Massive Art Theft at the Kunsthal museum in the Netherlands

One of the 7 stolen works

In what is being called a well-planned and bold theft, thieves stole seven works in a pre-dawn theft from the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam. Alarms went off at the museum after 3 am, and security found there were 7 missing works.

Ton Cremers told the Dutch outlet De Volkskrant that the problem may be with the layout of the museum itself, which while great to view art is difficult to secure: “As a gallery it is a gem. But it is an awful building to have to protect. If you hold your face up to the window at the back you have a good view of the paintings, which makes it all too easy for thieves to plot taking them from the walls”.

The large windows at the Kunsthal museum

Many will likely begin imagining what high sums these stolen works could bring on the market. And there will of course be much of the usual speculation about why the works were stolen and how the thieves plan to benefit from their theft. But much of that discussion is moot because these stolen works are now well-known. Images of the stolen works are surely being given to the Art Loss Register, law enforcement agencies, and art dealers, so these works can never be sold in a legitimate market. In one sense then their market value means little.

 They have a kind of value though, in that they are so precious, that the museum, the owners, and the authorities may be willing to take—or at least the thief thinks they will take—the unwise step of paying a ransom. Or other criminals may try to launder some or all of the works through different individuals, in much the same way the Leonardo Yarnwinder was transferred. As a kind of a very beautiful set of poker chips.
It might be possible that a rich mastermind has so-enjoyed these works that he or she hired thieves to steal the art.But these real-life Dr. No’s don’t really exist. I admit it makes for good Bond villains, but there has been no convincing evidence that this is why people are stealing rare objects. Most likely of all, these beautiful clear windows made for such an easy target that the thieves stole first and will decide to worry about selling the works later.

Here is the current list of stolen works:

Pablo Picasso’s Tete d’Arlequin;
Henri Matisse’s La Liseuse en Blanc et Jaune;
Claude Monet’s Waterloo Bridge, London, and Charing Cross Bridge, London;
Paul Gauguin’s Femme devant une fenetre ouverte,
Meyer de Haan’s Autoportrait and
Lucian Freud’s Woman with Eyes Closed.

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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.

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Forgery Revealed in Chicago

Apologies for the light posting this last week. I’ve been away in Dubai with the wife. I’ll talk about why, and talk a bit about my impressions tomorrow. For now I want to talk about the big story which was revealed while I was away: the forgery by Shaun Greenhalgh, whom I talked about earlier here.

Tyler Cowen first revealed the Paul Gauguin sculpture was a fake after Jim Cuno told the staff of the Art Institute of Chicago was a fake. Donn Zaretsky helpfully collects links to the prominent coverage.

The Art Newspaper has perhaps the best coverage, as it seems it tracked the sculpture to Chicago. Last month the three members of the Greenhalgh family were sentenced over the Amarna Princess. They discovered a Gauguin sculpture had been created by Greenhalgh after talking with Scotland Yard. They then tracked the work to Chicago.

The forged work was consigned to Sotheby’s by “Mrs. Roscoe”, the maiden name of Olive Greenhalgh. It was sold for £20,700. The London dealers Howie and Pillar purchased it, and it was later sold to the Art Institute for $125,000. The purchase was hailed as a success. Martin Bailey asks why nobody questioned the authenticity? The real sculpture has been missing, the forgery was based on a faun sketch dating to 1887. It seems Sotheby’s is expected to reimburse the Art Institute of Chicago. I think this reveals at least two troubling matters.

First, how many more forgeries are out there? How easy is it to trick authenticators? The best in the world looked at this sculpture and were duped. Perhaps they wanted to believe a little too much. Also, when visitors (and even experts) looked at the sculpture did it convey emotion? How much did that have to do with the beauty of the object itself; and how much was related to the idea that this small work was created by a “great” artist, Paul Gauguin?

Second, I think it reveals the continuing need for more provenance information in art and antiquities sales. The answer may be for an international registry which tracks buyers and sellers when objects are bought and sold. Until such a system emerges, the market continues to leave itself open to this kind of embarrassment.

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A Gauguin will stay at the TMA

A Federal District Court in Ohio has denied the ownership claims of 15 people seeking an interest in this work. “Street Scene in Tahiti” by Paul Gauguin was purchased by the Toledo Museum of Art in 1939. It’s current value is estimated at between $10 and $15 million. A copy of the opinion memorandum is available here, courtesy of Harvard Law Professor Harry Martin III. The work belonged to a German Jew, Martha Nathan. In 1937, she left Germany to escape Nazi persecution. The next year, in 1938, Nathan sold this work to a group of art dealers she had known for some years, who were Jews as well. The three purchased the work for 30,000 Swiss Francs, ($6,900 USD). As Judge Zouhary notes, “this sale occurred outside Germany by and between private individuals who were familiar with each other. The Painting was not confiscated or looted by the Nazis; the sale was not at the direction of, nor did the proceeds benefit the Nazi regime.”

The work has hung in the TMA since its purchase in 1939, and Nathan brought other Restitution claims for Nazi persecution, but did not file a claim for the painting. In this case, Judge Zouhary applied Ohio’s 4-year statute of limitation. The trick with limitations periods hinges on when the limitations period has started to run. Under Ohio law, the discovery rule dictates that a claim accrues when a claimant discovers, or should have discovered the injury. This is precisely the kind of claim a statute of limitation is intended to cover. It also highlights that often in these cases, the issue of whether a limitations period has expired will often prove outcome-determinative.

The case is a bit peculiar. Often, it is the claimants who bring suit. However, in this case the Toledo Museum of Art preemptively brought an action last year in a quiet title action. Whether the claimants will seek an appeal remains to be seen, but it seems likely given the value of the work. However, they do not have a great set of facts to work with here. Their ultimate success seems quite unlikely.

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