Center for Art Law

At the crossroads of visual arts and the law.

In Brief – 2020

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


Dark Humor. On November 25, 2019, four thieves stole approximately €1 billion worth of priceless jewels from the Dresden Green Vault in Germany. “Experts,” who purport to have been hired by the Museum, claim to have searched the dark web and that they received an offer to buy two sets of Dresden’s stolen jewels from an anonymous buyer for €9 million each in bitcoin. However, the Dresden museum denied hiring them and is offering a reward for information.

Walled-in Update. 23 years after the 1997 theft of Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of a lady” (1916-17) from a gallery in Piacenza, Italy, the painting was recently recovered inside a garbage bag placed within a wall of the garden of the gallery, and experts have confirmed its authenticity. 

Franco-German Relations. German minister Monika Grütters returned three paintings that were looted by the Nazis and acquired by Hildebrand Gurlitt, Adolf Hitler’s art dealer, to the heirs of Armand Dorville, a Jewish lawyer and art collector who fled during the German occupation of Paris and died in 1941. This was made possible through the research performed by French art historian Emmanuelle Pollack, who has recently joined the Louvre to investigate its wartime acquisitions.

Impressionist Auction. On February 4th, Sotheby’s will auction three Impressionist paintings with a joint estimated value of £20 million that were restituted to the heirs of Gaston Prosper Levy, namely Camille Pissarro’s “Gelée blanche, jeune paysanne faisant du feu” (1888), Paul Signac’s “La Corne d’Or” (1907) and “Quai de Clichy. Temps gris” (1887). The latter had been discovered in possession of Cornelius Gurlitt.

Messian Tableware. The Dutch government will return part of an 18th Century Meissen tableware set to the heirs of German-Jewish banker Herbert Gutmann. This is in response to the Dutch Restitution Commission’s findings that while the pieces were purchased legally, they were sold under duress from the Nazi government in 1934.

Yet Another Database. The German Lost Arts foundation has launched Proveana, Germany’s most comprehensive database for provenance research. The database focuses on the theft of cultural property between 1933 and 1945 resulting from Nazi rule, World War II and from the subsequent Soviet occupation of Germany. It is intended to benefit collectors, museums and descendants of deprived parties as well as provenance researchers.
Great Plans. Paris gallery owners plan to return looted antiques taken from Benin more than 120 years ago during colonial occupation. The cultural artifacts are expected to be returned to Abomey, Benin once the museum is completed in 2021. The gallery owners are financing the construction of the Benin museum, with plans to transform the region into a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

New Museum Ha(a)cked. Hans Haacke’s New Museum Visitors Poll project in New York City has been hacked by Parson’s Professor Grayson Earle and an anonymous partner (“M”). The Poll was part of a body of work intended to raise political awareness. The hackers claimed to critique the museum’s “capitalist agenda,” specifically how the museum dealt with its staff’s recent efforts to unionize.

Brexit in time. On January 10, 2020, the 5th EU Anti-Money Laundering Directive went into force, requiring art dealers to conduct added due diligence on clients in transactions in excess of EUR 10,000. Query: are UK dealers still subject to this requirement?

Not A Gauguin. In 2002, the J. Paul Getty Museum bought a sculpture, attributed to Paul Gauguin, “Head with Horns” from Wildenstein & Company for $3-5 million; it was recently deemed inauthentic. The sculpture was never signed by Gauguin and photographs show it on a pedestal not carved in any of Gauguin’s known styles. 

Suffrage Celebration. On January 16, 2020, the Park Avenue Armory and National Black Theater announced its “100 Years | 100 Women” initiative in recognition of the centennial of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution giving women the right to vote. ten New York City institutions, including the Apollo Theater, the Juilliard School, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and New York University are invited to work together to elect 100 women artists to mark the milestone anniversary.

That’s Settled. A claim for for millions in damages and 18 causes of action alleged on 55-pages, for nondelivery of works of art by Jeff Koons, and filed in April of 2018, has been discontinued, a/k/a settled between an art collector Steven Tananbaum and Gagosian Gallery. Complaint and accompanying filings make for an interesting read regardless.


Portrait in “Wall-y”. The missing Gustav Klimt masterpiece “Portrait of a Lady,” was found in the walls of an Italian villa. This painting went missing in 1997 from the Ricci Oddi gallery in the northern city of Piacenza. If the piece is authentic it’s recovery will offer some objectively good news to the art world.

Name Sacked. The Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC rebrands itself as the National Museum of Asian Art. The institutions denied that the new name was related to the opioid controversy.  Fighting Words. Troubled by comments from the White House? Here is a link to The 1954 Hague Convention, to which the US is a state party, that outlines principles concerning the protection of cultural property during armed conflict. Also as a reminder, in 2017, the International Criminal Court ordered prison sentence and reparations against Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, an individual convicted of war crimes for destroying cultural property in Timbuktu, Mali.

We have no Words. Maurizio Cattelan’s banana sculpture, “Comedian,” which drew huge crowds at the Miami Basel, is entering a museum collection. According to Miami collectors William and Beatrice Cox, they aim to loan the sculpture to a major institution to attract new generations and then gift it at a later date. Read our opinion on the art market going bananas.

Calls for Return. Egyptian archaeologist and a former antiquities minister, Zahi Hawass, is launching a private campaign for the restitution of treasures from Europe’s leading museums. After being denied his request for the loan of three treasures––the Nefertiti painted limestone bust (1345BC), the Rosetta Stone (196BC), and the sandstone Zodiac ceiling with its map of the stars (50BC)––in 2007, Hawass now seeks the permanent return of them.

Axe Job. The 2017 Russian avant-guarde exhibit in Ghent that was not because more than 20 loaned paintings were  branded as forgeries continues to make the news. In December 2019, the husband and wife collector-duo that loaned forgeries to Ghent were arrested on charges of fraud and money laundering. A complaint against Mr. and Mrs. Toporovski from a group of international dealers and art historians was filed by Geert Lenssens in Ghent. The couple is represented by a Brussels-based attorney, Sébastien Watelet.
Holy Trade. Spanish police are investigating a wooden sculpture of Saint Margaret of Cortona that turned up at TEFAF New York last November. It is suspected that it was illegally sold by a convent in Corona, who claim they still have it in their possession (although no one has seen it).

Science of Art. Computer scientists from the U. of California are claiming that they solved the mystery of the orb held by the Christ in Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi.” Virtual rendering of the painting suggests that the orb is hollow, which would explain why the fabric behind it is distorted the way that it is––a feature that art experts have previously pointed to when arguing that the painting is not a genuine da Vinci, as the artist had studied optics and would not have made such a mistake. The abscence of Salvator Mundi from the da Vinci show in Paris is harder to explain.

Public Domain Day. January 1, 2020 marked the day when artworks dating back to 1924 entered the public domain and became free to reproduce in the United States. Among those: Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Flower Abstraction,” Edward Hopper’s “New York Pavements,” and Lyonel Feininger’s “Gaberndorf II.”

Back to top
%d bloggers like this: