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The Art Loss Register: the view of Hicham Aboutaam

It had been suggested to me that I was not being entirely positive about The Art Loss Register after I had made some comments in connection with the Brussels Oriental Art Fair III. Over the last few weeks I have tried to collect different voices and experiences: dealers, collectors, and academics. And I do not feel that their response has been supportive.

I would like to add another contribution to the discussion: Hicham Aboutaam, the co-founder of Phoenix Ancient Art (of Geneva and New York). The media section of the gallery's website provides links (and transcripts) to interviews with CNBC ("Investing in Antiquities") and Bloomberg. Both interviews are posted on YouTube.

The Bloomberg interview dates back to 2005. In it Lane Bajardi asks Aboutaam:
"How do you protect yourself from not getting ripped off here, from buying something that maybe is not worth what the person who's selling it is asking for it?"
And the answer is telling:
"One of the main elements is to have a dealer that's been around for a good number of years, that has a good reputation in the museums' world, and a dealer that respects its guarantees. And these guarantees are authenticity--the authenticity of the piece—guaranteeing that it's been imported according to the law, guaranteeing the condition of the object that's being sold and guaranteeing that the object has been checked in the Art Loss Registry, which is a registry for stolen and looted artifacts."
A more formal statement is made on the website in a section on "Selling" to Phoenix Ancient Art:
"Phoenix Ancient Art has developed one of the most stringent due diligence procedures for establishing provenance-the chain of ownership-in the antiquities trade. This is done to ensure that pieces come from reputable channels and are in accordance with the law. Such scrupulousness requires Phoenix Ancient Art to employ researchers who match artefacts against lost art registries, such as Art Loss Register Ltd, and who seek out documentation of prior ownership ..."
But wait a moment.

Is the Art Loss Register (ALR) - which is what I presume Aboutaam means - recording looted objects (as Aboutaam suggests in the Bloomberg interview)? A check against the ALR database will perhaps tell you if the object has been stolen from a private collection, public museum, or perhaps hacked off a known monument --- so long as the Art Loss Register has been informed of the theft. (See the example cited by James Ede where this had not happened.)

But the Art Loss Register does not record, as far as I know, previously unknown objects removed from unexcavated and unrecorded archaeological sites in the dead of night and transported from the country of origin without knowledge of the authorities. (If I am wrong I would be grateful if the staff of the ALR could let me know so that I can correct this statement.)

Does a check against the ALR provide a false sense of security for the buyer? What sort of guarantee is being offered? The "due diligence" process is so much more.

And, as the Phoenix Ancient Art website points out, this is where employed researchers step in.


Leah Bevington said…
I find the role of the Art Loss Registry in regards to antiquities rather puzzling, especially given the poor track record of some of its founding members (for example Sotheby's and Christie's). Next month I will have the opportunity to speak with Katherine Dugdale of ALR and I hope to question her specifically about antiquities.

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