by Angelea Selleck
ArtWatch International (ArtWatch) is a watchdog organization that “alert[s] the general public to illicit interventions, unreasonable threats to masterpieces, or situations connected with art that need action.”[i] The organization was founded by the late art history Professor James Beck of Columbia University in 1992.
Professor Beck, who specialized in Italian Renaissance artwork, was sued for aggravated slander, a criminal offense in Italy, after speaking out against an allegedly frivolous restoration of Ilaria del Carretto monument in the Lucca Cathedral. He faced a possible three-year prison sentence; however, he defended his criticisms in the Italian court and subsequently won the case. The persecution Beck faced led to the development of an organization that aims at creating a dialogue concerning restoration and conservation and “promotes an open exchange of ideas and information on the full range of practices in the field of conservation, restoration and international stewardship of important cultural artifact”[ii]
Beck also collaborated with Michael Daley, a British artist, journalist and current Director of ArtWatch UK, on the book Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business, the Scandal[iii], which highlighted the social, cultural and commercial factors that underlie modern restorations and exposed specific cases of botched and irresponsible restorations. After their criticisms of the restoration industry and advocation for change, Beck concluded with introducing a “Bill of Rights for Works of Art”[iv]. These principles loosely served as the foundation for ArtWatch.
Currently, ArtWatch is investigating the historical maltreatment of select paintings from Vermeer’s oeuvre, namely invasive relinings and heavy-handed varnishing.[v] The paintings in question are currently on display at the Frick Collection until January 2014.[vi] ArtWatch UK was recently involved in providing evidence at a hearing in the Scottish Parliament on a private bill regarding the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. Daley and his team attempted to convince the Council that allowing Burrell’s collection to be on loan would put the works of art at risk of damage. Furthermore, this action would go against Burrell’s wishes laid out in his will, as well as a legal agreement with the City of Glasgow.[vii] Unfortunately, Daley’s arguments and evidence did not sway the Council and the collection will now be allowed to travel to different museums on loan.
The organization continues to examine restoration and attribution topics as well as advocate for responsible stewardship of our common cultural heritage.