An interview with a sleuth


julian RadcliffeHad Ian Fleming met Julian Radcliffe he would have written a special role for him in a James Bond thriller, roaming the world and returning stolen artworks to their grateful owners. A smooth Old Etonian, Julian has run Art Loss Register for over twenty years and has been responsible for returning hundreds of pieces of artwork to their rightful owners. There is not another company in the world with such a comprehensive database of stolen art and certainly not a super sleuth like Julian Radcliffe.

The Art Register came into being at a lunch at Sotheby’s when Julian was asked “can’t you do something about stolen art?” This chance remark lead to the formation of this unique company, which has built up a worldwide reputation for their register of stolen goods from the art world.

As this article is about business, I was fascinated to know how the company operates. Julian explained that the idea of registering lost art started with a charity in New York in 1969 and in 1991 the London office was set up relying on the insurance industry to pay subscriptions. “Now they only pay when we recover a piece of art for them”, says Julian. “You can register a piece of art for a fee but the main registrations come from the police and insurance companies. The majority of the income comes from the searcher’s auction houses, art dealers, pawnbrokers, art fairs, conservators – and anyone who is dealing with the art needs to know if it is stolen or under dispute. If you think of anything that would appear in an art and antiques fair, this is our basic stock.Workshop of Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632), Concert with four people and a drinker, oil on canvas, 103 x 148 cm“Of the art registered 40% are pictures and 80% by value. About a third of our recovery is silver, musical instruments, valuable toys and jewellery. Jewellery is difficult (to recover) but by no means impossible. However, it is impractical for us to register a one stone diamond ring if it has no certificate and gemmology GIA certificate. Antique jewellery or designs by a renowned jeweller is easier to search for.”

A fascinating story concerns the unauthorised removal from the Royal Society of the original minutes of their meetings from 1677 to 1682. A valuer from Bonhams Auction House was shown a series of books and the auctioneer realised they were the work of Sir Isaac Newton and over 200 years old. They had been taken by a scientific assistant of the Royal Society, Robert Hooke, who was removed from his post as Secretary and Curator of Experiments, and took with him the 400 pages of draft and original minutes, some of which belonged to him. The manuscripts had been handed down through the generations before ending up in the Bonhams and minutes before the hammer came down a deal was struck to return the manuscripts, valued at a million pounds to the Royal Society. Julian advised: “Inheritance does not convey title. We were retained by the Royal Society and undertook the five days of negotiations. We were able to do a deal to ensure the family who had looked after the manuscripts had bit and the auctioneer got his fee.”Patek Philippe white gold automatic world time wristwatchArt Loss Register is expanding to meet modern needs – the Watch Register was formed due to the rise in importance of specialist and valuable watches. “We needed a name which has a relevance with the watch dealer,” says Julian. “We have done watches from day one and have been recovering watches for over five years.”

The things you learn when you interview interesting people can shatter your illusions. Julian advised me that there are considerable of issues with the numbering of watches. Thieves buying or even stealing a genuine watch and then using the number to make fakes. You might think you have the genuine super watch but the only way to know for sure is to buy the watch from a recognised dealer – the number system is not the only thing to look for.

Julian moved on to discuss museums. “We are working towards recording whole museum collections. The risk to a museum is not from a member of public stealing a piece of art when it is on view; the risk is in storage. Most of the collections have losses from contractors or museum staff. So, for example, if an item comes up from auction we can go to the museum and say that the item should be with you and can you check if it is fake or the genuine article. For example, the V&A has five million items and the stock check takes three years.An Art Deco diamond set bracelet by Drayson. The central plaque of geometric form detaches to be worn as a brooch. Mounted throughout in platinum. English, circa 1930“Books and coins are becoming more important. Coins have shown huge growth, 50%. Coins are difficult as you can only record the valuable ones but we have also done stamps and books.”

Anything which is valuable, movable and classed as Art can find its way onto Art Loss Register and Julian’s team of over 30 researchers will do their best to ensure the art finds its way back to the rightful owner.

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Image of Julian Radcliffe – Courtesy of The Art Loss Register; Image of Workshop of Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632), Concert with four people and a drinker, oil on canvas, 103 x 148 cm – Courtesy of BADA – this painting was recently recovered by the Art Loss Register after being stolen from Rome 22 years ago; Image of the Patek Philippe white gold automatic world time wristwatch – Courtesy of BADA – the watch was stolen from a gentleman in Naples and was found in New York and returned early in 2016; Image of an Art Deco diamond set bracelet by Drayson – Courtesy of Sandra Cronan – The central plaque of geometric form detaches to be worn as a brooch. Mounted throughout in platinum. English, circa 1930