Sunday 19 September 2021

The Art Loss Register What Use is it to Trace Illicit Artefacts?

The Art Loss Register (ALR) is all too often cited by antiquities dealers as "proof" that the unpapered items they are flogging off are kosher. Activists have been pointing out for about thirty years that this is as dubious as saying that absence from the "missing persons" register means a petite young lady or boy taken home for sex is over the age of consent. Absence from a single list dedicated to recording one thing does not mean that an act is legal or moral on every count. 

The ALR was initially an offshoot of  The International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR), a not-for-profit organisation based in New York. In an attempt to deter international art theft, IFAR had established an art theft archive in 1976 and began publishing the “Stolen Art Alert”. As the other organisation says in "our History":
The Art Loss Register (ALR) was established in London in 1990. Our founding shareholders included major businesses from the insurance industry and art market. Satellite offices were subsequently opened in New York, Cologne, Amsterdam and Paris to cater to growing client bases in these countries. In January 2010, we consolidated the regional offices in to one central, international office, run from London. 
They go on to claim:
The Art Loss Register (ALR) holds the world’s largest private database of lost, stolen and looted art, antiques and collectibles, currently listing more than 700,000 items. Items are added to this database on behalf of the victims of looting or theft, insurers, police forces and others. Our database is then utilised to offer a due diligence service to clients in the art market who wish to ensure that they are working with items to which no claim will arise. This provides an invaluable risk management tool to our searching clients. Through searching it is also possible to identify stolen items and other claimed works as they move through the art market and to secure their recovery for the claimant. [...] What we do We offer three main areas of services:
Search – Check objects with the ALR database to demonstrate due diligence, to prevent the handling of stolen art and to find out more about an object’s history through our in-house Provenance Research team.
Register – Report the theft or loss of an artwork or valuable item to the ALR database for registration on the database.
Recover – We help lost items of art to be reunited with their owners through the ALR database and our specialist Recoveries team.
It is worth looking over the terms and conditions on the three pages linked to see how effective this is. First of all, the search  "We only search lots above a given threshold value, usually £1,000 / €1,500 / $2,000". Actually, the bulk of the antiquities on the market are low value ones, falling below the ALR threshold, rendering it pretty much useless as a tool for fighting the illicit antiquities trade even if that was its actual goal. The fee for a single search is £70, auction houses can have a subscription for £600 p.a. but it notes "auction house specialising in more complex items (e.g. antiquities, coins, books, musical instruments) which require additional research are charged higher rates", without stating what that is. There is supposed to be a "dedicated page" about antiquities on their webpage, but I cannot find it.

Matters are worse if you have had something stolen, let's say a collection of a few 19th century paintings and 28 knocked off  Gandharan Buddha heads once owned by your Uncle Norman's Great-granddad Willie who might have got them when stationed in the North-West Frontier Province until the 1940s. So, after you've reported the theft to the police and your insurers, off you go to the ALR and pay "a small initial administrative fee" of £15 and fulfil certain conditions to report each object.  So those heads are 420 quid for starters. THEN, if the object is recovered through the use of the ALR, the registering owner has to pay an additional fee of 5% of the sale value of the item to the ALR (and note the police can use the Register for free, so even if the object is recovered by police, by checking with the ALR instead of their own force's cold cases to find out whether it is stolen and from whom, the police are obliging the victim of the theft to pay up to get their property back). And if the ALR is involved in the recovery, the fees go up sharply to 20%.

 A nice little earner then. Apparently, they get 400,000 search requests a year. For a database that only contains 700,000 items, examples of all types of art ("including paintings, drawings, sculpture, antiquities, furniture, jewellery, watches and clocks, musical instruments, silverware, coins and medals, ceramics, religious items, arms and armour, tapestries, classic cars, toys and collectibles'), nota bene, not all of which are registered because they are stolen. 

And of course, previously buried artefacts that are clandestinely looted, illegally excavated cannot be reported to the ALR because the only trace of the theft is a hole in the ground, how would that be registered?* If a clandestinely, illegally excavated artefact held in secret in some culture criminal's store is smuggled out of the country (with or without somebody being paid off 'not to see' it) then there will be no record. If that looted and smuggled object is flipped from dealer to dealer several times in behind-closed-door deals, to produce a confusingly vague paper trail before "surfacing" on the market (of course "Property of a *** gentleman, acquired on the London market in before *** and thence by descent") it will not be on the ALR record of stolen objects. So any dealer can pay huis 25 quid or whatever, get a certificate that it's not there and claim triumphantly: "oh yes, completely kosher, the ALR says so". Really? You lot think we are all that stupid?  

* and yes, what would happen if 100 countries did document and register an empty hole with a few broken sherds around it and say that there is clear evidence that an artefact of unknown material was looted there before the night of 31st December 2020? Obviously then, the ALR could not issue another certificate for any object clearly or potentially from that country, because there would be no way (unless it was too big to fit in that hole) to certify that an object submitted for a search by dealers Grebkesh and Runn had not come from that hole. 
Vignette: The lure of antiquities. Not reported missing, 19th century engraving. 

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