Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Mr Edward Dolman, Chief Executive, Christie's

  1.  Christie's is one of the leading international fine art auctioneers and art businesses with offices throughout the world. Its two principal salerooms are in London and in New York. I was appointed Chief Executive of Christie's in December 1999, having previously worked as managing director of Christie's in London and then in New York. As auctioneers Christie's act as an agent for the sellers of works of art and offers their property for sale in public to those who wish to bid.


  2.  I should say at the outset that Christie's is opposed to the trade in illegally exported and stolen art and is a signatory to the 1985 Code of Practice For The Control of International Trading in Works of Art(See Appendix A). I have also read and endorse the submissions of the British Art Market Federation, of which Christie's are members, to this Committee.

  3.  It is however, important to put the problems of the illicit art trade in the context of the open and legitimate art trade. It is relatively rare, bearing in mind the very large number of items sold by us each year, that art which has been illegally exported or has been stolen is consigned to Christie's for sale. Of the 168,704 lots offered for sale through Christie's in 1999 in the United Kingdom about 69 were the subject of a claim arising from an alleged theft or illegal export. I believe that not only is this because of the transparent public nature of auction sales, but also because we have put in place a number of measures aimed at preventing such items being offered for sale. These include the following:

    (i)  We always require our sellers at the time of consignment to sign a contractual warranty confirming that they have good title to the artworks consigned to us and a warranty that all export regulations have been complied with in relation to the item;

    (ii)  From the moment of consignment to us of an artwork Christie's specialists undertake academic research in order to establish, wherever possible, its history;

    (iii)  Christie's Security Department is headed by a former senior police officer with many years of experience of the art market and who liaises closely, when necessary, with police forces both in the UK and abroad;

    (iv)  Christie's has issued to all its staff internal rules concerning Exported Works of Art and Stolen Art (Appendix B). Christie's staff are required to sign a document confirming their understanding of these rules. They are backed up by internal disciplinary procedures, presided over by a Compliance Committee;

    (v)  Christie's was a founder member of the Art Loss Register which has compiled a database of stolen art. Christie's submits copies of all its sale catalogues to the Art Loss Register, which screens them against its database; and

    (vi)  At a cost to Christie's of approximately £500,000 per year almost 3,000 institutions worldwide including Museums, Embassies and National Police forces are sent complimentary catalogues for their information. As an example, our Antiquities Department alone routinely circulates its catalogues to the British Museum, the Jordanian, Egyptian, Greek, Cypriot and Turkish Embassies and museums, including the National Museum of Archaeology in Athens.

  4.  In the unlikely event that these safeguards fail to identify stolen or illegally exported items the auction process itself provides an additional safeguard. The process is of its nature very public and details of the works of art to be put up for sale are widely publicised, eg in our high quality illustrated catalogues which are distributed throughout the world through advertising and the Internet. The catalogues are also available for inspection by the public, the police and by specialist buyers and collectors who have an intimate knowledge of the history and provenance of items within their sphere of interest. If any of these individuals or bodies identify a Lot where the ownership is in doubt or which may have been illegally exported they are invariably quick to point it out to us. We will assess such matters on their individual merits but where there is a genuine question mark over title, or the legality of export, the object will be withdrawn from sale pending settlement between the disputing parties, or, ultimately, the decision of the Courts.

  5.  In all of this I think it is important to bear in mind that Christie's and the other auction houses occupy a sometimes difficult position. While we may have temporary possession of the works which are the subject of the dispute, we do not own them. We are only agents for the owners. This limits our freedom of action.


  6.  The issue of Wartime Spoliation is a familiar one for Christie's. We were asked in 1996 to organise the Mauerbach auction of heirless art to benefit the Jewish communities in Austria. More recently we have sold important private collections after their restitution to their rightful owners including the Rothschild Collection and pieces from the Frederico Gentili de Guisepe collection.

  7.  As a major auction house with a long history, we have become increasingly involved with issues surrounding the identification and resolution of Holocaust-related claims. We have learned that this is not only a highly sensitive matter but also one of great complexity. We join in the unequivocal condemnation of the theft of art by the Nazis from their victims, but that does not itself lead to the resolution today, 60 years later, of complex issues of title and provenance.

  8.  We realise that each case has to be considered individually. For each work of art that we handle, there is a specific history that has to be identified as fully as possible and there are sometimes conflicting rights and legitimate interests held by people who have acted in complete good faith and with no connection whatsoever with the original crime of despoliation.

  9.  In order to resolve those issues and arrive at the point where restitution claims can be resolved access to facts and information is needed. Among the considerations to be taken into account are:

    (i)  under what circumstances was the art lost by the family—was it sold or stolen: if sold, was the sale voluntary or forced?

    (ii)  is the object the same as the object that was stolen or is it another version of the same subject by the same artist?

    (iii)  was the piece restored to the family at any stage and then re-sold—perhaps without the knowledge of the current claimants?

    (iv)  was the work subsequently purchased in good faith by an innocent purchaser, unaware of its provenance?

  10.  The search for these facts also takes place under enormous time pressure. One of the distinguishing features of the auction house is the sheer volume of property that passes through our doors. Typically we have access to and custody of the property for only a few weeks. During that time our specialists research the history and authenticity of the art as far as they can.

  11.  Provenance is clearly a valuable tool in resolving such issues. Researching the history of a Lot not only serves to identify potentially stolen property but can also add to its value. We therefore routinely carry out research into the history of Lots consigned to us. It is often the case however that because provenance has only relatively recently become an important consideration, or because the historical information has been lost over the passage of time, there are limited or no records or information available.

  12.  To the extent that a provenance exists our specialists in the appropriate departments review published materials and lists culled from public sources to determine if anything in the history suggests that the property may have been expropriated during the war. Where cause exists we engage further research. This may involve sending specialists to libraries and archives or contacting experts like the Art Loss Register and scholars such as Hector Feliciano, author of The Lost Museum—one of the recently published accounts of the wartime looting by the Nazis. All of these steps are designed to satisfy ourselves that there are no legitimate outstanding claims to the property.

  13.  It is however also important to bear in mind that the resolution of restitution issues takes place in a complicated legal arena, and where competing claims are received Christie's cannot properly act as judge and jury in seeking to determine those issues. Works of art may have changed hands many times in the 50 years since the end of the war, and those transfers may have taken place in different countries. As a point of legal analysis it matters if, where and when such events took place. Many legal jurisdictions recognise the rights of bona fide purchasers for value and apply varying statutes of limitation. Christie's position as an agent for the owner, which I have referred to above, is also a factor.

  14.  In this context we welcome the formation by the Government of the Spoliation Advisory Panel as a dispute resolution mechanism to help resolve these complex issues of title.


  15.  Christie's has a direct interest in safeguarding the integrity of the art market. We have no legal or commercial interest in selling stolen property of any kind. The illicit market clearly exists but only very rarely does it come into contact with the open and legitimate art market in which Christie's operates. In the conclusions to its evidence to the Select Committee, the British Art Market Federation placed great emphasis on practical steps that can be taken to make it even more difficult for criminals to dispose of property through the legitimate market. Among these is the development of an international database of stolen and smuggled art and greater resources for the police and customs officials both here and abroad. We believe that the Art Loss Register forms an appropriate basis for the development of this database.

  16.  We believe that the rules, procedures and codes of practice followed by Christie's and outlined in this evidence make a significant contribution towards preventing criminals profiting from the trade in stolen and illegally exported works of art. We would urge the Committee to consider all practical measures to eliminate the illicit market without, at the same time, undermining the competitiveness of the legitimate market in the United Kingdom by imposing burdensome regulations which would add to the administrative costs and complexity of doing business here.

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