August 21, 2013

2013 ARCA Art and Cultural Heritage Conference: Senior Police Inspector Toby Bull on “Property of a Hong Kong Gentleman, Art Crime in Hong Kong – Buyer Beware”

Toby Bull
ARCA’s Art and Cultural Heritage Conference (June 21-23, 2013), held in the ancient Umbrian town of Amelia, began with cocktails for presenters and students at Palazzo Farrattini on Friday evening. The next morning, The conference opened at the Chiostro Boccarini with an introduction to a panel moderated by Marc Balcells Magrans, a Fulbright scholar and criminal lawyer.

Toby Bull, a Senior Inspector with the Hong Kong Police Force since 1993, presented “Property of a Hong Kong Gentleman, Art Crime in Hong Kong – Buyer Beware”. Mr. Bull, a Fine Arts graduate, art historian and a qualified art authentication expert, recently founded TrackArt, an Art Risk Consultancy based in Hong Kong. In 1996, he attained detective status and is currently working within the Marine Police, whose role in the main is in dealing with anti-smuggling. The Hong Kong Police Force has no art crime squad, but has given Mr. Bull permission to lecture and do art consultancy work through his private consulting firm. Mr. Bull has been one of ARCA’s longest supporters and, like many of the lecturers & presenters on the course, was one of the contributors to ARCA’s first book, Art & Crime: Exploring the dark side of the art world edited, by Noah Charney.

Inspector Bull discussed the black-market antiquities trade and the free port of Hong Kong, often used as a ‘way station for much of China’s exported artifacts on their journey to collections abroad:

Looted antiquities are typically smuggled across porous borders, often acquiring fictitious provenance along the way. Documents claiming false authenticity and providing assurances that the items have not been looted, as well as outright fakes of antiquities are also common occurrences.

The worldwide popularity and high prices for Chinese archaeological artifacts have encouraged illegal excavation and smuggling of cultural property. Although Chinese authorities have intensified their efforts to crack down on smuggling and illicit excavation, it continues practically unabated. This huge demand for Chinese cultural artifacts has caused serious damaged to China’s cultural heritage.

Inspector Bull described the extent of the problem of looted artifacts in Hong Kong and the issue of fakes. He also raised the question as to whether or not “greater due diligence or some form of regulation amongst the local dealers could be brought in to help diminish and eventually stop the trade in illicit antiquities.”

According to Inspector Bull, criminal networks know how to move stolen art or illicitly dug-up antiquities because they already have the knowledge of the best ‘routes’ to get the illicit merchandise across the HK border, thanks in large part to their experience from drug trafficking.

"The idea that these are art-loving criminals is risible, as they are only interested in the money that comes from their various nefarious activities," Inspector Bull said. "The trade in antiquities (be they real or fake) is part of highly organized criminal enterprise structures. The people perpetrating these crimes are your commonplace criminals – no more, no less, but businessmen too, as they have realized that there is still a lot of money to be made in this type of trafficking and far less harsh penalties if caught than with drugs, for example. China is a source nation, bleeding its cultural heritage to the rich market nations. Tomb robbing in China involving diggers, equipment, and fences (middleman to sell the objects) and requires a multi-layered network.

High priced art is even used as a tool in bribing officials in China, according to Bull. "In 1997, many art dealers fled Hong Kong fearing the change of sovereignty, believing the harsh and strict export embargo of the Chinese system would be applied to Hong Kong and kill the trade," he said. "Once the announcement was made that Chinese laws on the protection of art relics would not be applied to Hong Kong (the world’s 3rd busiest cargo port), business carried on unabated with the reputation for Hong Kong being the place to buy Chinese artifacts and antiquities solidified.

However, that brings with it the problems of Hong Kong being a Freeport: “If it’s (the artifact) not proven to be stolen, objects can be legally exported, changing from illicit to licit,” Inspector Bull said. “Once entered into auction catalogues, the objects are often shown to be from a private collection in Hong Kong.”

Inspector Bull highlighted the problematical way that the police regard art crime and their lack of proper referencing within databases, making true statistics nigh on impossible to get; a frustrating fact for any criminologist looking to study this subject. Other incidents of art crime involve fake authenticity certificates for objects; smuggling paintings back into China to avoid taxes; and smuggling of fake objects. Inspector Bull also explained the correlation between art crime and money laundering and "the surprising, but sad fact", of how Hong Kong was woefully under prepared and at risk – despite its reputation as a top international finance sector with very tough anti-money laundering measures in place for the financial sector (just not for the totally unregulated art sector).

Inspector Bull conducted some of his own original research: “Out of 25 mainstream galleries in the main antiques area of Hollywood Road in Hong Kong, only four returned a 14-question survey questionnaire about the condition of the art market – and even those four that did answer did so with rather spurious replies,” Inspector Bull said. “There is absolutely no interest from the art trade to self-regulate, nor is there any lead from the Government to clamp down (or even recognize) the problem. There is simply too much money at stake. The Hong Kong Government is now looking to make the city an ‘art hub’ – seen by the recent arrival of the mega Art Basel exhibition in May. There is a real danger that more genuine smuggled pieces will find their way in Hong Kong, as well as more fakes flooding the market”.

With this in mind, one of the aims of TrackArt  is education to the art market & those closely tied to it to highlight the problems that were addressed in Inspector Bull’s insightful and entertaining presentation : he had brought with him from Hong Kong a “1st Class Fake” of a Tang Dynasty ceramic horse bought especially for its inconsistencies by Bull to be used as a lecture prop and which was passed around the audience – showing, indeed, the dangers of buying Chinese antiquities in Hong Kong. "Buyer Beware! Yes, most definitely."


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