At the crossroads of visual arts and the law.

In Brief – 2019

Believe it or not, there is so much happening in the art law world. This page is dedicated to the stories that deserve your attention, which were first published in our monthly newsletter.

March 2019

Old Gold. A new legal dispute over ancient gold artifacts has erupted between Ukraine and Russia. The works were on loan to the Netherlands by a handful of Crimean museums when Russian annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Some 572 disputed artifacts are still in Amsterdam where they were on display when the dispute began, in 2016. A Dutch court ruled the artifacts must be returned to Ukraine, but the Crimean museums are now appealing the decision.

Copy-Verda. Gallery Sakura in France canceled an upcoming exhibition citing “public safety” concerns after it received threats that works of Guillaume Verda too closely resembled the works by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Users on Twitter were enraged claiming that the white artist appropriated the famous style of an African American artist and failed to acknowledge any influence Basquiat may have had on Verda’s work.

Holy Treasures. Papers have been found under the floorboards of the London home where Vincent Van Gogh lived as a young art dealer. One of the items found was a book of prayers and hymns. While in London, Van Gogh became a devout Christian – interestingly, Van Gogh turned to art after he failed his entrance exam to study theology.

It’s Mummifying. Customs officials at the Cairo International Airport found several mummified limbs hidden in a hollowed-out loudspeaker. The vestiges included feet, legs, hands, and arms. Officials were able to spot the limbs before they left Egypt by x-raying the package that was headed to Belgium.

Beat It. In response to the release of the HBO documentary Leaving Neverland (2019), which focuses on two adults who describe their alleged abuse by music-icon Michael Jackson, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis has removed three items related to the artist: a poster “Power of Children,” Jackson’s iconic fedora hat, and a white sequined glove.

It’s Good to be Banksy. In 2018, ten years after its incorporation, Pest Control, the “handling service” for Banksy’s art, filed suit against an Italian company responsible for an exhibition titled “The Art of Banksy: A Visual Protest” at the Mudec Museum in Milan. According to its website, Pest Control “deals only with legitimate works of art and has no involvement with any kind of illegal activity.” In 2019, a Milan court ruled the museum should stop selling merchandise which copies Banky’s art. So much for Banksy not enforcing copyright.

The Italian Job. When thieves went to steal “The Crucifixion” by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, valued at €3m, they unknowingly stole a copy. The church, Santa Maria Maddalena in Castelnuovo Magra secretly removed the real painting for safekeeping a month before the heist. In fact, the police and the town’s mayor carefully concocted the plan and set up surveillance cameras as they were aware of the thieves’ intentions and waited for them to strike.

Laborious Dispute. Per the employment tribunal’s ruling, guest lecturers at the London National Gallery are finally being acknowledged as employees, rather than freelance contractors. Previously, these freelancers were unable to receive employment benefits, such as paid vacation, sick pay, and maternity leave. The suit began when the employees were suddenly fired in October of 2017.

No April Fool. On March 29, 2018, Sotheby’s was still suing London-based art dealer, Mark Weiss, in London’s Commercial Court, over the authenticity of a small portrait purportedly by Frans Hals. Sotheby’s sold the work to an American dealer, Richard Hedreen for $11.2m. Subsequently, Sotheby’s director of scientific research determined that the painting was a modern forgery. In 2016, the auction house returned Hedreen’s payment and reimbursement from Weiss. On April 1, 2019, the dealer “agreed to pay $4.2m” to the auction house. The case seems to be proceeding against another defendant.

Truth in Oklahoma. The 1974 amended law, Oklahoma Indian Arts and Crafts Sales Act, had been found to violate the U.S. Constitution due to its narrow definition of Native American. Unless reversed, the decision will stand for the proposition that an artist does not need to be a member of a federally recognized tribe in order for their work to be labeled as “Native American.”

Polonaise Proficiency. Poland is continuing its efforts to retrieve a Rococo painting entitled “Girl with a Dove” (1754), stolen from a Polish museum in 1943. The current owner, New York art dealer Alexander Khochinsky, has refused to return the work despite Poland’s attempts to extradite him from the US and subsequently from France. Khochinsky claims to have acquired the painting in good faith but extended an offer to the Polish government asking, in exchange for the painting, for the return of property belonging to his Polish-Jewish relatives (which was lost when they fled Poland during WWII). Poland refused and is now attempting to extradite the dealer again and is threatening to jail him for 10 years. On March 6, Khochinsky was allowed to leave France for a hearing in Poland, which was continued to June 5 to allow for the translation into French of the documents from the various court cases. In the meantime, Mr. Khochinsky may travel within the E.U., but not outside of it. Meanwhile, his attorney Nicholas O’Donnell successfully asked the D.C. District Court to have Poland defaulted in the lawsuit

Yemen Cultural Heritage. Yemen’s ongoing civil war, which started in 2015, has resulted not only in the loss of human life but also destruction and looting of cultural and historical artifacts. In order to recover missing tangible property and to prevent continued smuggling, the Yemenite government has requested that the US and the United Nations issue an order which denies Yemenite artifacts from being transported into the US without special permission. US and Yemen do not have a bilateral agreement regarding cultural import restrictions at this time. A Red List for Yemen cultural property was launched by ICOM, in February of 2018.

Gurlitt Update. In December 2018, another painting which was bequeathed by Cornelius Gurlitt (German art collector and heir of controversial art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt) to the Swiss Museum of Fine Art in Bern had been identified as Nazi-looted artwork. “Quai de Clichy” (1887) by Paul Signac belonged to a French Jewish art collector, Gaston Prosper Lévy. In 1940, Gaston and his wife fled Paris for Tunis and their collection was looted.  

That’s New. Iranian artist Rokni Haerizadeh is accusing the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA) of buying his work and selling it at a premium at auction. Sami Azar, former director of TMoCA stated that the works were not actually accessioned into the museum’s collection but were bought by a separate government-funded institution.

Modiglia-no. Italian police are investigating six suspects connected to an exhibition of twenty fake Modigliani artworks at a museum in Genoa in 2017. The exhibition had been touring smaller venues when an art collector Carlo Pepi contacted police with concerns that the exhibited works were forgeries. Since a report prepared by Isabella Quatrocchi, a fine arts expert, showed that the pigments were inconsistent with authentic works, the paintings might be destroyed

Joint Efforts. Germany’s Cultural Ministers are in the process of formulating procedures to repatriate artifacts taken from former German colonies and dedicated €1.9m to the provenance research of artifacts acquired by museums during its colonial era. The French government announced the launch of a task force, dedicated to researching and returning Nazi-Era looted art that is part of its national collections

February 2019

Shutdown of Space Art. The government shutdown, which affected multiple art entities, had also stalled the deployment of Trevor Paglen’s space sculpture. Now that the shutdown has ended, hopefully the deployment will be scheduled.

No More Brazilian Ministry of Culture. Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro has dissolved Brazil’s culture ministry, after stating that Brazil’s Rouanet law, which allows organizations to use up to 1% of income tax to fund cultural activities, was a “waste of resources.” Members of the artistic community worry about the effects of the new president’s policies on the arts.

A One-Sided Report? French antique dealers react after the Savoy-Sarr report on restitution of cultural property was released without having been consulted. They claim that the report, commissioned by French president Emmanuel Macron, has not fully realized the overreaching ramifications of the report. In response, Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy claim the report has been misconstrued and oversimplified by the media and other critics to create fear.

The Cost of Provenance. Bern’s Kunstmuseum is seeking funding from the Swiss government for a provenance audit, after a connection between Georges F. Keller, who donated the works, and Etienne Bignou, a French art dealer and known Nazi collaborator, is reexamined. Keller’s donated artworks include pieces by Matisse, Dali, Picasso, and Modigliani, which came to the museum with little documentation. Accordingly, the museum determined that further investigation is imperative.

Diktats of Authenticity. Berlin police have seized three watercolor paintings, purportedly painted by Adolf Hitler, from the Kloss Auction House. Police received a tip questioning the paintings’ authenticity and the works are now being examined.

Artifacts Task Force. The British Museum has established an elite task force to combat the illicit trade of Egyptian and Nubian artifacts. The task force’s sole purpose will be to detect suspicious objects and falsified provenance documents.

Back to MandelGermany returned a painting stolen by the Nazis to the heirs of French Jewish politician Georges Mandel. The nineteenth-century painting by Thomas Couture, entitled “Portrait of a Sitting Young Woman,” was discovered in a collection bequeathed to the Kunstmuseum by Cornelius Gurlitt, son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, Hitler’s art dealer. 

The Art of the Steal. On January 10th a man and woman entered Team Gallery in SoHo and stole an Ann Pibal painting titled “CBLT” worth $12,000. This echoes another heist in a Russian gallery, where a man was caught on camera casually taking a painting off the wall of a major Moscow art gallery and calmly walking out with it under his arm. 

Briefly Understanding Tax Laws. Section 1031 of the old tax code allowed investors to use the sale of one piece of property (or, in this case, art) directly toward the purchase of another and get a tax break. After Section 1031 was repealed in 2017, the Trump administration replaced it with “Opportunity Zones.” This allows art collectors to invest the profits of their sales in opportunity funds, thereby lowering the collector’s taxes.

Robots Are Taking Over. Koons has continued to lay off employees, in an attempt to create a decentralized, automated production. In 2015 Koons had roughly 100 assistants working in his New York studio, but as of the start of 2019, only about 20 remain. Meanwhile, Koons continues venturing towards offsite businesses, such as his stone-cutting facility,  called Antiquity Stone in Pennsylvania, as well as hiring advisers and subcontractors internationally.

Love in the Baden-Baden. A German museum in Baden-Baden will be the first to exhibit Banksy’s Love in the Bin, the work which was shredded when sold at auction in London. The work will be displayed from February 3 to March 3, in an exhibit exploring the act of imploding the art market while simultaneously advancing it.

Deaccession & Revelations. The controversial deaccession of a Sekhemka statue by the Northampton Museum & Art Gallery reappears in the news with a new twist. It appears that the 7th marquess of Northampton, whose predecessor had donated the statue to the museum, attempted to purchase the statue before it was controversially sold at auction to an unknown buyer.

Leonard-NO. In commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Leonardo Da Vinci’s death, the Louvre is creating an exhibition, for which the Italian government had agreed in 2017 to loan the Louvre a number of the artist’s works. However, Italy is now blocking the loan. The dispute is steeped in the cultural tension, as Leonardo lived his life in Italy, but died in France. This tension echoes Vincenzo Perugia, who stole the Mona Lisa in 1911 and tried to sell it to an Italian gallery, under the mistaken belief that it had been stolen from Florence. 

Conflict Over Stella. Art dealer, Anatole Shagalov has issued a summons against the Paul Kasmin Gallery for “defamation, negligence, and rescission of contract.” Shagalov claims that the suit arose from a 2017 publication in which Kasmin falsely claimed an ownership interest in a Frank Stella work owned entirely by Shagalov. Complaint has yet to be made available online.

Conflict of Interests. Charles C. Bergman, chairman and chief executive director of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, died in February of 2018. Now, Stuart Levy, Bergman’s widower, is accusing their lawyers, Ronald and Janet Spencer, of forcing his late husband to give them the right as executors over his estate. Levy’s court filings NY Surrogate’s Court include a list of the Spencers’ manipulative actions, in hopes of disqualifying them from serving as successors. 

January 2019

Pablo Pranked. Picasso’s “Harlequin Head” was among paintings looted from the Rotterdam’s Kunsthal museum in 2012. The painting was reported found in a Romanian forest in the fall of 2019, but it turns out that a replica was planted there to publicize the movie “True Copy” (2018), a documentary on the forger Geert Jan Jansen, which premiered just days before the mysterious “recovery” stunt.

Here We Go Again? The anti-money laundering bill proposed in U.S. Congress last May has been stalled by mid-term elections…but will it be re-introduced in January? Questions about the severity of this crime in the art market highlight the tradeoff between burdening dealers with unnecessary regulations and preventing money laundering through the movement of artwork. Stay tuned for an article on the blog.

Help Wanted. An exhibit featuring work by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo – now open in Moscow – shows more than 90 works, some of which were previously unpublished from the Russian State archives. The curator hopes this exhibition will raise awareness for some of the artists’ missing works; most notably, Kahlo’s “The Wounded Table” (1940), which was the artist’s largest painting, has been lost since 1955 and, as of today, only exists in photographs.

He Said, They Said. The Danish Aros Aarhus Art Museum’s claim that they pay artists in an interview did not fall upon deaf ears. Artist duo Sofie Hesselholdt and Vibeke Mejlvang both participated in a group exhibition and gave lectures at the museum, without receiving pay. The artists spoke out to correct this claim, to which the museum responded that it spent “plenty of resources” on the artists, but failed to provide an exact description of these “resources”.

If Lost, Please Return. The chief of the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, Eike Schmidt, released a video asking German authorities for the return of the painting “Vase of Flowers” by 18th-century Dutch artist Jan van Huysum, which was stolen by the Nazis in 1943. 

No Place Like Home. The UK is pushingformal legal agreements to ensure that their institutions have a shot at keeping the country’s national cultural treasures within its borders. The major impediment to this initiative are international buyers who are willing to pay the right price. This change would be the first in 65 years and prevent the reneging of sales to matching UK buyers.

The Case is Closed, and the Exhibition Opens.The 2015 UK lawsuit brought by the companion of artist Derek Jarman against art dealer Richard Salmon was settled last June, which sparked the return of all of Jarman’s works to the original owner of the Wilkinson Gallery, who first showed the artist’s work. This was apparently instrumental in the ongoing Jarman retrospective at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. 

Beauty Kills. An Italian tourist visiting the Uffizi Galleries in Florence on 15 December had a heart attack while admiring Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” (c. 1485), depicting the goddess of love, beauty, and desire. A little too stunning perhaps? 

More Transparency for Less Controversy. In the wake of colonial countries asking for the restitution of looted art, major UK museums are finally taking on the challenge to be more transparent. The British Museum audio guides, tours, and labels now provide information about controversial collections, while others are hiring dedicated staff to conduct better provenance research. 

Lead the Legal Way. Artist Tania Bruguera filed a defamation lawsuitagainst the Cuban government after being released from imprisonment for protesting Decree 349. The Decree allows censorship of artistic expression in Cuba and Bruguera hopes this suit, which she believes is unprecedented in Cuba, will serve to empower other artists against the government’s intimidation tactics.

Homeless Sam. The University of North Carolina still debates where to house its statue of Confederate soldier, “Silent Sam,” that was toppled by protesters in August 2018. The proposal for a History and Education Center, which would display the sculpture in its context, was recently rejected. Chancellor to the University, Carol Folt views the monument as a “burden” and a concern to public safety.

Back to Amman. The Jordanian Antiquities Department announced the return to Amman of 58 Jordanian smuggled artifacts that were confiscated by the Canadian authorities in 2016 and 2017. These include potteries, small statues, and some colored jars and glass containers. 

Dutch Principles. The Dutch Restitutions Committee favored a Dutch institution in a claim for a Nazi-era looted Kandinsky – and this is not the first time. According to the Committee’s record of rulings since its establishment in response to the Washington Principles, the Committee has a history of favoring Dutch institutions and emphasizing the importance of retaining artworks in these museums. This seemingly biased track record worries professionals in the field who feel it will deter future claimants. 

*Erratum: in our last newsletter, we mentioned the Israeli “Loyalty in Culture Bill”, and erroneously stated that it had been passed – when in fact, the vote has been postponed. Artists’ protests were instrumental in delaying the vote “indefinitely.”

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