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Is Antiquorum Sufficiently Anticrime?

One of the more interesting people to arrive on YouTube in the past three years is Larry Lawton. After six years in the Coast Guard, Lawton drifted into the world of organized crime but law enforcement eventually caught up to him. Lawton spent many years behind bars and, now that he's been released, he genuinely seems interested in telling his story so that others won't make the same mistakes he did. His videos appear quite unfiltered when it comes to his crimes and his punishment.

Lawton ended up specializing in jewelry store theft. In some of his videos, he details how particular "jobs" went down. Lawton's videos focus on his crimes in Florida and the general region near Florida. His heists frequently involved leaving a store, getting on the highway, and driving long distances for the next phase of his operation: selling stolen items. This process involved getting on interstate 95, which is a highway that runs the length of the east coast of the United States. He and his co-conspirators would typically rob a store, get in the getaway car, and drive straight from Florida to New York City. They wouldn't speed and they would only stop for gas.

This is not a photo of a police officer standing with an auction house employee but it is what AI thinks that would look like.
That drive is probably 20 hours or more. At the end of it, Lawton and his crew would go to a diamond dealer or another jeweler, sell the stolen goods for cash, and split the proceeds. Why am I relating this story on a blog about watches? Well, I recently had a very interesting conversation with Chris Marinello about watch theft and it reminded me that, in the present day, watch thieves may very well use the same strategy as Lawton: watches are stolen in one place but increasingly it seems they are sold thousands, or tens of thousands, of miles away.

The Art of Property Recovery

How would Marinello know this? Simple: he works in the field of property recovery. I've previously written about Marinello's work. His business, Art Recovery, has extensive experience in the recovery of stolen or looted works of art. However, with the documented increase in theft of luxury watches, Marinello is now active in the recovery of stolen timepieces.

Most of Marinello's work is unknown to the public. He has been in the business for 35 years and he is a pragmatic problem solver. When he locates a stolen watch, often at an auction house or sometimes on the web page of a dealer or online auction platform, he knows the holder will worry about reputational harm from any public association with stolen goods. Also, auction houses, in particular, do everything they can to protect the privacy of their consignors and bidders. Finally, Marinello's own clients are often high-profile individuals who would sometimes prefer to stay out of the press when they're trying to recover a stolen watch. For this reason, Marinello offers to sign a non-disclosure agreement in order to reassure an auction house, or any other party, that the issue at hand can be resolved with discretion.

There is also the matter of financial loss. Suppose a collector bought an A. Lange & Söhne Lange 1 for $20,000. Based on a recent auction sale, that price represents a $5,000 "discount" on this particular watch. Suppose further that the collector wants to sell the watch and they consign it to Auction House X. Next, suppose Marinello identifies the watch as stolen and contacts the auction house. Now, the auction house may worry about "costing" the consignor $20,000 if they simply hand over the watch to Marinello. He gets this, and he asks to have a meeting with the auction house and the consignor and / or their representative. Marinello generally tries to "soften the blow" with the consignor. He didn't share particular tactics that he uses, but we can imagine a few. Suppose the theft victim had posted a reward of $8,000. He might offer to give those funds to the consignor. He might also point out that an auction house might charge 30% in fees on the sale, which at a price of $25,000 amounts to $7,500. Between those two things alone, the consignor only faces an effective loss of $4,500 ($20,000 - $8,000 - $7,500). Is that a good day for the consignor? No, it isn't. But it isn't as bad as the original purchase price suggested. And the story doesn't necessarily end there. In the past, Marinello has offered to help consignors recoup some of their funds from the party that sold them the watch. Given the approach he takes, in which he attempts to support the goals of all the parties in these difficult circumstances, it is understandable that Marinello's recent experience in the case of a stolen Richard Mille watch is particularly baffling.

The Richard Mille Tourbillon in Hong Kong

This part of the story begins at 9:30 at night in Milan, Italy, late September 2022.
An example of the Richard Mille RM002 Tourbillion in rose gold. Photo credit Richard Mille.
A tourist named Paul (name changed) was loading shopping bags into a taxi. According to a statement that Paul subsequently filed with Milan's police department (shared with me by Marinello), two people approached Paul. One injured his finger, perhaps using the moment of injury to expose Paul's Richard Mille RM002 tourbillon in pink gold. The watch came off Paul's wrist and into the hands of one of his attackers. Both criminals began to run. Paul gave chase, but the two thiefs split up. At that point, he gave up and sought medical treatment (it seems he has physically recovered from his injury). A watch worth approximately $200,000 had disappeared into the night.

Roughly seven months later, Marinello contacted the auction house Antiquorum because he'd learned that they had Paul's Richard Mille in their posession. It was in the catalogue for their June 13th sale in Hong Kong (hence my earlier reference to Lawton rapidly moving stolen goods from Florida to New York City).
A screenshot of the alleged stolen watch in the catalogue for an Antiquorum auction. Photo supplied by Chris Marinello.
According to an email Marinello shared with me, he contacted Antiquorum's Managing Director in Geneva, Julien Schaerer (I have asked Antiquorum if they would like to discuss this episode or provide a detailed statment, I provide their response below). Aside from an exchange of certain information, such as documents corroborating the theft of the watch, Marinello had a simple ask: "Please do NOT release the watch back to the consignor now that you know it is considered stolen property and an open investigation (sic)."

One day after Marinello's first email, he followed up with a second to Antiquorum's CEO, Romain Rea. Marinello wrote that, in his past experience with Antiquorum, the auction house would only communicate with police whenever Marinello found a stolen watch in the auction house's catalogue. As a result, he had contacted police in Italy, Geneva and the UK (where Marinello resides) in order to facilitate communication with authorities. Marinello asked for direct dialogue on the matter. The next day, although dialogue did not take place, it seems the watch was removed from Antiquorum's auction catalogue. Paul had indicated to Marinello that he would like to personally contact the police in Geneva about the matter (a move Marinello counseled against).

Four days after his first email, Marinello wrote to Schaerer, "I am disappointed that you have not responded to any of my emails or calls concerning this matter. I am aware that you have instructed your staff not to respond to me either. I don't find this particularly professional and suggest that you instruct your legal team to reach out to me. I would like to caution you again that now that you know the watch is stolen, (and withdrawn from your sale) you should not return it to your Consignor. Knowingly moving stolen property could be considered a criminal act in some jurisdictions." It appears that the staff at Antiquorum had elected to simply ignore Marinello, a move that was quite unprecedented in his 35 year career recovering stolen property.

On June 5, 2023, roughly one week after Marinello's last email to Antiquorum, a Genevan public prosecutor sent a letter to Antiquorum (I believe in Geneva) asking if the auction house was in the posession of the stolen Richard Mille watch. The letter was prompted by a criminal complaint filed in Geneva by Marinello's client, Paul. Antiquorum's Schaerer replied by letter on June 9. He wrote (translated by Google) "Further to your letter (simple letter) dated June 5, 2023, received on June 7, 2023, we hereby confirm that we are not, and never have been, in possession of the RM002 AE PG watch, case 134 , caliber RM002/4, 18k in pink gold, formerly lot 145 from the Hong Kong sale of June 13, 2023. As indicated to the Banditry Repression Brigade (BRB), this watch was offered for sale by Antiquorum Auctioneer Hong Kong Ltd., located at 9 Queen's Road Central, Central, Hong Kong. For any additional information about this watch, please contact the aforementioned Hong Kong entity directly."

Frankly, this response struck me as extraodrinarily bizarre. In essence, Antiquorum's Geneva office either 1) never talked to the Hong Kong office about this situation and, therefore, did not know what happened to the watch or, 2) they knew the whole story but they were not going to share the information with authorities. Honestly, neither of these are a good look for the auction house. If the first scenario is true, the auction house is extremely disorganized. It would suggest that one of their branch offices pulled a $200,000 watch out of the vault, essentially, and returned it to the consignor without first confirming that action with higher ups or other team members in Switzerland. I find this improbable. With the second scenario more likely, it seems disappointing that the office in Geneva would not simply fully divulge the location of the watch to local authorities. That would be the most transparent response. Instead, Schaerer seems to have offered the bare minimum required to answer the question that was posed. Genevan authorities have a more difficult job ascertaining where the stolen watch is located, as a result.

The State of Play and Macro Picture

I reached out to Antiquorum to see if they wanted to talk with me about the situation or send a detailed response. I honestly was not optimistic that they would respond since they reportedly did not reply to another publication that contacted them about this matter. To their credit, they did reply. Antiquorum's representative wrote, "The matter referred to by Mr Chris Marinello is currently in the hands of the justice system in Hong Kong. We make it a priority to comply with all our due diligence processes and to cooperate with the judicial authorities in all their requests. At this stage, we do not wish to comment on the case and will leave it to the courts and the police." A Twitter post from the account @artrecovery seems to corroborate Antiquorum's response. The post includes a screenshot of a crime report submitted to the Hong Kong Police Force on July 6.

I'd like to conclude this post discussing some more general aspects to the matter at hand. A somewhat oversimplified model of the decision to commit crime involves comparing the expected return to criminal activity with the return to obeying the law and finding legitimate employment. Let's say that a criminal escapes unprosecuted with probability p and earns C from crime. With probability (1-p) they would be caught and let's say the value of that outcome is I (representing imprisonment). Further, let's say E is the return to legal employment. An individual will rationally decide to commit crime whenever pC + (1-p)I > E.

If we rearrange this expression a bit, we obtain the "choose crime" condition as pC > E - (1-p)I. The left hand side of this equation is the expected benefit from conducting crime and getting away with it. The right hand side is the return to not engaging in crime net of the expected return from doing crime and getting caught. We can think of this as reflecting "regret," ie, ex ante, how much better off an imprisoned criminal would be if they had not chosen a life of crime. The result of this analysis is pretty standard. Three conditions make it more likely that a person will choose crime: 1) a high probability of escaping punishment (p) , 2) a high return from crime (C), 3) a high return from being in prison (I) and 4) a low return from non-criminal pursuits (E).

We can now see why watch crime is on the rise. A lot of police departments and law enforcement seem less inclined towards pursuing watch crimes, for whatever reason. This raises the probability of escaping punishment. Of late, there has been a lot of economic uncertainty in certain countries, which means the return from non-criminal employment is low. And, with the rather rapid rise in the value of pre-owned timepieces, the return to stealing them is higher. The conditions are almost "perfect" for a rise in watch theft.

Let's return to the discussion of Antiquorum and other sales platforms. These players in the watch industry can directly impact the likelihood that watch crime will take place. By cooperating fully and transparently with the police, they can lower the probability that a criminal will escape punishment (lower p). Even if they don't impact this factor, if they vet lots more fully (by checking stolen serial numbers with manufacturers, for example) or collaborate more completely with property recovery experts like Marinello, they can reduce the return to engaging in crime. The last of these possibilities may not seem likely until you consider the full cycle of how a stolen luxury timepiece is handled. The graphic I've presented here is a visualization of that process. Any break in the cycle would mean that a thief would not profit from stealing a watch. For example, thieves almost always use "fences." These are the first people to whom they sell stolen property (the term "fence" seems to orginate from "defence" in the sense that a fence defends a thief from punishment by buying stolen property and not revealing the thief's identity).
The cycle of watch crime.
If there were no fences, thieves would be much less likely to steal because it would be easy to connect the property, as evidence, to the criminal.

We can see that auction houses and online sales platforms can also disrupt the return to thieves. At the green portion of the cycle, watch values are quite low compared to the market value of a timepiece. The buyers of these "hot" or "dirty" watches face a lot of risk themselves. So, they will demand a discount when buying a watch. This is their fee for fencing the watch and / or exchanging it with others. In that process, its origin becomes more obscure and the watch is, basically, laundered. Auction houses and online platforms can offer market prices to fences and others closer to the thief in the chain of custody because the watch has "cooled down" and / or been "laundered" in the green part of the cycle. In essence, the red part of the cycle creates the return for those participating in the green part of the cycle. However, if auction houses and / or online platforms filter out stolen property more frequently, this reduces or perhaps eliminates the return to fences and others. That, in turn, would mean thieves will find it is harder to sell stolen watches, thereby reducing their incentive to engage in watch theft.


Marinello shared a few other observations about watch theft which are worth noting. He's recently seen a somewhat amazing level of sophistication on the part of thieves. One of his clients arrived in a European country by plane, went straight to his hotel, and within 15 minutes of going into his hotel room, his luxury watch was gone. The level of surveilance and coordination required for this type of theft is relatively unprecedented. Marinello also shared that he has located at least one other stolen watch, a Patek Philippe worth ChF 225,000 that was sold at an Antiquorum auction in May, 2022. In that case, the auction house has not shared with Marinello the name of the buyer. It would be fair to ask how many collectors unwittingly have timepieces bought at auction that, at any moment, could be identified as stolen. This risk is non-negligible.

Marinello does indicate that most auction houses take a professional approach when he contacts them, so there is some possibility that the industry, generally, is seriously approaching its responsibility to disrupt the cycle of watch crime I described above. Doing so is in their own self-interest. If auction houses and other platforms gain a reputation for feeding the cycle of watch crime, rather than disrupting it, it is likely that collectors will sour on luxury watches. The risks of becoming a victim, either through purchasing a stolen watch or having one stolen from you, would mean collecting is simply not worth it.
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