Book Review: “Lost Art: The Art Loss Register Casebook Vol I” (2021) by Anja Shortland
August 29, 2023
By Caitlin O’Hare
For those interested in stolen artworks and the enormous effort involved to retrieve them, you’ll find yourself instantly captivated, mesmerized, and ultimately hooked to the last page by Anja Shortland’s book Lost Art: The Art Loss Register Casebook Vol I, published in 2021. The world of art crime and the superheros who help save the day – such as the Art Loss Register – are the subjects covered by this masterful feat that continuously makes the reader feel as though they are inside Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch instead of a non-fiction casebook.
This book is based on ten cases from the Art Loss Register (hereinafter the ALR) archives, uncovered and explored by Shortland, showing how negotiations to retrieve expensive artworks unfold, how art market practices are challenged and how some of the parties involved end up in court and ultimately in prison. Shortland invites you to witness the dark underbelly of the global art market and all the wonderful characters involved. This review will delve into three of the book’s ten cases to give a taste of the type of storytelling a reader can expect to see.
The book begins by explaining how the art market is a global lucrative market, considered by most governments as a luxury problem. Shortland introduces the ALR as an initiative founded in 1990 by Julian Radcliffe, alongside auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s as minority stakeholders. The purpose? To prevent the sale of stolen artworks across the globe. The highly impressive ALR database boasts the most comprehensive database in this area. Shortland’s research into and explanation of the ALR sets the scene for any reader, be them a student, artist, lawyer, or art professional. The level of detailed research is commendable, and the storytelling makes one feel as though they are reading the case files from a detective’s career.
Negotiating with thieves
The first ‘victims’ that we come to know are the Bakwins, a Massachusetts couple whose home was targeted by thieves who stole seven artworks from their home in 1978. The Bakwins had tried many avenues to attempt to find the artworks, including police, the FBI, private detectives, and alerting the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAL). Little did they know that the ALR was scanning the art market for their missing artworks after the IFAL alert. They discovered that an unknown party sought insurance on one of the paintings (Cezanne’s Bouilloire et Fruits), and immediately the ALR sprung to action.
The two ensuing chapters follow the ALR, the Bakwins, their lawyers and advisors on their quest to recover the artworks. Shorthand illuminates the efforts of the ALR masterfully and the lengths the organization had to go to in order to move the case forward. For example, during the initial negotiations with the man who requested the insurance on the art (at the request of the holders of the artworks, who of course did not wish to reveal their identity) it was claimed – and later disproven – that the holder of the artworks was a Russian institution. Determined to explore every possible avenue, Shortland notes, “Over the next few months, the ALR team became experts on Russian organised crime.”
Radcliffe’s motives for the ALR’s extensive work stems from his strongly held belief that criminals must not benefit in any way from their theft (even when they are involved in negotiating the return of the works to the rightful owner). Radcliffe’s desire for the return of all of the stolen paintings to the Bakwins – even after the most coveted one, the Cezanne, is returned – and his willingness to try everything for return, regardless of the years it might take, is a testament to him and to the ALR’s ethos. Shortland suspensefully describes the saga with humour and excellent commentary, and the reader leaves the tangled mess nearly as jaded as the parties involved. By building a comprehensive picture of the legal and moral issues, Shortland makes us understand just exactly how difficult, prolonged, and expensive art recoveries are.
Multimillion dollar artwork in the attic?
Later in the book we come across the story of a ‘sleeper,’ an allegedly famous artwork found in some innocuous place like an attic or garage. We follow Frank Faryab, an art dealer, who acted on a tip-off and acquired the painting, which was believed to be by J.M.W. Turner. Through Shortland’s words, we’re given insight into all the avenues one must go down when they stumble upon a piece of (potentially) famous art. From fingerprint analysis and multiple consultations with experts and provenance researchers to prowling through previous sales, Faryab finally approaches Sotheby’s with a view to sell (and a less than satisfactory provenance history). Unbeknownst to him, the ALR was alerted, and they previously had Mr Faryab’s name on file for a conviction in 1998 for handling stolen goods. Shortland’s sarcasm (“It seemed that perhaps he had not left prison as a completely reformed character”) throughout the casebook adds an element of fun and light-heartedness.
Towards the end of the book, Shortland describes the ALR’s assistance in the return of stolen watches. Without The Watch Register, created by the ALR in 2014, jewellers and pawnbrokers had no way of knowing if a watch offered to them was stolen. With the existence of The Watch Register, the probability of catching thieves and dealers selling stolen watches rises. The ALR set out to change the norms underpinning the market for stolen watches. For the service to be effective, users must pay for it.
In this chapter, we are told of a heist at Swiss Time Machine in Mayfair, London. Two months later, one of the stolen watches is brought to a jeweller for sale. Luckily the jeweller consulted the ALR’s Watch Register, which advised this was one of the watches stolen during the Mayfair heist. The jeweller suggested the seller attend the ALR’s headquarters to discuss, which surprisingly, he did. The police also attended – as the ALR alerted them – and the man was arrested. When his home was searched, 94 watches were seized.
We follow the court case against the seller, Mr M, who upon seeing the mountain of evidence against him, pleads guilty. Without the help of the ALR and its excellent record-keeping, the successful conviction may have been harder to nail. The case resulted in a huge increase in jeweller and pawnbroker subscriptions to The Watch Register; thus, the market for stolen watches is significantly decreasing.
Shortland’s highlighting of the efforts of the ALR is an educational tool as much as it is an enjoyable read about seedy markets. It is a carefully composed book that ushers its reader through enthralling stories, be it Nazi-looted art or stolen furniture connected to the UVF in Northern Ireland. Lost Art feels like a sophisticated detective case, shedding light on moral qualms involved in the art market. Tensions run wild and every party suspects the other. It is not an easy task to cover the tremendous work of the ALR, but Shortland has done it superbly.
About Anja Shortland
Anja Shortland is a professor at King’s College London and specialises in the economics of crime, studying the world’s complicated markets of art crimes and hostages.
You can order your copy of Lost Art here.
About the Author
Caitlin O’Hare is a master’s student at the University of Glasgow and was an Intern in the International Class of Summer 2023 for the Center for Art Law.
Select Additional Sources
- Shortland, Anja, Lost Art: The Art Loss Register Casebook Vol I (2021) at page 9 ↑
- ibid, at page 39 ↑
- Cases discussed in this chapter by Shortland: United States of America v. Robert M. Mardirosian No 07-CR-10075-MLW; Michael Bakwin v. Robert M. Mardirosian & others SJC-11393 ↑
- Shortland, Anja, Lost Art: The Art Loss Register Casebook Vol I (2021) at page 153 ↑