The great stories from the nefarious underside of the art world have led to enhanced security measures in museums and private homes; however, these stories also spark speculation on what can be done post-theft when security measures fail. The art world does, in fact, have its own “Batman”.
The Art Loss Register is a London-based company with the world’s largest private database of lost and stolen art, antiquities, and collectibles. The Register offers a range of services including item registration and search and recovery services to collectors, the art trade, insurers, and worldwide law enforcement agencies.
Over the last two decades, the Register has developed into an increasingly essential part of art investigation worldwide. Like Batman, however, the Register has its supporters and its dissenters. As Kate Taylor and Lorne Manly recently reported in The New York Times, the Register is subject to much criticism. The title of their article aptly states how the Register has been “Tracking Stolen Art, for Profit, and Blurring a Few Lines”.
While billions of dollars’ worth of art is stolen every year law enforcement often has too few resources to prioritize its recovery; the Register acts to fill that void. The Register has used its private database to recover more than $250 million worth of art. The company has, however, drawn criticism for its “hardball” tactics, with some claiming that its methods push both ethical and legal boundaries. Of considerable concern is how the Register earns fees from insurers and victims of theft by acting as a “bounty hunter”. The Register approaches potential clients offering its services to track down their stolen work, in addition to collecting fees both from victims of theft who wish to list their stolen items and from dealers, collectors, and insurers who wish to search the database to check that a work is “clean”.
The Register essentially leverages its knowledge, disclosing the information stored within its private database in order to turn profits. Many would argue that this information should be given over to official authorities. People continue to use the Register for one very apparent reason—lack of alternatives. Lack of profitability and harsh criticism, however, leave the future of the Register uncertain.There is a desperate need for a business like the Art Loss Register to police the Art Market—which is highly lucrative but often unregulated. There are the sole detectives in New York City and Los Angeles dedicated to art crime, the team of fourteen agents with specialized training with F.B.I., and the three officers of the Scotland Yard’s arts and antiquities unit. The lack of manpower as well as the databases managed by the Scotland Yard, Interpol and F.B.I. are not sufficient. What alternatives are there?
Originally posted by Sally Johnson on CulturalSecurity.net.