Thursday, December 13, 2007

The fake Gauguin continued: Is an international registry the answer? (UPDATED)

At his invaluable Illicit Cultural Property Blog, Derek Fincham weighs in on the Art Institute of Chicago's fake Gauguin. He thinks it "reveals at least two troubling matters":

"First, how many more forgeries are out there? How easy is it to trick authenticators? The best in the world looked at this sculpture and were duped. ...

"Second, I think it reveals the continuing need for more provenance information in art and antiquities sales. The answer may be for an international registry which tracks buyers and sellers when objects are bought and sold. Until such a system emerges, the market continues to leave itself open to this kind of embarrassment."

I'm interested in the second idea. The notion of a registry of artworks keeps coming up whenever something goes wrong in the art market, but I'm not sure I see how it's supposed to work. How would it have helped in this case, for example? Presumably there would be some mechanism for listing older works (like this one) with the registry -- wouldn't there be every bit as much opportunity for fraud at that stage as there was in getting the work accepted for sale at Sotheby's? After all, by all accounts the fraudulent work here came with a convincing provenance. Says The Art Newspaper:

"According to the Sotheby’s 1997 catalogue entry, The Faun had belonged to the artist Roderick O’Conor, a friend of Gauguin in the 1890s. However, although O’Conor was given some works by Gauguin, this one is said to have [been] bought from Nunès and Fiquet in 1917, and then to have passed down his family. ... [The con-artist consignor] had supplied Sotheby’s with a copy of what appeared to be a Nunès and Fiquet bill, selling The Faun to O’Conor."

Couldn't the same scheme have fooled whoever was in charge of the international registry?

Perhaps Derek can sketch out in a little more detail how he envisions the registry working.

UPDATE: Derek responds here.