Thursday, November 11, 2010

For the "if"s in Life

So I was reading in the Times about how interest in title insurance for artwork seems to be grabbing hold enough that a large insurance company purchased a smaller firm that had been selling art title insurance for a while. My first response was to agree with the dealers who noted that it seemed a bit unnecessary:

But some people with dealings in the art world question the need for such insurance, since most reputable dealers guarantee that a buyer is getting clear title, and works sold by auction houses come with a warranty from the seller that they have clear title.

“Let’s say you buy through a major auction house,” said Gary D. Sesser, a lawyer at Carter Ledyard & Milburn who has handled art title disputes. “You look to them as your insurer, and a collector would probably be reluctant to pay much over and above the acquisition cost.”

But then I found this fabulous report by Kate Deimling on that reads like the plot from some suspense thriller:
With the recent arrest of Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi, prosecutors in Cologne believe they have broken up a forgery ring of breathtaking skill and duplicity. The couple is accused of forging as many as 35 Expressionist paintings that made their way to London and Paris, with the total sum of the damages estimated at over €15 million ($21 million). Helene's sister, the mother of the two women, and an art dealer from the German town of Krefeld — identified only as "Otto" — are also under arrest and awaiting trial.

The couple seems to have established an elaborate story for the provenance of an Expressionist art collection that they supposedly owned and sold off piece by piece, Der Spiegel reports. Helene said that her grandfather, Werner Jägers, had acquired several paintings from a close friend, the Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim. When the Nazis came to power and branded Expressionist art as "degenerate," Jägers allegedly decided to hide his collection at a property in Germany's Eiffel region. Helene said that before his death he had given part of the collection to her and her sister.
Such a collection actually never existed though. Still, their plot included the very clever step of first bringing to auction a real Raoul Dufy that they claimed was from the made-up collection, setting expectations in the auction world that they indeed had the goods.

With the auction results this week indicating clearly that there's tons of money about for art in certain markets, I would expect it will occur to others that attempting to con their way to some of it, even if it takes a remarkable degree of planning and duplicity, is worth the effort. ("The [forgery] couple enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, with a residence in the tax haven Andorra as well as a villa in Freiburg, Germany, which they renovated at huge expense.")

And so now I'm rethinking the need for title insurance. As the Times noted:

The most obvious title disputes involve theft, and in the United States buyers who unwittingly obtain a stolen work often have to surrender it.

More commonly, though, ownership is muddy for more mundane reasons: an artwork may carry liens after being used as collateral for a loan, or a seller may not have full authority to sell the piece, as in a divorce.

But you also never know when a very clever forgery ring will dupe half the auction houses and experts in Europe either.

UPDATE: Donn Zaretsky notes:
I'm pretty sure, however, that ARIS doesn't cover forgery claims. See here.
which more or less means my change of skepticism is without any basis.

Labels: crime, insurance


Anonymous Mery Lynn said...

I see a movie in this!

11/12/2010 08:03:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

How much does it cost to insure "untitled"?

11/12/2010 01:08:00 PM  

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