Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160-179)



Q160  Michael Fabricant: But do you take the view that the Government should take the lead in this if—  

Mr Browne: Yes.

Q161  Michael Fabricant: Yes?  

Mr Browne: I do, because one of the key elements is it has to be internationally compatible.  

Michael Fabricant: Thank you.

Q162  Chairman: Before I call Mr Wyatt, following the question Mr Fabricant has put to you, you say, very understandably, that the Government in your view should take the lead. The statistics with which we have been provided show that total art sales are £4,200 million, that we have a quarter of the global market and three-fifths of the European market. Those are colossal figures and show how cardinal the role of the United Kingdom is. That being so, do you have any rational explanation for the Government dragging its feet in this way over a number of years, despite the fact that the whole thing was highlighted in our previous report, let alone other contributions to these discussions?  

Mr Browne: Not really. I think it is lost in discussion somewhere in departments, but it is to be regretted. The Government, I have to say, to pay it tribute, has been on the whole very supportive of us—I mean, hugely in terms of—

Q163  Chairman: Supportive in every way, short of action!  

Mr Browne: Short of doing any . . .  

Mr Ede: It is a question of cash.  

Mr Browne: I would think it is resources. If I may widen things, the easy part is, in a sense, to do things like sign up to conventions. The difficult part is actually to commit resources, to make practical steps to deal with these issues. I think that is the thing. It is practical measures—very often not very dramatic practical measures—that could make a big difference.  

Chairman: Thank you. Mr Wyatt.

Q164  Derek Wyatt: When you say it is expense, have you put a paper to the DCMS to say how much it will cost?  Mr Browne: No, because, as I say, we want to see how they would want to go about it. May I turn the thing round, Mr Wyatt? The point is that we already have the Art Loss Register which we subscribe to. What we were doing was reacting to widespread public concern about the illicit market. We are saying that if there really is a determination to solve this problem, this is the practical step which should be taken. It is not us saying, "We would like this for our own purposes"—we already have the Art Loss Register—but it needs this real practical step to be taken which would actually, as I said to Mr Fabricant earlier, have a number of, I think, benign effects.

Q165  Derek Wyatt: But if I turn it around and say that, perhaps, if I were Minister of Art, I would say to you, "Okay, I am going to take 0.1% of your budgets on each sale and that would go to do this," would you have any deep objection?

  Mr Browne: I would. And may I say, on the figures the Chairman has quoted, there are people sleeping under the arches because they confuse turnover with profit. I think that the market is already paying quite substantial sums of money to the Art Loss Register to carry out checks and the people who can afford to do it are doing it. As I said to you earlier, the problem is that it does not stretch to people who have less resources—small businesses, in particular. The art market is almost overwhelmingly composed of small businesses and for them this is a major problem.

Q166  Derek Wyatt: You said that you would come back to something Mr Fabricant asked earlier, that there is a . . . whether it is perceived wisdom or truth, I am not sure . . . that the illicit trade in all this is in London. You are saying, "No, it is not," or "Perhaps it is not." Could you just expand on that? And not just you, but if any of your colleagues want to come in.

  Mr Browne: I am sorry to monopolise, but, since I was on the Illicit Trade Advisory Panel, I will give an answer. The problem with the illicit trade is that, by its very nature, it is actually very hard to pin down and find out where it is and what it is worth. I think one of the most confusing statistics which is often quoted is the "value" of the illicit trade. When a picture is stolen that may have an insured value of £10 million, what is it worth? It is not worth £10 million. To say this market is worth £4 billion or £10 billion or whatever figure has been thrown up, all you can do is attack it from the end of: Where have the losses occurred? This is what the Illicit Trade Advisory Panel did. We looked at, for example, the plunder of archaeological sites. We looked at insured losses for art. We looked at thefts from churches. You can aggregate all that but where these things are going is a much harder problem to solve. We found it actually very difficult—partly because the London art market is a very open market and actually people can see what is going on in it, so if something does eventually turn up in a legitimate market, then, through the Art Loss Register and so on, it can be recovered, it can be identified. I think the transparency of the market is actually its major strength in that respect.

Q167  Derek Wyatt: Do any of your colleagues want to comment on that?  

Mr Ede: I think we have the most stringent laws in this country. The new cultural offences bill which has now become law means that we have tougher laws on this than any country in the world. I think it is true to say that London of course is a huge market and any percentage of a very large market will be illicit. That is why the database is so important, so that we can attack this from the bottom.

Q168  Derek Wyatt: If I may, Chairman, it is good to see Richard Allan MP here because it was his bill. I am glad he is here. We have been told that the looting of Iraq is much bigger and has gone on for much longer actually than just since the war. Is it your perception that London is the centre of this?  

Mr Ede: No, there is no evidence of that. Of course there is tremendous looting in Iraq and has been for a long time, but, if you look at the statistical figures for London, the amount of material of Mesopotamian origin dealt with here is very small.

Q169  Derek Wyatt: Does that mean it is going elsewhere? Is it coming through London from Dubai and from Jordan?  

Mr Ede: With Heathrow particularly being a sort of hub, pieces may well go through Heathrow from, say, Dubai to the United States or elsewhere. That is not to say that they end up on the London market. My experience—and of course we have given very stringent guidance to our members on this subject—is that this material is not coming through London. Nobody will handle Mesopotamian antiquities at the moment at all.

Q170  Derek Wyatt: How do you make a market, then?  

Mr Ede: I do not think there is a market at the moment. I think what has happened in Iraq has completely destroyed that market, including the market in material which is legitimate but which has no published provenance.

Q171  Chairman: Consequent on the answers you have just given to Mr Wyatt, I have already asked you to elucidate one puzzle which, with your best efforts, you have failed to do. Could I ask you now to elucidate two more. We recently had before us two absolutely excellent officers from New Scotland Yard but, so far as I can gather, that is just about it. You talk about what is going through Heathrow, for example. There is not one single dedicated officer of Customs & Excise trained to deal with these matters. Yet—and I do not know the current figures—when we conducted our previous inquiry and met the carabinieri in Rome, they had 300 people. What is it, together with the failure of the Government to address itself constructively and actively to these matters, taking into account the size of our market, that puts it so low down on the list of priorities?  

Mr Browne: I would like to be able to answer that question. I really do not know the answer to that question. We did, you will recall, in our previous evidence to your Committee, Chairman, make the point about how important it was to have officials who are properly trained in this area. It is quite complicated and it requires a pretty high degree of knowledge, particularly in James Ede's field of antiquities. It is something we lament greatly. It just does not seem to be high priority.  

Mr Aydon: I wonder if it is not possibly a question of it not being an attractive career route through the police. Maybe there are more interesting areas in the force in which officers want to work and this does not really attract interest or very many applicants.  

Mr Browne: We would always be very happy to play our part in trying to add to the knowledge of people. There is no reason why we could not do that. But it just needs to be a higher priority, Chairman.  

Mr Ede: I think you also have to ask yourself the question: If large resources were thrown at this problem, maybe you would find that the problem was not as big as has been suggested. I think actually that is the nub of the matter: there would not be very much for them to do. It would clearly be useful to have a dedicated officer in each county constabulary who was an expert in antiques, so that there was some cross-pollination and some movement of intelligence and information—the lack of which we suffer very badly now. In the past, I have rung Scotland Yard to get information on a theft I knew to have taken place in Huntingdon, to be told that they did not know anything about it. But I do not think the problem is as great as it is suggested.

Q172  Mr Flook: Mr Browne, for the sake of the record and as a constituency interest, Mr Chairman, if I may be so bold, last week we had Thornton Kay of Salvo come before us, and I know he e-mailed you. Could you just confirm that your organisation has not consulted Salvo. I think that is what he was asking.  

Mr Browne: Yes, exactly. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to put this record straight. It is important to understand how our federation works. It is really a coalition of individual organisations, so we do not have individual members. I think you have a list of those, of which Salvo is not one, so I do not purport either to represent him or them and cannot represent their views because I do not necessarily know what their views are.

Q173  Mr Flook: He makes the point that there is not an organisation that represents the architectural and gardening antique dealers. Is that a bit of a loophole? "Loophole" is the wrong word. Is that a bit of a weakness?  

Mr Browne: I would have thought so. He made that point to me and I suggested that he perhaps forms one—after all, all these organisations start somewhere. If they have a community of interest, as obviously they have, then it would seem sensible to have an organisation.

Q174  Mr Flook: Good. Thank you for helping to clear that up. Secondly, going quickly through your biographies, there are many decades of experience amongst the four of you from varying angles, and particularly the legal angle from Christie's. Could you say a few words of where you have come across illicit trade, in your experience as individuals. Were you surprised upon closer checking of the approach that the provenance was not what you thought it was? Could you give us a few examples. We have had the police view. I will not tell you what they said about, say, the British Antique Dealers Association, until you answer.  

Mr Aydon: I will comment from the auction house perspective, if I may. Certainly two areas where we devote enormous effort actually to checking provenance, are areas such as Iraq and such as objects which may have been taken in the 1933-45 period. As to Iraq, I personally have identified one object which was suspicious, and which I handed to the police under the regulations which came in earlier this year—in June, I think.

Q175  Mr Flook: What was the response of the prospective client—now no longer client—to you doing that?  

Mr Aydon: We told him what the law was and he had no choice but to accept it and he has accepted it so far.

Q176  Mr Flook: Was he likely to have been a middleman himself—or middlewoman, even?  

Mr Aydon: No. He told us that he had inherited it. It was a family object that he had inherited.

Q177  Mr Flook: And he was called Mr Smith from Northampton.  

Mr Aydon: No, no, no. He is a middle-eastern businessman. And there was a provenance that he gave us going back, oh, 20 years or so, with some documentary evidence to back it up. But in our academic research—and this comes back to the point about research and checking: we did extensive work with the scholarly books—we found that some of the dates in the published books did not quite match the dates in the provenance that we were given. Now, the provenance may have been right and the books may have been wrong—it is not for us to make a final judgment there—but there was enough suspicion, bearing in mind the new Iraq order, to oblige us to hand the object to the police, which we did.  

Mr Ede: Recently, last year, I acquired a Greek stela (a memorial tablet in marble) and, during the course of research, discovered that it had been published as being in the Thebes Museum in 1923 in Greece. I assumed it had been stolen during the war—because I acquired it from a dealer who had acquired it at auction, and the auction house, I know, checks with the Art Loss Register. It did not appear on the Art Loss Register, so I assumed that it must have been during the war. I contacted the Greek embassy to find out whether they had sold it. They assured me it had been stolen. I handed it back to them, obviously, and it turned out that it had been stolen since 1980 and they had not realised they had lost it. I asked them for information about other pieces which might have been lost at the same time and, to date, following four more letters to them, I have had no reply. This is what we are up against. That is why there is no point in throwing lots of policemen at this. We need a database that works, that is free for us to get into. The reason I say "free"—and I think this really does need to be hammered home—is that the vast majority of the members of my trade association deal in objects that are worth between £1 and £500. It costs £30 to do a check with the ALR. We cannot require our members to check things on that basis. We require them to check anything over £2,000; I would like them to check everything. It is not foolproof, but it is cheap and it is effective and it also gives a very clear definition of due diligence—very clear to everybody.  

Mr van Haeften: My particular sphere is paintings, which is perhaps slightly different. Pictures are slightly more identifiable, generally.

Q178  Mr Flook: And they are unique as well, are they not?  

Mr van Haeften: Yes and no.

Q179  Mr Flook: I accept that.  

Mr van Haeften: Every work of art is essentially unique. You get complications with somebody like Peter Breughel the Younger, of the famous winter scene or the "Bird Trap" there are 110 versions by various members of the studio. With pictures that have been stolen most recently, the Art Loss Register is extremely good. I am constantly in touch with them. More complications come with pictures that are concerned with Nazi spoliation issues, where a catalogue, let us say, in 1933, may describe a landscape by Salomon van Ruysdael "with two figures crossing a bridge". Virtually every picture by Salomon van Ruysdael has two figures crossing a bridge! Or a picture by Philips Wouwerman of the white horse. Well, he only painted white horses! It is complicated unless you have a proper database with illustrations. One of the things that Anthony brought up, of which Sotheby's is very aware, is that the London trade has had a reputation since the 17th Century of expertise and connoisseurship. That is why the trade in London is as big as it is and that is why so many things come here. But we take enormous pains to check the provenance of any work of art comes our way, speaking certainly for the picture dealers, and I know it happens in every other discipline as well. It must be said that it is a complete pain to buy a work of art that has a tainted provenance. It is a nightmare.

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