October 19, 2013

From Outside Neolithic Walls: It’s a Matter of Scale and Resources*

Participants attending PRTP-Zagreb
from March 10-15, 2013
Source: Holocaust Art Restitution Project
by Martin Terrazas, ARCA Class 2013

This is in response to several messages in the past weeks in retrospect of time spent in Amelia: 

The multidisciplinary approach undertaken by both the Association for Research into Crimes against Art and Provenance Research Training Program is enriching and valuable. As can be understood in headlines regarding the fight over control of auction houses; the demands of the international art market require broad perspectives, for example, where an art historian is able to discuss accounting, archaeology, criminology, finance, history, and law, to name just a few examples, in passing conversation. The future of sound due diligence and reasonable provenance research depend on these individuals to engage in collaborative dialogues in an organic fashion; to make it second nature to elicit information and ask for assistance when problems arise. Globalized business, proper execution of deliverables, and dignified presentation is no longer optional; partnerships, as can be seen by recent headlines, can destruct in moments.

Taking a page from military vocabulary: VUCA is an acronym for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. What has been the largest lesson from both programs is to embrace VUCA. When a “poison pill” comes your way, it is essential not to recourse into territoriality, but rather to accept and learn how to improve operations. Realizing that leadership is not a prize, but rather an obligation to serve, is something that many have forgotten on the way towards comfort: When cultural property has unknown provenance or has been stolen, it hurts not only the responsible parties, but all involved in the market. Provenance research and art crime prevention is a means to an end, whether or not that be restitution and repatriation or seizure and legal sentence by respective authorities. There is no reason for delay regarding important issues such as who has proper title and what occurred at the scene of the crime. Instead of bureaucracy, individuals are owed personal honesty and scientific investigation. Cooperation between parties is essential.

In Amelia, there were discussions regarding the need for a focus in the international art market through financial statements and the fundamentals of business. For example, sometimes artists don't know how to balance a check book. While easy to criticize, even seasoned businessmen and businesswomen in the industry are guilty of this lapse of judgement. This is a lesson that is particular poignant, not only after Mr. Loeb's letter regarding management at Sotheby's, the current controversy at the Detroit Institute of Arts, changes with the Art Loss Register, Art Recovery International, and the Art Compliance Company, but also with news of China Poly's planned Initial Public Offering (IPO) on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. At the end of the day, these are also business. Despite its cost on the balance sheet, protecting the consumer through investigation of provenance, is a priority. It will be more expensive in the long-run selling damaged goods.

Conversations in the past months have made it clear that there is not one definitive individual or source regarding data authority in the art market. There is no one single panacea, roughly phrased, for the ill that is looted cultural property without good provenance: Anyone to state differently ought to be questioned. (The discussion over SB 2212: United States Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Immunity Clarification Act can included in this reference. UNESCO has been notoriously absent in its opinion of the legislation.) A tide of transparency has been occurring in the art market whether desired or not. Maybe not in a year or a decade; given the current trends starting with past generations, it seems to be increasingly harder to hide and sell devalued illicit cultural property

To paraphrase Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter’s latest TEDx talk titled “Why business can be good a solving social problems”
What separates this time from any other brief time on earth is awareness.
Why are we having so much difficult struggling with these problems?
While clearly Mr. Porter referenced larger ills; the concept remains fundamental. The international art market, like all business, is charged to create shared value. Given the recent headlines, it is important to ask: 
Is the international art market properly creating this value? 

If not, how can it be improved? 
What is each of us doing to make it so?

* The author acknowledges that the article may seem convoluted and difficult to understand. All questions and commentary are welcome and will be answered on the Holocaust Art Restitution Facebook page after posting.

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