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23 April 2001

If it’s art, it must be fake

Top auction houses now take a dubious view of everything on offer, reports Peter Watson

By Peter Watson

”Innocent until proven guilty” may be a cliche of the Anglo-Saxon way of life but, over the past five years, the very opposite attitude has proved effective in the art world. In the major sales rooms and among top dealers, more and more paintings, antiques, furniture, sculpture and jewellery are being treated as fake until proven innocent.

This change in attitude is fuelled by two coincidental factors. One is the publicity given to “Holocaust art”, the vast number of paintings and other objects now swilling around in the market that were once owned by Jews who were deliberately dispossessed by the Nazis in tragic circumstances either during the Second World War or in the run-up to the outbreak of war. Scarcely a day goes by now without another painting, drawing or sculpture being discovered as having been “separated” from its Jewish owner. These cases invariably involve the death or disappearance of innocent people, and at the very least duplicity on the part of one or more persons in the German, Swiss, Parisian or Dutch art markets.

No one quite knows how many Nazi-looted artworks are out there, waiting to be discovered, but it is sufficient a headache for most of the important art fairs, such as Maastricht and the Grosvenor House in London, now to insist that all dealers showing with them run their exhibits through the Art Loss Register’s database of Nazi-looted objects. Sotheby’s has three lawyers working on the matter.

The second development fuelling this change in attitude is the general realisation that, in the world of antiquities, the vast majority of objects on the market – up to 80 per cent in the London and New York auction houses – have absolutely no provenance, no history of where they were found and where they have been since they left the ground. Many people realise that these objects were, in all probability, illegally excavated by tomb robbers and then smuggled abroad by dealers who shamelessly pillage thousands of sites, some of them world monuments such as Angkor Wat, Pompeii or Teotihuacan. Few people want to have anything to do with this tawdry trade. Sotheby’s has given up holding sales of antiquities in London.

The new attitude seems to be working. Fewer stolen artworks are appearing at the top sales rooms. According to Julian Radcliffe, the chairman of Art Loss Register, when the company began operations in 1992, its database of stolen items was about 25,000 strong. That has since increased to more than 100,000 thefts a year. However, the number of “matches”, or “hits”, at the major sales rooms has actually gone down, from more than 8,000 in 1992 to well under that figure now. The average value of items recovered at the main auction houses has also dropped. “It has become well known,” says Radcliffe, “among the less respectable members of the trade, that they should not try and consign items to the major auction houses because of their searching policy” (using the register’s database).

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Another change is that, when the register began business and started to identify stolen art, it usually transpired that it was consigned for sale by the thieves themselves or the person to whom they fenced the artwork. This was generally indicated when consignors, confronted by the register with evidence that “their” property was in fact stolen, and asked to reveal from whom they had acquired the item(s), refused to do so. Now, however, the people sending in stolen works to the main sales rooms are much more likely to be innocent victims, people who have bought the item in good faith and are selling on.

Some in the art world have been reluctant to accept the register, because to do so would put their exalted business on a par with the second-hand car trade. The availability of stolen cars is so widespread that all reputable dealers, as a matter of course, check every motor passing through their premises with the police-operated register of stolen vehicles. The art trade seems finally to have accepted that, however sublime a Fragonard oil sketch, or a Matisse woodcut, in this regard they are no different from a 1988 Toyota with a dodgy clutch. In 1998, the register carried out barely 2,000 searches on behalf of dealers; by last year that had shot up to 15,000.

The main auction houses have finally been persuaded to abandon their traditional idea of provenance and fall in line with the usage approved by art historians. In a way, this beggars belief. For art historians, provenance means the history of a work of art, a record of its ownership and whereabouts since it was created, or excavated, plus any restoration or damage it has suffered during its lifetime. For the auction houses, on the other hand, their policy on provenance has always been to give only such details of a work’s history that enhance its value. This policy may now be changing, but there is still a long way to go.

The trade, battered by new European regulations, and tedious VAT restrictions, is worried that because of all this we may soon suffer a scheme whereby every serious work of art will need a “passport”, indicating where it originated, who has owned it and where it has been. This would, say dealers, invoke a whole new level of unnecessary red tape.

They have a point. But that shouldn’t blind us to the technology that now exists for a quick computer check to test any object offered in suspicious circumstances anywhere in the land. A phone call, plus £10 a time, which is all it costs, is a small price to pay for a totally honest market. Crime costs UK insurance companies £250m a year.

The harder it gets for thieves and fences to shift this stuff, the more likely it is that they will think twice before going after it in the future.

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