13 March 2016

Mutually assured destruction

by Marc Masurovsky

Is it possible to imagine an art world without due diligence checks, without databases to consult before buying an art object, before displaying it?

With the open conflict laying bare the inner workings of the London-based Art Loss Register, what are its subscribers thinking right now?

What are the auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, wondering about the reliability of the ALR in providing the service that it is paid to provide--due diligence, certifying as to the authenticity and the licit or illicit nature of objects being offered for sale on the global art market--with the usual caveats, of course...

And what about insurance companies? Those responsible for assessing the risk of a transaction involving art objects and providing the protection and safeguards that buyers, exhibitors, borrowers, collectors, dealers, require and are entitled to? What will they do if there are no recognized mechanisms which exist to vouch for authenticity, value, and origin?

How do law enforcement agencies from around the world feel about this conflict between two organizations that are there to assist them in identifying and seizing looted antiquities and art objects? Granted, they are accustomed to working with rather unsavory groups and individuals for the greater good, but this is the art world of which we speak at a time when antiquities are disappearing in the hands of armed thugs worldwide.

What would happen if all of the due diligence checkpoints disappeared in a furnace of mutually assured destruction such as the conflict between ALR and ARG is turning into? Should sanity not prevail, the global art world will probably have nowhere to go to get its USDA certificate of good provenance and due diligence, the fig leaf behind which it can safely decide to sell, to buy, to display, to lend, to borrow, to collect.

What will judges do when faced with cases predicated on due diligence, or the absence thereof? Which sources will a judge countenance as worthy of issuing such a certificate, should ALR and ARG collapse in a conflict reminiscent of “Dr. Strangelove”?

Much as with the current American presidential election landscape, the due diligence machine which has been put in place for the past thirty years to provide a minimum amount of protection against theft and forgeries in the art market is about to collapse, unless cooler heads prevail.

It is time to think seriously about establishing a global system of due diligence that does not rely solely on what Albion has to offer us. For those of you who do not know what “Albion” is, it is the 
name given to the island of Great Britain before it was Great Britain. One ancient site was Londinium, which is today’s London.