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SPOTLIGHT: The International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) and its Online Resources

by Hanoch Sheps, J.D.*

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Center for Art Law recently sat down with IFAR Executive Director, Dr. Sharon Flescher, to discuss the development of their Art Law & Cultural Property database. It would be the understatement of 2014 to describe this resource as but a tool in a researcher’s provenance and due diligence repertoire – it is so much more.

IFAR is a non-profit educational resource that, in addition to the database, publishes a journal, renders opinions on art authenticity, and holds programs such as the event on artist resale royalties recently covered by the Center in Artist Resale Royalty Rights – Is a US Droit de Suite in our Future? Founded in 1969, the database is one of many relatively recent endeavors in IFAR’s continued mission dedicated to the integrity in the visual arts.

The database grew organically in response to a period in which museums were beginning to see increased exposure to litigation. They found themselves ill equipped to conduct the necessary background research on art works, neither provenance nor legal research. It was then in April 2000 that IFAR organized a conference on provenance research with a legal undertone that prompted the creation of an extensive hardcopy of varying resources on red-flagged WWII names, how to do research in museum and library collections, some laws, etc.

Starting in 2000 and assisted by an Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant in 2005, IFAR used its hard files in conjunction with significant efforts to obtain data from international sources to begin developing a fully integrated digital resource. According to Dr. Flescher, any database for IFAR had to fit within the framework of an overhaul for the IFAR site, ultimately creating a centralized resource focusing on legislation and case law that dealt with IFAR’s primary areas of interest (e.g., art theft, fraud, and cultural property disputes). The ultimate goal for the database was for it to act as an educational research tool to help people learn about and acquire works of art ethically and legally, all in context of current law.

Unique in its design, the database contains not only legal opinions, but some original complaints, and perhaps most importantly, actual images of the pieces on which the case centers (with each case having its own dedicated page). IFAR did not create this database as a purely legal resource, its target audience including lay-people, art historians, and now students as well. For non-lawyers, a properly attributed and titled image is far more relevant than a discussion of statutes of limitation. While court opinions may misattribute images and even list objects as part of museum exhibitions in which the image was never displayed as part of an image’s provenance, IFAR strives to do its due diligence better. After all, they are not limited by court deadlines.

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Organized by eight core areas of IFAR’s interests, the case law section, for example, features a Matrix view that focuses on a few key data fields and includes cases which are pending, resolved (or dismissed), and even settled, which are easily overlooked by trial lawyers. As far as IFAR is concerned, where provenance and authenticity research matters, the outcome in a settled case is just as important as a litigated one.

The database is well designed and in general, transitions between pages are fluid and an intuitive new feature, “associated legal decisions” (with a comparable feature in the legislative materials), helps users contextualize legal decisions. For some of the more complex international matters, the database provides a variety of international resources. The international section comprises individual pages for over 100 countries. Each country’s page includes a summary, case law (which often includes unofficial versions in the source language in which IFAR has invested), bilateral agreements, and a summary of the effect of current litigation on historical litigation.  

IFAR’s database does not endeavor to provide legal analysis, but Dr. Flescher insists that it be merely one part of a research process. As noted above, the simultaneous complexity and user-friendly nature of the resource is a plus. Dr. Flescher noted that the database responds to a lacuna in the industry, but IFAR does not endeavor, nor does it want to respond to all of a researcher’s needs. Until very recently, all of the IFAR online resources were freely available to the public but IFAR introduced a fee-based subscription to ensure sustainability though pricing depends on the category of user (some sections are still free to peruse, but only up to a certain level). Depending on the researchers’ needs, IFAR offers tiered pay structures for those conducting extensive and ongoing research and those seeking temporary access.

*About the Author

Hanoch Sheps, J.D. is a recent graduate of New York Law School. He may be reached at or 201-696-6881.