Wednesday, November 9, 2011

It doesn't matter how long ago it was stolen, French museum property is "inalienable"

"[B]ased on our legal knowledge (and well founded), the [Nicolas Tournier painting of The Carrying of the Cross] is indeed, in principle, the property of the Musée des Augustins. Works in French public collections are inalienable and imprescriptible, a fact we have always fought for here. This means that an object which enters a museum cannot be taken away, in any way, forever in time, which implies that although it may have disappeared for almost two hundred years, it will always belong to the establishment."

- The Art Tribune, commenting on the case of the disputed Baroque painting by Nicolas Tournier which is pitting London dealer Mark Weiss against the French Ministry of Culture.

If it is indeed true that works in French public collections are not subject to conventional statutes of limitations (and if found in the trade cannot therefore be legally transacted) then this increases the need to incorporate data about missing museum objects into due diligence databases. If the French Ministry of Culture places no time limitations on objects missing from its museums, then due diligence providers should do likewise.

Art Loss Register defends its Due Diligence vetting at TEFAF

The Art Loss Register, responsible for the annual Due Diligence vetting of the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, has responded rapidly to a suggestion that its vetting processes might have been at fault after a Nicolas Tournier painting (left), sold on two occasions at the fair in 2010 and 2011, was later revealed to have gone missing from a French museum in the early nineteenth century.

As the newswires reported yesterday (and which I blogged here), French state authorities claim that the painting of Christ carrying the Cross by Nicolas Tournier went missing from the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse in 1818. It subsequently entered a private collection in Florence, Italy. When the picture turned up on the stand of London Old Master dealer Weiss at the recent Paris Tableau art fair, the French government immediately stepped in to try and confiscate the picture. It was reported that an export block would be placed on it.

It was also reported that Weiss had bought the picture from French dealer Didier Aaron at TEFAF Maastricht in 2010 and then offered it on their own stand at TEFAF in 2011.

I'm told the Art Loss Register has now written to Messrs Weiss and Aaron to reassure them that the picture was checked by their staff on both occasions, neither of which revealed any problems with its provenance. At present, the ALR's records do not extend back as far as 1818.

This would seem to indicate that some improvement in communications is required between agencies like the ALR and those state bodies who see a duty to intervene when problematic pictures appear at art fairs in their jurisdiction. It is embarrassing for the dealers and it is embarrassing for the ALR which, on this occasion, seems to have done what it was required to do.

How far back should stolen art databases go? The Tournier picture may have been stolen way back in the mists of the early nineteenth century (there is evidently still some doubt about whether it was actually stolen from the Toulouse museum or removed for some other unknown reason) and a statute of limitations may have expired long ago; but the theft remains part of the picture's provenance. Information on the 1818 theft ought to be included in the painting's historical profile. That data can only be acquired and incorporated if data companies work proactively with state departments to blend all the known data. That might be a step towards an even more comprehensive process of Due Diligence.

Forewarned is forearmed.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Stolen painting offered twice at TEFAF Maastricht — in 2010, and again in 2011

We have only just waved a cheery farewell and happy holidays to hirsute hippy art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi as he disappeared, grinning like a Cheshire cat, into the all-too brief and cosy embrace of the German penal system. It's tempting on such occasions (art thefts fall into the same category here) to simply sigh and intone the now familiar phrase: "Who cares? It's only art."

Well, you'd care if you were London dealer Mark Weiss, who finds himself carrying the cross in a $550,000 title dispute after offering a work that had been stolen during the early nineteenth century. That fact failed to emerge despite two appearances at The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht in 2010 and 2011.

The Jermyn Street Old Master dealer was an exhibitor at the recent Paris Tableau art fair where he was showing a work by the French Baroque painter Nicolas Tournier (c.1590-1639) — a typically Caravaggiste rendering of Christ stumbling with the Cross (above left).

Tout à coup, the French state intervened, laying claim to the painting on the grounds that it had been stolen from the Augustins Museum in Toulouse as far back as 1818. That's just a few years after Lord Elgin brought the Parthenon Marbles back to England, another misappropriated work of art that continues to generate controversy.

On the surface at least, it would seem that the Weiss Gallery had nothing to hide. Their given provenance even includes reference to the picture's sojourn at the Augustins Museum. But evidently the archival records they consulted didn't include the fact that the painting had been stolen. Or perhaps Weiss felt that a statute of limitations would kick in. The theft was, after all, almost 200 years ago — a time-lag that seems to protect any number of other illicit artworks on the global hot list.

It also seems that the picture was for a time with French dealer Didier Aaron & Cie., who sold the painting to Weiss at TEFAF in Maastricht in 2010 for €400,000 ($550,000). According to the French paper Libération Weiss re-offered it at TEFAF in 2011, now priced at €675,000.

All of this raises a number of questions. The first and most obvious one is why Didier Aaron, a respected and responsible member of the Paris Old Masters trade, failed to discover during its provenance research into the painting that it had been stolen from a French museum in 1818. Nor did that information emerge during Weiss's own research, if any was conducted.

Secondly, why did the French state not intervene when Didier Aaron advertised the picture at the world's most prestigious and high-profile Old Master art fair in Maastricht in 2010? Or again in 2011 when Weiss showed it?

Thirdly, why was the painting not detected during Due Diligence vetting at the European Fine Art Fair on either occasion? If the Due Diligence mechanisms at Maastricht don't embrace the international stolen art records that now seem to have revealed the Tournier as problematic, then the art trade is more vulnerable than we thought.

It would be interesting to know whether the picture's uncertain title status was discovered at the Paris Tableau fair as a result of the fair's Due Diligence vetting or through more anecdotal circumstances. Either way, Weiss now seem to find themselves on the wrong end of a title dispute that ought to have been picked up much earlier in the supply chain.

What happens to Weiss's investment in the painting? Will the French state (which has placed an export bar on the work) compensate them? Was Didier Aaron negligent in failing to investigate the Augustins theft and its potential impact on a future owner of the picture? What are the implications of Maastricht being branded as a place where stolen works of art are traded?

It's understandable that the painting could languish undetected in a wealthy Florentine private collection for almost 200 years following its original theft. But if there was something wrong with its provenance, as now seems to be the case, one would reasonably expect it to have been detected at Maastricht in 2010 and/or 2011 or during Didier Aaron's researches.

This sounds like yet an another compelling argument for better integration of international stolen art databases, but who is pushing for that?

Then again, who cares? It's only art.