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Learn negotiation skills from an art theft investigator

Christopher Marinello hunts back stolen art pieces worth millions of dollars. And at times he has to talk sense to gangsters.

May 07, 2021 / 09:11 AM IST
(Representational image)

(Representational image)

“He needed me more than I needed him.”

This crucial realisation helped art theft investigator Christopher Marinello once convince a Mafia member to return a precious sculpture in exchange for … well, nothing at all. No ransom. No quid pro quo.

The episode is a lesson in analysing the dynamics between two sides and the art of negotiation.

An Italian-American from New York, Marinello got involved in the case in 2010. A gallery in Toronto contacted him after receiving a suspicious offer of a bronze sculpture by Henry Moore. It had been stolen nine years earlier.

Marinello contacted the seller, who turned out to be a wise guy. The gangster soon played the Italian card, and then made a veiled threat.

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“He made reference to the fact that I am also an Italian citizen,” Marinello told The Guardian, “and that I was giving him a hard time. He said they could do the same to me.”

Marinello was unruffled. And he managed to reel in the sculpture.

“The bottom line is that if you are trying to sell something that is stolen, you’re the one with a problem, not me,” Marinello said. “You could be arrested for trafficking, for possession, or any number of things. He needed me more than I needed him. That was what I had to convince him.”

Marinello added, “I am an attorney, not a badass. But I’m a pretty good negotiator. I can convince people to do the right thing.”

He does have to take some precautions, such as not revealing his address.

“God forbid your life is in danger and you have to act quickly,” Marinello said. “There are some very wealthy people in the art world and they will absolutely go after you. And as for the criminals, there are plenty you just do not want to deal with. They’ll break your legs.”

Another lesson he learnt, thanks to one stupid decision, was to not take his family near his work.

“The dumbest thing I ever did was in Amsterdam,” Marinello said. “I was meeting a former art thief about a $100 million Picasso. He was very active in the 70s in the US, and in prison was partnered with a big-time drug dealer who knew where it was. We were trying to negotiate its return.”

The meeting was around Thanksgiving.

“So like an idiot, I took my family with me, including my mother-in-law, and decided to make a weekend of it.”

Surprisingly, Marinello agreed to meet the man at the hotel where he was staying with his family. And the ex-thief accidentally crossed paths with Marinello’s mother-in-law.

“Oh God, I had my head in my hands. I decided never again to mix business with pleasure,” Marinello said.

Marinello wanted to become an artist himself, and enrolled in an art school. But he realised he “wasn’t very good”. So he became a lawyer. Initially, he represented galleries, collectors and dealers. In 2013, he formed his own company, Art Recovery International.

 1972 photo of painter Paul Delvaux (seated). Via Wikimedia Commons
1972 photo of painter Paul Delvaux (seated). Via Wikimedia Commons

Marinello emphasises that his job is not as glamorous as may seem in the movies. But it is expensive art, and owners, and gangsters after all, so things can’t help but be interesting at times. In 2008, he collected a garbage bag from a Mercedes with dark glasses in Manhattan. Inside, carelessly rolled up, was Paul Delvaux’s painting, Le Rendezvous D’Ephese, stolen 40 years before, and now worth about $6 million. Its last possessor, Marinello said, was “a very well-heeled celebrity. And their very expensive lawyer made it clear they would never be named.”
Akshay Sawai

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