Only 30 of Richard Mille’s RM-030 “Argentina” watches, with their juice box-sized cases and vibrant blue Laffy Taffy-like bands, exist in the world. On a late November night in 2017, one of them was yanked from the arm of its owner, carried at a sprint down a sidewalk, then swerved through London traffic on the back of a moped. Security footage later showed that two people had allegedly stalked the watch as it traveled, on its owner’s wrist, through London’s upscale department store Harrods. Eventually one of the men split off, presumably to get the moped stationed. When the watch’s owner stepped out onto the street with his wife and young daughter, the man still following him ran up, grabbed his arm, and made off with the $100,000 watch.
The victim went through the typical post-robbery rigmarole. He reported the case to the police—but, without much to go on and no obvious suspects, the case was eventually closed. Like many people with very expensive watches, the victim had insurance for the piece, so he reported it stolen and eventually received a payout. He figured that was the end of it.
Meanwhile, the Richard Mille began a journey around the world. Where it went immediately after London is hard to say, but the piece eventually ended up with a dealer in Hong Kong, and then a retailer in Dubai. A customer browsing the selection at Authentic Luxury Watches Trading in the United Arab Emirates would have had no idea the watch he was buying was hot. (Authentic Luxury Watches Trading did not respond to a request for comment.) So he bought it. Nearly a year and a half after the theft, he sent it to the local Richard Mille center in Dubai to be serviced. On January 15th, 2020, the watch arrived to be serviced, prompting a match on one of the various databases of missing timepieces maintained by the FBI, Interpol, insurance agencies, and nonprofit organizations like Artive. To handle the knotty recovery process, the insurance handler called in a ringer: Christopher Marinello, the founder and CEO of Art Recovery International.
Marinello set about making the right connections. First, he alerted the London police to ensure they wouldn’t have any qualms with him contacting the local force in the United Arab Emirates. Then he set about “convincing the possessor” that the watch needs to be returned, Marinello says. That person, under the impression they rightfully owned the RM-030 was justifiably incensed. “He immediately demanded his purchase price back from the retailer who sold it to him,” he says. (The retailer was more than happy to oblige, too—businesses want to make sure that wasn’t the last watch they sell to a customer. But the dominoes kept falling: the folks at that retailer went back to the dealer they bought it from to demand their money back.)
After almost a year and a half, the watch is en route to London to be reunited with its rightful owner.
Marinello is a one-time art student whose teachers and family members looked at his work and actively encouraged him to try a different career. He saw law as a way to remain involved with the subject he loved. He formed a legal practice to aid people with title disputes, and those hoping to retrieve stolen artworks.
In the beginning, Art Recovery International mostly partnered with victims: people or families whose art had allegedly been stolen by Nazis in World War II. Eventually, though, Marinello started working with insurance companies on everything from watches to stolen cars. Large insurance companies like Axa, Chubb, and Travelers are in competition for the pool of one percenters who can afford these watches, and offering Marinello’s help recovering stolen property is an irresistible perk. And Marinello has the reputation to match: he’s currently tracking down the actual Aston Martin DB5 used in the James Bond movie Goldfinger. The car was taken from a storage facility and somehow made its way to Kuwait, where Marinello found it. “But I’m having some difficulty getting cooperation from the collectors out there,” he says casually, like he’s having difficulty ordering pizza delivery and not trying to negotiate James Bond’s car out of Kuwait.
So while Marinello’s bread and butter is art, over the years he expanded his practice to cars and watches. “Nobody's going to tell me that a stolen Ferrari isn't a work of art,” he says. The same holds true for timepieces. Marinello worked his first watch case in 2007, and there’s been a torrent of such thefts since.
Cases like the one involving the RM-030 are increasingly common. In October of last year, a man visiting Paris went outside his hotel to smoke a cigarette when someone approached him asking if he could bum one off him. The thief took much more than a cigarette, though, running off with the man’s $830,000 Richard Mille RM 51-02 “Diamond Twister.” (With a name like that, who could resist?) At the time, the report landed on top of a pile of 71 other stolen watch cases in Paris last year, according to CNN. Just a couple months earlier, a tourist in Ibiza was bullied out of his $1.3 million limited-edition Richard Mille RM 50-03. You can see the appeal to a thief: these items are valuable, easy to grab, and even easier to conceal. “I mean, just look at these watches,” Marinello says. “They're big and they're bright. They stand out.” It’s not a coincidence that the number of thefts runs parallel with the popularity of watches in general, he says: “Thieves know that these watches are hitting six figures and they steal them.”
When a watch goes missing, it often falls to Marinello to help get it back. His strategy is less globe-trotting hunter than it is cat-and-mouse plotter. He works with insurers and major watch brand service centers, notifying them when a watch has been stolen. Most customers who end up buying these watches aren’t aware they’re stolen, so they unwittingly send them in to receive routine service, setting off a match with a serial number corresponding to a stolen watch. On average, Marinello says, most cases take two years to resolve—two years of quietly waiting after setting a trap.
For cars or artworks, the process can differ slightly, depending on how motivated a person is to find their property. Marinello works with a host of private detectives who are capable of doing what he calls “dirty work.” One of those people is San Diego-based private investigator Mark Kochanski.
Kochanski is absolutely sure about three things when it comes to his particular line of work. The first: “This is not TV. It's not, you know, James Bond or Magnum PI,” he repeatedly assures me. Kochanski has partnered with Art Recovery International on missing artworks, and while he’s investigated stolen watches independently, he hasn’t for Marinello. That work he does on his own. The process of finding a watch, an item so easily concealed, involves a lot of unglamorous work—the sort they montage over on TV. He calls, texts, and emails hundreds of dealers, auctions, and boutiques to ask about, and alert people to, certain pieces. He’ll sometimes let things cool down for a couple months before restarting again.
Covering that amount of ground requires a great amount of dedication. That’s the second thing Kochanski knows about the job: you’ve gotta have the stuff—the undefinable material buried deep down in someone’s gut—required to be a private investigator. Kochanski started as a Homeland Security officer in San Diego but found he had the right stuff to make it as a private investigator. “I have patience, I have diligence, tenacity,” he says. “I’m not trying to pat myself on the back, but that’s what it takes.”
The third thing Kochanski understands about this job is that all that calling and texting and emailing and tenacity can easily rile some people up. He gets plenty of doors slammed in his face. On a recent phone call, after he identified himself, the person on the other line responded, “Oh, you're the pain in the ass,” says Kochanski. But eventually, he says, someone will want to talk about an item that’s missing. “Who out there has a conscience? Who has some integrity? Who’s got some morals? I mean, crooks, sociopaths—they don’t have it,” he says, sounding like the made-for-TV P.I. he insists he’s not. The case teeters on the good nature of those people—they are the only thing separating cracked cases from uncracked ones. Hardboiled lines, cracked cases, aggrieved cursing suspects, and slammed doors: on second thought, maybe Kochanski isn’t so sure about one thing. “A lot of it is kinda like TV,” he says.
Marinello says that many of his watch clients are happy to wait for the process to play out without involving a private investigator like Kochanski, though. As victims are by definition people who can afford extremely expensive timepieces, more often than not they have more than one to wear. But when stolen watches do reappear, their owners, like the man who lost his outside Harrods, are steadfast in getting them back. Pleasing well-heeled customers is why Marinello is able to keep this watch arm of his business running in the first place.
Often, prying very expensive watches from the people who end up with them isn’t as difficult as one would imagine. Marinello says even when watches are recovered, tracking down the actual culprit never happens. Eventually because someone doesn’t want to admit where they got a great deal on such-and-such Richard Mille or Patek Philippe. So they give the watch back because admitting who they bought it from would result in worse consequences.
It’s a Hollywood cliche that anyone who deals with crime, thieves, and Bad Guys has the one who got away, but it’s far from reality for Marinello. Instead, the strangest case Marinello’s ever worked on came to him shortly before Christmas 2019, and involved a RM 011 stolen the previous summer. A man in the U.K. was clearing out his basement after it flooded. He kept the watch in a safe but, because the flood, fished it out of its typical resting place and placed it on a table in his back patio to dry. When he went to check on it later, the watch was missing.
When the piece finally popped back up in Switzerland, where it was submitted for servicing, Marinello attempted to retrace its steps. It got to Switzerland via Hong Kong, where a retailer had purchased the watch from Dubai, which is where it went after the U.K.
“We often try to trace back from dealer to dealer: ‘Where did you buy it from? And where did that person buy it from? And where did that person buy it from?” Marinello says. In the case of this particular Richard Mille, Marinello was hoping the trail would lead him back to an unusual suspect. The man originally told the police that, because the fence in the backyard was impossible to climb and the house impenetrable, it left only one viable trespasser: a reindeer. The victim of the theft believed reindeers to be attracted to shiny objects, so that must have been it—case closed.
“Eventually, if everybody was honest with us,” Marinello says, “we would locate the piece or at least some guy who said, ‘I was driving my car and I saw a reindeer and they had a watch in its mouth, so I went up to him and he dropped the watch and ran away.’ I never get to meet those people.”
Obviously, a reindeer didn’t run off with the Richard Mille, but the victim may not have been far off in assessing the motives of whoever did steal from him. “These high-end Richard Mille watches are very distinctive, they're very bright, they are large,” Marinello says. “Well-trained people can spot them quite a ways away.” The thief, like the reindeer, is attracted to shiny objects. It’s easy enough to find a rogue reindeer. Marinello, though, is after tougher game, and has accordingly become a more skilled hunter: patient, quiet, and able to track the glint of a watch as it roams to Hong Kong, Dubai, or Switzerland. He and the people he works with will say it’s not like the movies. But wouldn’t you see the one about the guy with the stolen watch who cried reindeer?
Originally Appeared on GQ