Art Loss Register: the Good, the Bad, the Questionable

This weekend the New York Times featured an article about the Art Loss Register, a for-profit organization part-owned by auction houses, which helps people and institutions recover stolen art.  The article was interesting and made clear why so many people within the world of art investigation, policing, and security find the ALR to be problematic.

The article includes nothing new to those who follow the world of art crime and recovery, but it will be new to the general public, and it did a good job of balancing some of the good things the ALR does, with some of the less appealing aspects of the organization.  It is entirely clear what the authors really, personally think about it from their carefully-selected words and tone, though the whole reads as largely objective.

One aspect that the article didn’t go into, that has been the cause of much uproar within the antiquities world, is the fact that the ALR used to offer certificates, which stated that an antiquity had been checked against the ALR’s database of some 350,000 entries and was not found there.  This allowed the owner or potential buyer of the antiquity to prove “due diligence,” a requisite to safeguard against getting into trouble if someone accidentally (or intentionally) acquires stolen artwork.  You have to prove that it was a “good faith” purchase, meaning that you genuinely thought that the object was legitimate, and you did this by showing “due diligence”–essentially checking to make sure that the object was not known to have been stolen, by checking in with police or stolen art databases.

The ALR has the largest private stolen art database in the world (though it is dwarfed by the Carabinieri’s database, called Leonardo, which contains ten times as much art, around 4 million objects, a point the Times article omitted), but in order for an object to appear on it, someone must have registered the fact of its having been stolen, with the ALR.  By far the largest problem in the world of art crime involves antiquities, looted directly from the earth (or sometimes the sea), which have never before been seen by modern humans (as opposed to objects excavated, which entered private or public collections, and which were then stolen).  These objects will never appear in a stolen art registry, because they have not been recorded as existing, before they were dug up by tomb raiders, having never entered a collection.  And yet, in the past, one could check a looted antiquity against the ALR database for a fee, get a certificate stating that the object did not appear on the database, while knowing full well that the object would not appear there.

This certificate does not state that the object in question was not stolen or looted.  It simply stated that it did not appear in the ALR database.  But the implication was that the certificate meant that the object was legitimate–when it might not be.  It allowed people to demonstrate “due diligence” via the certificate, even if they knew that the object could not appear in the database, since it recently came directly out of an illicit archaeological excavation.  It was a way to launder looted antiquities.

This practice was stopped, but when it was still practiced, it was yet another reason why the ALR is not a particularly popular organization among police, investigators, scholars, and others who try to protect and recover art.

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