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February 20, 2011

Art Recovered: A Found Painting Identified by the Art Lost Register

Jacob van Ruisdael's Two Men with Dogs on a Forest Path
(Photo provided by the Art Loss Register)

By Catherine Schofield Sezgin, Editor

In 2009, Dutch police found a painting at the railroad station at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport. Martin Finkelnberg, head of the Arts and Antiques Crime Unit of IPOL, a department of the National Police Agency (KLPD), and Christopher A. Marinello, General Counsel with the Art Loss Register, discussed with ARCA how the police and the world's largest private database of lost and stolen art worked together to return Jacon van Ruisdael's painting, Two Men with Dogs on a Forest Path, to the owner who had misplaced it before boarding a train in Amsterdam.

The Dutch Police organization consists of 26 police forces, of which 25 operate on a regional level. The 26th force, the Netherlands Police Agency (KPLD, Korps Landelijke Politiediensten) carries out nationwide taskes like policing or patrolling water, road, air and rail traffic; provides security for the Royal family, politicians and diplomats; and combats international organized crime with the National Investigation Squad. The KPLD also provides criminal intelligence, specialised investigation expertise and crime analysis on a national level, and is responsible for dealing with international requests for mutual assitance.

The 17th century Baroque artist Jacob van Ruisdael (ca. 1628-1682) is often considered the greatest Dutch landscape painter. His works are found all over the world from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, to the Louvre in Paris, and to regional museums in the United States. Obsessed with trees, he imbued them with forceful personalities, according to the online entry on the artist in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica.

The police found the painting in the railway station, Mr. Finkelnberg explained. “Since the painting was neither registered in our national database nor in the Interpol database, I called the ALR and they almost instantly returned my call, telling me it was in their database. This is how we also found out the identity of the owner.”

I asked Mr. Finkelnberg if he thought that the painting in a railway station had anything to do with a ransom. “No, nothing of the kind,” he wrote in an email.

“Do you think there was another story?” I persisted. “Why would the owner claim he ‘forgot to take it with him on a train’?”

“This is what he stated to the police,” Mr. Finkelnberg responded. “What I think is not relevant. But it is rather curious isn’t it?”

Recently I had published a post on the blog about Christopher A. Marinello’s essay in The Journal of Art Crime “On Fakes”, so I emailed Mr. Marinello at The Art Loss Register to ask him a few questions about the case.
ARCA Blog: Mr. Marinello, the National Dutch Police credits The Art Loss Register with recovering the painting. Some people may think that the police and the ALR work separately. How did the ALR and the police approach this case?

Mr. Marinello: While separate from law enforcement, the ALR enjoys a unique working relationship with local and international police organizations in an effort to solve and prevent art crimes. We are a free service to law enforcement officials who know that they can contact us for the most accurate and reliable information and documentation surrounding a theft while maintaining the highest level of confidentiality.

In this case, Martin contacted us to determine if the van Ruisdael was ever listed as stolen. We confirmed that the work was stolen property and provided the victim and case details along with the insurance documentation. The ALR never deletes its records and can access police reports and insurance information that may have been purged from police archives.

ARCA blog: When I hear that the painting was recovered in a public place, such as a railroad station, I wonder if a ransom was paid. Is this typically true and was this the case here?

Mr. Marinello: The ALR does not pay ransoms. It is strict ALR policy and always has been. On occasion, a theft victim or their insurance company will offer a reward for information leading to the recovery of a valuable item. In that case, we will effectuate payment of a reward but never to the criminal or anyone connected with the theft or where contrary to the laws of the local jurisdiction.

ARCA blog: When the police are involved, what do you think the ALR can do that the police cannot?

Mr. Marinello: I don’t want to give away anything that will reduce our effectiveness, but generally speaking, the ALR can operate more efficiently than law enforcement in areas of cross border communications, strategy development/implementation and cases where instant action is necessary. As a private organisation, we do not have the bureaucratic restrictions that one would associate with a governmental entity. But let’s get one thing perfectly clear, the ALR is serious about operating ethically and within the confines of local and national law.

Martin Finkelnberg is one of the giants among international law enforcement in fighting art crime. Without officers like Martin Finkelnberg (KLPD), Jim Wynne (FBI), Michelle Roycroft and Ian Lawson (London Met. Police/Scotland Yard), Massimiliano Cretara and Fabrizio Rossi (Carabinieri), and Axel Poels (Belgian Federal Police), the art world would be a much more dangerous place.