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  • gerard van weyenbergh

Provenance dispute explained by expert

Writer: Angelina Giovani-Agha Provenance Expert Court Arbitration for Art

As I write the report for the Art Provenance Symposium that Louise Hamlin of #ArtMarketMinds organised last month & which I had the honour to chair, it is the words ‘Laundered Provenances’ that keep popping out of the page. It was the only question repeatedly asked on both days of the symposium. I have been wondering if this concern is limited to specific material, maybe antiquities, or artworks stolen from Jewish collections during the Holocaust. How much of it is on purpose?

Surely, the big auction houses must be a lot more careful nowadays. Surely.

Auction houses ask us to trust that they are doing their due diligence to the best of their ability. They have no option but to list previous owners as ‘Private Collection”. As independent researchers we cannot carry out our checks. At the same time, It is impossible to take these claims of proper due diligence having been carried out by auction houses in good faith, when articles like the one in the #ArtNewspaper today, provide evidence, to not only the fact that auction houses probably aren’t too bothered with in-depth checks into consignors at all, but that they are in fact, complicit in their fabrication.

I won't bore you with all the red flags surrounding the people mentioned in this article, I will get straight to my point.

In an email to an employee, Samuel Valette who joined #Sotheby’s NY in 2003 and is now a Senior Director and Vice Chairman of Sotheby’s private sales worldwide for the Impressionist and Modern Art department instructs them to simply: “Maybe better to cover the tracks slightly and designate as: Property from a Private European Collection,”.

Makes one wonder just how often in his two decades at Sotheby’s has Mr Valette embellished provenances to fit his own agenda at the expense of both the company he works for, and the reputation of those who work for him. No wonder we are not to know who the anonymous Private Collectors are, if they are a product of the management’s imagination.

Is Mr Valette the black sheep of his workplace? I don’t like to speculate, so I will refrain, even though it is highly unlikely. One doesn’t go around offering unethical shortcuts in written form to employees, if they believe they are in breach of the company’s code of ethics. Then again, I might just be assuming there is one. Ethics code, that is.

This is why there is lack of trust, trepidation in helping each other and intimidating legal teams to ensure it all looks as if it is ‘business as usual’.

Ignore the historians, the claimants, the provenance researchers and the curators. We just love to complain.

We just don’t get how business is done.

We don’t get it.

Just like the auction houses don’t seem to get that:

“Private Collection” - is NOT provenance information.

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