ICE Agents Seize Old Master

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agents seized this work by an “unknown Utrecht master” dating from 1632. It will be returned to the Max Stern estate. In a piece by Catherine Hickley for Bloomberg, it is reported that the work was seized from Larry Steigrad on April 2nd.

The precedent for the seizure was set late last year by the First Circuit Federal Court of Appeals in Vineberg v. Bissonnette. It affirmed summary judgment for successors of an art dealer—Max Stern who was forced into selling works under the Nazi regime. The sale took place at a 1937 auction; the First Circuit held in that case that the forced sales of works belonging to the Stern estate were a “de facto conficcation”, providing the precedent for this seizure.

Thomas Kline, an attorney for the Stern estate is quoted in the piece “With that decision, all artworks Stern sold under orders at the Lempertz sale are now considered stolen property, [and the estate] “hopes to receive further assistance from law enforcement authorities in the U.S. and elsewhere”.

Lawrence Steigrad, the owner of the gallery in Manhattan where the work was seized says in the piece ““I was in my warehouse in New Jersey when Philip Mould [the London dealer who sold him the work] called me on my cell phone . . . I was shocked and upset that we had not found out before we purchased this painting, as we both had it checked. We were both happy that I had not sold it on, causing more problems and involving private clients.” It seems a bit curious perhaps that this call came only a couple of days before an undercover agent walked into the gallery to look at the work.

“I was in my warehouse in New Jersey when Philip Mould called me on my cell phone,” Steigrad said in an e-mailed response to written questions. “I was shocked and upset that we had not found out before we purchased this painting, as we both had it checked. We were both happy that I had not sold it on, causing more problems and involving private clients.”

The London dealer Philip Mould purchased the work at the Kunsthaus Lempertz auction house in November 2007; the same auction house which sold Stern’s works 70 years earlier. That auction house blames the Art Loss Register for “missing” this work. Luisa Loringhoven describes how this work was not caught by the company’s database:

“The Lempertz catalog from 2007 describes the painting as a portrait of a musician aged 57, while our database describes the painting as a portrait of a bagpipe player,” Loringhoven said. “Though the picture was searched by description and title, it was missed because of these differences.”

Loringhoven said London-based Art Loss Register carries out about 300,000 searches a year. “While we endeavor to be as thorough and as accurate as possible, we may miss a handful of items”.

It seems then Mould is left footing the bill for this restitution at present; though he may choose to proceed perhaps against the Kunsthaus Lempertz or even the art loss register based on the details in the piece. The Department of Justice and Homeland Security will return the work to the Max Stern Estate today in a ceremony in New York today which is also Holocaust Remembrance Day.

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

Art Theft and Recovery Blotter

There’s a slew of news about art theft, recovery and sentencing this morning:

First, thieves broke into a museum near Stockholm and stole five works by Andy Warhol (Mickey Mouse, and Superman) and Roy Lichtenstein (Crak, Sweet Dreams, Baby!, and Dagwood).

Second, authorities in Brazil have recovered a Picasso print, The Painter and the Model, which was stolen along with four other works back in June from the Pinacoteca do Estado in São Paulo, Brazil. Police had the men under surveillance for a planned ATM robbery, and overheard mention of the Picasso.

Third, a Vermont man has been ordered to serve a five-to-20 year prison sentence for stealing bronze sculptures to sell as scrap metal. He and two other men had stolen a number of sculptures from Joel Fisher’s studio while the artist was out of the country.

Finally, Artinfo is reporting that the Art Loss Register has recovered a Mario Carro work stolen from a New York law firm in 1993.

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

Andrew Wyeth Recovered (LATE UPDATE)


Artdaily is reporting on the recovery of A Bridge, Race Gate by Andrew Wyeth. The work was stolen from a Houston home, along with 22 other works in 2000. The painting was then registered on the ALR database.

The painting was registered on the ALR’s database of lost and stolen artworks and nearly a decade later, the painting emerged at Simpson’s Gallery in the very city from which it was stolen. When a suspicious would-be consignor arrived at his auction house looking to unload the Wyeth, Ray Simpson recognized the quality of the work and the celebrity of its artist. He agreed to take the picture in for an evaluation and suggested that its seller return in a few hours. Mr. Simpson, trusting his instincts and first impressions, then called the New York office of the ALR to request a search of the suspect picture, at which time it was matched by art historian, Erin Culbreth.

The story goes on to say “After significant research and assistance from Nationwide Insurance Company, the ALR was able to determine the owner of the painting and broker a deal for its return. In the end, it was the instinct of Ray Simpson that set the wheels of the recovery in motion.” I’d like to know a lot more about these details, because what generally happens in these cases is the original owner and victim of the theft has probably received an insurance settlement, which usually gives the insurance company title to the work. As such, that’s why the work will be sold at a Christie’s auction in Dec. 2008. The ALR may have been very helpful in this case to the insurance company, and the gallery owner should be commended, however this is still not a happy ending for the original owner, they don’t usually get their insured painting back.

UPDATE:

I’ve been informed that the original owner actually had an opportunity to purchase the work at a substantial discount, but decided against it because she did not need the money. The point I was attempting to make is it is often very difficult for a thief or subsequent possessors to sell a work by such a well-known artist after it has been stolen, which makes it a real shame because often times fully compensating the original owner is difficult if not impossible. That’s not the case here though as the owner had an opportunity to purchase the work and could have then auctioned the work and made a substantial profit perhaps.

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

The Limited Effectiveness of the Art Loss Register


Georgina Adam has a very interesting article in the Art Newspaper on the dispute between Michael Marks and Aziz Kurtha over two works by Indian artist Francis Newton Souza. Pictured here is an unrelated work by Souza, Still Life, which was purchased in 1967 for a mere 50 pounds but was sold recently for 173,000 pounds. This increase in value now makes it more profitable for individual’s to bring claims for works by Souza which may have been stolen in the past.

As Adam states:

Mr Marks says he bought the two paintings, Head of a Portuguese Navigator, 1961, and Chalice with Host, 1953, in good faith in 2006. He had conducted a check against the Art Loss Register’s (ALR) stolen art database and was not alerted that there were doubts about the works’ ownership despite the fact that they had been registered with the ALR as missing.

Dr Kurtha, who owns a collection of over 200 works by Souza, said that, at some point in the 1990s, some of these were stolen…

The two paintings in the present dispute were registered by Dr Kurtha as missing with the ALR in 2005… Mr Marks, who was then unknown to the ALR, telephoned the organisation to check the provenance of the paintings and paid the ALR search fee with a credit card. Julian Radcliffe, ALR’s chairman, admitted in court that he deliberately misled Mr Marks by telling him there was no claim on the Souzas. Mr Radcliffe said that it was sometimes necessary to mislead people who make enquiries about the database in order to establish identity and bank details, which he did in this case; Dr Kurtha then took Mr Marks to court to recover the paintings.

Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Milton Silverman, the solicitor for Mr Marks, described this as a “potentially nightmare scenario for a dealer. He could buy works of art, certain in his own mind that they are free of any problems, only to find himself landed with a dispute on their title.” Mr Radcliffe told us that the circumstances were exceptional in that Mr Marks was unknown to them. ALR would not act in the same way with a known dealer, collector or auction house, he says.

The emphasis is mine. Marks now has a potential claim against whoever he purchased the works from in 2006, whoever that may be. One would assume such a claim would probably still leave Marks in a difficult position, as works by Souza have been increasing dramatically in value in recent years.

The priority for the ALR would seem to be to return paintings to their original owners, but not necessarily to guarantee the legitimacy of current transactions, as indicated by Radcliffe’s admission that the ALR misleads some. Add to that the fact that the ALR sometimes takes commissions for facilitating the return of works of art to original owners, and we are left with what appears to be a troubling state of affairs.

As an aside, I’m not sure what the ALR guarantees when one does ask for a search of the ALR, and I’d imagine they have done their best to disclaim liability in this situation, but I wonder if Marks may have some kind of claim against the ALR itself. Though in this case the paintings have been returned to their original owner, I wonder if perhaps this kind of misleading information would give dealers pause when they are considering whether to consult the database.

The ALR is the most widely-used and cited cultural property database, however it makes no claims to being a cure-all for the problems with the cultural property trade. Though the ALR is in some cases useful, it should not be mistaken for a check on cultural property transactions generally, and it should be pointed out that Julian Radcliffe and the ALR are quick to point out that they do not attempt to police the whole market. What they do, they do well, but there are limitations to its effectiveness. David Gill and Tom Flynn have both pointed out the dubious usefulness of the ALR with respect to recently unearthed antiquities and export restrictions. As the ALR counsel, Christopher A. Marinello has recently indicated via the Museum Security Newwork, “the database does not contain information on illegally exported artefacts unless they have been reported to us as stolen.”

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

The Difficulty of Nazi Spoliation Research

Camille Pissarro’s Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps (pictured), was owned by a Jewish book publisher in 1938 in Austria. When he fled Austria, the work was lost. A history professor, Jonathan Petropoulos has been involved in attempts to return the works to the descendants.

Last week, Elise Viebeck a student reporter at Claremont McKenna College reported that Petropoulos will resign as director of the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights.

Yesterday Mike Boehm a LA Times Staff Writer picked up the story as well.

The descendant, Gisela Bermann Fischer, has accused Petropoulos of trying to extort 18% of the work’s value as payment for “facilitating” its return. It seems Petropoulos hoped to end controversy and spare the Holocaust center and Claremont McKenna College any more distraction. It seems his involvement may be more than a mere “distraction” as Swiss authorities are holding the painting as evidence in an ongoing German investigation into possible extortion by Petropoulos and a German art dealer, Peter Griebert. The LA Times Story has the details according to Petropoulos:

Petropoulos said he got involved at the behest of Fischer and the Art Loss Register, a London-based company that keeps a database of stolen art and in some cases helps to get it back.

In December 2006, he said, he met in Munich with Griebert, whom he knew as an art-business associate of Lohse. Griebert, the professor said, was now apparently angry with the ex-Nazi. Petropoulos said Griebert told him about papers he’d found showing that Lohse had sold the Pissarro in 1957 to a man who bequeathed it to a foundation in Lichtenstein.

Working for what he said was his customary consultant’s fee of $350 an hour plus expenses, Petropoulos said he reported the news to his client, the Art Loss Register, which was then negotiating a contract with Fischer to recover the painting. The professor said he did more sleuthing on his own, with a view to recovering the Pissarro and gathering material for a book.

In late January 2007, he said, he viewed, authenticated and photographed the painting in the conference room of a Zurich bank. He also said he dined with Fischer and Griebert later that day and that they reached a deal: Fischer, who’d had a falling out with the Art Loss Register, would sell the Pissarro at Christie’s in New York and Griebert would get his customary 10% art dealer’s fee.

Both Julian Radcliffe and prominent restitution attorney E. Randol Schoenberg are quoted as saying Petropolous got himself too involved in the negotiations to return the work, rather than simply do the research for the fee which had been agreed upon. The seems to have been a miscommunication at some point, and the “champagne” agreement that Petropolous thought he was entitled to rely upon was it seems not reduced to writing, and in return Petropolous refused perhaps to continue to bring the parties together.

The ultimate issue I suppose is what kind of compensation these kinds of experts can and should claim. The lawyers involved, and the Art Loss Register all take a healthy commission; and Petropolous certainly seems to have been amply compensated for his time at $350/hour. Though there may be powerful historical, legal and ethical arguments compelling the restitution of these Nazi spoliated works, we should perhaps bear in mind that it is the very large sums of money they fetch at acution which is driving these restitution efforts.

Related Posts:

Dividing a Nazi Art Dealer’s Collection

Compensation for Restitution Experts

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

Compensation for Restitution Experts

Elise Viebeck, a student writer for the Claremont Independent has an outstanding article about the conflicts of interest which arise when history and art history experts are brought in to assist the heirs of victims who lost valuable art to the Nazis during World War II. She details the actions of a CMC History Professor, Jonathan Petropoulos.

The article asks an important question: How should these experts, whose specialized knowledge can bring about the restitution of ultra-valuable masterworks be compensated? Swiss prosecutor Ivo Hoppler raided a Swiss safe in the Summer of 2007 as part of a “three-nation probe of a German art dealer accused of conspiring with an American at historian to withold a painting by French impressionist”. I talked about the discovery of the work at issue, Camille Pisarro’s Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps last summer, but was unaware of this controversy.

Here’s an excerpt of Viebeck’s interesting story:

The story of the Pissarro begins with Zurich resident Gisela Fischer, 78, who is of Jewish descent. She and her family fled Vienna in 1938 two days after the Nazi Anschluss. The Gestapo looted their home, and among the stolen items was a painting by impressionist Camille Pissarro, Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps.

After the war, Fischer’s father successfully located and reclaimed many of his family’s stolen assets. After her father’s death in 1995, Fischer concentrated her efforts on the Pissarro which had remained elusive. In early 2001, she registered the painting with the Art Loss Register (ALR), a London-based for-profit company involved in stolen art recovery.

The ALR began to research the painting’s provenance, or history of ownership, in the hope of ascertaining its location. There was no initial financial arrangement, as at that time the ALR did not charge for Holocaust and World War II art claims…

On January 8, 2007, at a meeting in Munich, a representative of the ALR gave Fischer a message from Petropoulos. He wrote in a letter dated December 7, 2006 that he had located the painting in Switzerland and was communicating with an unnamed contact of its owner. The owner was a “foundation created by the heirs of the person who purchased [the painting] in 1957.”

The foundation, he wrote, wished to remain anonymous.

Two days after the meeting in Munich, Radcliffe also sent Fischer a letter, this time to request a finder’s fee for the organization’s success in finding the Pissarro in Switzerland. Despite its earlier commitment not to charge Holocaust claimants, the company had changed its charging policy for Holocaust art claims, telling claimants that the company could complete restitution “at far less cost and often more efficiently” than the expensive lawyers who took some cases. The meeting with the ALR in January 2007 was the first Fischer knew of the ALR’s changed policy…

For the Pissarro case, Radcliffe proposed an elaborate compensation scheme, including 20 percent of the first $1 million, 15 percent of the second million and 10 percent of any additional value of the painting. Included in his price was a stipend for Professor Petropoulos, who had requested $100,000 from the ALR for his services.

In a letter dated January 23, Fischer’s lawyer, Dr. Norbert Kückelmann, rejected the ALR’s proposal. Three days later Petropoulos met with Fischer at the Hotel St. Gotthart in Zurich to try a new arrangement…

Radcliffe and Sarah Jackson of the Art Loss Register also went to Zurich, only to find themselves excluded from the dealings. “We went expecting to be included in the meetings with Ms. Fischer only to discover that they had already had meetings without us. We realized we had been cut out,” Radcliffe told the CI.

At the hotel, Petropoulos and Peter Griebert, a Munich art dealer, showed her digital photos of the Pissarro, claiming to have taken them that morning. According to an account published in ARTNews magazine, they did not give further details about its location or the identity of its owners at that time.

It’s a very interesting account, and I don’t think Petropoulos, nor even the Art Loss Register are painted in a favorable light based on this account. Though much nazi restitution litigation rests on the assumption that the law should compensate the victims of the holocaust and other misappropriation, the engine driving these claims are the large sums of money these works can bring at auction. I think an interesting issue which needs to be researched in more detail is how and to what extent these restitution experts owe a duty to claimants.

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

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