Art Papers  

more from the
May/June 2014 issue:

Àsìkò in Dakar
by Amanda H. Hellman

The Common Network:
Amar Kanwar and Stephen Willats

by Stephanie Bailey

First Person Leaky

by Rosa Aiello

To: Constant Dullaart
From: Carson Chan
Re: Balconism


Text / Gerald Fitzgerald

A call for art market due diligence, concerning provenance and the public record.

Provenance is the origin and history of ownership of a painting or object, and it is essential to determining the object's authenticity, monetary value, and secure title. Although reveling in sales boosted both by new market interest and freshly minted dotcom billionaires, the international art and antiquities market will soon stumble badly unless it embraces new technologies to centralize and to radically increase the scope, quality, and authority of provenance research.

The art market currently generates about $60 billion annually. It does so without meaningful regulation and is myopic in the intelligent use of contemporary tools. It functions almost precisely as it did in the early 19th century. Trust still governs in an increasingly untrustworthy environment. As a result this market is rife with forgery, fakery, looting, and sales of stolen objects, all accompanied by a morass of litigation. The way out of this quagmire lies not with increased legal action but in sewing shut the gaping holes in provenance research that permit such chicanery. The creation of a nonprofit Center for Provenance Research (CPR), funded by a small levy on market sales, is sorely needed to vet the legitimacy of what is traded. The greatest deterrent to fraud on the market is a decreasing ability to get away with it.

The 2011 closing of the highly respected M. Knoedler & Co., then the oldest gallery in New York, reportedly resulted from its sale—quite possibly unknowingly—of fake modernist paintings.1 In China, the Jibaozhai Museum cost approximately 6.4 million GBP to build in 2010, but it was shut down in 2013 after the discovery that nearly all its 40,000 artifacts were knockoffs. Not long ago, a small group of Germans was convicted of selling forged modern "masterpieces" to sophisticated collectors, including several works "authenticated" by experts. The group was charged with creating 14 forgeries; its leader, however, who pled guilty and received a short sentence (much of it served at his home), claims to have forged and sold more than 200 paintings. Police recovered about 80. If anything the alleged counterfeiter has said is to be believed, this would leave at least 120 still out there, hanging on what may be otherwise respectable walls. Antiquity sales deepen the crisis. Without evidence of a point of origin or documented provenance, an object may well be claimed as looted property further along the chain of purchase. Huge sums are paid with remarkable confidence by buyers, considering the convoluted, expensive path leading to the eventual return, usually by museums, of looted antiquities to countries of origin. The sale, and resale, of stolen art and antiquities is considered by law enforcement to be a large and rapidly expanding worldwide criminal enterprise. Meanwhile, forgeries have become so notorious that several well-respected museums have given them their own exhibitions, including the Victoria & Albert Museum and the National Gallery, both in London, as well as US museums in Michigan and Minnesota. Professional connoisseurs increasingly hesitate to render opinions as to authenticity for fear of being held liable by a buyer or seller informed that what was expensive and thought to be genuine is worth nothing.

It seems clear that reasonable documentation of the who, where, when, and, whenever possible, history of ownership for a given work is a necessity. Yet there is no adopted protocol, no uniform standard, and no unified database to accomplish such records. Roughly 40% of the world population now uses the Internet. Libraries, museums, art dealers, and collectors independently digitize books, essays, photographs, sales records, exhibition catalogues, and catalogues raisonnés. Even so, provenance research is scattershot. No one ties it all together. Often working part-time, museum curators of provenance mostly scour their collections for art put to market by Nazi looters. Amidst a handful of businesses offering various degrees of provenance research, The Art Loss Register (ALR) is user-funded, private, and has been targeted by critics for alleged deficiencies, secrecy, and self-interest in generating revenue. Its chairman, Julian Radcliffe, last year proposed a sales tax on antiquities of value to be distributed to source countries to help nations better protect their heritage.

I propose a levy of 1% or less on the sale or auction of any artwork above a certain value—say, $5,000—earmarked fully for the creation and support of a Center for Provenance Research. Questions of inadequate provenance would be submitted to CPR review prior to further sale. This independent, nonprofit research center would apply acknowledged standards using instant accessibility to an electronic database uniting all relevant sources. A staggering, global collection is housed at the Family Library in Salt Lake City, UT, which is now digitizing genealogical records in more than 45 countries.2 In March 2014, the Vatican announced that it will begin to digitize 1.5 million pages of its manuscript collection of more than 41 million pages, a project it has outsourced to the Japanese technology group NTT Data.3 Other fields—medicine, music, and so on—are being accessed instantly, electronically; every major museum has its libraries being digitized.

No one has done so for provenance research. Overseen by a board of directors drawn internationally from museums, auction houses, dealers, and collectors, the CPR could be a recognized standard for due diligence now missing entirely. I estimate that it would take about 10 years to devise, fund, and implement the CPR. The levy ought to begin immediately following market commitment to the project, allowing funds to accrue throughout the planning and development stages. The need for a global CPR is underscored by the major auction houses continuing expansion into emerging markets, such as those of China and India.

The mere mention of adding a new cost will set off alarm bells for the art market's big players, but who are they kidding? Auction houses have tacked on higher rates intermittently for decades: Christie's created the buyer's premium back in 1975, established at 10% and now double that. On February 3, 2014, the same auction house reaped $295 million in just one night of sales. It isn't just art prices that are inflated. The entire art market may be a balloon ready to burst.

Gerald FitzGerald, a trial lawyer and former First Assistant Attorney General of Massachusetts, recently completed the graduate program at the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA) in Amelia, Italy.

1. Judith Wallace, "Stemming the Tide of Federal Litigation Against Art Experts and Authentication Boards for Opinions About the Authenticity of Art," Spencer's Art Law Journal, 3, no. 2 (November 2012).
2. "Family History Library Catalog," Family History Library (Salt Lake City, UT),
3. Antonio Denti, "Vatican library will digitize its archives and put them online," Reuters (March 20, 2014),

Retrospective | Special Events | Donate | Subscribe
Editorial | Contact | Advertise | About ART PAPERS

© 2014 ART PAPERS, Inc.