that a work searched against the ALR database is matched with an item believed not to be genuine, you will be alerted. The ALR will inform you which person or source notified them of the issue and you may then choose to carry out further research or contact the relevant expert or authentication board.
It is important to note that the ALR will not give any final determination that an item searched with them is fake or falsely attributed, but only draw your attention to information which may be relevant to a decision on the item. In addition, the details of your search will at all times remain confidential.
Another example of the ALR's work:
Tapestry returned to Chateau in France by University of Sheffield after 50 Years
The University recently contacted the Chateau whereupon it was discovered that the tapestry had been looted from the Château by Nazi soldiers during the Second World War, at a time when Comte Bernard de la Rochefoucauld, and his wife were both imprisoned in concentration camps.
Figure 1: Astrolabe recovered by the Art Loss Register
The Astrolabe is inscribed on the back ‘Martinus Weiler islebiensis me fecit anno 1590’.