Thursday, September 26, 2013

Finders, Not Keepers! Cultural Treasures Belong in Their Country of Origin

Intelligence Squared, the leading global forum for intellectual and cultural debate, held its first event in Asia on 15th May 2009.

The debate took place before a live audience of 600 people at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre during ART HK 09 (Hong Kong International Art Fair) and tackled the contentious issue of the rightful ownership, display and sale of historically significant artefacts.

IQ2 Asia co-founder, Yana Peel, said, "From the ongoing dispute over the ownership of the Elgin Marbles to the recent furore over the Yves-Saint Laurent Paris auction of two Imperial Chinese bronzes looted from the Old Summer Palace, the ownership of cultural treasures continues to be the subject of great controversy. We are delighted that Outset and Wedel Fine Art will bring the debate to ART HK 09, given the Fair’s success in attracting leading collectors, industry players and members of the public to focus on cultural themes in this dynamic part of the world.”

Finders">">Finders, Not Keepers
from Stephanie">">Stephanie Poon on Vimeo.">Vimeo.>

Sunday, September 22, 2013

"Lying", "bounty-hunting", "profiting" from stolen art: the true face of the Art Loss Register

The New York Times article on the activities of The Art Loss Register – or, more revealingly, on the activities of its chairman Julian Radcliffe – was enough to prompt me to re-open the blog.

The phrase ‘dog with a bone’ will doubtless jump to mind, but, correct me if I’m wrong, haven’t we seen a host of organisations set up in recent years to foster due diligence in the art market, to promote better provenance research, more effective policing, more scholarly approaches to art crime, improved museum security, and so on (how long have you got?). That’s one side of the moral balance. Somehow, on the other side, the art market has allowed an organisation, whose chairman (a "gentleman farmer" according to the New York Times) has admitted to lying on two occasions, to continue its “bounty-hunting” escapades that seem to flout best practice at almost every turn.

It's the lack of checks and balances that is most concerning. Unsurprisingly, the major London auction houses – Sotheby’s Christie’s and Bonhams – are all shareholders in this organisation.

The New York Times article was admirably balanced, but you need to parse its studiously cautious, litigation-conscious tightrope-walking to get at the real implications of what its research exposed.

The message that emerges is that a self-confessed liar has somehow nuanced himself into what the paper euphemistically calls “an important figure in the art market.” This probably tells us more about the famously unregulated art market than it does about the company that is supposed to provide due diligence services to the people its chairman lies to. Cue sheepish whispering from the media and the trade – 'this unacceptably monopolistic situation is all we’ve got, so we might as well carry on with it until something better comes along'. Better the devil you don’t know…

The New York Times piece has been a long time in the making, but it doesn’t tell us anything that many of us were not already aware of. In fact we seem to know a lot more than the New York Times knows, or is prepared to reveal. It skated over the shameful Norman Rockwell Russian Schoolroom case, the court papers from which – containing email exchanges between all the parties involved – are enough to chill the blood. The ALR’s approach to Holocaust assets were also given only a squeamish dusting but are another reason I dissuade people from interning with the company. It’s bad enough that the most heinous crime in history was visited upon the Jews but it’s an act of egregious meanness to discover the whereabouts of a looted asset only to refuse to divulge its location until the victim or the victim’s heirs cough up a swingeing recovery fee.

In recent weeks more important members of staff have left the sinking ship, no longer able to reconcile their employ with their knowledge of the ALR’s modus operandi. Even Christopher Marinello, its erstwhile legal counsel, has finally decided enough is enough and has moved to distance himself from the organisation. I can recommend a good dry cleaner. He leaves at the end of this month to set up an alternative art recovery organisation. Will he succeed in persuading the compromised auction houses to step inside?

Meanwhile, the stricken vessel ALR continues to patrol the polluted seas of stolen art, now plying the Balkan waters, casting fees into its murky depths in the faint hope of a catch. The day is fast approaching when no port will give it berth.

There’s more to come, much more.   


Sunday, June 16, 2013

Art Loss Register business model under scrutiny yet again

More excellent investigative work by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino of the Chasing Aphrodite blog alleges that the London-based 'Due Diligence' organisation, the Art Loss Register (ALR), issued a 'search certificate' for an important antiquity on the basis of incomplete information. 

Documents acquired by Felch and Frammolino allege that the sale by Indian antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor of a 900-year-old bronze statue of the dancing Shiva to the Australian National Gallery of Art for $5 million, was supported by a search certificate supplied by the ALR (left)

The ALR make it clear on their website that their search certificates — which are used by international art and antiquities dealers as evidence of having conducted Due Diligence on objects they are transacting — "are not issued on the basis of incomplete or inadequately researched information." 

The ALR's search certificates are nothing more than confirmation that the object in question does not appear on the ALR's database of stolen objects. Given the nature of the antiquities trade and the difficulty in establishing the provenance of antiquities being offered for sale, no organisation, including the ALR, should be issuing certificates for antiquities. The likelihood that those certificates could be interpreted as supportive of an item's legitimacy merely complicates an already problematic market and might even be indirectly helping subsistence looters and their end-users.

As the Chasing Aphrodite website reveals, Kapoor, in applying for the ALR search certificate, "was not required to provide any provenance information for the bronze." It would seem, therefore, that the ALR — supposedly an organisation seeking to promote Due Diligence in the art market — is not itself conducting adequate Due Diligence on the people with whom it does business or on the objects those clients are wishing to transact.

It is not the first time that doubt has been cast on the ALR's approach to its business. In 2008, it was revealed that the company had been approached by a Kent art dealer, Michael Marks, who was seeking to conduct Due Diligence on a painting by the Indian Modernist artist Francis Newton Souza, which Mr Marks was hoping to buy. Marks was told by ALR chairman Julian Radcliffe that the painting was not on the ALR's database of stolen art. It was. 

In the court judgment issued by Justice Tugenhadt, it emerged that: "After Mr Marks had paid the search fee, he spoke to Mr Radcliffe. It is common ground that Mr Radcliffe told Mr Marks that if Mr Marks were to buy the Paintings, he, Mr Radcliffe, had a client who was interested in buying them from Mr Marks. Mr Marks asked Mr Radcliffe whether there was a problem with good title, and Mr Radcliffe said that there was not. It is common ground, and Mr Radcliffe accepts, that he misled Mr Marks." (My emphasis)

The Marks case is just the tip of the iceberg. I won't bother disinterring here the now notorious Norman Rockwell Russian Schoolroom case — the outcome of which also supports my long-held contention that the ALR is not a force for good in the provision of Due Diligence to the art market. You can read my numerous past posts on that topic elsewhere on the Artknows blog.

A virtual market monopoly in Due Diligence provision is not good for the art market. Judging from the still-unfolding Kapoor case revealed by Chasing Aphrodite, it might also be further complicating the issues surrounding the illicit antiquities trade. 

In 2011, ALR chairman Julian Radcliffe issued this extraordinary statement:

"Anyone, including lawyers, who thinks that they can obtain rewards for the return of stolen art without providing full information on who had them and why, should be prosecuted." — Julian Radcliffe, ALR Chairman, quoted in Antiques and the Arts Weekly, 2 September 2011. 

I'd say $5 million for selling a looted statue of Shiva is a reward for stolen art. Kapoor may yet be prosecuted, but there is a wider, ethical issue here about Due Diligence procedures and who supplies them.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Mum’s the word: Should we alert art thieves to the value of their haul?

Another day, another theft from a museum...and another tranche of media articles alerting the thieves to the market value of what they’ve just stolen. Clearly we cannot stop journalists researching the likely open market value of stolen works of art, particularly when art price databases are so widely available and high prices make juicy headlines, but what’s the industry intelligence on this? Should law enforcement authorities, art theft investigators and specialist art crime research agencies reveal values or not? 

This question occurred to me while reading ARCA CEO Lynda Albertson's excellent and informative piece on this week's theft of important Castellani jewellery (left) from Rome's Villa Giulia Museum. 

If you believe, as many erroneously do, that stolen works of art have no economic value whatsoever (because they cannot be sold on the open market), then it logically follows that there is no harm in revealing recent auction prices for comparable works. In doing so you're just telling the criminals how stupid they are. However, if you believe, as I do, that thieves often derive real economic value from art theft (albeit only a fraction of legitimate market value) through insurance ransoms, using the objects as collateral against other criminal commodities, or benefiting from “rewards for information leading to recovery”, etc. — then surely there is genuine harm in revealing recent market prices. Won’t this only encourage further thefts?

There is, of course, a difference between the theft of works by ‘blue chip’ artists, the notional values of which are more widely known, and the theft of more academic material or unique works that have no direct or obvious market equivalent. We are therefore doing ourselves — and indeed the aggrieved museums or private collections — no favours by alerting thieves to the market value of comparably rare objects or comparable objects from specialist niche categories. The objects might have been nicked on commission (whisper it) on behalf of a collector with an aesthetic passion for such things and who in any event would never sell (in which case their market value is largely irrelevant). But they might also have been stolen opportunistically, in which case why inform the thieves as to the likely black market value of their haul?

The recent theft from the Rotterdam Kunsthal immediately triggered a hail of media reports estimating the likely market value of the hoard. Almost all of these were so wide of the mark as to be laughable to anyone with specialist knowledge of the art market. But they made good headlines. More critically, they may well have served to encourage other criminals to have a go. 

I don’t know the answer to this, but my instinct tells me that those who understand art's economic value (and particularly the relationship between legitimate and black market values) would generally refrain from educating the criminal fraternity on the financial upside of art theft. 

I’d be interested to hear what specialists in the ‘art crime industry’ think. Should we broadcast prices? Or keep ‘schtum’?

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Bacon slicer brings screaming pope to auction

A slice of Bacon: £25,000-30,000
It's fitting, perhaps, that a version of one of Francis Bacon's screaming popes should be coming under the hammer in the very month that the real Pope — Herr Ratzinger, late of Rome — is leaving office under a cloud of controversy, with some contingents screaming for him to surrender more than his papal ring and crimson pumps.

But the pope that will be offered at auction at a Surrey fine art saleroom on March 20 has had good reason to scream — because someone took a knife to him and sliced him to pieces.

This is just the latest instalment in a dismal series of events connected to the painter Francis Bacon, who is no longer around to object to the way his discarded artworks have been resurrected and commercially exploited. He may, of course, have just poured more champagne and laughed about it all the way to the Colony Club.

Back in April 2007, the Surrey auctioneers Ewbank (as they were then known) offered the 'Robertson Collection' of Francis Bacon studio throw-outs. To call it a collection is a serious misnomer, however, for the works were never 'collected' in any conventional sense. The story goes like this:

An electrician, who happened to be working at Francis Bacon's South Kensington home in 1978, 'rescued' diaries, cheque stubs and cancelled canvases by Bacon from a rubbish skip outside the building into which, he claims, Bacon was about to throw them. According to the account offered by The Daily Mail in 2007, the electrician, Mac Robertson, then 75, "persuaded the artist to let him keep some of the junk." Robertson went on to say, "I was in the right place at the right time. I had no idea that the bits and bobs Bacon was about to throw away might one day be worth a fortune."

Looking at the many surviving photographs of Bacon's studio, with its great Pyrenean slopes of sedimented detritus, it's hard to imagine the artist discarding anything, let alone the numerous contact sheets of Muybridge-like black and white photographs (above) which were a major source of inspiration. But these were also apparently destined for the skip until Robertson 'rescued' them. The haul — which included canvases that Bacon had quite literally de-faced with a Stanley knife in order to cancel them beyond redemption — went on to make £1.13 million when offered at the Ewbank Auction in April 2007. (You can see the video I shot of one of the destroyed portraits selling for £400,000 on You Tube here and my blog posts of 2007 here.)

Now another tranche of sliced-up Bacon is coming under the hammer, again at Ewbank Clarke Gammon Weller (as they are now known) in Woking, Surrey.

This time the material comes from the collection of the late Lewis Todd (1925-2006) (left), a  commercial artist who died in 2006. A Sunday painter of microscopic talent, Todd was in need of some cheap canvas on which to paint his amateur still lifes and landscapes. An acquaintance, Mr John Kesterton of the Heffer Gallery (now defunct), gave him a large canvas on which Francis Bacon had executed a study for one of his series of popes inspired by Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X. How Kesterton came to own the Bacon canvas is unclear but it seems the Heffer Gallery also supplied Bacon with artist's materials so perhaps the gallery took the canvas in exchange.

Kesterton told Todd that if he wanted to use the unpainted side of the Bacon canvas he had to slice it up first. (At that time Bacon was not the 'blue-chip' artist he has subsequently become.) Todd happily obliged before executing his own paintings on the other side — works of consummate banality which he then sold to buyers at a craft market in Cambridge.

Auctioneer Chris Ewbank, who will disperse the slashed canvases at his Burnt Common saleroom in Surrey on March 20, has said of the consignment, "It is fantastic to think that these pictures were once part of a much larger painting of historical importance." Fantastic isn't quite the word I'd have chosen, but perhaps Mr Ewbank is thinking of the buyer's premium he will reap. The collection is estimated to realise around £100,000, but if the sale generates anything like the feeding frenzy that greeted the Robertson consignment the outcome could be in seven figures.

Given the prices these things realise it is not surprising that so many mutilated Bacon works have come under the hammer since the artist's death, most of them consigned by people claiming to have been the artist's friend. Perhaps they were. After all, Bacon was an affable fellow. He it was who coined the phrase, "Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends!"

Viewing for the sale at the Burnt Common auction rooms is on Saturday March 16 from 10am to 2pm; Monday March 18 from 10am to 5pm, Tuesday March 19, from 10am to 8pm and on the morning of the sale from 9.30-10. For further information, please contact Chris Ewbank FRICS ASFAV on 01483 223 101 or

Friday, February 22, 2013

Lines on the Goulandris family art feud (or 'Aspasia and the Pot of Basil')

Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When artworks to our heirs we leave
Marc’s Monet, worth ten million plus
Outstrips Matilda’s small Balthus
The nubile nymph she thought would pay
For her leisurely Harvard MBA
Is just a trifle, she is told
And not a Danaë shower of gold

Bertrand will cheer when he discovers
His Braque is better than his brother’s
Marie might faint when told the sketch
She dreamt would half a million fetch
Is not a blue-chip work by Miró
But a Beltracchi daub worth next to zero

“Et in Arcadia Ego”...True!
(That Virgil knew a thing or two)
Works of art expose our greed
The vanities on which we feed
If they could speak to us today
They’d sneer at all our wills and say:
“Cease this internecine feud!
Ars Longa, Vita Brevis, dude!”


Inspired by the disputed art collection of the late Greek shipping magnate Basil Goulandris

European Commission Vice President seeks legislation to strengthen demands for restitution of “national treasures.”

The "Getty" bronze
News just in from the New Europe news agency suggests that European Commission Vice President Antonio Tajani is planning new legislation to help EU member states recover pieces of their cultural heritage unlawfully removed after 1993. (A quick reminder, as if any were needed — this will NOT affect the Parthenon Marbles, the bust of Nefertiti, the Benin brasses, the Rosetta Stone, the Maqdala manuscripts, and a host of other contested objects still beyond the reach of their countries of origin.)

EC Vice-President Tajani, responsible for Industry and Entrepreneurship, said: "Safeguarding the cultural heritage of all Member States is of major importance to the European Union. Our proposal is therefore necessary to further strengthen the effectiveness of the fight against illegal trafficking in cultural goods. The harmful effect on our national treasures represents a serious threat to the preservation of the origins and history of our civilization."

It’s perhaps not surprising that this initiative comes from an Italian politician, given Italy’s muscular efforts to police what it sees as its cultural property in recent years. Italy has shown greater determination than most countries in forcing North American museums to restitute looted objects and to reform their acquisition policies. But as the case of the "Getty" bronze (above left) demonstrates, ownership claims to "national" treasures are never cut and dried (grazie Felch and Frammolino).

There is a stark mismatch here between the utterances of the EU’s cultural policy unit and those issuing from the so-called ‘Universal’ or ‘Encyclopaedic’ museums in many of the EU’s more powerful member states. Many directors of these museums are members of the notorious ‘Bizot Group’ — an exotic truncation of the rather more cumbersome 'International Group of Organizers of Large-scale Exhibitions'. This élite institution, which takes its name from its founder, the French Countess Irène Bizot, a former head of the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, was the source of the now notorious Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums.

James Cuno, the most vocal proponent of Bizot Group ideology, and President of the Getty Foundation — one of the institutions previously caught with its fingers in the cultural heritage till — is a staunch defender of the ‘Encyclopaedic’ museum model. He has frequently condemned what he sees as a veiled nationalist agenda behind today’s restitution claims. In harmony with British Museum director Neil MacGregor, Dr Cuno has consistently argued that there is no such thing as “national” cultural heritage, that no nation has a legitimate and exclusive claim to treasures found on its soil, since all culture is hybrid and therefore all material culture is the property of all humanity.

He has never explained why European and North American museums are the rightful custodians of the lion's share of the world's cultural property. As far as I can gather, nor has he refused to alter his position on the right, nay duty, of museums to continue acquiring cultural objects.

The “universalist” view of museum culture expounded by Cuno, MacGregor, Monetebello, et al— a legacy of Enlightenment thought — clearly doesn’t chime with Mr Tajani’s position, which argues that: “The harmful effect on our national treasures represents a serious threat to the preservation of the origins and history of our civilization" (my emphasis).

The directors of European and North American encyclopaedic museums insist that they are safeguarding “the origins and history of civilization” by retaining the world’s treasures within their walls. But that position is clearly no longer tenable in the eyes of Greece, Nigeria, Turkey, India, and other developing nations, many of which now seek to recover their “national” cultural property from these big institutions.

It used to be said that the British Museum was reluctant to return the Parthenon Marbles for fear that the notional “floodgates” would open, leading to the wholesale denuding of encyclopaedic museums everywhere. However, Marbles aside, the water level behind those gates has been rising steadily for years and the force of the water is increasing week on week, month on month, year on year. 

We will have to wait and see what impact this new EU legislation might have, if and when it is implemented. It cites 1993 as the cut-off year after which treasures cannot be acquired (a 23-year extension of the date cited in the UNESCO Convention), stating: “The proposed changes would apply to cultural goods classified as ‘national treasures’ unlawfully removed after 1993 that are now located on the territory of another Member State.”

Perhaps Dr Cuno would like to comment on how this scans with the syndrome he has so memorably defined as “nationalist cultural property retentionism”?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Courbet's Origin of the World: a field day for psychoanalysts

Gustave Courbet
L'Origine du Monde, 1866
Having crudely Photoshopped one of the few media images yet published of the recently discovered top portion of Courbet's controversial painting 'L'Origine du Monde' (The Origin of the World) to at least bring it into closer proximity with the extant lower half, my original skepticism towards the 'discovery' has been somewhat dispelled, although not entirely. This is, I readily acknowledge, an almost unforgiveable aesthetic crime, but hey, my curiosity got the better of me. I'm no expert in computer graphics, so cut me some slack for a moment — this is connoisseurship, not prurience.

We will have to wait until French experts have done a more professional job of digitally reuniting the two parts to be more sure. I can't see them attempting to actually 'restore' it. Perhaps it will end up being displayed like Manet's almost exactly contemporaneous Execution of Maximilian (1867-8) in the London National Gallery, which has also suffered radical dismemberment since it was painted (the art market is to blame for that).

If the Courbet head just discovered is indeed the excised part of the painting it will be an extraordinary art historical find, although not, perhaps, in the same league as the disinterment of Richard III's skeleton beneath a Leicester Car Park.

Jean-Jacques Fernier of the Courbet Institute unites the fragments
I learned this morning from Guardian critic Jonathan Jones's blog that Courbet's Origin of the World was once owned by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Lacan's famously obscure writings were the cynosure of all undergraduate critical theorists while I was studying art history at Sussex University in the mid-1980s. That was a time when the so-called New Art History was asserting itself, a defining strand being the fusion of methodologies from other disciplines, most notably anthropology, critical theory, Marxism, gender theory, French psychoanalysis, and so on, into one gloriously calorific casserole of critical approaches. It made for some lively and knockabout post-graduate seminars.

Courbet's 'Origin' was often wheeled out on such occasions. It will be interesting to see how art historians deconstruct the marriage of the two separated portions. The possibilities for psychoanalytic interpretation are surely endless. Oh to hear what Lacan might have said. On other other hand, maybe not.

Image above right: Photograph: Jacky Naegelen/Reuters

Monday, February 4, 2013

A hearse! A hearse! My kingdom for a hearse! — Richard III found in Leicester car park

The discovery of the skeletal remains of Richard III in a Leicester car park is obviously a great day for archaeology. It's also a good opportunity to revisit Peter Sellers' great spoof of Laurence Olivier's Richard III reciting The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

'World Record' Chinese vase re-sold at less than half original price

Just about everyone knew it was too good to be true. Even within the other-worldly realm of Asian art, £53 million for a Qing dynasty vase (left) was an eyebrow-raising event.

When the hammer fell in Ruislip back in 2010 (the auctioneer brought his gavel down so hard and so exuberantly that it smashed in two) you could hear the exhalations of disbelief from Hammersmith to the Himalayas. It quickly emerged that the buyer was unable, or unwilling, to pay for it, which had appraisers everywhere turning to the chapter in the auctioneers' handbook marked 'Risk'.

Now Bloomberg's seasoned art market reporter Scott Reyburn has confirmed that it was all indeed a dream, an illusion, Chinese mist, smoke and mirrors. The Qing Dynasty porcelain vase 'sold' by Bainbridges Auction Rooms in Ruislip way back in 2010 was never paid for and has now been re-sold by private treaty to a different buyer in a transaction brokered by London auctioneers Bonhams. 

This time it has been sold for a sum reported to be between £20 million and £25 million (one wonders why, if they're happy to be that specific about the price, they don't just confirm the exact sum).

The failure of the original bidder to settle his obligation sent a ripple of concern around European salerooms, with a number of auction houses thereafter demanding pre-auction deposits from Asian bidders at sales of important Chinese works of art. The news that the so-called 'Ruislip Vase' was not the epochal moment it was cracked up to be (the vase remains on Bainbridge's website, trumpeted at £53 million) will merely reinforce the ongoing need for caution in disposing of the Chinese imperial wares so craved by Asian collectors. 

China has a long way to go before its art market is fit for purpose. The Ruislip Vase outcome is a reminder that the European art market is still vulnerable to its many inconsistencies.