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Why Not to Bother Buying Stolen Art?

  • stolen art
April 7, 2016
Gordana Sretenović. Teaching English and writing for a living. Obsessed with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Desires to travel the world and not have a permanent address. Occasionally writes poetry.

From the Nazis to ISIS, the practice of dealing stolen art has been here for ages. But even though it may be alluring to purchase a masterpiece for a fraction of the price, or to own a piece you were hunting for a long time, today we will explain why you just shouldn’t bother. With the recapturing of the ancient city of Palmyra, on March 27th, we are to see just how much of its invaluable artifacts were destroyed, and how much ended up on the black art market. The spectacular ruins of the Venice of the Sands were almost completely obliterated in 2015, and since its distinctive blend of Persian and Greco-Roman styles inspired the neoclassical period of the West, the artifacts of Palmyra will definitely find their way into the fraudulent world of covert art-dealing. When the objects plundered by ISIS start to emerge, we will likely find everything from clay tablets, small bronzes, and coins, to larger mosaic tile floors or wall pieces, according to the national fine art specialist at Chubb Insurance, Laura Doyle. So how can collectors protect themselves from buying illegal precious items, whether they come from Palmyra or somewhere else?

stolen art
Hitler has ordered the Nazi troops to confiscate valuable art during the war via nbcnews.com

From Nazis to ISIS

During the World War II, many of precious artworks have been stolen in a so-called Nazi plunder organized during the Third Reich, by the military units known as Kunstschutz. These items of great significance included paintings, books, ceramics, and religious treasures. Even though most of these pieces were recovered by the Monuments Men, members of The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, a number of valuables are still missing. The effects of these thefts left a great scar on the art market since legitimate organizations do not deal with objects with uncertain provenance. The problem with purchasing these stolen goods is that like it or not, the collectors who possess these looted artifacts are inclined to return them to their rightful owners. In the spirit of post-war fairness, many organizations have taken upon themselves to track down these missing artworks and return them to where they belong. These official bodies include the Spoliation Advisory Panel in the UK, and the International Foundation for Art Research, which helped in providing the information that led to the restitution of valuables. In the past few years, a triad of discoveries has been revealed to the general public. First, the 2012 Munich art discovery when over a thousand pieces were discovered in the home of Cornelius Gurlitt, of which 200-300 artworks are suspected of being plundered during the war. The 2014 Nuremberg artwork discovery, when Dominik Radlmaier, the researcher of the city of Nuremberg has announced that eight objects had been recognized as stolen art. And finally, the 2015 Walbrzych rumored train findings when two Polish amateur explorers claimed they had found an armored train believed to be filled with gems, weapons, and gold. The legitimacy of their claims are yet to be determined fully, but scientists deemed the findings to be false.

Which brings us to our present-day problem, the infamous ISIS. The archeologist Joanne Farchakh has explained why the Isis destroys the pieces of ancient artifacts. According to her, Isis has a unique way of dealing with looted art. The terrorist organization sells the valuables to international dealers, they take the money, hand over the art, and blow up the buildings and temples they originate from to hide the evidence of their loot. Ms. Farchakh claims that Syrian and Iraqi antiquities have been on the European art market since the inception of the war. The destruction of the sites conceals the level of theft as no one can precisely determine what was obliterated and what was taken. Mark Altaweel, the near-east specialist from the UCL Institute of Archaeology has found that it is surprisingly easy to find looted objects in London’s antiquities shops. He has spent some time hunting down these stolen goods posing as an antiquities collector around the UK capital and found that one can find a myriad of Syrian and Iraqi relics in broad daylight. He has also discovered that the sellers are vague in providing information about the origins of the pieces they sell, as they are likely obtained through connections with Isis.

A Syrian coin from around 500 BC, which may have been looted by Isis, and was listed for sale on eBay
A Syrian coin from around 500 BC, which may have been looted by Isis, and was listed for sale on eBay via theguardian.com

Question Everything. Why?

When confronted with something that is maybe just too good to be true, the rule of thumb states that it probably is. The first thing you can do is ask about the provenance of the item you want to obtain, according to Chris Marinello, a chief executive officer of Art Recovery in London. The history of ownership is a good way to know for sure exactly where the item came from and who were the previous owners. Dealers from the war-struck countries are usually unable to provide this background information and may offer fraudulent documents, but you should always be aware of the possible deceptive tampering with the documentation. Another thing you can do yourself is to check the corpora of stolen and looted works, kept by law enforcement agencies such as the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and Interpol, as well as some private databases, for example, Art Claim, and The Art Loss Register. Most of these can be reached quite easily online, including Interpol’s database as well as the base of the International Council of Museums’ Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk.

But what if I already Own an Object that might have been Looted?

Fear not, if you suspect that the item you own might have been stolen, experts suggest you contact your lawyer or local law enforcement for advice. You can also get in touch with a private company, such as Art Recovery Group, who will cooperate with the official law enforcement for you while still maintaining confidentiality.

stolen art
Ancient Iraqi clay reliefs that were smuggled out of Iraq into the US via bbc.com

The Reason Behind the Pointlessness of Buying Stolen Art

We get it. Collectors are sometimes so amazed by the beauty of the object in front of them, they sometimes miss the important checking of background information in fear that someone may buy the item they are interested in. This is how they spend millions of dollars for something that is ultimately worthless, or something that will cost them a few hundred thousand more to prove its authenticity. Even though it is tedious to wait for the forensic-like examinations of the artworks to be finished and all the paperwork checked, these stages of authentication are what will potentially save you a lot of money and save you from a lot of stress when it comes to forged artwork. Since insurance policies do not cover fake pieces, these gullible collectors had might as well better thrown their money down the drain than having gone through the trouble of purchasing such works.

stolen art
An illuminated section of a painting is tested for authenticity at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware via nytimes.com

How do They Do it?

How exactly are these art thieves putting the pieces back on the market? According to the recoveries case manager at the Art Loss Registry Alice Farren-Bradley, the art-snatchers may operate in a number of ways. They could sit on the art, in hope that the world will forget that it was ever stolen and sell it in a few years. According to Farren-Bradley, this is highly unlikely to be a success, since the Registry doesn’t remove the piece from its index until it is returned. Another thing they do is basically the same as the first one with one difference: they take the piece to market with a different name or propose that it is a work “from the school of” or “in the style of” the artist whose art they are trying to sell. However, the likelihood of failure is high since anyone can use Google search to find all the information on the original piece and not fall into this trap. Probably the most widespread method of selling they use is the black market where they trade the item for other goods such as weapons or drugs. What these art plunderers usually don’t realize is that there is a special way of storing these artworks, as they usually require special casings and temperature controlled environments. The damage done in the theft can cause irreparable damage to the piece, thus rendering it worthless. Unless they were stolen by a specialist, but seriously, how often does this happen?

What Can We Do to Avoid Being Scammed?

Well, the sad truth is, nowadays, you have to be extremely cautious when it comes to buying art. As we have previously mentioned, never skip the step of extensive research of the item you are interested in. Contact all official bodies that deal with these matters, and don’t be afraid to question everything when it comes to suspicious deals. You don’t want to throw your money away, and bear in mind, a lot of money is at stake here, so you should always take precautions in order to protect your bank account. Anyway, you wouldn’t want to risk having to give away your prized art possessions to their rightful owners and possibly face repercussions by the legal system by recklessly purchasing suspicious goods. As it has always been, buyers beware, and the world of art dealing is no exception to this rule.

Editor’s Tip: Robert K. Wittman – Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures

Regarded as “the most famous art detective in the world” by The London Times, Robert K. Wittman, the founder of the FBI’s Art Crime Team, reveals the details of his career for the first time ever, providing the readers with real-life international crime story, or thriller of the hunt for stolen art. As the son of an antique dealer, Robert K. Wittman has built a decades-long career that brought him extraordinary adventures. He often went undercover and unarmed to capture art thieves, scammers, and black market traders in Rio, Santa Fe, Miami, Paris, Madrid, and Philadelphia. In this exciting memoir, the author enthralls the reader with his adventures in the process of recovering stolen art pieces, from rare Civil War battle flags, to the Peruvian warrior king armor, all the way to the headdress Geronimo wore. The author traveled the world to rescue the paintings by Rembrandt and Monet, and saved hundreds of millions of dollars worth of art pieces and antique items.

All images are for illustrative purposes only.Featured image: Antiquities stolen from the Iraqi National Museum during the US intervention in Iraq in 2003 via bbc.comVideo: Drone footage from the Russian state TV channel Rossiya 24 showed the ancient ruins of Palmyra, Syria, which the Syrian Army said it had recaptured from Islamic State militants. via nytimes.com