Launched five years ago, the ALR has helped to recover more than 700 listed items worth around pounds 20m and more than 3,000 other artefacts not actually on the database. It was founded with the backing of the insurance industry and the major auction houses out of frustration with the low police recovery rate for arts and antiques. It works hand in glove with police forces across the globe.
"The whole business of describing a stolen work of art is quite complicated," explains its managing director, James Emson, a military man who joined the ALR soon after its inception. "Frankly, the police have much higher priorities. The theft of Rembrandt's `Storm on the Sea of Galilee' might get some publicity and would be recognised if it turned up. But we have 287 Picassos on the database and I doubt if a member of the public could name one.
"A car can be identified from its engine or chassis number. But what do the police do with a silver teapot? How can they distinguish one from the other, especially when it may have been stolen in Hertfordshire and turns up in Norfolk?"
A phone call by the police to the ALR institutes a search process with a hit rate of one in 15. When a theft is reported by the owner, loss adjuster or insurer, it is logged on the database. As much detail as possible is included, plus a photograph if available. Around 50 per cent of the items recorded are works of art, the rest are anything from Victorian dolls to Rolex watches.
The item must be uniquely identifiable. It must also have a police crime reference number. The minimum value criterion - originally pounds l,000 but more now pounds 250 - was dropped on the basis that the identification of an item of low value can sometimes lead to a significant haul. "We identified a couple of paintings worth about pounds 300 each, which turned out to be part of a pounds 100,000 theft," says James Emson.
The success of the ALR depends on the support of both the 300 insurance companies and the auction houses that subscribe to the service. In the first year, the register made just 12 recoveries. Today, 75 per cent of the insurance companies who have subscribed since the beginning have recovered more in financial terms than they have paid out. This, in turn, leads to more companies joining the ALR, making it by far the largest operation of its kind in the world.
ALR staff, all trained in fine art, scan the catalogues of the major auction houses worldwide who are shareholders, so insuring that the purported owner has a good title. A scan takes from 10 minutes to just under an hour, using "fuzzy matching" of key words in the catalogue description against items in the database. The office identifies two items every three days. It is a moment of excitement when a match occurs.
"Working here is not just a question of sitting looking at a computer all day," says James Emson. "This is an operations room. It depends on people listening and putting two and two together. Computer technology is not enough."
One vigilant member of staff spotted two George III hall chairs that looked remarkably familiar in a gallery near the ALR office. She recalled scanning a photograph of the chairs on to the database a few months previously. She returned to the dealer with a camera, took some pictures and matched the two images from the grain of the wood and a chip on one seat.
With art theft thought to be the largest international crime after the drugs trade and a favourite method of laundering money, the deterrent effect of the register is valued by insurers. If stolen works cannot easily be sold - even abroad - they will be less attractive to thieves. Some 20 per cent of items are located outside the country of ownership. One of the most spectacular recoveries, a still-life by Moise Kisling, was stolen in an armed robbery in Paris in 1979 and spotted in a routine trawl of a Sotheby's catalogue for a sale in Tel Aviv 16 years later.
At a more parochial level, ALR staff frequently visit police "Aladdin's Caves" with their laptops. In 1992, the register was asked to search for a Queen Anne chest put up for auction in Nottingham. It was matched to a listing on the database and on the basis of this information, police traced four handlers and seized 3,800 stolen articles. By setting up shop in the police warehouse, the ALR identified 200 pieces. The owners of these, in turn, claimed a further 2,600 items - three-quarters of the total haul.
Combating fraud is a growing area of the ALR's work, says James Emson. "People maintain they have been burgled when they haven't. They lay low for a few years and then put the item up for sale. One man moved all his works of art from one of his homes to another and then reported a theft. Another registered as stolen a painting he had never owned. We can also detect multiple claims if more than one insurer registers the same loss. And we register items lost in fires: if the article appears on the market, we know a fraudulent claim has been made."
As the ALR database has grown - 1,500 new items are added each month - a potential purchaser who checks with it before he buys a particular work of art is seen to be exercising a minimum of due diligence. The Metropolitan Museum in New York already runs a check on all acquisitions over $35,000 before purchase. It is hoped that if the Unidroit Convention is ever ratified, a reference to the ALR will be included.
While auction houses are scrupulous about checking the provenance of items put up for sale, dealers are noticeably less so. "Because dealers often work alone, there is a personal risk if they confront somebody and suggest checking the item against the ALR," explains James Emson. "We need to convince them that it is in their interests to check the database rather than to risk buying stolen property or turning away something that might not be stolen. We have had spectacular results. One dealer in Gloucester asked a man who brought in six paintings worth around pounds 35,000 to come back the following day. As a result of checking with us, the police were alerted and man was arrested when he returned."
Such is the success of the ALR that the principle is being copied for other goods. The Equipment Register, set up in March 1995 has led to the recovery of construction equipment including a number of compressors stolen in Germany and brought to Britain. And January saw the launch of the Gemprint Appraiser database which uses laser "fingerprinting" technology in an attempt to reduce the insurance industry's pounds 800m a year bill for jewellery losses.