Art databases are no substitute for investigation
- October 24, 2017
- Posted by: Bishop Group
- Category: Blog
Art sleuths come in various shapes: the assiduous researchers who have a specialisation, the detectives who try to deal directly with art thieves (often undercover), the people who run databases that track art that has been reported lost or stolen and investigators who, possibly with the assistance of any of the above, will check the provenance of works.
The detectives often place themselves in harm’s way to deal with people who are part of organised crime groups. The stolen art databases are more relaxed businesses that place their listings in the public domain (sometimes requiring subscriptions) so that dealers and buyers can (in theory) see if a work they have come across has a legitimate provenance.
But it is usually the head-down researchers with an eye for detail and an encyclopaedic knowledge of their area of interest—for example, modern painters, old masters, antiquities or sculptors—who make life difficult for thieves as well as for sellers and buyers of stolen art.
The most recent example was highlighted by a recent The Guardian story about the work of Christos Tsirogiannis, a forensic archaeologist based in Cambridge, England, who identified two marble vases believed to be more than 2,000 years old after they appeared for sale at the Frieze Masters art fair in London earlier this month.
According to Tsirogiannis, the vases are part of an illicit hoard of 5,000 pieces worth about €50 million ($58.7 million) that were seized about two years ago by Italian police from a Swiss-based dealer named Gianfranco Becchina.
The vases were placed on sale in London by a Basel-based dealer named Jean-David Cahn who said the price for each was more than £100,000 ($132,000). They were spotted by one of Tsirogiannis’s former students.
The Guardian reported that about 1,200 of the pieces seized from Becchina could not be traced to original owners and were therefore sent back to officials in Basel by the Italians. But the newspaper added that it had seen evidence suggesting at least one of the vases was looted from Athens and obtained by Becchina in the 1970s.
Before they were exhibited, a London art database business was consulted by the Frieze Masters art fair. The database experts cleared the sale on the basis that the Swiss dealer Cahn claimed he was “selling with good title.” A senior executive for the database told The Guardian that new information might be “something that changes our view.” Well, yes.
Tsirogiannis said the vases “are absolutely tainted and therefore toxic for anyone who goes near them.”
A bit of detective work by investigators might have saved face for a number of the relevant parties.