When Julian Radcliffe learned that German officials had uncovered a giant stash of art apparently looted by the Nazis during the Second World War, he sprang into action.
Mr. Radcliffe operates the largest database of stolen art in the world with 400,000 items, and he specializes in tracking down lost works for insurance companies, police agencies and private citizens. He wasted little time trying to match the pieces in Germany: 1,400 in all, some dating back to the 16th century, and including works by Picasso, Renoir, Matisse and Chagall. Kept in a nondescript Munich apartment, the collection is believed to be worth more than $1-billion, and investigators think much of it was confiscated from museums, artists, dealers and Jewish families.
Mr. Radcliffe has already identified one long-lost painting – but recovering stolen art is a painstaking process that can take decades. Proving provenance is always tricky, especially if works have passed through several hands, and recovering much from the Munich collection will be even more difficult because of German law and the circumstances of the find.
"This is not the only person who's probably sitting on some looted art, although this number is probably the biggest we'll ever see in one place," Mr. Radcliffe said from his office at Art Loss Register, the London-based company he founded. "We're acting for some other owners where the descriptions they've got are so good that there would be no problem in identifying the case."
A 65-year-old former kidnap negotiator, Mr. Radcliffe isn't alone in swooping down on the Munich discovery. Lawyers representing the heirs of prominent Jewish businessmen and art dealers have already stepped forward with claims, and more are expected. So far, local authorities have published a list of 25 of the paintings online, and they are under growing international pressure to release information about all of them. They are also bending to public pressure by setting up a task force to help determine the provenance of the art, but officials have not indicated how paintings would be returned.
The artwork was discovered in the hands of Cornelius Gurlitt, a 79-year-old recluse who has no family, no job and no bank account. Officials alleged he lived off the paintings, occasionally selling a piece to cover expenses. His father was Hildebrand Gurlitt, a German art dealer who sold paintings for the Nazis to raise hard currency; he also built up a sizable collection of his own, which he kept secret after the war. The elder Gurlitt died in 1956 and his son kept the collection in the Munich apartment. German officials stumbled across the son three years ago during a routine check on a train from Zurich to Munich. Customs officers questioned Mr. Gurlitt about a load of cash he was carrying and his answers raised suspicion. A subsequent investigation by tax authorities discovered that Mr. Gurlitt was not registered with the tax office. That eventually led to a raid on his apartment last year.
Officials kept the find quiet until it was revealed in a magazine article in early November. Meanwhile, Mr. Gurlitt has vanished and it is not clear if he will be charged with any offence.
"The enormity of this find is like an elephant dropping into the swimming pool," said David Lewis, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, a non-profit organization that tracks down stolen art. "The first step is to identify the works … and for German authorities to publish photographs of the front image and the back of every single one of these 1,400 works."
Even if the pieces are put online and identified by potential owners, Germany has a 30-year statute of limitations on theft, unless claimants can prove a work was purchased in bad faith.
There is an international protocol that is supposed to help families and museums recover art looted by the Nazis. In 1998, more than 40 countries, including Germany, signed the Washington Principles, which calls on governments to identify art taken by the Nazis and encourage restitution to the original owners. But the principles are non-binding and only apply to public institutions, not private collectors. As a result, only about 1,000 looted pieces have been returned out of an estimated 200,000.
Several countries have set up special panels to examine claims for stolen art. But in most cases the rulings are non-binding and the process isn't easy. Earlier this year, the Restitution Committee in the Netherlands rejected claims to two paintings in a Dutch museum by a family connected to Richard Semmel, a prominent Jewish collector who fled Nazi Germany in 1933 for New York. The committee ruled in part that the interests of the museum outweighed those of the family, and the paintings were not returned. "It's like getting blood out of a stone," Mr. Lewis said.
Mr. Radcliffe takes a different approach. He cut his teeth in the murky world of kidnapping, helping negotiate ransoms in South America for kidnapped executives. In the early 1990s, auction house Sotheby's asked Mr. Radcliffe if he could apply his expertise to the art world. Mr. Radcliffe was intrigued and created Art Loss.
His work is far from altruistic. He charges a fee to register paintings in his database and collects a recovery fee if the work is found. That can often involve negotiating a settlement with the thief, something some observers have said encourages people to steal art. Mr. Radcliffe said he works closely with police and helps them gather information about thieves. "We are very careful not to overstep the mark of paying criminals in a way which would encourage further crime," he said, adding that 30 people have gone to jail because of his work. His objective, he added, is to prove to criminals that "what they eventually got for their stolen pictures was so little that it wasn't worth the original crime in the first place."
Mr. Radcliffe has calculated that his company recovered $250-million worth of art over the last 20 years. While his work covers all types of stolen art, Mr. Radcliffe said art looted during the Second World War is a major focus.
"There are certainly hundreds of thousands of items that were taken by the Germans during the war from Jewish families and from occupied territories and from Russia. And hundreds of thousands taken by Russia," he said. "There are massive numbers of items that we are looking for and which we will be looking for, for maybe 200 years."