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Art Theft

A word to the wise: You should be afraid of Julian Radcliffe; if not by name, then by title of his organization, the Art Loss Register. The concept is innocent enough, if not noble—ALR is a database of lost and stolen artifacts whose purpose is to return those works to their rightful owners. But is it the organization’s sole purpose? Mr. Radcliffe, a man whose reputation precedes him, would have you believe so.

A cursory understanding of Julian Radcliffe’s intentions might conjure the image of Robin Hood, a man of the people if ever there were one. It’s especially true when you consider a case like Maria Altmann’s.

Altmann’s Aunt posed for Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. In a Nazi-occupied Vienna, the painting was confiscated; it wasn’t until 1998 that Altmann sought restitution from the Austrian government. Her story, famously recounted in The Woman in Gold, inspires the fervent belief that a database of stolen art is imperative to justice. I’d tell you how Altman’s case resolved, but I’d hate to ruin a good ending.

Here’s where Radcliffe’s likeness to the noble Robin Hood diverges: He believes there’s a finders’ fee attached to justice. As with any privately owned company, it’s unlikely that ALR works solely on a pro bono basis. A car, after all, can’t run on fumes. But the means, by which, the Art Loss Register profits, leave something to be desired in the way of ethics.

In order to register your lost or stolen artifact with ALR, you must pay a small fee; that’s understandable. “Any uniquely identifiable item can be registered online. Loss registrations are charged on a basis of £10, US$15 or €15 per item (plus VAT where applicable), but please contact us directly in case of a large theft.”

What constitutes a “large theft,” you ask? Either a shipping-crate’s worth of artwork has gone missing, or you’re looking to list a big-ticket item.

As with any theft-retrieval company, the cost of its services is assessed on a case-by-case basis. If ALR successfully recovers the item that you’re looking to list on their database, their commission depends on the market value of the item at the time of recovery—also, not entirely surprising. Here’s where it gets a bit murky: Julian Radcliffe might approach you, regarding a lost or stolen piece of art on which, he happens to have some invaluable information; the keyword, being invaluable.

While Robin Hood might be inclined to offer such information to you gratis, Radcliffe makes no such promise— in fact, he can hold the information for ransom and has been known to do so. While some art dealers call Radcliffe’s acts extortion, no government agency in the U.S. (or across the pond, for that matter) has intervened.


Though it waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck…


The Art Loss Register is not a government-funded agency, which leaves Radcliffe virtually unchecked in the tactics he employs. Luckily, the recovery of your painting might pay some dividends to you as well; or at least, such was the hope for Jack Solomon.

RussianSchoolroomNorman Rockwell (1894 - 1978) Russian Schoolroom 1967 - Oil on Canvas

In the spring of 1973, a Mr. Bert Elam purchased Norman Rockwell’s Russian Schoolroom from Arts International Gallery. Only days later, the painting was stolen in a smash-and-grab. While we’d all like to imagine a Thomas-Crown-esque character, scheming away in his lair, art heists are often tactless thefts, requiring little more than a baseball bat for the window and a getaway car; in fact, you could probably use your Uber driver and the tire iron he’s required to keep in the trunk.

Elam enjoyed what might be the shortest-lived ownership of a Rockwell—a painting that would eventually be hanging in Steven Spielberg’s living room. We’ll come back to that.

Before being consigned to the Arts International Gallery, Russian Schoolroom was in the possession of the now deceased Mr. Solomon, who purchased the painting in 1968. A 1972 catalog, assembled by Bernard Danenberg Galleries, cites the painting as part of Solomon’s private collection. A year later, when the painting sold at exhibition for $20,000, the Clayton, MO police report named Elam and Arts International Gallery as the sole victims. The gallery returned Elam’s money and collected insurance on the stolen Rockwell.

While it would appear that ownership of the painting in question transferred to the gallery upon consignment (as per the police report), Solomon would later assert his claim of ownership. This much is clear: Solomon was properly compensated.

Fast-forward to 1975, when Martin Diamond of Danenberg Gallery writes a note to Solomon, inquiring about Russian Schoolroom: “Even though you don’t own it, can you get it for me?” he asks. Diamond was compiling a list of owners in preparation for a Rockwell exhibit; Russian Schoolroom was listed under Solomon’s name— its location? Unknown.

While Diamond could simply be a terrible record keeper, this is the first of many clerical mistakes in Solomon’s favor, just ask the FBI (again, we’ll circle back to this). Meanwhile, Judy Goffman Cutler begins her nearly decade-long research into Russian Schoolroom. The painting will have been off the radar for nine years before resurfacing at a New Orleans auction, where Goffman Cutler snatches it up. After all, she’s done her due diligence in making sure that the purchase is viable.

Screen Shot 2016 09 16 at 22.17.531988 November, 25 Russian Schoolroom illustrated in Antiques and Arts Weekly, page 66, ‘Auction Action in New Orleans, La.’ ‘Rockwell brings $70,400’


The FBI and Spielberg walk into a bar…


Where do their paths converge, you ask? Well, the FBI (like any other government agency) is fallible. Russian Schoolroom was coming up on the auction block at Morton Goldberg’s New Orleans auction house. When the FBI came knocking on Solomon’s door on October 7th, 1988, they failed to realize that he no longer factored into the equation.

But Solomon saw an opportunity—fully aware of the impending auction at Goldberg’s, he sat back and waited. The FBI had fortuitously tipped him off, just twenty-one days before the sale of Russian Schoolroom, which they decided would not be seized from Goldberg. Interestingly enough, they didn’t think it a worthwhile endeavor to find out who had consigned the painting to the auction house— the presumptive thief. Satisfied that they’d done their job, recovering the stolen painting, they washed their hands.

In ’89, Ms. Goffman Cutler sold Russian Schoolroom to Spielberg, a collector of Rockwell’s, for $200,000. Sixteen years later, an “anonymous” tip alerted the FBI to the theft of the painting back in 1973 (a moot point) and suddenly, they were banging down Spielberg’s door.

While it seems redundant for the FBI to have reopened the case, it didn’t stop Radcliffe from going to the mattresses on Solomon’s behalf (after the case was brought to his attention by Solomon). Though the FBI would later withdraw its claim (again) that Solomon was the rightful owner, their blunder gave Solomon an arguable claim of ownership.

Can you get it for meCan you get it for me?

Under Radcliffe’s advisement, Solomon filed suit against Spielberg and the FBI as they’d failed to recover his painting. Ms. Cutler traded Spielberg Peace Corps in Ethiopia for Russian Schoolroom (apparently, Rockwell’s are the baseball cards of the wealthy) in order to protect him from the dispute. Solomon, who by then had registered the painting with Radcliffe’s ALR, pursued his suit for the painting—now, against Ms. Cutler.

This trade, in all seriousness, was only possible because of Ms. Cutler’s years of experience and expertise as both a Norman Rockwell dealer and collector; she was uniquely qualified to replace Mr. Spielberg’s painting with another Rockwell that reflected the appreciative value of Russian Schoolroom over the course of the 16 years that had passed since Spielberg had bought the painting. Ms. Cutler’s act not only fully compensated, but kept Spielberg’s investment intact while protecting him from Solomon’s lawsuit.

When Cutler inquired as to whether Russian Schoolroom was registered with ALR, Radcliffe skirted the issue; he refused to disclose that information, which seems entirely at odds with the purported purpose of the Art Loss Register.

While he clearly had no claim to the painting, Radcliffe was more than happy to fight Solomon’s battle for him with the expectation that a hefty settlement would follow. Though Radcliffe’s attempt at recompense failed miserably, it says something that he was even willing to attempt the slight of hand.

What it says, exactly, we can’t won’t say. 

Despite its illustrious past, Russian Schoolroom seems to have found its home in Rhode Island; it hangs triumphantly in the National Museum of American Illustration, founded by Goffman Cutler and her husband. We hope it’s there to stay.

julian RadcliffeJulian Radcliffe - Art Loss Register

As for Radcliffe, he’s the majority shareholder of ALR. The additional stakeholders are Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses; while a predictable alliance, the U.S. Department of Justice views their tea party as collusion and therefore, illegal.

Radcliffe leaves in his wake an abundance of disgruntled art dealers, but for the most part, people are willing to overlook his behavior—ALR is the most comprehensive database of its kind, after all, and until that changes, Radcliffe will keep doing what he’s doing, free of any legal repercussions—so far, at least.

First publsihed 2016-09-17

Screen Shot 2016 08 10 at 04.08.41

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*  Paintings by Federico Castelluccio

*  In Conversation with Massoud Shiraz