Watchfinders are thriving - thanks to the billion-dollar 'Rolex ripper' trade

The booming market for luxury timepieces is increasingly attracting criminal gangs hoping for a quick profit

Christopher Marinello, chief executive of Art Recovery Group. AFP
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Sitting at traffic lights in central London with a £95,000 Richard Mille watch on his wrist as his arm dangled outside the window, all may have seemed well for the Ferrari driver from the Middle East.

What happened next is described by Christopher Marinello, who told The National that “a guy came up on a motorbike and whipped the watch off his wrist, then disappeared into traffic”.

Marinello is one of the world’s foremost experts in recovering stolen art and who in recent years has put his expertise and tenacity to good use recovering stolen luxury watches, often worth several million pounds each.

A lot of watches are stolen to order, like supercars, but they’re easier to transport and the money is very similar
Paul Thorpe

He is constantly on the hunt for the "Rolex ripper" thieves who plague the streets of London's wealthiest neighbourhoods.

A one-time art student-turned-lawyer, he worked as a litigator in New York on art-related disputes before founding Art Recovery International and moving to London.

While he counts the recovery of art looted by the Nazis among his successes in that field, his business increasingly involves getting luxury watches back for clients. Among his clients are the unfortunate man he described, whose $120,000 Richard Mille 023 watch he is still hunting.

The progression from recovering art to watches was a natural one, he says.

“These watches are in themselves works of art. They are so incredibly complicated that there’s no difference between a Picasso and a Richard Mille timepiece," he says.

In recent years there has been an explosion in the market for luxury watches, new and secondhand, and it has attracted speculators and, as is the way of the world, criminals.

About 6,000 were stolen in London alone last year and The Watch Register database says the value of the timepieces reported as stolen or missing has now reached £1 billion ($1.3 billion).

The register receives 600 reports of stolen watches every month. Last year there was a 60 per cent increase compared with the year before, while it locates between three and five a day.

Former leading independent watch dealer Paul Thorpe, who still keeps a close eye on the market, told The National people were investing in watches, “which has sent the value through the roof”.

“They have become a hugely valuable and easily transportable commodity,” said Mr Thorpe, who runs a popular YouTube channel on the luxury watch market and associated crime.

“It’s attractive to someone who just likes watches, to those looking for an investment and those who want to steal them and make a lot of money.

“A lot of watches are stolen to order, like supercars, but they’re easier to transport and the money is very similar. In many ways they’ve overtaken drugs because the reward is pretty much the same and the risk is a lot lower.”

Operating from offices with bulletproof doors at undisclosed addresses in London and Venice, Mr Marinello says the total value of the watches he’s recovered is in the “tens of millions of pounds”, including “several worth more than £500,000”. He says his recovery fee is a percentage of the value.

He says he is contacted “every day” from often distraught owners of watches that have been stolen, sometimes in the street or in their homes, but often as the result of elaborate scams on the part of sophisticated criminals.

“Thieves know that these watches have become extremely high value, are in demand and achieving incredibly high prices at auction,” he said.

Wherever wealthy people congregate and vacation, the watch thieves are there
Christopher Marinello

“So they know what to steal and they’re stealing them from collectors and dealers all over the world. They steal from London, Cannes, Los Angeles, New York. Wherever wealthy people congregate and vacation, the watch thieves are there.”

Right now he is hunting a Richard Mille 56-01 – a “€3 million to €5 million watch” – that was “stolen in Athens and appeared for sale in Hong Kong with a dealer who was offering the watch on Instagram”.

He recovers watches for clients whose beloved timepieces popped up in databases such as The Watch Register, often when an unsuspecting owner tries to resell them or when they’re taken to be serviced.

“One day that watch will appear for sale, but it most likely won’t be the thief who’ll sell it but some poor soul who took a chance and bought the watch without asking any questions," he says.

When a stolen watch appears for sale at one of the major auction houses, such as Philips or Sotheby's or at online marketplaces such as Chrono24 or Antiquorum, his job is to persuade them to remove it from sale.

“When I notify these auction houses they are usually very co-operative. They will hold the watch and ask to see the police report [for proof] the watch is the same as in the police reports, which is usually the serial number," Mr Marinello says.

“They will hold the watch until they can discuss the issue with the person who brought the watch for sale and me, who’s representing the victim, or the victim’s insurance company. It’s usually very discreet.”

But he has run into difficulty with some online auction houses who, he says, are “not particularly helpful or co-operative”.

A lot of his work is for insurance companies “who will pay my fees when the watch is found”. At that point “it belongs to the insurance company and there’s usually a buy-back clause in the policy for it to be offered back to the victim”.

Mr Marinello said many stolen watches land up in the Middle East, where the legal export of Swiss watches made up 9.6 per cent of the total market in 2022, according to FH, the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.

Almost half of these legal exports went to the UAE, making it the ninth-biggest market for Swiss watches that year.

While Mr Marinello said he has secured much co-operation from jewellers there, he warns buyers to check that any prospective purchase has all the paperwork “before you spend £500,000”.

“Do a bit of homework because if you don’t there’s a chance you’ll lose everything.”

As well as robbery and burglary, he said thieves are trying more sophisticated methods to steal watches, particularly from collectors.

One gang "convinced one seller to bring his collection to Milan and they paid for his flight and his hotel at the Four Seasons", he said.

"Then they robbed him at the hotel bar of a huge collection of watches then disappeared.”

Asked if he has a luxury watch himself, he laughs. “Am I really going to put a target on my back?” he says, before admitting to wearing a “50 quid running watch I wear out often”.

Katya Hills, managing director of The Watch Register, said the average value of the watches on its database is around £10,000, and 45 per cent of them are Rolexes.

The Watch Register is part of the Art Loss Register, which was a coming together of the insurance industry and auction houses with founding shareholders Lloyd's of London, Christie’s and Sotheby's.

The database helps insurers to recover stolen items and to give private individuals as well as auctioneers a chance to check if items for sale are stolen, she said.

Victims, whether traders or private individuals, as well as insurers and the police also use the service, which is aimed at the unique and fast-paced nature of the watch trade.

“People tend to make a deal on a watch in a few minutes, so we need to provide a search within a few minutes of the enquiry coming, so we can provide an answer to a trader while the customer was still in the store,” she told The National.

“Watches also move from one owner to another very quickly, so it’s a lot faster paced. Therefore the recovery work is quite different to the art side. We find far more stolen watches than we do any other type of stolen item and we tend to find them much quicker because they surface much quicker."

While art works can take decades to retrieve, "with the watches that we do locate as lost or stolen, we find 50 per cent within one year and 35 per cent within six months".

Ms Hills said The Watch Register has also encountered new methods used by thieves, which they honed during Covid.

"Rather than engage in contact robberies, they were engaging in fraud because that could be done remotely when business was flourishing online," she said.

In one common type of fraud, criminals temporarily transfer money for a watch, but then after receiving it, immediately reverse the transaction.

"So you're left without the money, and without the watch," she said.

The Watch Register charges 5 per cent of the value to locate a watch, but if clients want them recovered as well that fee goes up to 20 per cent.

The company employs a team of between three and five recovery specialists, similar to Mr Marinello, and one of their successes was recovering the watch of Premier League footballer Rico Henry.

The Brentford player’s £30,000 rose-gold Rolex GMT-Master II went missing from his pocket while he was staying in a central London hotel this year.

The watch was found but, instead of handing it in, the finder took it to a pawnbroker who checked it out on The Watch Register’s database and matched it to one reported as stolen.

The Watch Register got in touch with the pawnbroker right away and set up the watch’s retrieval and return to Henry.

For Mr Marinello, the moment a watch is returned to its owner is a special one.

“It’s nice to see somebody reunited with their timepiece,” he said.

"In a recent case, my client was robbed right outside his apartment building in London. He passed away and by the time we were able to recover his watch we were able to return it to his children.

“That meant a great deal to them to get their father’s watch back, so it was very rewarding.”

Updated: September 04, 2023, 9:46 AM