During Christopher A. Marinello’s 35-year career as a lawyer and art recovery expert, stolen paintings formed the bulk of his workload.
But lately, Mr Marinello, 59, who has by his own calculations recovered more than $ 515 million in art and artefacts, is increasingly in demand to recover luxury watches.
In March, this led to the creation of Watch Claim, an independent archive of lost and stolen watches. The nascent database is an offshoot of Art Claim, the registry of lost and stolen fine art where Mr. Marinello previously recorded missing timepieces. “We treated them like works of art,” he said of the watches. ” Who are they “.
Both archives are managed by Art Recovery International, the service for the provenance and recovery of works of art by Mr. Marinello.
Watch Claim, which is still under development, will ultimately function as a central checkpoint where buyers and sellers can verify whether a watch has been stolen, Mr. Marinello said.
Although such due diligence checks will cost costs to be determined, registering a watch is free and, most importantly, easy, he said. Those who register a stolen watch are asked to provide a model and serial number, proof of purchase, insurance information (if applicable), photos and, “most importantly”, a police report. .
“This allows us to stay ahead of the game and stop the sale if it’s at an auction house, or contact eBay if it’s offered for sale,” he said. “Or contact the police if the theft took place weeks ago and they are still interested in solving the crime.”
An art student turned lawyer, Mr. Marinello worked as a litigator in New York specializing in the negotiation of art title disputes for 20 years, before starting a seven-year term as director and general counsel of the tracking service for stolen works of art, the Art Loss Registry. In 2013, he left to found Art Recovery International.
Mr. Marinello has salvaged works of art from Matisse, Degas and Rodin and is on the trail of an Aston Martin DB5 used in the 1964 James Bond film “Goldfinger”. (Mr. Marinello also considers classic cars to be works of art.)
He specializes in art that was confiscated from its owners by the Nazis during World War II. (The morning Mr. Marinello was interviewed for this article, he said he wrote to a Dutch museum to inform curators that a multi-million dollar painting from his collection had been looted by the Third Reich. )
Watch cases had been sporadic over the years, Marinello said. But since March of last year, it has started receiving calls from watch theft victims about twice a week.
These days, Marinello said, with many stores closed and travel curtailed by pandemic restrictions, the majority of cases involve online fraud.
The “latest scam” is a Miami-based online company that offers to buy your watch, he said. In March, Marinello received a call from a Minnesota medical student who had contacted the company; he needed money for a medical intervention. They sent him a letter and he sent them his Rolex. “The money never comes and the watch goes,” Mr. Marinello said.
“People don’t realize that a criminal sitting somewhere in a decrepit library can digitally create what looks like a luxury store,” he said.
There is no international source of information on high-end watch theft. But in 2019, watch and jewelry thefts cost U.S. retailers more than $ 101 million, according to a report from the Jeweler’s Security Alliance, a nonprofit trade association that collaborates with the FBI.
In the same year, high-end watches stolen from UK retailers were valued at £ 2.3million (roughly $ 2.8million) according to SaferGems, a nationwide initiative that collects information on jewelry and crime related to jewelry. watches in Great Britain. That figure fell to £ 860,000 in 2020, as the pandemic has closed shops.
As global law enforcement agencies typically lack the time and resources to investigate, victims have few options – this is where Mr. Marinello and the few international online watch recovery services, like Watch, come in. Register and Watch Claim.
In addition to maintaining anti-theft databases, the two operate across borders, working with local police, Interpol and the FBI to locate and recover luxury watches.
Mr. Marinello works with law enforcement and the relationship has proven to be beneficial for both, said Robert K. Wittman, an art theft consultant and former head of the FBI’s Art Crime team. “Whenever I needed information about a situation, as far as law enforcement was concerned, it was more than helpful,” Mr. Wittman said of Mr. Marinello.
This point of view was echoed by James McAndrew, former head of international investigations into art and antiques theft at the US Department of Homeland Security. “I’m limited on what I can work on, what I can work on and what prosecutors are interested in,” he said. “As a result, a lot of things are not investigated.”
Mr. Marinello “fills this gap,” said Mr. McAndrew. “The coins he collects, in short, would never be without him. “
Once a watch or other artifact is recovered, Mr. Marinello occasionally takes possession of it until it can be returned to its owner – one of the many reasons he installed a bulletproof door. in its offices in London and Venice.
But nowadays, the only watches he’s in charge of are seven fake Rolexes. “I usually have a few lying around,” he said, searching in his briefcase in a video interview for one of the five he received from a recent undercover operation involving a criminal ring selling counterfeit gold Rolex Submariners. (While a legitimate gold Submariner is worth around $ 35,000 to $ 40,000, the “fancy” counterfeit models, he said, were listed for around $ 15,000 on eBay.)
Mr. Marinello’s everyday watch is a well-worn Timex $ 50 chronometer. As for the rest of his collection: “I have a skin in the game,” he said.
And if the rightful owner of a stolen watch gives him permission, he tries on parts he has recovered. Last June, for example, he took a Richard Mille RM030 Carbon Argentina for what he called a “test”. One of 30 watches ever made, the $ 145,000 watch was torn from its owner’s wrist in London in 2017.
Although he received multi-million dollar paintings in trash bags and called to help law enforcement, Mr. Marinello, whose charges for a recovered watch are based on a percentage of its value and are often paid for by insurance companies, said much of his work involved paperwork and negotiation. “It’s not exciting at all,” he said.
Most of the watches are never collected, he said. But when they are, the climax is reuniting the victims with their stolen goods. “See their face and see what it really means to get something back,” Mr. Marinello said. “It’s the best part of my job.”