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https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/16/styl ... -AoKsSxKoc
By Nazanin Lankarani
Feb. 16, 2018
Watches have long been easy targets for thieves. Stolen off a wrist or taken in a smash-and-grab attack, high-end timepieces, easily transportable and often untraceable, could easily be turned into cash.
But that has been changing. The rise of online services specializing in identifying lost or stolen watches has helped law enforcement, dealers and diligent buyers — even in Miami, which the FBI has identified as one of the top fencing hubs in the United States (and where the Watches & Wonders fair is opening Friday).
“ ‘No mama, no papa’ — that is what they call watches with no papers and no serial number,” Jeff Harris, a Los Angeles-based watch dealer, said. “Those are very easy to trade. After all, a gold Submariner is a gold Submariner.”
To Mr. Harris, the vernacular of that underworld has become all too familiar. He was in Las Vegas last April to attend the International Watch and Jewelry Guild trade show, held at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino. With about $2 million in mostly vintage and one-of-a-kind timepieces locked in his room safe, Mr. Harris went to dinner — and returned about an hour later to find the room door broken and the safe missing.
“The safe was crowbarred out of the wall,” Mr. Harris said. “The thief had wrapped it in a towel to take it out to the stairwell. He was caught on video running out of the hotel and jumping into a cab.”
Filippo Salvador Cuomo, who was arrested days later in Miami, was identified from a combination of the surveillance video and a jacket that he left behind in his own room at the hotel. His name had been sewn into the label.
He pleaded guilty to larceny and, through an agreement with Nevada state prosecutors, received a five-year prison sentence; a federal case (he crossed state lines during the crime) is pending.
ImageA pair of fake Rolex watches at the Watch Register. Of the 60,000 lost and stolen timepieces in its database, one third are Rolexes.
A pair of fake Rolex watches at the Watch Register. Of the 60,000 lost and stolen timepieces in its database, one third are Rolexes.CreditTom Jamieson for The New York Times
Mr. Harris’s watches, however, were not recovered. “They made off with a couple of ruby- and sapphire-encrusted Rolex Daytonas, vintage complicated Pateks, Rolexes with Stella dials, a unique Audemars Piguet and other very rare timepieces,” the dealer said.
According to the FBI’s website, organized groups of thieves often use intermediaries, commonly called fences, in cities such as Los Angeles, Houston, New York and Miami to convert stolen goods into cash.
In his case, Mr. Harris said, authorities have leads to two fences in Miami. “We suspect a Miami jeweler and a known Milanese money launderer, identified in the Rio hotel’s surveillance video,” Mr. Harris said. “In the U.S., the hub for stolen watches is Miami. In Europe, it is Italy.”
There are no official statistics on the number of watches stolen around the world each year but the FBI’s website estimates that the jewelry and watch industry in the United States loses more than $100 million annually in retail thefts. Since 1992, the FBI’s Jewelry & Gem Theft program has helped the industry combat such crimes. And, while the bureau does not maintain a database, it does cooperate with the Jewelers’ Security Alliance, a nonprofit trade association that has a registry of stolen watches and jewelry.
In Europe, Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency based in The Hague, offers similar help to businesses and it works with International Jeweller Security, a registry site.
After the robbery, Mr. Harris posted descriptions of his watches and their serial numbers online. That information was picked up by MyStolenWatch, a specialized theft-check website that, like Watch CSA or WatchFacts, lists stolen watches by serial numbers. “My watches and their serial numbers are now listed on several registers and they also come up in a Google search if anyone checks,” Mr. Harris said.
The theft-check company with the largest global database of stolen watches is Watch Register, a London-based site operated by the Art Loss Register, a well-known stolen art tracking service founded in 1990. The Watch Register provides both identification and recovery services of lost and stolen watches across borders.
“We had been registering watches since 1991 when we first started collecting information about stolen artworks as a service to auction houses,” Katya Hills, managing director of the Watch Register, said. “By 2014, we had sufficient data on watches to provide a targeted service.”
The Watch Register also deals with older timepieces. “We treat vintage or pocket watches like antiques,” Ms. Hills said. “We use keywords from the description and the image, and the search becomes more sophisticated.”
The Watch Register also deals with older timepieces. “We treat vintage or pocket watches like antiques,” Ms. Hills said. “We use keywords from the description and the image, and the search becomes more sophisticated.”CreditTom Jamieson for The New York Times
Today, the Watch Register has details about more than 60,000 lost and stolen watches, involving more than 850 brands. One third, according to Ms. Hill, are stolen or lost Rolexes and, while most of the timepieces are modern, there also are vintage ones as well as pocket watches. Users must pay a fee of 10 pounds plus tax (about $13.75) to check the provenance or status of a watch; subscriptions for dealers and pawnshops that need multiple searches also are available.
“Last year alone, we added 10,000 more watches to our database,” Ms. Hills said. “We get between 80,000 to 100,000 search requests per year.”
Unlike modern high-end watches, each of which has a unique serial number, vintage timepieces or pocket watches can only be registered by descriptions of their distinctive features. “We treat vintage or pocket watches like antiques,” Ms. Hills said. “We use keywords from the description and the image, and the search becomes more sophisticated.”
The site has had its successes. In 2016, for example, the Watch Register helped recover a Patek Philippe stolen in Naples, Italy, that had turned up in an auction in New York.
When auction houses are preparing an art or watch event, they typically check their lots against both the Art Loss and Watch registers. “All our worldwide catalogs, including online sales, are checked by the Art Loss Register,” said Sabine Kegel, international senior watch specialist at Christie’s in Geneva.
While auction houses, pawnshops and dealers can check such sites before reselling a watch, Mr. Harris said he feared that such online tracking just pushed opportunistic watch thieves further underground.
“People can still buy a stolen watch and wear it, without ever looking up the serial number,” Mr. Harris said. “Also now there are places that can change the serial number on some watches.”
Because his stolen watches were mostly one-of-a-kind or limited editions, Mr. Harris is optimistic that they will be recovered. “My watches are so unique that they can be immediately identified if they ever turn up,” he said. “There are very few buyers in the world for these watches. The best option at this point may be for the thieves to ‘sell’ them back to me.”