Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Art recovery: another can of worms prised open

It seems it is not only UK dealer Michael Marks who has crossed swords with the Art Loss Register recently.

Now the Los Angeles Times reports that the rightful owner of Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps (left), a work by French Impressionist Camille Pissarro looted during the Holocaust, has had a "falling out" with the ALR.

In fact, the LA Times story is a catch-up on a case that has been studiously investigated by Elise Viebeck at the Claremont Independent, and also followed up by Derek Fincham's Illicit Cultural Property blog.

I won't comb over territory already explored with great diligence by Ms Viebeck and Mr Fincham, but suffice to say that this looks to me like yet another instance in which Machiavellian manoeuvres by academic researchers and art databases to skim off a percentage of the value of recovered stolen or Holocaust looted art potentially militates against a satisfactory ethical outcome to such cases. Everyone, it seems, from academics to dealers, to stolen art databases, is scheming to benefit from what in many instances, particularly Holocaust matters like the Fischer case referred to above, was originally a heinous crime.

Surely there is a more ethical way to recover stolen and Holocaust looted art?


Dorothy King said...

This seems an extreme case ... but yes, paying a portion of the recovered item seems to be better than not paying and getting nothing. The various governments that hold Nazi art can be pretty tough about refusing to let items go; Norway and Austria are bad, Greece seems the worst. One needs someone with pretty specialised knowledge - and backbone. I have many friends who are still trying to get art back, and most of them would rather not pay, but accept the need for such an arrangement. I have also heard art dealers claim that it acts as an incentive for them to find Nazi loot - if they get 10% it's more than worth their time.

Tom Flynn said...

Thanks for your comment, Dorothy. I think it's beginning to emerge that having to pay 10-15% of the value of the recovered work is by no means a guarantee of recovery, but rather the cause of a kind of moral blackmail, allowing the possibility for researchers and databases to withold information until an acceptable fee is agreed. I'm not arguing that researchers and Holocaust investigators should receive no recompense (although some prominent Holocaust research organisations such as the Commission for Looted Art In Europe do work on a pro bono basis). I'm suggesting that charging a significant percentage of the work's value on recovery is leading to an even more venal art world than the one we have already, in which the aggrieved is often pressured to sell in order to pay the extortionate fees of profit-seeking art recovery companies.