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.