No strings attached

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn has encouraged a plethora of pastiches that establish him as one of the most imitated painters in history. Early patron Constantijn Huygens once advised Rembrandt and his contemporary Jan Lievens to draw up an inventory of their paintings ‘by what plan and what judgement they constructed, ordered and worked out each item’[1]. He suggested that such a modest record would demonstrate, for the wonder and edification of all ages, the reasoning and judgment behind the planning, composition and execution of each artist’s collection. Had Rembrandt taken Haygens advice and kept a register of his works perhaps the later “Rembrandt paradigm” may never have taken place. As Crenshaw notes ‘had such a record been kept it would have rendered the present inquiry [concerning art fraud] redundant’. So, what can we glean from this rather insightful consideration?

Check your records and make sure they’re detailed, accurate and up-to-date!

The material descriptors for collections, sales and art historical catalogues acknowledge two criteria by which provenance is developed within the limits of ekphrasis and language: objective description and subjective judgement[2]. These points seek to address the issues of commercial outcome, documenting history and emulation. Every formulaic detail is saturated in significance, revealing the marks, codes and records that set the reception and meaning of a work of art. Such means of substantiation leaves the object’s itinerary and record of provenance a cachet for commodification and proof of authorship. In Marc Masurovsky’s class on ‘Provenance Research, Theory and Practice’, which specialised in Nazi looted art and artefacts, provenance became the “be all and end all” of a work’s proof of title.

Nowadays complete ignorance is non-existent; if you don’t do your homework on the object you’re about to purchase for your public/private collection then on your own head be it! When protocols are accurately followed then logging in an object’s details at every step of its journey – from point of extraction to current placement – should be common practice. Interestingly though, it seems looted art follows a different and less transparent criteria for acquisition.

Provenance isn’t state regulated. It’s up to the individual or institution to keep a work’s history up to date. But what is the procedure with objects that are connected with the Second Wold War? ‘Europe was’, as Masurovsky pictured plainly ‘a massive crime scene’[3]. The works of art “collected” during the Nazi regime passed like wildfire from the ERR- Task force Rosenberg to the Jeu de Paume, through Herrenchiemsee and other depots including the Fuhrerbau in Munich where works were slated for Hitler’s collection at the future Linz museum. So what has become the imperative for institutions and their dealings with these recycled heirlooms? And how can transactions made under duress, coercion and undue influence sway a case of restitution?

Figure 1: General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, accompanied by Gen. Omar N. Bradley, and Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., inspect art treasures stolen by Germans and hidden in salt mine in Germany.

Here we draw upon the trump card of due diligence. Due diligence is the process of gathering/disclosing relevant and reliable information about a prospective sale, purchase, contract, etc. But what does due diligence have to with buying and trading works? According to Marinello and Hasler[4] ‘The answer falls somewhere between maintaining the markets integrity and mitigating risk within it’. Yet how does integrity and mitigating risk fit with Christie’s choice to overlook glaringly invalid paperwork attached to an Egyptian relic that sold for £4mil at auction on the 4th of July 2019?[5] The provenance information in this case should have been corroborated with further research and fact checking.

This research can take you to established archives, filing systems, libraries, catalogues, indexes, and representative inventories – anything that informs a work’s genesis and history. But how reliable are provenance claims? Authentic works held within private collections often have no documentation to support claims of authenticity. In contrast, other collectors hold significant provenance trails with no further research being conducted to explicate the accompanying names, dates and places – such was the case with A Nude by Moise Kisling[6]. And then we have supposedly “authentic” works amongst great wads of bogus provenance documentation – fake on fake! A recent example of serial provenance and art fraud in the United Kingdom, concerning Myatt (the artist) and Drewe (the dealer), best highlights the magnitude of influence that fake documentation has on the art market.

Over several years art dealer John Drewe ingratiated himself with major institutions such as the Tate, Victoria and Albert Museum and the Institute of Contemporary Art. He infiltrated their official records to include both digital and hardcopy provenance documentation, proving to prospective buyers that Myatt’s fraudulent Giacometti’s, Braque’s and Klee’s etc. were ‘genuine’[7]. Drewe’s thorough understanding of the art market informed his exploitation of the system, the result being ‘unlimited access’ to the very archives where the official records of European commercial galleries are stored; a “secure” home for countless works’ proof of derivation, yet all it took was ‘the skill of a painter, the hubris of a con man and the organised, planned co-operation of a team of lesser accomplices’ to successfully gain the trust of several prestigious galleries[8].

The case of Myatt and Drewe highlights the overwhelming power that provenance documentation bestows: evidence of ownership is a smokescreen discouraging responsible research and fact checking, instilling in the art market a false sense of hope and complete disregard for due diligence. In Australia, both James[9] and Polk[10] determine that trends in art crime and criminal justice regard the fraud and forgery of documentation as ‘more serious…than theft for dealers and individual artists’. For a work to enter the art market at its maximum value it is expected that secure documentation accompany it, and in most cases this does happen! But please always be careful and vigilant, and double-check the information provided – there are plenty of people out there who will use your trust in the system to their advantage.


[1] Crenshaw P 2013, ‘The Catalysis for Rembrandt’s Satire on Art Criticism’ in Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art, Vol. 5, Iss. 2, p. 5

[2] Raux S 2012, ‘From Mariette to Joullain: provenance and value in Eighteenth-Century French Auction Catalogues’ in Feigenbaum G, Reist I (ed.), Provenance: An Alternate History of Art, Getty Research Institute, California, p. 88

[3] Masurovsky M 2019, ‘Provenance Research, Theory and Practice’ in The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, lecture, Amelia, 01 July 2019.

[4] Marinello C A, Hasler J 2016, ‘What is Due Diligence? Making the Case for a More Responsible Art Market’ in Charney N (ed.) Art Crime: Terrorists, Tomb Raiders, Forgers and Thieves, Palgrave Macmillan, Macmillan Publishers Limited, Hampshire, England.

[5] Albertson L 2019, ‘Questions for Christie’s with Regards to its Upcoming Sale of the Quartzite Head of the Young Pharaoh Portrayed as the Ancient God Amun’ in ARCA blog, 3 July 2019, viewed 20 July 2019 <http://art-crime.blogspot.com/2019/07/questions-for-christies-with-regards-to.html&gt;

[6] Masurovsky M 2019, ‘A Nude by Moise Kisling’ in Plundered Art, 3 April 2019, viewed 20 July 2019 <https://plundered-art.blogspot.com/&gt;

[7] Chappell D, Polk K (unknown) ‘Fakers and Forgers, Deception and Dishonesty: An Exploration of the Murky World of Art Fraud’ in Current Issues in Criminal Justice, Vol. 10, No. 2, p. 400

[8] Nall S 2014, ‘An Australian Art Dealer’s Perspective on Art Crime’ in Chappell D, Hufnagel S (ed.) Contemporary Perspectives on the Detection, Investigation and Prosecution of Art Crime, Ashgate Publishing Company, Surrey, England, p. 102

[9] James M 2000, ‘Art Crime’ in Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra, Ausrtalia

[10] Polk K, Aarons L, Alder C, Chappell D 2000, An Exploration of the Illegal Art Market o Australia, Criminology Research Council, Department of Criminology, University of Melbourne, p. i