Friday, September 7, 2007

The Art Loss Register: the experience of a dealer in antiquities

Imagine the scenario. You find the perfect purchase: an inscribed Greek funerary stele. It was with a fellow dealer and he had purchased it at auction. And you knew that this particular auction house checked all the lots against the Art Loss Register: and the search had drawn a blank. You buy it.

And then you discover that the piece was known in a museum collection in 1923 - and you discover that it had been stolen (but that the theft had not been recorded on the Art Loss Register).

Fantasy?

James Ede gave the following piece of evidence to the UK House of Commons Depart of Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee in November 2003:
"Recently, last year, I acquired a Greek stela (a memorial tablet in marble) and, during the course of research, discovered that it had been published as being in the Thebes Museum in 1923 in Greece. I assumed it had been stolen during the war—because I acquired it from a dealer who had acquired it at auction, and the auction house, I know, checks with the Art Loss Register. It did not appear on the Art Loss Register, so I assumed that it must have been during the war. I contacted the Greek embassy to find out whether they had sold it. They assured me it had been stolen. I handed it back to them, obviously, and it turned out that it had been stolen since 1980 and they had not realised they had lost it. I asked them for information about other pieces which might have been lost at the same time and, to date, following four more letters to them, I have had no reply. This is what we are up against. That is why there is no point in throwing lots of policemen at this. We need a database that works, that is free for us to get into. The reason I say "free"—and I think this really does need to be hammered home—is that the vast majority of the members of my trade association deal in objects that are worth between £1 and £500. It costs £30 to do a check with the ALR. We cannot require our members to check things on that basis. We require them to check anything over £2,000; I would like them to check everything. It is not foolproof, but it is cheap and it is effective and it also gives a very clear definition of due diligence—very clear to everybody."
It is a good reminder that lack of presence on the ALR does not mean that the object has emerged as part of a licit trade.

But Ede makes a good point. Objects stolen from museums and stores need to be recorded with the ALR.

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