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.”

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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.