Friday, August 5, 2011

Now you see it, now you don't: the mysterious case of the missing blog post

You know when you've hit a nerve.

I had a call this morning from a highly-placed contact in the London art security community alerting me to the fact that my blog post on the ALR's claim to be the "Rene Russo character" of real-life art crime had been posted on the Museum Security Network Google Group yesterday evening, only to disappear a short time later.

Happily it made it onto the email digest, presumably before the dead hand of persuasion descended.

Plus ça change...

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Art Loss Register: "The Rene Russo character" of real-life art crime? I think not.

“We’re sort of the Rene Russo character in the real-life Thomas Crown Affair,” Christopher Marinello, Executive Director of The Art Loss Register recently told the New York Observer (here). If it weren't so serious I'd probably have died laughing.

Marinello wants us to believe that the Art Loss Register is the dashing art crime hero fighting the bad guys. But real-life art crime is a lot less glamorous than film fiction and the Art Loss Register is no Hollywood heroine.

If the Art Loss Register wants to boast that it represents the interests of the good guys against the bad guys, as Rene Russo's character did in the 1999 re-make of The Thomas Crown Affair, why did it choose to represent Nevada-based art dealer Jack Solomon in his title dispute against Steven Spielberg over ownership of Norman Rockwell's Russian Schoolroom (right), (and later against Jody Goffman Cutler of the National Museum of American Illustration after she took Spielberg's place in the dispute)?

Marinello has been all over the news wires recently, telling anyone who'll listen that his organisation is a force for good in art disputes. He has just told CBC News (here) that "legitimate dealers will research the authenticity of a piece in a process known as provenance." But should they use the ALR for that research?

Authenticity and provenance are different matters. Provenance checking — confirming an object's ownership history — does not necessarily confirm its authenticity. Such subtleties are lost on those with little or no experience of the art world, but let's not be too pedantic for the moment as there is a broader issue here.

You might ask why a legitimate dealer would use the ALR to check provenance when a short while ago the ALR's own chairman Julian Radcliffe admitted in court to "misleading" a dealer who had made (and paid for) a provenance enquiry over paintings he wished to buy (see links to my earlier posts on this below).

More recently, the Art Loss Register failed to conduct its own "provenance" research into Jack Solomon's previous connections with the Russian Schoolroom painting before representing him in the doomed lawsuit against Mrs Goffman Cutler. Mrs Cutler won the case in April 2010 and the Art Loss Register is now suing its former client, Jack Solomon. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't recall seeing Rene Russo's character doing anything even remotely similar. She went after the bad guys; she didn't represent them.

I may come across as a stuck record on this ALR topic, but there is a serious issue here and it is about the need for organisations involved in title disputes and art theft resolution to demonstrate good judgement. Representing a guy in a title claim when even the most low-level due diligence would have confirmed the folly of such representation is poor judgement. Due diligence checking by the ALR would have demonstrated (as was later confirmed in court) that Mrs Cutler had a superior claim to Russian Schoolroom. Did the ALR, like its erstwhile client Jack Solomon, see a potential pot of gold lurking in the corner of the Russian Schoolroom (“I’m sure in two calls I could turn it over for x million dollars before the sun goes down.” — Solomon quoted in Riverfront Times, 2 March, 2007).

To many people, the ALR comes across as a pioneering crusader for a more ethical art world. Some of us have been working in the art world for decades and have slightly longer memories. The ALR "misled" Michael Marks when Marks sought to make a provenance enquiry; the ALR allegedly "fell out" with Gisela Berman-Fischer over her attempt to win restitution of a Pissarro painting Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps (left) taken from her family during the Holocaust (story here); and now it is locked in a sordid lawsuit with Solomon, whose title claim to Russian Schoolroom was baseless and who was found to be "not credible" by a Nevada District Court judge.

The ALR, poorly managed for decades, needs root and branch reform. But does it have the financial resources to undertake that reform and do the big three auction houses and the insurance companies who are its major shareholders have the guts to stand up and demand change?

One thing is for sure, the ALR has a way to go before the world sees it as "the Rene Russo character" of real life art crime.


More of my blog entries on this topic and ALR-related issues:

Nevada judge rules in title dispute over Norman Rockwell's Russian Schoolroom

Unanswered questions in Rockwell's Russian Schoolroom case

Art Loss Register sues Solomon over Rockwell's Russian Schoolroom case

Art recovery: another can of worms prised open (Pissarro Holocaust restitution case)

'Due Diligence' is just a "ruse" (Michael Marks provenance case)

The Art Loss Register: A Correction