Thompson argues to protect Syrian heritage, don’t buy it

In an LA Times OP-ED, Erin Thompson argues Syria is home to a rich array of cultural heritage. Noting the risk to the works of art from thousands of archaeological sites, she highlights an under-acknowledged threat.

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Will the Statute of Frauds Add Transparency to the Art Trade?

In his seminal 1982 article, Harvard Law Professor Paul Bator noted that the art trade is shrouded in mystery. In the thirty years since Bator examined the international art market, little has changed with respect to the basic information which is made available when works of art are bought and sold at auction. Auction house catalogues typically include little more than a cursory “this work is from a private collection”. That may change, at least in New York when the State’s highest court will take up a recent auction dispute.

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Auction Houses and Credit Card Fraud

The Art Newspaper reports on an interesting and widespread problem with the art market in the United Kingdom. It seems fake credit cards have been used to steal art up for auction. And as the report notes, the problem flows all the way to Bonhams and Christie’s, with as many as 30 auction houses reportedly affected.

Says one anonymous auction house director:

“[The problem is that people] were buying goods over the phone and picking them up before the transaction had cleared,” says the director of one of the defrauded auction houses, who wishes to remain anonymous. “We trusted that banks would be doing checks at their end. Aside from the usual identity checks we can’t tell whether the card that people use over the phone is theirs.”

It is an obvious problem, but one that has not really been discussed. If buyers are allowed to remain anonymous, it is a perfect environment for criminal intervention. Auction houses play such a crucial role in the art market, and as a consequence play an important role in the way we transfer these important parts of our collective cultural heritage. But these institutions are poorly designed to safeguard against theft, looting, forgery, and fraud.

The way in which auction houses conduct business today has been revolutionised; online, anonymous and increasingly international bidding is now commonplace. This spate of frauds, however, suggests that the art market’s financial procedures have yet to catch up. 

  1. Riah Pryor, Credit card investigation shows art market open to international fraud, The Art Newspaper, May, 2012, http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Credit+card+investigation+shows+art+market+open+to+international+fraud/26406 (last visited May 17, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Arrests in the Fitzwilliam Theft

There are reports that between two and six individuals have been arrested in connection with the theft of 18 Chinese objects from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The theft was the subject of BBC’s Crimewatch Tuesday:

The stolen pieces had been given as gifts or bequests to the museum, with some experts estimating the artifacts to be worth approximately £18 million (about $28.7 million Cdn). None of the artifacts has been recovered. Police sought help from the public through a segment on the BBC-TV program Crimewatch on Tuesday evening. The show aired closed-circuit camera footage of four suspects sought in conjunction with the robbery.

As Dick Ellis explained in an interview last week, these thieves probably saw the booming trade in Chinese artworks, and may not have understood how difficult an eventual sale would be. Much in the same way similar objects were stolen from the Durham museum.

17th Century jade "imaginary beast" stolen from Fitzwilliam MuseumNoah Charney speculated last week that the stolen objects will be “smuggled [to China] . . . for in China the general rules about not purchasing art without performing Due Diligence and checking stolen art databases do not apply. Provenance is far less of an issue, sometimes for cultural reasons, but also for practical ones–Internet black-outs mean that many in China could not check stolen art databases, even if they were inclined to do so.” I’m not sure that will be the case.

The Chinese have—on paper at least—the most regulated art market in the world, with a tiered series of regulation. It is one of the only sets of regulations which puts direct regulation in the art market, at the point of sale. Are there problems and corruption? Perhaps. But what art market—whether its in Rome, Paris, London, or New York is not corrupt?

In 2002, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress passed the Law on the Protection of Cultural Relics. The 2002 Law legalizes private transactions involving cultural relics in five circumstances, (1) legal inheritance or gift; (2) purchase from cultural relics shops; (3) purchase from cultural relics auction enterprises; (4) exchanges or transfers between individual citizens; and (5) other methods authorized by the central government. Many of these transactions take place at officially sanctioned cultural relics shops and auction enterprises; and the 2002 Law prohibits a cultural relic shop from running an auction and vice versa.

Under Article 58, the government may buy any cultural relic submitted to a mandatory inspection before sale pursuant to Article 56. During this mandatory inspection, under Article 56, the government is given a kind of right of first refusal, with the purchase price determined by the government representative. Pursuant to article 57, in the event of a sale to a private individual, a report is produced, effectively tracking the buyers and sellers of cultural objects. This new regulatory framework seems a very aggressive strategy, and one that, if implemented effectively, could positively impact the illicit trade in China. However, implementing this strategy may be difficult and subject to corruption.  And yet by recording who buys what, it may be possible not only to track the chain of title of specific cultural objects, but also to evaluate whether individuals are routinely buying and selling stolen, looted, or suspicious objects. What other nation does this routinely? Perhaps the Italian Carabinieri, but that may be it.

Many in the West have an immediate reaction to all things China. And I think that quote above does not really convey the reality of the Chinese art market. Prof. Paul Bator remarked in 1983 that China was the great under-researched area of the world when it comes to sources of heritage theft (he called it art theft). Despite s few reports, that is still the case. We can blame the Chinese for other problems perhaps, but the Chinese art market does not I think bear the collective guilt for the Fitzwilliam theft. Rather it seems to be a more homegrown set of thieves from East London.

  1. He Shuzhong, Protection of China’s Cultural Heritage, 5 J. Art, Antiquity & L., 19 (2000).
  2. J. David Murphy, Plunder and preservation : cultural property law and practice in the People’s Republic of China, (1995), http://www.bcin.ca/Interface/openbcin.cgi?submit=submit&Chinkey=204154 (last visited May 2, 2012).
  3. Andrew Jacobs, China Hunts for Art Treasures in U.S. Museums, The New York Times, December 17, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/17/world/asia/17china.html?_r=2&hp (last visited Dec 17, 2009).
  4. Peter Foster, China to study British Museum for looted artefacts, Telegraph.co.uk, October 19, 2009, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/6374959/China-to-study-British-Museum-for-looted-artefacts.html (last visited Oct 20, 2009).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Speaking out about fakes

Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 110, Robert Motherwell 1971 

Jack Flam, currently working on a catalogue raisonné of Robert Motherwell talks about the backwards incentives by members of the public and scholars when it comes to authenticating art. Highly recommended, it puts all the discussion of fakes and forgeries in the context of what experts and the market are not doing to prevent fakes from polluting the pool of art in private collections and in the public trust:

These market circumstances have unfortunately coincided with a situation in which scholars and foundations that make decisions about authenticity feel increasingly constrained by legal threats from people who own or are selling fakes. So while the number of fakes in the marketplace is dramatically increasing, an important means for assuring the veracity of artists’ works has been disappearing. Several scholars and foundations are ceasing to authenticate works because they are afraid of lawsuits, and such fears have even constrained the way scholars communicate with each other.
Back in 2008, after the Motherwell catalogue raisonné project suspected that a number of “Spanish Elegy” paintings were forgeries, I had ample occasion to observe how pressure can be effectively put on scholars who believe a painting is inauthentic in order to constrain them from saying so publicly. When I contacted scholars who were engaged in research on some of the other artists whose works were supposed to be in Rosales’s collection, many declined to discuss their opinions about those works; and the ones who did so usually insisted on speaking off the record.
It was not until injured parties came forward—that is, people who had spent significant amounts of money on works that did not pass the scrutiny of either connoisseurship or forensic testing—and the press picked up the story that scholars became (cautiously) more open about what they thought of those works.

  1. Jack Flam, Break the silence over fakes, The Art Newspaper, April 12, 2012, http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Break-the-silence-over-fakes/26124 .
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

France Seizes Painting Stolen in 1818

Christ Carrying the Cross, Nicolas Tournier

The owner of Weiss Gallery in London is in “complete shock” after officials from the French ministry of culture have refused to allow The Carrying of the Cross, by Nicolas Tournier to be taken from France back to England. The gallery purchased the painting at a Maastricht art fair last year for 400,000 Euros. The gallery took it to a small old master art fair in Paris called Paris Tableau, but France has now detained the work of art.

Mark Weiss, the owner of the gallery stated “I’ve been in communication with the director of the Toulouse museum since I acquired the painting in 2010, and at no stage has he ever stated that the picture was a stolen painting.” The work originally hung in a chapel in Toulouse, but during the French Revolution the work was confiscated and moved to a museum. It was then apparently stolen from a museum in 1818. It would be interesting to know more about what those conversations were like between Weiss and the Toulouse museum.

France has argued this is the rediscovery of a long-lost work, yet it was stolen nearly two centuries ago. Have there been persistent claims for its return? I’m not sure. It is difficult to envision the French have the legal right to seize the painting so long after its theft. They do have the de facto power perhaps to temporarily detain the work, and make life very difficult for the gallery owner. Any experts in the area of French law care to offer any opinions? The newspaper accounts have merely focused on the seizure, without diving into the merits.

  1. AFP: British gallery rejects France’s claim to painting, (2011) (last visited Nov 9, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

What’s the Difference Between a Pawnshop and antique shop?

The pawnshop is most likely subject to more regulation. Book and antique shops are criticizing a potential lapse in Utah law which would require all buyers of rare books and antiques to be fingerprinted, and a catalog entered of all the objects. At least part of the renewed calls for more regulation stem from a murder in November. Sherry Black, a prominent member of the community—mother-in-law to the owner of the Utah Jazz. She was a rare book dealer who bought $20,000 worth of books stolen from the Church of the Latter Day saints. The seller may have been a gang member who beat and stabbed the woman to death.

Given that kind of violence, a sensible increase in regulation seems warranted. It seems as if a running catalog of objects sold would be very helpful. Fingerprinting may be a step too far, but a simple photocopy of a drivers license perhaps would not seem out of the qustion, particularly if an objects value exceeds a sensible amount, $5,000 perhaps.

I was struck then by Ethan Trex’s discussion of pawnshops:

Meanwhile, European pawnbroking began to flourish during the Middle Ages. The Norman Conquest introduced the practice to England, and the Lombardy region of northern Italy was another hotbed of pawnbroking. In fact, pawnbroking became so strongly identified with Lombardy throughout Europe that the term “Lombard” gradually became synonymous with “pawn shop” and “Lombard banking” was a widespread term for pawnbroking.

Anyone who turns to a pawnbroker to scare up some quick cash is in good historical company. Pope Leo X, a notoriously free spender, once had to pawn his own palace furniture and silver to cover his luxurious lifestyle and patronage of the arts. (It’s no surprise, then, that Leo X was at the helm of the Church when it gave the practice of pawnbroking the official thumbs-up in 1515.) In 1338 King Edward III hocked his jewels to raise funds for the English military at the dawn of what would become the Hundred Years’ War.

  1. Derek P. Jensen, Utah’s used-book, antique shops fear crackdown, The Salt Lake Tribune, January 13, 2011, http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/home/51045760-76/says-law-antique-lawmakers.html.csp (last visited Jan 18, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com