Art Loss Register Answers Call from NJ Supreme Court in O’Keeffe v. Snyder

September 24th, 2013

Many property textbooks include the case of O’Keeffe v. Snyder, a NJ Supreme Court case that discusses adverse possession of chattels. Long story short, an O’Keeffee painting was missing for several decades, and the Court considered if the owner could obtain title through adverse possession. In its usual style, the Garden State Jurists plow through lots of useless dicta, including this missive about how the art world needs to create a registry for lost and stolen paintings.

There does not appear to be a reasonably available method for an owner of art to record the ownership or theft of paintings. Similarly, there are no reasonable means readily available to a purchaser to ascertain the provenance of a painting. It may be time for the art world to establish a means by which a good faith purchaser may reasonably obtain the provenance of a painting. An efficient registry of original works of art might better serve the interests of artists, owners of art, and bona fide purchasers than the law of adverse possession with all of its uncertainties. L. DuBoff, The Deskbook of Art Law at 470-472 (Fed.Pub.Inc. 1977). Although we cannot mandate the initiation of a registration system, we can develop a rule for the commencement and running of the statute of limitations that is more responsive to the needs of the art world than the doctrine of adverse possession.

The Times reports on a company that seems to have done just that.

The return was facilitated by the Art Loss Register, a London-based company that over the last two decades has evolved into a little-noticed but increasingly integral part of art investigation around the world.

The brainchild of Julian Radcliffe, an Oxford-educated former risk consultant who speaks of once spying for British intelligence, the Register helps fill a gaping void: billions of dollars’ worth of art is stolen every year, according to an F.B.I. estimate, but law enforcement has too few resources to prioritize finding it.

For Mr. Radcliffe, whose other company helps recover stolen construction equipment, this presented a natural opportunity. Since it began 22 years ago, the Register has developed one of the most extensive databases of stolen art in the world, enabling it to recover more than $250 million worth of art, earning fees from insurers and theft victims.

The government databases pale in comparison:

The database managed by Scotland Yard lists some 57,500 stolen objects. Interpol’s database of stolen art includes about 40,000 works. The F.B.I.’s database has fewer than 8,000 objects on it, partly because the bureau relies on local police to fill in the blanks.

“It is not an absolutely complete database,” said Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, who manages the F.B.I.’s art theft program. “We get what they choose to send us.”

Each database lists items based on individual protocols, and most police agencies don’t communicate with one another; thus, someone checking whether a work is stolen would have to speak to multiple agencies.

The Register, by comparison, reports that its database includes more than 350,000 stolen, looted or missing works. In addition to an in-house staff of about 10, the company uses an Indian company to search the world for matches between the database and items for sale at auction houses and art fairs.

Theft victims pay to list their items with the Register, which also charges dealers, collectors and insurers fees to search the database to see whether a work is clean.