During the 1980s, traditional theft targets such as banks, building societies, post offices and security vehicles employed better protection measures.
Consequently the theft of art, antiques and valuables, which are less well protected, became an attractive alternative for criminals and the large number of handlers and fences dealing in stolen property compounded the problem. Meanwhile, the art market enjoyed a period of phenomenal growth and worldwide publicity surrounded the record prices paid for works of art at auction.
As the problem of art theft grew, so the art trade became increasingly vulnerable to receiving stolen goods, albeit unwittingly in most cases.
By 1991, the annual figure for international art theft was estimated to be approximately $3 billion. The rise in theft claims for art, antiques and collectibles was a growing cause for concern in the insurance industry worldwide and the need for measures to counteract the growth in art-related crime became more pressing.
In response to this need, in January 1991, the Art Loss Register launched its operations in London, and in New York at the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR). Backed by Sotheby's, Christie's, and the insurance industry such as Lloyd's of London and Nordstern Art Insurance, the ALR today is the largest independent database of stolen works of art, antiques and valuables in the world.
The computerised image database is collated from information provided by law enforcement agencies worldwide, insurance companies, museums, galleries and private individuals. Systematic screening of the database against forthcoming auction sale catalogues and the ad hoc search service have resulted in recoveries valued at approximately £17 million since 1991.
Through its unique matching service for identifying stolen works of art which are subject to police enquiries or of stolen origin, the ALR offers an unrivaled service to law enforcement agencies internationally. While it is in no way involved in police investigations, the ALR is complementary to police activities and provides expert assistance as necessary.
One question that has often arisen in art theft cases is the concept of due diligence on the part of the theft victim as well as the purchaser of a stolen work of art.
In this area, the ALR, because of its availability to both the private and public sectors for searching, has been called upon to provide expert witness evidence on several occasions.
In 1994 the US government brought charges against an Iranian for the theft of a work by Pieter Breughel the Younger, Flemish Proverbs. Charged with stealing the work by diverting a shipment in 1979, the accused was brought to trial after the work had been identified by the ALR in 1992 in response to a request from the FBI.
As a result, an ALR representative testified at the trial to the sequence of events which identified the work as stolen property. Combined with the testimony of art experts this led to the conviction of the accused.
In a similar case involving a work by Marc Chagall, Le Petit Concert, the ALR also provided testimony by identifying the work as stolen and showing its registration as such.
Stolen in 1970 from a private collector in Baltimore, Maryland, the picture was registered in 1977 in IFAR's stolen art archive, which is now incorporated in the ALR database.
In 1990, a dealer search request led to its identification as stolen when it was being offered for sale on the private market for $350,000. Subsequently the individual who had placed the painting on the market was charged with “knowingly handling stolen goods”.
The ALR was called upon to testify about the accessibility of its information to the general public. A key question raised at the trial was whether the accused knew that the work was stolen, as many of his actions apparently suggested. Evidence and testimony supported this supposition. According to witnesses, the defendant had been told by the seller that the picture was stolen. Also, the defendant had insured all his other art with this one exception and had planned to raise money by selling other art on the open market. In addition, his failure to consult the ALR database led the jury to convict him as charged.
The other aspect of the due diligence issue also played a part in this case. The ALR could testify that the victim's representative had registered this work and other stolen items as soon as a means of reporting to a central database presented itself. Courts are increasingly taking this concept of due diligence into consideration in deciding cases, ie what steps a theft victim has taken to notify the public of the loss.
The existence of a computerised image database has been cited as a key element in both sides of this process.