Meet the Man Hunting Down Stolen Watches

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.

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