A Cultural Property Registry?

On Thursday Donn Zaretsky at the always-enjoyable art law blog continued his discussion of the fake Gaugin Faun statue. Specifically, he wondered what kind of international registry might have prevented this kind of fraud, and asked me how I would envision a registry. I have a few thoughts on the subject, but they’re still in an early stage.

I had originally intended to put discussions of a potential registry and some concrete reforms of the market which are needed in the thesis. It’s not in there though because I simply ran out of space, and I’ll have to save those ideas for some future work I suppose. I don’t have a definitive answer for how an international registry might be constructed. Ideally an international body such as UNESCO would step forwards and create one, however that is far too ambitious an undertaking for that organization given its current state of funding. The industry itself could choose to regulate itself more closely, but it gains more profit by not revealing information information. In the end, the art market needs a registry like MLB, the NFL and other sports leagues need a test for Human Growth Hormone. But neither is likely to arise soon.

It’s a difficult potential issue because there a number of serious obstacles to creating a registry. The Art Loss Register and other databases exist, but they aren’t the answer to the whole problem. The current market structure earns more money without a registry. Here’s how: if I have a painting and want to sell it I can take it to an auction house. Now I’m a lowly PhD student, and that’s certainly not a lucrative career choice. If someone were to purchase the painting from me directly they would have a great deal of bargaining power if they knew my relative financial position. The painting might be worth $20,000; however the purchaser may realize my financial position and negotiate the deal lower. Auctions take place anonymously and avoid this. In many if not most transactions, we are unaware who the buyer and seller are. For the fake Faun, the consignor was Mrs. Greenhalgh using her maiden name. Had the buyer known she was living in council housing, might they have been less inclined to purchase the object, or even have more cause to doubt its authenticity? I think so certainly.

A good recent article in the Florida Law Review proposes a torrens registration scheme for works of art. Bruce W. Burton, IN SEARCH OF JOHN CONSTABLE’S THE WHITE HORSE: A CASE STUDY IN TORTURED PROVENANCE AND PROPOSAL FOR A TORRENS-LIKE SYSTEM OF TITLE REGISTRATION FOR ARTWORK, 59 Fla. L. Rev. 531 (2007). The introduction lays out the main argument:

At least forty percent of valuable artwork circulating in the marketplace is either forged or misattributed. Apart from this significant problem of art authenticity, the chains of title showing current ownership of many genuine and properly attributed objects are defective. These defects are due to incompleteness of the historical records, innocent error, lapse of time, fraudulent manipulation, or theft. This Article explores the dual complexities of properly establishing a valuable art object’s correct provenance-that is to say, determining both the authenticity as well as the chain of legal ownership of the work. This Article also examines the six principal legal doctrines that human society has designed to resolve competing ownership claims and the significant moral shortcomings of each doctrine. Most significantly, this Article presents a proposal for a much-needed reform in the law of art provenance.
The proposed reform is modeled on the Torrens land-title registration system in effect in Australia, parts of the United Kingdom, and a handful of states in the United States. The reform would offer the following: (1) a legal system for conclusively registering both the ownership and authenticity of any valuable piece of artwork; (2) fundamental fairness to all parties claiming an interest in the artwork; (3) assured financial compensation to any innocent party whose claim to the artwork has been injured or lost by operation of the Torrens-like system; (4) permanent and visible public records of art ownership; and (5) enhanced market stability because of the certitude and transparency afforded to art consumers by such a title registration system.

Burton makes a good case, but it would rely on individual states to implement the system, creating a patchwork of coverage. That would be better than nothing I suppose. In the end buyers of art, and even authenticators get excited by the prospect of rediscovering “lost” art or works which have gone missing. It can happen in legitimate ways as evidenced by the trash-rescue earlier this year. However, such a system leaves open the possibility of forgers, and also creates havoc in the antiquities trade for source nations and sites. The best advantage of a registration system would not necessarily be that it prevents these kinds of fraudulent transactions today, but that it builds up a body of knowledge about an object’s provenance so as to prevent such mistakes in the future. As it stands now, we still aren’t certain how many more forgeries by Greenhalgh may have been sold.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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