This is an unsolicited plug—I have no doubt that many folks are very familiar with the good work that the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) has done for many years. But one of its most remarkable accomplishments is its Art Law and Cultural Property Database. If you are a student, attorney, art professional, or cultural heritage advocate and not availing yourself of this resource, you are likely duplicating work and failing to account for much of the advocacy and scholarship which has come before. I encouraged my own librarians to secure a subscription for my work, and the work of students in my Art Law Seminars. I’ve used this terrific resource many many times in preparing lectures and informing my own scholarship, and I encourage you to consider adding a subscription for your own firm or institution.
Melanie Gerlis reports for the Art Loss Newspaper on a competition claim filed against the Art Loss Register. The claim was filed by Chris Marinello, founder of the Art Recovery Group, and former employee of the Art Loss Register:
ARG’s letter to the competition authority accuses ALR of “systemic breaches of competition law”, citing seven examples of “abusive behaviour”. ALR, according to the letter, “is implementing a persistent, pervasive and systematic plan to eliminate ARG fr om the market”.
Heading the list of complaints is what ARG describes as “vexatious litigation”, a reference to a civil claim that ALR took to the UK’s High Court in July. This claim accuses Marinello and others of “the unlawful establishment and operation” of ARG, citing breach of contract, breach of confidence and “infringement of database rights”, among other things. ALR’s claim demands the handover of any confidential information the defendants may have that belongs to ALR.
Marinello and the other defendants filed a counterclaim in November, in which “each and every allegation contained in the particulars of claim is denied”. A subsequent reply and defence was lodged by ALR in December, which also denied all allegations.
James Ratcliffe, ALR’s director of recoveries, lawyer and near-namesake of the company’s founder, says that, while he has not seen ARG’s letter to the competition authority, ALR’s legal actions are “certainly not vexatious” and that there is “no systematic plan” to eliminate its competitor. He says the claim had to be issued to protect the interests of ALR’s stakeholders because Marinello “took confidential information from our business and we don’t know the full extent of it”.
Marinello says: “The ALR knows exactly the extent of information in my possession because it was obtained openly, transparently and with express permission pursuant to an agreement signed by Julian Radcliffe in 2012.”
Julian Radcliffe is ALR’s majority shareholder, although Sotheby’s also has a stake (around 11%), as does Christie’s (around 3%), and Marinello himself (10%).
Both companies are positioned to fill an important function in the art market, and to help recover lost and stolen works of art. Hopefully they can find a way forward to coexist.
Christa Roodt, of the University of Glasgow and the University of South Africa, and Bernadine Benson, of the University of South Africa have an article in the June issue of the South Africa Crime Quarterly examining databases for stolen art with a particular emphasis on the South African position post-Apartheid. They make a good common-sense argument in favor of a centralised database for South Africa which would assist both the market and law enforcement. Here’s the abstract:
Addressing the illicit trade in stolen works of art and other heritage items is notoriously difficult. Before thefts of heritage items can be recorded, the object in question must be identified as having special significance. The investigation of the circumstances in which such an object was acquired and the enforcement of legal and ethical standards of acquisition become unduly complicated in the absence of a comprehensive national inventory of museum holdings and of a database of stolen art and cultural objects. This article considers the development of inventories and databases in South Africa and elsewhere. We argue that cross-sectoral cooperation in sharing databases needs to improve significantly in order to boost compliance with due diligence standards. To help restore the credibility of the trade in art and cultural objects, the South African Heritage Resources Information System site must be endorsed as the centralised database for heritage crime. This would provide ready access to databases, helping art market participants, law enforcement officers and customs officials in the investigation of stolen art works.
Every time I hear the story of a flea market sale where some lucky buyer with a good eye purchased a work by a well-known artist, I always think that chances are good that work was stolen at some point. How does a Renoir make it to a flea market, really. And that’s the story of this Renoir purchased at a flea market in West Virginia for $7. It was scheduled for auction this week, but now it looks likely to have been stolen some time before 1951 from the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The painting has not it seems been reported to art loss databases. The Washington Post notes that its own reporters conducted research and found the painting was missing from the Baltimore Museum of Art:
Museum officials then searched their archives, where they found paperwork showing that the Impressionist work, “Paysage Bords de Seine,” or “Landscape on the Banks of the Seine,” was pilfered from their building nearly 61 years ago. The museum had the painting on loan from one of its famous benefactors, Saidie A. May, a Baltimore native who died in May 1951. Museum records show that the Renoir was stolen on Nov. 17, 1951, just as May’s art collection was being bequeathed to the museum for permanent ownership. The revelations put on hold Saturday’s much-ballyhooed auction of the Renoir at the Potomack Company in Alexandria. Elizabeth Wainstein, Potomack’s president, said the Virginia woman who made the flea market find was disappointed. But she immediately agreed to halt the sale until the FBI determines the rightful ownership of the painting, which the auction house estimated is worth $75,000 to $100,000. It will remain at the auction house until then, Wainstein said.
The case reveals the importance of reporting a theft, even decades into the future. There is no word on whether the doll and plastic cow the anonymous flea market art buyer also bought with the this $7 painting are stolen as well. But the buyer should get credit for reportedly cooperating fully with the FBI.
“Blanchisseuses souffrant des dents” by Edgar Degas, stolen in 1973
This work was recognized by a an individual from Le Havre France as a painting which had been stolen in 1973. The individual recognized the long-missing painting in Sotheby’s auction catalogue. It was slated for sale today before the auction house withdrew it. The French Culture Ministry says that it will negotiate the return of the work, and that the seller “seems to be of good faith”. The case speaks to the difficulty with multiple stolen art databases. The painting is apparently on a museum data list in France, but it is unclear from the initial reports whether the work was reported to the Art Loss Register, the leading stolen art database.
INTERPOL has announced it will put its database of stolen art online to try to limit the illicit trade in cultural objects. The new site has photographs of 34,000 stolen works. The site is free of charge, though registration is required. The database is here, while the registration form is here. Previously, the stolen works database was available only on DVD, while the new database will be updated in real time.
Karl Heinz, the co-ordinator of the Works of art department says the new database is “an important tool to counter the traffic in cultural property effectively”. He also encouraged increased reporting by INTERPOL member nations:
“Accessibility to stolen art information is a vital contribution to creating public awareness on the protection of cultural property,” said Mr Kind.
“The inclusion of a stolen cultural property item into INTERPOL’s stolen works of art database, and extensive online access to the database, therefore represent an important barrier to the illicit trafficking of a stolen cultural object by making its sale more difficult,” added Mr Kind.
This is a remarkable development in a number of ways, and makes it possible for anyone to search. This means it will be far more difficult for a buyer to claim he or she did not have the resources to check into a work’s history. Though the database will likely be of limited use for the antiquities trade, it is an important development.
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A new internet service called MyThings.com has just launched in the US, while it has been running in the UK since last December. It is a clever concept, and as I understand it, it has a number of uses:
It allows people to track their belongings
People can have some of their belongings valued
It can help police track down stolen items
It can add items to a portfolio at the point of sale via agreements with retailers
People can show off what they own
The website is in the initial stages, but it does seem to market itself to art and antiquities owners. People can choose to display what they own to the whole internet, or keep them private. The concept is clever, but makes me a bit uncomfortable, because it seems much of this information must surely be tracking the buying habits of consumers, and the website does not seem up front about this (at least from my cursory exploration). I wonder what kind of an impact this site or others like it will have on the cultural property trade. It’s biggest impact may be insuring people have photos of their art for insurance valuation, and it may help police track down the objects, but it is still no substitute for a licit and honorable market which is based on solid provenance.
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