Sunday 13 July 2014

The Illicit art and Antiquity Trade Under the Spotlight in Newsweek

Dodos? Where did they all go then?
They were still around a few years ago...
The illicit art and antiquity trade under the spotlight in a somewhat light-hearted piece Newsweek.
If it seems hard to imagine that art crime is, according to the U.S. Department of Justice and Unesco, the third highest-grossing criminal trade over the past 40 years (just behind drugs and weapons), then consider that the art trade is the largest lawful unregulated business on the planet, leaving hardly any paper trail for detectives to follow. Buying a sculpture or painting is just like acquiring a bicycle from Gumtree or Craigslist. We wouldn’t buy a house without a deed, yet people do this with art worth millions of dollars all the time. There are also no transaction records. There is no legal requirement to publicly list art sales. The only chain of title that exists in art is “provenance,” a potted history full of blanks, anomalies and guesswork. In the U.S., there’s one art crime officer for every 21 million people (that’s sixteen in total) and New Scotland Yard in the UK has just two-and-a-half officers (one is part time).
Kris Hollington, 'Outgunned in the Search for Stolen Art', Newsweek, 12 July 2014

Once again those big numbers which journalists love when writing on this topic:
The amount of criminal income generated by art crime each year is thought to be $6-8 billion, according to the FBI [...].* These figures are woefully inaccurate simply because we can’t possibly know about every single illegal trade that takes place, with some stolen, looted or forged pieces being sold multiple times.
Unfortunately, as many articles on the topic tend to do, the focus is on the theft at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and then a huge long bit on "Holocaust art" (paintings) as if these were the only two problems that mattered. I guess they are easy to write about with easily identifiable villains. the final conclusion is awfully depressing:
Chris Marinello, arguably the world’s most experienced art hunter [...] says: “It’s got to the point where it seems you have to have rocks in your head to buy art. You’ve got to perform due diligence, pay an appraiser, an art authentication expert, a provenance researcher, lawyers and even a scientist.” In other words, it’s much easier to take up art crime. With little law enforcement, dealers prepared to look the other way and with no significant change in practice and regulation on the horizon, the business of fakes, forgeries, and looted and stolen art worth countless billions looks set to keep Marinello et al busy for decades yet.
meanwhile, in our area of the field, sites continue to get trashed to keep the many thousand could-not-care-less-what-I-buy collectors happy, day after day, week after week. But they are a finite resource and it is one which already is heavily depleted and damaged. How long must this go on? Until they've all gone, and then like the dodo, we'll awaken blinking in bewilderment, wondering where they've all gone?

* It seems (from the fact that the next sentence begins "in the UK...") that this is intended to be just in the USA, and if so, it's a pity it does not say so.

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