What Happens After A Watch Is Stolen? Chris Marinello Of Art Recovery Can Help

What happens after a watch is stolen? Many collectors may be inclined to ignore this question as it isn’t fun to ponder. However, regrettably, we live in a time when this issue is even more pressing. Crime is countercyclical: when an economy is struggling, thefts increase.

Map of watch-related attacks in central Paris, January to September 2019 (photo courtesy ‘Le Parisien’)

Here I’d like to explore the coda of a stolen watch. My curiosity on this subject was piqued when I saw two recent posts on Instagram by Chris Marinello, a lawyer and the CEO and founder of Art Recovery International.

Marinello’s first post that caught my eye contained a screengrab of an auction house web page noting that a lot was withdrawn “due to circumstances beyond [the auction house’s] control.” The caption to the picture read: “Yeah, that’s me. I’m circumstances beyond your control.”

The second post comprised a picture of Marinello holding a Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso. The caption revealed that the watch in question was stolen from a dealer’s car in 2011 when the window was smashed. He noted that this was his first property recovery of 2021.

I reached out to Marinello via Instagram DM and he graciously agreed to an interview to explore a few issues pertaining to watch recovery. Our discussion began with the very Reverso he had posted to Instagram in which he offered a few more details about recovering it.

He’d found it on an auction house’s listings and contacted the house to notify it that it was stolen property. Instead of replying to Marinello, the house returned the watch to a second auction house, which had consigned it to the first. That house in turn sent it back to the pawnshop that had initially come into possession of the timepiece. He ultimately recovered it from the pawnbroker.

The behavior of these three parties was highly problematic. Once the auction houses were notified that the watch had been stolen, moving it around was arguably trafficking in stolen property (itself a crime). The pawnbroker had not maintained records of the source of the watch as required by law. This episode illustrates an important lesson when it comes to stolen watches: what happens with a watch after it is stolen is, arguably, just as important to preventing theft as alarms, safes, and carefully buttoned shirt cuffs.

Due diligence by watch buyers can go a long way toward closing off avenues for criminals to sell ill-gotten timepieces, thereby diminishing the incentive to steal in the first place. Marinello’s recovery service is part of this solution. Let’s get into the Q&A to learn more.

Stolen and recovered (image courtesy @artrecovery)

Quill & Pad: How did you get interested in this line of work?

Chris Marinello, Art Recovery: Thirty years ago, or even longer than that, I was an artist or trying to become an artist. I went to art school and I was not particularly good. I was encouraged by my family and my art teacher to explore alternatives, and one of those alternatives was the law. As I developed my practice over the years, I would hang on to clients that had art cases and art-related matters, and I represented art dealers, collectors, galleries, and museums that had issues. I really built up a practice in the art world. Invariably, art theft and recovering art and resolving title disputes to fine art is part and parcel of being a lawyer for the art industry. With art comes other objects such as rare automobiles and rare watches.

Q&P: Have you found that the recovery business has changed over time?

CM: More than 30 years ago, the internet was not as prevalent as it is today. It’s made recovering property a lot easier because in the old days you could steal something from the UK and sell it in the United States and many people just wouldn’t know. Now, every morning I get 15 or so reports of new thefts that have occurred somewhere in the world, and the news is everywhere. So it’s a lot easier for victims to publicize that they’ve been victimized. Since a lot of these auction houses have put catalogues online, that allows everybody to take a quick look at what’s going on all around the world.

Q&P: What is your thinking on the use of blockchain to track custody of a timepiece or work of art?

CM: I’m approached all the time by people who want to utilize blockchain technology but I have yet to see that its really applicable. With watches you’ve got a serial number. If those numbers are removed, the value of the watch is destroyed, so nobody in their right mind would do that, even a thief (a smart thief anyway). Blockchain can serve as a tool to aid in the storage of who holds a serial number but at this point it’s not something I see being applied.

Q&P: What portion of your business involves luxury watches?

CM: It’s hard to say, but I would observe that we are on quite an upturn in watch recoveries. I don’t know why that is. It does seem to happen a lot during the holidays. There seems to be a lot more watch burglaries going on lately. These are small items, easy to hide, easy to steal. We’re seeing a lot of violent, much more violent, thefts taking place where criminals are stalking collectors who go in and out of shops flashing their Richard Mille or Patek Philippe watch. They approach these victims with motorcycles or scooters, ripping the timepiece off their wrists and flying off into the streets, making it virtually impossible to track them. Then they try to sell the watches and move them along.

Q&P: Once you’ve recovered a watch or a piece of art, what comes next?

CM: A lot of the insurance companies hire me to recover things for them. People ask this question all the time: when something is stolen, who owns it when it is recovered? Well, if you’re insured, your insurance company pays you for the loss and it becomes the owner of the watch via the law of subrogation. When I find the watch, it doesn’t belong to the victim anymore, it belongs to the insurance company that paid out on the loss.

However, most of the established fine art insurance companies are working for collectors and they encourage collectors to purchase their insurance. They will often offer the watch back to the victim, knowing full well that it probably has some sentimental value, and the victim only has to pay back what was paid out to them after the theft.

Q&P: What have you learned about law enforcement when it comes to recovery of stolen watches?

CM: The police are so overworked and so overloaded with COVID-19 issues. At the same time, there are cuts to law enforcement budgets that have gone on for years. People think that the police are going to come and take fingerprints and photographs; it’s just not going to happen. When a watch is stolen the thieves immediately try to sell it through organized gangs that operate in Eastern Europe and other areas. The watch ends up in Hong Kong or United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia. When I recover a watch, it’s had a passport.

So I encourage watch collectors to get their items insured or beef up the security in their homes. They should make sure their insurance schedules are updated because many of these watches are increasing in value. You could insure your Patek Philippe for $50,000 and then two years later it could be worth $75,000 but your policy might not be sufficient to cover that amount of loss.

Q&P: Are there other suggestions you have for collectors?

CM: There’s a huge secondary market for preowned timepieces. If you don’t buy from a respected, trusted retailer you are really putting yourself and your investment at risk. Due diligence is critical. You need to find out who you’re buying from. You need to know what their backgrounds are and whether or not they stand by the purchases. What would happen in the event that the watch turns out to be stolen? Will they back it up? Will they reimburse you for the stolen watch? Are they looking into the complete history? Are they checking with the watch manufacturers to see if they were ever reported stolen?

We maintain a database, ArtClaim, which we’re building up to include a section for stolen watches called WatchClaim that will serve as a central checkpoint for buyers and sellers of fine timepieces. But for now there are many different databases that one needs to check.

Q&P: A lot of people may be familiar with your line of work from the movie The Thomas Crown Affair. What do they get right or wrong in that movie?

CM: Unfortunately, in that film I guess I would be the Rene Russo character because I do represent a lot of insurance companies. But there is no romance to watch thieves; they’re just brutal thugs. They’re the same criminals that would steal your wallet. They would steal from their own mothers; they’d do anything for money. There’s nothing glamorous and exciting about art theft, that Hollywood portrayal is a farce.

Q&P: What are the terms and conditions for your services?

CM: It is pretty simple. If I’m working for an insurance company, the insurance company pays my fees. It’s usually a percentage of the value of the recovery. It’s not always the value of the watch, it’s the value of the recovery. If a good faith purchaser has bought the watch, a settlement needs to be drafted depending on whether I’m operating in a civil law or common law jurisdiction. Some countries have laws that favor the good faith buyer where others, like the U.S. and UK favor the original theft victim.

That’s where being a lawyer helps out and I have to sort out the laws of the different jurisdictions. Now, as far as victims that are not insured, I’m fortunate to own the company and be able to be somewhat flexible. I work on a policy of, “if you can pay, I expect you to pay.” I get calls for people who find their $1,000 watch on eBay but it was their mother’s and it has a lot of sentimental value. I can do that at my discretion and waive my fees. I dislike criminals and I will do what I can to help people. But you’d be surprised how many of these high-powered, “Type A” collectors who think they are “masters of the universe” are not willing to pay when I present them with an invoice for weeks of hard work and negotiation.

Q&P: What are some barriers to reducing trafficking in stolen timepieces? I’ve noticed that there are new regulations of auction houses for certain collectibles, and I was surprised that they were implemented so quickly. Will that help?

CM: I’ve seen a lot of organizations put their financial interests above the law. There are now more regulations when it comes to auctions involving the sale of ancient art. The law that’s just been passed in the U.S. does not yet apply to non-antiquities but we could get there soon.

In the UK and the EU, similar legislation has been passed that requires a level of due diligence not only on the objects, but on the people who are putting up the money for a purchase. A handful of very high-end watches worth a couple of million could be hidden on your wrist and that’s an easy way to move money in and out of a country.

When it comes to money laundering, it’s not out of the question that a watch could be used for this purpose. For at least a decade I’ve been preaching to the trade that if they don’t regulate themselves they’re going to have regulation imposed upon them, but they tend not to listen. Now it is here, and they don’t like it. The world is wising up. If a trade practice involves international terrorism, potentially you’re going to get something passed very quickly. They made that link with antiquities and if they make that link with fine art and/or watch sales you’re going to find some very heavy-handed bills coming down the pike.

For more information, please visit www.artrecovery.com.

Brendan Cunningham is a professor of economics at Eastern Connecticut State University and founder of www.horolonomics.com.

You may also enjoy:

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