Rare Book Theft

Sandra Laville has the story in today’s Guardian of a number of rare book thieves, including David Slade, who is due to be sentenced today:

Today at Aylesbury crown court, another member of this band of thieves faces a custodial sentence after admitting the theft of £232,880-worth of extremely rare books from one of the most powerful financiers in the world, Sir Evelyn de Rothschild. It is a case that has until now received no publicity. Like Jacques, 59-year-old David Slade is a well-educated and highly knowledgeable loner, but also the former president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association in the UK, and a dealer who has sold internationally since he was 17. 
Slade was hired by Rothschild to catalogue the family book collection. As he did his work, visiting Rothschild’s home, Ascott house in Buckinghamshire, two or three times a week, Slade discreetly removed the odd book, each of which was an extremely valuable and beautifully crafted production by one of the private presses that operated in the late 19th and early 20th century.
He took them to an auction house where his reputation was unquestioned and sold them for significant sums. It was during a routine audit that Rothschild noticed the books, 68 in all, had gone missing. Slade’s guilty plea went unnoticed, but the ABA has now decided to speak out.
Alan Shelley, current president, said the only way to eradicate the trafficking of rare books was to work closely with libraries, auctioneers and dealers. 
The British Library has led the way by admitting when it is the victim of theft. But while major international libraries alert each other to details of stolen books or descriptions of thieves, these do not always reach the antiquarian book trade and not all libraries are honest about falling victim to theft. 
“We all need to be a bit more grown up,” said Jolyon Hudson, from Pickering and Chatto antiquarian bookseller. “[Libraries] are the curators of the nation’s knowledge, and when they lose it they are somewhat embarrassed to admit that.”

This again echoes the same difficulties that plague the art trade and the antiquities trade.  There is insufficient scrutiny of the chain of title when these objects are transferred, bought and sold.  Relying on a seller’s reputation does not provide a meaningful check on the process.  

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

Provenance Red Flags

For those of you who don’t follow David Gill’s Looting Matters blog, you should. He’s had a great series of posts this week, but in my view his most valuable contribution to heritage policy is his tireless focus on antiquities which are offered for sale with little legitimate provenance. The latest came three days ago:

The Bonham’s sale of antiquities on October 15, 2008 will include an Apulian volute-krater from the Robin Symes collection (lot 180). No other history has been provided.

Several antiquities associated with Robin Symes have been returned to Greece and Italy in recent years. So what is the previous history of this krater? Who is the present owner?

That’s exactly the kind of pressure and pointed questioning the antiquities trade needs to account for. Where was the object unearthed? Where did Symes acquire it? He may have acquired it legitimately, but as courts have noted in other similar contexts the “red flags” should be up.

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

More on the Bolton forgers (UPDATE)

Peter Nahum has an excellent editorial in the Art Newspaper titled “How I was duped by the Bolton forgers“. Nahum, the director of the Leicester Galleries in London details the fraud in 1990

[S]he wished to sell a painting by the Scottish Colourist, Samuel John Peploe, which she had inherited from her grandfather who had owned an art gallery. This was confirmed by a label on the reverse: “The Metcalfe Gallery, 45 Dundas Street, Edinburgh”. She arranged for her husband to bring the painting to the gallery after 6pm and stated that she wanted cash… In the middle of that night I woke up and realised it was almost certainly a fake.

In fact he wasn’t duped, as he cancelled the check quickly and reported the incident to the police. It seems the Greenhalgh’s had built quite a reputation for passing forged art, but it wasn’t until 2006 that the Greenhalgh’s were finally raided. The troubling aspect of this case is the fact that these individuals were suspected art forgers, yet the state of the market is such that legitimate works cannot be distinguished from forgeries sold by known art forgers. The clear indication is that there needs to be a radical shift in the way the art market guarantees authenticity and title. Either a centralized database, or some kind of title insuring mechanism is sorely needed to prevent this kind of fraud.

One wonders how often dealers suspect the dubious nature of a work, but because a forgery may be of such a high quality, they reason that members of the public would not suspect. Nahum’s statement on this is quite telling I think:

The point about the Greenhalgh case … is that what seems to be a rock solid provenance can distract the expert’s eye from careful assessment. Every cloud has a silver lining; although I have sometimes lost money tracking down fakers and reporting them, I have gained another arrow in my street-smart quiver. Never trust a provenance until it can be verified. Trust your eye and instinct, your personal researches and any reliable expert on the subject you can consult.

At a minimum, the relevant law enforcement personnel should have circulated the names of the Greenhalgh’s among the dealing community to prevent further fraud. The understaffed Art and Antiques Unit was slow in responding as well it would seem. Another difficulty is the ambiguity which the term “provenance” encompasses. If courts in the UK had a wider sampling of cases with which to grapple, perhaps a firm conception of the term would emerge, however these cases occur relatively infrequently. As such, we are relying on industry practice to define the boundaries of “good provenance” and that has produced a deeply unsatisfying system.

UPDATE:

Jamie Grace, a friend and researcher at the University of Derby emailed me with some very interesting thoughts on this situation:

The sale of a forgery (and the resale of stolen art in general) would cause difficulties for DACS the agency that attempts to administer the Artist’s Resale Rights Regulation 2006. I support your call for an authenticity database – from my perspective, it could be linked to another mandatory database detailing sales, making the administration of the 2006 Regulations for the benefit of contemporary artists a lot easier.
As for the Art & Antiques Unit, restrictions on a researcher’s ‘right to know’ under the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000 means that for ‘operational reasons’ the Unit cannot divulge many details about recovered or stolen works or art (or antiques etc.) – so a curious or suspicious art market professional cannot even go straight to the Unit to check provenance. Allowances are hard to make for the reasons of understaffing when the legal framework itself defeats the aims of sensible dealers.

Jamie knows far more about DACS than I do. From what I understand it is essentially a scheme which takes a small portion of the sale of works of art and distributes it among contemporary artists. I hope to hear more from him on that in the coming months here.

I’ll confess I was unaware of the implications of the Data Protection Act and the Freedom of Information Act, but they only seem to be undercutting the work of the Unit in this case.

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

Iznik Tiles Returned

From the Art Newspaper, two Iznik tile panels stolen from an imperial Ottoman tomb from the New Mosque in Istanbul were offered for sale at Sotheby’s earlier this year; but are slated for a return to Istanbul sometime this month. Pictured here are other tiles from the new mosque. The stolen tiles had been slated for an April 13th sale, and were described as 16th century originating from Turkey or Syria.

No provenance was given and their estimate was £15,000 to £25,000 ($30,000-$50,000). Soon after the catalogue was published, the auction house was
informed by the Turkish authorities that the panels were among a large number of tiles which are said to have been stolen from the Hunkar Kiosk in the mosque on 20 January 2003. In a statement to the Turkish press, the head of Turkey’s General Directorate of Foundations, Yusuf Beyazit, said that other tiles stolen from the mosque had been discovered near the coast of Istanbul’s Golden Horn. He said that the Sotheby’s panels accounted for the rest of the missing tiles and would be returned to the mosque where closed-circuit cameras were now being installed. Mr Beyazit said that the directorate’s new Anti-Smuggling Bureau had recovered the tiles in close co-operation with Scotland Yard and Interpol.

If the consignor has lost the tiles, she should now have a claim against the intermediate seller. Such suits are relatively rare though. That is seldom the case unfortunately. Importantly, though these tiles were certainly stolen, why no criminal charges? Well, because the Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003 makes it nearly impossible to do so. A defendant must have been aware of an object’s “tainted” status under the offence, which will be impossible to do in nearly every case; especially considering the flawed way the market operates.
In this case, though the art loss register was checked, Turkey had not registered this theft. The reasons for that are unclear. I know there is something like a $100 dollar charge to search the database in some cases, but I’m not sure if there is a charge to include objects in the database. But the market cannot continue to just rely on these limited databases. These objects came from somewhere. Merely stating “Turkey or Syria” as the nation of origin is not sufficient; beautiful tiles like this don’t just go missing. We had a chance to visit a number of Mosques back in April, but not the new mosque. To my untrained eye, these tiles really are stunningly beautiful.
Ultimately, if there is going to be a viable licit art market, buyers and auction houses must do a much better job of determining where objects have come from.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

WMD and Antiquities?

Archaeology has an interesting but brief interview with Matthias Rossbach who has led a project which uses Nuclear Analytical Techniques to measure elemental composition of ceramic, stone and metal to learn more about the age and provenance of objects. Here is an excerpt:

The IAEA is best known for combating the illegal trade of nuclear materials—how did you get involved with archaeology?
When I joined the agency, there was a project in Latin America that used NATs for so-called pottery fingerprinting to determine provenance by studying the elemental composition of the clay from which the pottery was produced. This was restricted to Latin America, though, and I was looking for opportunities to enhance the application of NATs in all our member states. So, through this program, museums and excavators work with government labs to learn more about the age and provenance of their materials, and even learn whether their objects are fakes.

What makes NATs good tools for authenticating artifacts?
If you analyze the element content, you can easily determine what is authentic because the production procedures and materials differ between today and, let’s say, a thousand years ago. So the composition of the products is different and NATs are virtually nondestructive.

Interesting stuff. I wonder what the cost is for such an analysis, and whether this kind of study might be used for some high-profile antiquities where the original findspot or place of creation is unknown. I’m thinking primarily of the Sevso hoard and the Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth currently in the Getty. It will be a long time before such technology can be used to actually determine provenance I think.

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

Can "My Things" Prevent Art Theft?

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.

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