Tags: Art | museums | auction | Sotheby’s

Art World Plagued by Graft, Cons

Tuesday, 18 August 2015 10:28 AM Current | Bio | Archive

During the last few years, major international auction houses and museums have been investigated and found guilty for having been engaged in many illegal actions, including knowingly buying stolen and smuggled antiquities and artwork.

They do it because their greed to purchase world treasures erases their sense to protect cultural thievery.

British journalist Peter Watson exposed in a February 2000 issue of The Times (London) how diversified and sinister Sotheby’s (London) crimes have been. He accused the firm for having rigged sales, and reported that members of its Old Master’s Department were caught on tape dealing with and encouraging the transport of smuggled art from Italy to England, with the sole intention of placing the art in Sotheby’s auctions.

After Sotheby’s Old Master expert Roeland Kollewijn (Milan) was filmed “arranging to smuggle an 18th-century portrait [by Gioseppe Nogari],” staff members were accused of additional wrongdoing in connection with smuggling stolen art and price rigging.

“Art Trade to See Vast Changes at Sotheby’s” on the website www.museumsec.org discusses how Sotheby’s past CEO Diana D. (Dede) Brooks claimed Sotheby’s only recognized export laws in Mexico, Peru, and Canada. Does that imply it did not consider it criminal to buy and sell illegally exported or smuggled objects from other countries of origin?

Peter Watson wrote in The Times that out of all the antiquities Sotheby’s sold in 2000, “fully 71 percent of the lots” had no provenance. Any well-heeled buyer knows not to buy an antiquity with no provenance. If an auctioneer claims a provenance will be “given to the successful bidder after the sale,” get it in writing before bidding. Auctioneers often do not follow through after a sale and they deny having made verbal promises.

If it is discovered an auction item is stolen, it will be traced and confiscated by authorities. If an item bought at auction is stolen property and four years have not passed, the item can be confiscated and the buyer usually receives no compensation.

Trafficking or dealing in stolen property is a second-degree felony, with a maximum penalty of 15 years in the Department of Corrections.

A “fence” buys and sells loot or stolen goods for less than the market value or consigns through a front person antiquities and stolen objects and art to auction houses or dealers. Most participants conduct business under the cloak of secrecy or they have a legitimate front man that makes it difficult to catch the traffickers. Not only are loot dealers intelligent, they often have charisma and social positions that trick people into thinking they are legitimate. It’s the art of the con.

Unfortunately, far too many major museums and auction houses have been found guilty of willingly and unknowingly buying stolen antiquities and Nazi loot without provenances. Everyone looks the other way. It seems their desire to purchase great pieces is far greater than their reverence for the law. I suppose they think because so many museums and auction houses buy or sell stolen goods, they won’t get caught.

Perhaps they enjoy the rush of doing something they aren’t supposed to do. Whatever their reasoning is, it is illegal to purchase or trade knowingly in stolen antiquities or goods and it is ruthless and harmful to buy historically important antiquities that have been torn from countries worldwide. It is cultural thievery.

Tomb robbers have been identified since the reign of Ramses IX (1124 BC-1106 BC). Because Egyptians buried their most prominent pharaohs in elaborate pyramids and tombs filled with jewels, gold, silver and precious objects, thieves have pillaged those treasures and most culprits have not been incarcerated.

In ancient times, robbing a tomb took up to 10 people, including laborers, stone masons, lamp and water carriers, and others. Once treasures were taken, precious metals were melted down or sold to unscrupulous antiquity dealers and many low-life thieves became wealthy and powerful overnight.

For hundreds of years, thieves have offered confiscated, looted, or stolen antiquities to those who are willing to ask few questions and rapidly write checks, but they also have recklessly destroyed historically important artifacts, sites, and partial histories of countries and peoples. The world is their victim.

Although authorities have tried to stop the pillaging of tombs, pyramids, and other ancient sites, they do not have the manpower to police all of the potential areas that might be rampaged; thus thieves continue to do what they do best, knowing they most likely will not be arrested. And as long as auction house and museum curators willingly accept stolen goods, robberies will continue to happen and world cultures will be partially erased.

Patricia Jobe Pierce is a freelance writer, art historian, art dealer-consultant, certified AAA appraiser, public speaker, photographer and American art authenticator for museums, auction houses and collectors. She graduated from Boston University with a BFA in 1965, is owner and director of Pierce Galleries, Inc. in Nantucket and Hingham, Mass., and is author of many works, including, "Art Collecting & Investing: The Inner Workings and the Underbelly of the Art World." For more of her submissions, Click Here Now.

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Major museums and auction houses have been found guilty of willingly and unknowingly buying stolen antiquities and Nazi loot without provenances. Everyone looks the other way. It seems their desire to purchase great pieces is far greater than their reverence for the law.
Art, museums, auction, Sotheby’s
Tuesday, 18 August 2015 10:28 AM
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