How to recover stolen goods - discreetly

By Jonathan Goldberg, July 14, 2011
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Richard from Birmingham writes:

I trade at the top end of the watch business. I happen to be a gay man, but I do not choose to advertise the fact. I am now facing a terrible dilemma. I was with a younger man for about five years, but we parted company some months ago. When he left, he stole from my safe at home three rare and beautiful antique watches of extremely high value. I paid over £120,000 for them at auction some years ago in Switzerland, and they would be worth more today to a collector or museum. I only discovered this theft very recently.

I confronted him, and he admitted it straight away. He says he did it to punish me for ending our relationship and the bad way I treated him allegedly.

He has begged me not to tell the police. In truth, we had a complex relationship but it was often good, and despite what he has done, I do not want to ruin his life over it.

It now turns out that he sold the watches for just over £22,000 to a jeweller in Brighton, despite having no documents of title whatever. I believe that any jeweller buying these rare watches in such circumstances must have realised their true value, and must have suspected they were stolen. I have telephoned the jeweller pretending to be an interested buyer. He still has the watches for sale, although he refuses even to discuss prices over the phone. My ex-friend has no money, and anyway he squandered the whole £22,000 in a casino the very week he received it.

Must I now involve the police, given that the last thing I want is the exposure of my private life in court? Do I have any other options to recover my watches, or at least their value? I am not insured for this, because there was a policy exclusion for theft by members of my own household.

Richard, these unusual facts raise thorny legal issues. While the common law recognises in very general terms a duty upon all citizens to assist the police, I know of nothing which requires you as the victim of a crime to report it to the police, if you do not want to see your ex-friend prosecuted. I know of no sanction against you if you decide not to prosecute.

It is clear that any such court case is likely to result in adverse publicity for you, and I think I detect from what you write that there are embarrassing personal considerations involved here, the effect of which only you can judge. I am often asked if such sensitive matters can be made the subject of a private hearing in court, or if the press can be excluded. The normal rule is overwhelmingly that they cannot. English justice is open justice save in exceptional circumstances, which may not apply here.

As to the jeweller in Brighton however, he is clearly liable in civil law to return your watches. A thief cannot in law pass good title, even if the jeweller had been acting in good faith when he bought them. On the facts you describe, he may well have turned a knowingly blind eye to receiving stolen goods, which would be, of course, a criminal offence by him. If he has any sense, he should be delighted to return the watches to you quickly and quietly. A good option might be for you to offer him his £22,000 back without prejudice and ex gratia, in order to smooth his decision. And you could insist on a confidentiality clause.

An interesting if probably academic question is whether you or the jeweller could seek to recover the £22,000 lost to the casino. In a case heard in 1991, a dishonest solicitor had stolen an enormous sum of money from his firm's client account, and he had then lost it by gambling in the Playboy Club. The House of Lords decided that the remaining partners of the firm could indeed recover from that casino the large sum by which his total losses there had exceeded his total winnings over the period. Although the casino was ignorant of the dishonest origin of his stakes, these came from stolen monies, and it was held that the casino would be unjustly enriched if they were allowed to keep their profits when the solicitor had gambled away other people's money.

The same legal principle is now being used by the way both here and in America, to trace and recover some of the billions lost by Bernie Madoff.

Your problem requires discreet and deft handling. Consult a good lawyer without delay. This is not a situation where you would be wise to continue acting for yourself.

The above is not formal legal advice and is given without liability. Jonathan Goldberg QC is a leading London barrister. Visit www.goldbergqc.com

    Last updated: 9:52am, July 14 2011