Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Oxford seminar calls for more rigorous standards in technical art history

Professor Mark Pollard of the University of Oxford
 chairs the closing session at the research seminar  
We are just a few weeks away from a three-day international meeting in The Hague that seeks to address the highly topical issue of ‘Authentication in Art’.  To attend, you will need to fork out a swingeing €700 attendance fee, plus accommodation and expenses, all of which is likely to exclude a fair few interested commentators, myself included. 

So it was particularly constructive that Nicholas Eastaugh and Jilleen Nadolny of London-based Art Access & Research, the leading specialists in art materials analysis, organised a free, one-day symposium at Trinity College Oxford to explore some of the core issues facing this emerging discipline. Yesterday’s event was also used to informally announce the imminent launch of Dr Konstantin Akinsha's Russian Avant-Garde Research Project (RARP), an explicit acknowledgment that Russian modernist art remains particularly susceptible to fakes and forgeries. 

The 30 delegates at Oxford were drawn from a range of scientific and art historical disciplines, reflecting the extent to which this burgeoning research area requires a blend of analytical and interpretative methodologies embracing art history, pigment and materials studies, connoisseurship, analytical chemistry, database technology, and so on. 

It will be interesting to see whether The Hague meeting succeeds in progressing any of the ideas and aspirations discussed at the Oxford seminar, most of which centred around the need for more rigorous professional standards and protocols. With the art market booming again, and fakes proliferating, it now seems clear that charlatanism is not confined to the faking of paintings and the forging of provenance documentation. It also extends to a new breed of self-appointed and ethically compromised ‘forensic scientists’ willing to issue certificates of authenticity for inauthentic works in return for financial kickbacks. 

There are essentially two aspects to what is now commonly termed ‘technical art history’ (the fuzzy issue of nomenclature was another underlying theme of the seminar) — academic analysis of works of art and market-commissioned analysis. However, it is not widely known that the leading practitioners of the latter also take a disinterested approach to what they do. 

Research and analysis conducted by Eastaugh and Nadolny at Art Access & Research is entirely disconnected from any market outcome and their fees are in no way dependent on the real or notional value of the works they investigate. That approach represents the industry benchmark for best practice. However, there are still too many market participants seeking the services of the art market equivalent of snake oil salesmen to endorse and authenticate questionable pictures. The distinction between academic and commercial motives has become a leitmotif of art forensics. 

Boris Kustodiev's Odalisque, ...or is it?
What can the industry do to combat ethically negotiable practitioners? That is yet to be decided. As the symposium heard, conventional courts of law are ill-qualified to pronounce on art market matters and too often their judgements are flawed, as the recent case of the Kustodiev canvas at Christie’s (right) suggests.  

The art market is often described as “the last unregulated market,” but not everyone agrees with that assessment. My recent blog entry (here), which hinted at a putative correspondence between the activities of hedge funds in the financial markets and opportunities for insider trading at the top of the art market, was dismissed by Art Market Monitor as “a spurious connection that retails the mistaken idea that there is no regulation in the auction market (a falsehood that never seems to die).” 

In my piece I quoted New York Magazine writer Andrew Rice who recently wrote: 

“It’s an opaque market, where secret side deals, price manipulation, kickbacks, and collusion are an everyday facet of business. It rewards inside information, and since the market is largely unregulated, players can trade on it without any fear of legal consequences.”

Certain aspects of the art market are indeed regulated, as Art Market Monitor maintains; the conventional rule of law pertains as much in the art world as it does in any other sphere. Money-laundering and other fraudulent practices are generally dealt with severely (forgery seems to be an exception, inviting short sentences in open prisons, and celebrity media contracts on release). The processes of self-regulation work…but only to a degree. Opportunities to exploit the informal nature of the art trade are abundant and potentially destabilising, as the recent Beltracchi, Knoedler, and Subhash Kapoor cases amply demonstrate. 

During the Oxford seminar's closing discussion, Dr Anna Dempster of Sotheby’s Institute called for a more nuanced understanding of the balance to be struck between market transparency and the confidentiality that most art professionals see as essential to a healthy trade. Summarising, Nicholas Eastaugh called for a professional code of practice in art authentication, preferably one ratified by the main professional bodies and leading market participants. It was agreed that a starting point would be a consensus on minimum standards.

Questions that might re-emerge at the forthcoming Hague conference include: how to promote creative collaboration between art historians and their ‘technical’ counterparts; how to get the technical laboratories to work productively together; and how to expose those unqualified practitioners with unacceptably close ties to market outcomes. 

One thing seems certain — “Connoisseurship down the microscope,” so to speak, is here to stay.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Risk and Uncertainty in the Art World

Risk and Uncertainty in the Art World is a timely new publication from Bloomsbury edited by Anna M. Dempster of Sotheby's Institute.

The volume contains essays by Anna Dempster, Tom Flynn, Tom Christopherson, Anders Petterson, Olav Velthuis, Neil De Marchi & Hans J. Van Miegroet, Marina Bianchi, Rachel A.J. Pownall, Steve Satchell & Nandini Srivastava, Elroy Dimson & Christophe Spaenjers, Laurent Noël, and Arjo Klamer.

Amazon link here.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Insider trading in the art market: "That's fun."

Steve Cohen (left), the US hedge fund manager, über-collector and owner of Damien Hirst's pickled shark, is renaming his SAC Capital Advisors hedge fund. In future the company will be called 'Point72', referring to the firm's long-standing headquarters at 72 Cummings Point Road, in Stamford, Connecticut. However, as the Wall Street Journal has noted, "The switch is part of an effort by Mr Cohen to distance himself and the firm from their connection to the biggest insider-trading investigation in Wall Street history."

But now take a look at the world of blue-chip fine art auctions (a realm in which Mr Cohen is a major player) and focus on the efforts by another New York-based vulture capitalist — Daniel Loeb — to force Sotheby's into generating greater shareholder value.

Loeb has noticed the extraordinary spikes in value for certain contemporary artists and believes Sotheby's could be doing more to challenge Christie's performance in that sector.

So what's the difference between the insider-trading activities that hedge funds practice in the conventional financial markets and the mechanisms currently pumping the top end of the art market to ever higher prices? We will never know to any precise degree, because one thing hedge fund  collectors like Daniel Loeb are NOT calling for is greater transparency in the art market. What he and the other Masters of the Universe want is to control the art world in the way that they control global finance and government.

The way to achieve that is to capitalise on the art market's lack of regulation. As New York Magazine put it:
"...the hedge-fund guys tend to treat artists like growth stocks, preferring those not yet judged by posterity, because that’s where there’s room for major price appreciation.  [...] The rewards can be enormous for those who have an edge. It’s an opaque market, where secret side deals, price manipulation, kickbacks, and collusion are an everyday facet of business. It rewards inside information, and since the market is largely unregulated, players can trade on it without any fear of legal consequences. That’s fun."
This is the surely a credible explanation for the unprecedented rise in prices at the top of the art market. If it is true that hedge fund collectors operate in the art market in the manner that they operate in the stock market — then we need to adjust our sense of what prices mean in the art market today.

They no longer reflect aesthetic appreciation, but instead are a function of the financial muscle that can be brought to bear on an artist's output. It's a self-fulfilling cycle. Pity the poor artist who assumes a connection between price and the quality of her work. It is nothing of the sort; more often it is a case of "taking positions, using leverage, and weighing risk and reward more aggressively," as one art world insider interpreted Daniel Loeb's plan for holding Sotheby's feet to the fire.

Seeking the source of the now prevalent culture of unashamed speculation, most commentators point to the famous Robert and Ethel Scull sale held at Sotheby's in New York in 1973. It was at that sale that the artist Robert Rauschenberg took exception to what he saw as the exploitation of his creativity by Scull's speculative approach to contemporary art.

Poussin Adoration, London National Gallery
I'd go back further than 1973. In 1956, Sotheby's were trying to persuade a retired naval officer to consign Poussin's Adoration of the Shepherds (right) to its London auction block. The vendor, the Norfolk-based aristocrat Jocelyn Beauchamp, eventually allowed Sotheby's director Vere Pilkington to take the rolled-up canvas back to London.

Shortly afterwards, Beauchamp was approached by a London dealer who offered him £10,000 cash for the picture (the offer was raised to £15,000 a few days later). Furious at the trade's attempt to scupper their instructions, Sotheby's chairman Peter Wilson offered Beauchamp a guaranteed sum. That was the first time a guarantee had ever been offered by an auctioneer to a vendor.

The painting, which had once been in the collection of Sir Joshua Reynolds, was eventually sold for £29,000 to London and New York dealer David Koetser. Guarantees (and more recently so-called 'irrevocable bids') are now a fixture of Sotheby's and Christie's high-ticket auctions but the precise details of the cake-cutting are never divulged. Sotheby's chairman Bill Ruprecht told me in an interview in 2000: "I have never lost money on a principal position." In 2008, they lost $80 million on guaranteed transactions.

It was the aggressive marketing tactics of Peter Wilson in the 1950s and early 1960s that dragged Sotheby's kicking and screaming into the modern world to finally challenge Christie's. Today, such is the power of Wall Street and the financial markets that the pressure for auctioneers to compete ever more aggressively comes not from within for reasons to do with art and the cultures of collecting. Instead it comes from hedge fund manipulators like Cohen and Loeb who are fixated on shareholder value and maximising their own opportunities for ever greater wealth generation.

If the art market is eventually forced to succumb to external regulation, it will be because the hedge funds have been permitted to do to the art market what they did to the mortgage markets that eventually brought on the global economic crisis.

Meanwhile, what is the impact on art and artists?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

London Old Master dealers Agnew's to continue under new ownership

Agnew’s, the long-established international fine art dealers, which closed its Albemarle Street gallery to the public last year, has been acquired by new owners and will continue trading under the direction of Anthony Crichton-Stuart, former head of Christie’s Old Master Paintings department in New York and subsequently a director of Noortman Master Paintings. 

The new ownership will not end the Agnew family's connection with the business, however. Julian Agnew, the sixth generation to work for the family firm, and Christopher Kingzett, a former director (shown seated extreme left), will remain as part-time consultants. 

Julian Agnew commented: “I am delighted by the successful sale of the company, and that Agnew’s can now look forward to celebrating its 200-year anniversary in 2017”.

Lord Snowden's 1965 photograph of Agnew's directors (above) shows (left to right): Richard Kingzett, Colin Agnew, Hugh Agnew, Geoffrey Agnew, Evelyn Joll. It reveals the extent to which the business endured as a tightly-knit family unit. (The two non-Agnew directors, Kingzett and Joll, both married into the Agnew clan). 

The firm was founded in Manchester in 1817, opening a branch in London in 1860, and has a proud history with some of the most discerning private collectors and museums amongst its international clientele.  These have included collectors such as the 1st Lord Iveagh and the Rothschild and Pierpont Morgan families and, in more recent years, Paul Mellon, Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza and the great Norton Simon.  

It has made sales to the national galleries in London, Edinburgh and Washington and, amongst many other American museums, the Metropolitan and the Getty, as well as the leading public collections of continental Europe, Australia and Japan.  From its beginnings the firm rapidly became a leader in the field of British paintings and watercolours, contributing in a major way to the growth of the market for contemporary British art in the nineteenth century.  

From the 1870s until the present day, it has been known internationally for handling the works of major artists including Giotto, Raphael, Gentile da Fabriano, Fra Angelico and Sassetta from Italy , northern painters Dürer, Rembrandt, Rubens and Van Dyck, Spanish masters including El Greco, Velázquez and Murillo, and from France, Poussin, Claude, Boucher and Fragonard. British art has always been a speciality with Reynolds, Gainsborough, Constable and, above all, Turner strongly represented.  In 1895 William Agnew was created a baronet and in 1973 Geoffrey Agnew received a knighthood for services to the arts.

Anthony Crichton-Stuart

The new owners, led by Boston collector and investor Cliff Schorer, have purchased the holding company of Thos. Agnew & Sons Ltd. from members of the Agnew family.  The purchase includes the stock of works of art, an important library, and an extensive photographic archive. It will be interesting to see whether the new owners will see fit to digitise the archive.

Anthony Crichton-Stuart (right) said:  “The Agnew’s name is strong and well respected and we aim to build upon this legacy. We are confident that the company’s historic reputation for connoisseurship and fair dealing will remain one of its greatest assets and that this, combined with the dynamic and progressive approach of our new team, will secure the future of the firm well into the twenty-first century. Agnew’s will continue to acquire and present great works of art to museums and private collectors, whilst maintaining relationships with the company’s many existing clients as well as attracting a new clientele.  We are currently looking for appropriate premises for the gallery but in the meantime we are operating from 13 Old Bond Street, London.”

Following reports that the Albemarle Street gallery was to close and the board was considering winding down the business, the new owners approached Agnew’s at TEFAF, Maastricht, last year.  The board continued the business while negotiations took place, and these were successfully concluded in late 2013.  

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi: the hagiography begins

"He didn't send anyone to a soup kitchen, he didn't foreclose anyone's mortgage..." —CBS broadcaster Bob Simon

Below is an extract from 'The Con Artist', an edition of the CBS programme '60 Minutes', which aired on February 23rd, in which host Bob Simon interviews German art criminal Wolfgang Beltracchi. Simon alights on a truism of high-ticket art forgery, namely that the victims are invariably very wealthy individuals rather than those at the lower end of the income scale.

There may be a delicious irony in that some of the rich individuals responsible for immiserating countless thousands of low-paid workers during the credit crunch are the main victims of egregious art forgers like Beltracchi.

True, he may not have sent anyone to a soup kitchen or foreclosed anyone's mortgage, but his is not a victimless crime.   

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

All that is solid melts into air: Christie's New Bond Street gallery sold

Party time at the now vacated Mayor Gallery in Cork Street
Just before Christmas, the venerable Mayor Gallery, one of London's oldest modern art galleries, threw a shindig to mourn its imminent departure from the Cork Street premises it has occupied since the 1930s (left).

New York party animal, bon viveur and art market commentator Anthony Haden-Guest was among those holding court, reciting his "folk-noir" verse about the global art world to a rag-tag crowd of revellers bent on necking as much booze as possible. "All that is solid melts into air," shouted the beleaguered poet, before adding: "That's a phrase from Karl Marx, by the way." Bohemia ain't what it used to be.

The most high-profile victim of ever-encroaching property developers, the Mayor Gallery has now moved to a first floor space a few doors up the street. Along with The Redfern Gallery and Browse and Darby, the Mayor helped give Cork Street an ambience that became the envy of the international art world. More galleries will probably follow, doubtless making way for the up-market rag trade that in recent years has colonised most of New Bond Street just around the corner. Ironically the rag trade — and women of negotiable virtue — were the earliest occupants of Cork Street, so there is a certain glum symmetry to these developments.

The most recent evidence of the accelerating demographic changes affecting this part of town was the announcement of the sale earlier this month of the building that is let on a long lease to Christie's at 103 New Bond Street. The sale to Far Eastern investors — for "just over £30 million"— comes just a couple of years after the Grade II listed premises were made over to house Christie's primary-market  dealing business. 

Christie's and Bonhams cheek by jowl
in New Bond Street
Located next door but one to Bonhams' recently refurbished premises (right), the 9,500 sq ft gallery is the former home of the Haunch of Venison contemporary art gallery that Christie's acquired in 2007. Christie's new New Bond Street primary business was launched barely a month ago with the incompetently hung 'When Britain Went Pop!' exhibition.

That show — which comprised an impressive number of seminal works of British Pop Art — was selected largely from the vast Pop inventory of Leslie Waddington, another long-standing Cork Street dweller. Only this month, Georgina Adam, The Art Newspaper's esteemed editor-at-large, opined: "I expect the tensions in the dealer versus auction-house scenario to worsen [in 2014]". The recent Waddington-Custot/Christie's love-in would suggest otherwise.

Announcing the sale of Christie's premises, the Estates Gazette reported that the New Bond Street premises "generates rental income of £600,000 pa," but that the new Crossrail, arriving in Bond Street in 2018, "is expected to spark significant rent hikes from reviews in 2015 and 2020." 

That will surely mean even tougher times ahead for those remaining art galleries struggling to survive in this part of town. Perhaps the real tension in 2014 — or at any rate in Bond Street and environs — will be between the art trade and the high end luxury brands that now dominate the area.

All this provides more evidence of why the art trade is now moving steadily from bricks to clicks.


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Parthenon Marbles: A European Concern

Paper delivered by Tom Flynn at the Round Table at the European Parliament 
in Brussels on 15 October 2013

Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues, distinguished members of the European Parliament. Let me begin by thanking Professor Sidjanski for the kind invitation to contribute to today's Round Table. It is a pleasure and an honour to be with you in Brussels. 

What can we say about the case for reunifying the Parthenon Marbles that has not been said a thousand times before? What more can we add to the numerous persuasive arguments already made for reuniting the dismembered components of Phidias's finest achievement? How many more times must we convene to reiterate the importance of restoring coherence to a work of art whose desecration at the hands of Lord Elgin damaged one of Greece's greatest gifts to the world?

The answer to these questions is that there will always be more to say about the case for reunifying the Marbles. There will always be new and ever more compelling arguments for reuniting them in Athens. And until that happens our generation and future generations will continue to convene and will go on reminding the British Museum of its moral duty to restore to these objects the dignity that Lord Elgin so rudely snubbed. The story the Marbles tell is of a cultural moment that is a precious and irreplaceable part of our birthright as Europeans and the bedrock of our democratic ideals. That story loses much of its narrative charge while its components remain dispersed across different locations.

The Parthenon Marbles are more than just a work of art. They are more than a mechanism through which to increase the footfall of cultural tourism. They are more than a means by which to impose some meaning on the randomly accumulated collections of an encyclopaedic museum.

The reason the Parthenon Marbles transcend conventional museum categorisation is that they have the potential to demonstrate that in a time of global economic turmoil and geopolitical unrest cultural objects can unite us across national boundaries and remind us of our shared humanity. I say 'potential' because there is an irrefutable logic to the proposition that a united, coherent sequence of objects that speaks with such clarity of our shared background is more likely to foster unity among nations than a fragmented series of objects that continues to symbolise disunion and cultural rupture. For this process to begin, however, the dialogue between Greece and London must rise to a higher level based on mutual trust and generosity of spirit.

The Parthenon Marbles are unquestionably important within the cultural landscape, but they have become renowned for all the wrong reasons. While they should be celebrated for representing the zenith of the Periclean building programme of fifth-century Athens, instead they are more widely recognised as the most controversial and divisive objects in world culture. They should be peacemakers but we are not allowing them to take up that peacekeeping role. Thus they have become emblematic of the wider disputes between western museums and developing nations that have become known as the 'culture wars'. 

While the Marbles remain immured within the Stygian gloom of the Duveen Galleries where their true significance to European art and culture is so wilfully misinterpreted and misunderstood — our attempts to build harmony in the realm of cultural heritage will be impaired. The international museum community — but more specifically the British Museum — has the power to repair that rupture. The symbolic resonance of a unifying gesture of this kind could be profound and long-lasting.

Allow me briefly to frame this within a broader context. The events that unfolded in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years, and now in Syria, have brought unprecedented quantities of looted cultural objects onto the international art market. Many of these objects are removed from ancient sites under cover of darkness by local people seeking to scrape a meagre living for themselves and their families. Such subsistence looting destroys what archaeologists refer to as an object's 'provenience', that is the specific positional coordinates and context in which the object was located in the ground, tomb or temple site. Having been extracted, the objects and artefacts are moved up the art market food-chain, so to speak, before finally ending up in the home of wealthy collectors or museums.

Most museums now know better than to acquire objects of uncertain ownership history and the UNESCO guidelines have set down clear markers on acquisition. Moreover, thanks to the Internet and related communications technologies the world's encyclopaedic museums are now vigilantly monitored by well-informed individuals and interested parties for any hint of a problematic acquisition. The social network has become a critical filter surveying the movement of cultural heritage goods and no longer can museums acquire or display suspect objects without risking public exposure and condemnation. 

Nevertheless, so profound and widespread is the political turmoil ravaging the Middle East that the traffic in cultural objects is now arguably out of control. It is unlikely to improve until peace and economic stability return to the nations affected. Museums are implicated in this 'food-chain', partly as a consequence of their historical development as the repositories of cultural objects and partly because of their self-imposed obligation to continue collecting. 

In the last few months a major Australian museum was found to have acquired an important temple statue of Shiva that had been looted from a site in South Asia. It now seems likely that other museums were recipients of objects from the same supply chain. That said, on the other side of the equation, many museums have taken it upon themselves to return objects that have been recognised as being of specific sacred or ritual value to the source nations and communities from which they were originally expropriated during earlier times.

It is against the background of ongoing cultural upheaval that the British Museum now has an opportunity to make an extraordinary gesture of reconciliation by reunifying the Parthenon Marbles. This would set an example to other museums around the world and would confirm that contrary to what many people have been led to believe, the British Museum DOES appreciate and respect the architectural significance of the Parthenon Marbles in relation to the Acropolis monument. It would be an acknowledgement that their very uniqueness justifies an amendment to the British Museum Act of 1963 that has hitherto obstructed substantive progress on the issue. Our most eminent cultural heritage lawyer, Professor Norman Palmer of University College London, has pointed out that such an amendment would be perfectly achievable. 

This would clear the way for both parties to enter with open minds into a constructive mediation process. Instead of cleaving to an anachronistic legal instrument that will merely perpetuate the impasse, the British Museum now has an opportunity to demonstrate that Europe — and indeed the rest of the world — can be unified by cultural objects, not divided by them.

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.   


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.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Christie's to disperse extraordinary sculpture from Dunsborough Park

A tranche of garden statuary of exceptional quality is coming under the hammer of Christie's South Kensington next week, providing an opportunity to test the market for a niche category that has slipped from focus somewhat since the demise of Sotheby's Billingshurst. All the emphasis today seems to be on contemporary works (Marc Quinn's colossal, inflatable version of Alison Lapper currently dominates the Venetian canals for the Biennale), but Christie's sale of the Dunsborough Park material shifts the focus back onto the historical. 

The sale, which includes magnificent outdoor statuary, garden ornaments and gardening antiques from the collection of Baron and Baroness Sweerts de Landas Wyborgh, is to be held at Christie’s South Kensington on 19 and 20 June 2013. It will feature over 500 lots of all sizes and is expected to realise in excess of £2 million. With estimates ranging from £200 to £150,000, interest is expected to come from collectors with grand parklands, small courtyards or modest gardens.

Baron and Baroness Sweerts de Landas Wyborgh said: “We have been passionate about building this collection and restoring the garden here at Dunsborough. We remain devoted to our work, however it is time to prune in order to blossom more vigorously in the future.”

The Dutch couple Dolf and Caroline Sweerts de Landas met in California in the early 1980s and she moved to England to join him shortly afterwards. They lived in Cheshire and Hampshire before finally settling in Ripley. The house was derelict and the gardens needed landscaping but they set to work on the huge project in 1991 with the help and advice of the leading garden designers Penelope Hobhouse and Rupert Golby. During the 20 year project a magnificent range of objects has been installed in the six acres of walled gardens including sculptures, fountains, urns, pedestals, seats, sundials and even antique gardening tools. Several of the pieces originate from the gardens of some of Europe’s greatest treasure houses. 

Highlights of the sale will include a French bronze life-size model of a stallion by Eugene-Louis Lequesne (1815-1887), c1870, estimated at £100,000 to £200,000 (above left), a late 19th century French cast iron fountain from the Val D’Osne foundry, estimated at £15,000 t0 £25,000, and a lead model of Victory from the first half of the 18th century attributed to John van Nost the Elder and estimated at £30,000 to £50,000.

Public exhibition: The contents of the sale will be available to view at Dunsborough Park, Ripley, Surrey GU23 6AL from 14 – 17 June 2013 (10am to 5pm) and on 18 June from 10am to 2pm. Entry is by catalogue (RRP £30) only, which admits two.

Auction: Dunsborough Park: Garden Statuary from the Collection of Baron and Baroness Sweerts de Landas Wyborgh will take place at Christie’s South Kensington, 85 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 3LD on Wednesday and Thursday 19 – 20 June 2013 at 10.30am. 

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”?