Lessons from an old master: As an art crimes investigator, former policeman Richard Ellis takes a traditional approach

May 23, 2013 3:45 pm

Lessons from an old master

By Emma Jacobs

Dick Ellis 12 and Bald

The art of the investigation: Richard Ellis is hired by collectors and insurers to retrieve stolen works

Criminals are both nemeses and friends to Richard “Dick” Ellis. After he leaves the Wallace Collection, the gallery in central London displaying paintings by Fragonard and Canaletto, the 63-year-old is going for a drink with one. Or, as he nonchalantly puts it, “someone who was classified as a former terrorist”.

The reason? “That is how you learn to do stuff.”

Mr Ellis traces stolen paintings and artefacts on behalf of collectors and insurers. Keeping up with criminal contacts helped him do his job as an investigator at New Scotland Yard, heading the art and antiques squad, and now it helps him to retrieve stolen property for private clients.His address book is a relic of a bygone era of policing. He laments the short-termist, “parochial” attitudes to criminal investigations by police needing to meet government targets that means detectives no longer foster the kinds of relationships that are built up over years.

“I joined an elite – I was a career detective in the days of Life on Mars [the television police drama set in the 1970s]. It was tremendous fun. The world is a different place,” he says. He prefers his new life in the private sector, cosseted from the modern concerns of crime enforcement.

Mr Ellis has worked on numerous high-profile cases recovering artworks taken from public galleries, including Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, stolen from the National Gallery of Norway in 1994, pages from an edition of Audubon’s “Birds of America” lifted from the State Library in St Petersburg. He has also traced antiquities looted from China and Egypt, and many items of art and antiques stolen from private residences in the UK, Ireland and overseas.

It was a personal quest that set him on his career path. Mr Ellis’s father, a doctor, was a keen amateur painter, and his great-aunt was an artist who trained under John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, the Pre-Raphaelite English painter. “I grew up in an environment of looking at art critically,” he says.

His parents, who also collected art and antiques, were burgled. Then a young policeman, he undertook the investigation himself, recovering much of the horde. As well as providing a boost to his family, it also fuelled his twin passions for sleuthing and art.

According to Mr Ellis, art thieves are career criminals. While most crime is undertaken by opportunists, an art thief needs to know the market and be professional. “They find the Achilles heel in security,” he says. After all, you can’t “take a painting off the wall and flog it in the pub”.

The idea of masterpieces being stolen to order for a criminal mastermind, typified by James Bond villain Dr No displaying Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington, is entirely fictional, says Mr Ellis. In his 20 years as an art crime investigator he has never come across a “Mr Big”.

But is a Picasso stolen from a wealthy collector of any concern beyond the victim of the crime when most people have more pressing concerns? Mr Ellis believes it is. “Art is being used as a currency to fund criminality, arms, drugs and terrorism,” he says. “It’s far more important than just losing cultural property. If you stop art crime you are stopping the funding of arms and drugs”.

Mr Ellis has often had to make this case. Tracing a Vermeer is hardly a priority for the public and government who want “Bobbies on the beat focused on antisocial behaviour”. Yet it should be, insists Mr Ellis. Visible policing “might have an effect on car and house burglary but it has little deterrent on career criminals”.

The US Department of Justice ranks art crime behind only drugs and arms in terms of highest-grossing criminal trades. According to the FBI, “fundamentalist terrorist groups rely on looted antiquities as a major funding source. Mohamed Atta tried to sell looted antiquities in 1999 as a funding source for the 9/11 attacks.”

Being an investigator was an unusual career path for Mr Ellis, whose family was full of medics. His enthusiasm for policing was sparked by taking a taster course in his school holidays at Hendon police college in north London. There he was billeted to Limehouse in the east end of the city. “A fantastically busy area for policing, I spent time with the vice squad,” he says. “They didn’t hold back. They showed us everything.”

After joining the police, he spent a decade doing criminal investigations before moving to affluent Hampstead in north London, which saw a wave of art thefts. In 1989 he reformed the art and antiques squad, which he led until his retirement from the police in 1999. “The international requests poured in – were getting 250 requests from overseas a year. We never recovered less than £14m a year in stolen property.”

Mr Ellis cites the story of Sir Alfred Beit’s art collection in County Wicklow, Ireland, which included works by Vermeer and Goya, as an example of how criminals try to dispose of stolen art. In 1986, Martin “The General” Cahill, a notorious Irish criminal, stole 11 paintings from the house. The first thing he did was bury them in the ground. After realising the impossibility of selling them on the open market, he explored disposing of them on the black market – where art is sold for a small percentage of its market value, or used as collateral. As Mr Ellis puts it: “A legitimate businessman uses their house, a criminal might use a painting.” In the end, Cahill traded two as currency for drugs. The rest were recovered – one by Mr Ellis behind a sofa in a north London flat.

Tenacity (“Just ask my wife: I’m bloody-minded I don’t let go easily”) has always been key to his work both as a policeman and as a private art investigator. The difference is that unlike the police, his focus in not on catching criminals but on recovering the paintings, silverware and sculpture, and dealing with clients. “I tell [them] if it is likely to be a long investigation. We set a cap on expenditure and review it.” When he uncovered two Picassos stolen in Serbia that had been stolen in Switzerland on behalf of an insurer, the investigation took three years.

As with most professions, however, it’s networking that gets results. “Talk to criminals and you will learn what they are doing,” he says.

With that, he goes off to meet a former terrorist.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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