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He's a master at recovering Old Masters

Julian Radcliffe's Art Loss Register has been able to reunite $100 million worth of stolen art with rightful owners. His secret: a list.

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Ask Julian Radcliffe if he has always been an art lover, and you get a boyish grin. Maybe it's a silly question. This is a man who has been hunting down works of art and restoring them to their rightful owners around the world for 15 years. So it's a surprise to learn that Mr. Radcliffe has only recently started his own modest collection. But, as he says, you don't have to know your art to catch a thief. "I often say I'm in this not because I love art but because I hate criminals."

Since he set up the London-based Art Loss Register (ALR) in 1991, an inventory of stolen and missing works of art, Radcliffe has helped recover more than $100 million worth of stolen property.

The ALR is the largest database of looted treasure in the world. It catalogs more than 170,000 uniquely identifiable items, from Picasso and C├ęzanne originals, to sculptures, jewelry, silverware, furniture, and even classic cars and toys. It logs stolen items and searches its database when suspect items turn up.

It helps local police, Interpol, and insurers tackle what is estimated to be a $5 billion-a-year racket. ALR's efforts make thieves, fences, and shadowy dealers think hard about how to dispose of their ill-gotten gains. "We don't see ourselves as making the odd recovery; we see ourselves as leading the whole campaign against stolen art," says Radcliffe, bustling about his modest first-floor office in the heart of London's jewelry district. The phone bleats on a desk deep in paperwork. Radcliffe ignores it. "We recover, we provide the central checkpoint, and we deter by making it difficult to sell the stuff."

ALR's efforts have made a big difference, says Graham Saltmarsh, a former Scotland Yard detective with experience tracking down stolen art. "It's the first port of call for everyone involved in the recovery of art," says Mr. Saltmarsh, who now works as a consultant in art risk for the Cromwell group. "It's a great resource for the police and those of us in the private sector. We couldn't survive without them."

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