Saturday, July 17, 2021

Anja Shortland's "Lost Art"

Anja Shortland is a Professor in Political Economy at King's College London specialising in the economics of crime. She studies private order systems in the world's trickiest markets: hostages, hijacked ships, fine art and antiquities. She researches how people work and invest in complex and hostile territories and studies trades between legal and illegal enterprises. Her previous book, Kidnap: Inside the Ransom Business revealed how special risk insurance at Lloyd's of London helps to bring abducted people home safely.

Shortland applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Lost Art: The Art Loss Register Casebook Volume One, and reported the following:
Page 99 takes us right into the thick of a complex art recovery case. A private British company - the Art Loss Register (ALR) - is negotiating with a shady Taiwanese businessman over the return of a set of impressionist paintings stolen from the Bellas Artes Museum in Buenos Aires. Although the paintings were obviously valuable – a beautiful Renoir portrait graces the page - the Argentinian government had been strangely reticent to authorise their recovery or indeed pay for it. On page 99 an explanation suggests itself, when the nonchalant holder reveals himself as a weapons dealer and implies that the military junta was complicit in the theft. Art had been traded for arms and a deal was a deal.

In one way, page 99 is characteristic of the book, which is based on the detailed analysis of a dozen diverse art recoveries from the ALR’s archive. The book shines a light on the dark side of the art world, where crooks and criminals try to sell stolen masterpieces, savvy traders turn a blind eye to suspicious provenances, and millionaire collectors fight tooth-and-claw legal battles for ownership of Nazi-looted artworks. The unexpected twists and turns of these underworld escapades would not seem out of place in a detective novel. Indeed, sometimes reality seems stranger than fiction…

What page 99 misses entirely is the book’s overarching theme of a commercial institution-building (ad)venture. Over the last three decades, the art market has been transformed by a revolution in social norms and the aggressive application of US law promoting the restitution of stolen artworks to their former owners. Nowadays, the moral rights of the victims of theft, looting, and genocide may well prevail against the legal protection traditionally given to good faith purchasers. The market therefore had to develop an efficient way to identify stolen, missing, and at-risk artworks and resolve outstanding title problems before each sale.

Since 1990, the ALR has created a vast database of more than 700,000 artworks registered by their former owners. It has become the arbiter of what can and cannot be sold in good faith: no reputable dealer will touch an artwork flagged up as problematic by the ALR. This creates a space for negotiation between current and former owners – with the ALR itself often taking on the role of mediator to broker just and fair solutions acceptable to both sides. Tracing how artworld disputes were resolved over time teaches us fascinating lessons about the changing nature of property rights and the laws, norms, and institutions underpinning them.
Read early reviews of Lost Art and visit Anja Shortland's faculty webpage.

The Page 99 Test: Kidnap: Inside the Ransom Business.

--Marshal Zeringue