Wolfgang Beltracchi as he disappeared, grinning like a Cheshire cat, into the all-too brief and cosy embrace of the German penal system. It's tempting on such occasions (art thefts fall into the same category here) to simply sigh and intone the now familiar phrase: "Who cares? It's only art."
Well, you'd care if you were London dealer Mark Weiss, who finds himself carrying the cross in a $550,000 title dispute after offering a work that had been stolen during the early nineteenth century. That fact failed to emerge despite two appearances at The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht in 2010 and 2011.
The Jermyn Street Old Master dealer was an exhibitor at the recent Paris Tableau art fair where he was showing a work by the French Baroque painter Nicolas Tournier (c.1590-1639) — a typically Caravaggiste rendering of Christ stumbling with the Cross (above left).
Tout à coup, the French state intervened, laying claim to the painting on the grounds that it had been stolen from the Augustins Museum in Toulouse as far back as 1818. That's just a few years after Lord Elgin brought the Parthenon Marbles back to England, another misappropriated work of art that continues to generate controversy.
On the surface at least, it would seem that the Weiss Gallery had nothing to hide. Their given provenance even includes reference to the picture's sojourn at the Augustins Museum. But evidently the archival records they consulted didn't include the fact that the painting had been stolen. Or perhaps Weiss felt that a statute of limitations would kick in. The theft was, after all, almost 200 years ago — a time-lag that seems to protect any number of other illicit artworks on the global hot list.
It also seems that the picture was for a time with French dealer Didier Aaron & Cie., who sold the painting to Weiss at TEFAF in Maastricht in 2010 for €400,000 ($550,000). According to the French paper Libération Weiss re-offered it at TEFAF in 2011, now priced at €675,000.
All of this raises a number of questions. The first and most obvious one is why Didier Aaron, a respected and responsible member of the Paris Old Masters trade, failed to discover during its provenance research into the painting that it had been stolen from a French museum in 1818. Nor did that information emerge during Weiss's own research, if any was conducted.
Secondly, why did the French state not intervene when Didier Aaron advertised the picture at the world's most prestigious and high-profile Old Master art fair in Maastricht in 2010? Or again in 2011 when Weiss showed it?
Thirdly, why was the painting not detected during Due Diligence vetting at the European Fine Art Fair on either occasion? If the Due Diligence mechanisms at Maastricht don't embrace the international stolen art records that now seem to have revealed the Tournier as problematic, then the art trade is more vulnerable than we thought.
It would be interesting to know whether the picture's uncertain title status was discovered at the Paris Tableau fair as a result of the fair's Due Diligence vetting or through more anecdotal circumstances. Either way, Weiss now seem to find themselves on the wrong end of a title dispute that ought to have been picked up much earlier in the supply chain.
What happens to Weiss's investment in the painting? Will the French state (which has placed an export bar on the work) compensate them? Was Didier Aaron negligent in failing to investigate the Augustins theft and its potential impact on a future owner of the picture? What are the implications of Maastricht being branded as a place where stolen works of art are traded?
It's understandable that the painting could languish undetected in a wealthy Florentine private collection for almost 200 years following its original theft. But if there was something wrong with its provenance, as now seems to be the case, one would reasonably expect it to have been detected at Maastricht in 2010 and/or 2011 or during Didier Aaron's researches.
This sounds like yet an another compelling argument for better integration of international stolen art databases, but who is pushing for that?
Then again, who cares? It's only art.