Wednesday 4 January 2017

The Wiener Gallery case: Publication, and the Market Avoiding the Gottcha

The American 'Committee for Cultural Policy' reports: 'Art Dealer Nancy Wiener Arrested in NYC' December 30, 2016.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s office has charged Nancy Wiener, a well-known, second-generation New York art dealer, with possession of stolen property and conspiracy to buy, smuggle and launder millions of dollars of antiquities from East and South Asia. The art world awaits the details of the case against Ms. Wiener, and her response, when prosecutors actually set forth their case.
Oh, and I think not just 'the art world'. Whatever the outcome of the case itself, the detailed presentation of evidence in court may well shed a lot of light on how the antiquities and 'dugup art' trade works, and bring it into the public eye.
Many unknowns remain. It can be said that the Complaint contains a number of allegations that appear chilling – not only to the market but to the future of academic study and art history.
The interests of academic study are in no way served by the use of illicitly-obtained data. The results of foreign medical experiments carried out in a manner transgressing accepted ethical norms is excluded from most western medical journals, so should it be with artefacts failing to meet the criterisa of Article 3 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. This is simply disingenuous:
Most surprisingly, the Complaint alleges that publication of an object is a means of “laundering” it, when in fact, publication, especially with a detailed physical description, is widely recognized as the best and most transparent way to make the world at large aware of the existence of the object. The Association of Art Museum Directors’ online registry is an example of how publication makes claims from source nations possible and facilitates recognition of stolen objects. Is art research to be limited only to approved, excavated objects? Is it the District Attorney’s job to censor scholarship?
This of course totally misrepresents the issue over the use of a prior 'publication' as a legitimation strategy (recalling also the place of the 'customs men demand to see picture of an object in an auction catalogue' meme in the discussion over import regulation). So, an object which is 'cellared' while the incidental paper trail goes cold may be 'surfaced' briefly enough to have its photo taken for a glossy magazine or dealers' catalogue, to go back underground for a while longer, and when it is surfaced again, the dealer triumphantly declaring, 'see, it was in somebody else's collection a few years ago, look at this picture'. Anyway, the debate about academic publishing of artefacts with no paperwork showing compliance with Article 3 is going on in academia, and this court case will bring the issue (raised most famously in Renfrew's 2000 book, 'Loot, legitimacy, and ownership : the ethical crisis in archaeology ' - note that last bit) back to the forefront of attention. But this reliance on pictorial images continues in the CCP summary:
It is to be hoped that in this case, unlike the Kapoor case, the prosecutors will make publicly available the photographs of all objects deemed illicit, so that art dealers and collectors can perform due diligence to assure themselves that the works they acquire are not tainted.
This is not what due diligence means in the context of antiquities. Again article 3 of a convention which has set the standards for 47 years is the reference point. Due diligence means ascertaining that all transactions involving the object throughout its collecting history were conducted in a licit manner. A mere assurance that its a 'they-can't-touch-you-for-it-because-they-have-no-proof' legality is not enough. There are other actors on the antiquities market 'surfacing' things beyond the handful mentioned in this case and its papers.

What is of additional interest here can be found by comparing the names of officers of the CCP website and the name of the legal firm representing the Wiener gallery.

Vignette: Innocent until proven guilty, as always.

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