Six paintings that were stolen from a storage unit in the Toronto area are now back in the hands of their owner, the latest recovery from a business that says it has returned stolen works of art that are worth more than $510 million altogether.
Art Recovery International owner Chris A. Marinello said that the return of the missing paintings came relatively easy. A Canadian auction house that had been consigned to sell the works discovered that they had been reported stolen while doing proper due diligence — primarily checking various online databases, such as the FBI’s National Stolen Art File.
He said not all art houses take the proper steps.
“The big auction houses do — the major houses,” Marinello said. “But many provincial auction houses don’t. It’s expensive to do and many feel that they don’t have to, which is unfortunate.”
Marinello said the six stolen works — by Canadian artists David Alexander, Casey McGlynn, and Merdie MacPhee and American artist Oscar Lakeman — had an appraised value of $150,000. They were part of a collection owned by a Toronto woman who had stored them and other works in a unit at Smartstop Storage in the Toronto suburb of Brampton, Ontario while she was moving to a new home.
In early 2017, a thief pried the storage unit door open and made off with the collection. The crime was videotaped on closed circuit television and the thief was apprehended, but by then he had already fenced the paintings, Marinello said.
The thief had moved the stolen art to another storage facility in Ontario but failed to pay the rent. The owner of the storage facility eventually confiscated the contents of the unit and contacted an art dealer to sell the paintings. The art dealer consigned them at the auction house, which investigated their provenance.
The auction house contacted Marinello. He reported the find to Peel Regional Police in Toronto, which had investigated the theft.
The storage unit owner resisted Marinello’s request to return the paintings, using a “finders keepers defense,” Marinello said. “The more expensive the work of art, the more difficult people become.”
When attempting to recover art, it’s helpful to know something about the law. Marinello is a licensed attorney and a former adjunct professor at New York University who taught law and ethics in the art market. Now he teaches at Ca Foscari University in Venice italy. Marinello writes and lectures on due diligence and the art recovery process at universities and before business groups. His company has returned works by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh.
Marinello said while storage companies often auction off the contents of units when owners fail to pay rent, that doesn’t mean they become the owners of art works that are known to be stolen. Both Canadian and U.S. law protect the rightful owners, he said.
Fortunately, the storage unit owner had used an intermediary. The art dealer who had consigned the art work was concerned that he might be charged with dealing in stolen art and agreed to instruct the auction house to surrender the paintings, Marinello said.
The artwork was returned to the owner last week, after she reimbursed her insurance company for the payment it had already made on the claim. Marinello said she has learned her lesson and has placed the works in a more secure art gallery.
He says valuable art should be stored in facilities that are inspected and approved by art insurers to ensure security, environmental controls, and fire protection.
“Thieves use storage units like shopping malls,” he said.
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