Oct 5, 2006

More Databases


The Chicago Tribune today has a nice piece on the Art Loss Register. Yesterday, I talked a bit about Mexico's efforts to document its sacred colonial art, in the face of a spate of recent thefts. The more databases there are, the more difficult it will be be for courts to impose a duty on buyers and sellers to check these sources for the object they are buying as part of the good faith requirement enshrined in modern contract law. The piece reveals a number of things about the register.

In its 15 year history, it has compiled records of 175,000 stolen objects. And reportedly, $138 million worth of objects have been returned. It has a workforce of 30 people, and according the the register's founder, Daniel Radcliffe, they average 3 recoveries per week. As the piece states,

the Art Loss Register played a key role in a 28-year-old case involving seven paintings valued at more than $30 million that were stolen from the Massachusetts home of collector Michael Bakwin. As a result of seven years of complicated, high-wire negotiations with a lawyer who claimed to have been given the paintings by a client, Radcliffe has secured the return of five of the paintings, including a Cezanne in 1999 and four other paintings in January.


These high-profile recoveries are a welcome development. A lot of the literature speaks with great interest of the advent of these kinds of websites in stemming the illicit trade in cultural property. And I admit the idea has a great deal of promise, and its one I'm particularly interested in.

However, one of Radcliffe's comments strikes me as troubling. The database is not available over the internet, and searchers must comply with the ALR if they find a match. As Radcliffe says,
"If we were to put all our information on the Internet, guess who'd spend all their time looking at it? The thieves." That may be true, but what would be the harm in the theives looking at the website. If anything it would serve to make the piece harder to sell.

In fact, the way the database works may reveal a troubling aspect of the market; it must be incredibly easy to sell illicit cultural property as long as it is not a high profile piece. The database does not even attempt to limit the potential market for a piece. Rather it depends on individuals to track down a work to attempt to return it to its rightful owner. One interesting issue that the piece does not examine is how much the database charges for its services, including what it may charge to search its database. One welcome aspect though, is that searches are done for law enforcement free of charge. This further strengthens the notion that the database is primarily a tool for claimants seeking the return of their works.
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