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June 3, 2009

The Art Market: How Lending Fuels Art Crime

ARCA is pleased to present a series of papers written by graduates of Noah Charney's course on art crime, taught at Yale University in the Spring of 2009. The following article was written by Elizabeth Sebesky.

The Art Market: How Lending Fuels Art Crime

The term “art market” is a contradiction in terms. The act of turning art into commodity, into a form of collateral or financial asset, fights against the instincts of art lovers, who cherish its priceless, intrinsic value. However, Iain Robertson, Head of Art Business Studies at Sotheby’s in London, points out in his monograph, Understanding International Art Markets and Management, that even though “art and money might still seem like uncomfortable bedmates, […] the relationship is sacrosanct.” The psychology that fuels the acquisition of material wealth also drives art collection: “the acquisition of art, a tangible ‘consumption good’ with ‘social capital’, is also seen as a positive addiction.” Furthermore, the characteristics of art crime are quite similar to those of financial over-extension to the point of bankruptcy and white collar crimes, such as investment fraud, security fraud, and money laundering. In fact, Interpol has recently reported that “financial crime[s] such as money-laundering” are believed to be “intimately connected in many cases [with] the drugs, arms and the illicit art and antiquities trades.” Although there are many overlaps between art crime and national and international financial markets, the impact of art lending companies, that turn art into collateral, has been relatively unexamined and is pertinent today and in other times of economic downturn. By presenting a case study on the recent upsurge in this financial practice, pointing out some of the problems and pitfalls of art lending and the art market more generally, and then recommending some preventative measures and solutions, this paper will help raise consciousness on the ways in which art lending practices can contribute to and enable art crime.

The Psychology of the Art Market as It Leads to Art Crime
It is important for art historians and art economists to go beyond a traditional neoclassical economic analysis of the art market when examining art crime. Instead of analyzing common topics such as the distinction between public and private art supply, scholars and professionals in the field must pay attention to both “the extrinsic and intrinsic motivation” of players in the art market and the “dynamics of interaction” between these two motivations. The intrinsic motivation can be defined as psychological attachment to the art itself or what the art represents for the buyer. External motivation connotes the practice of distilling aesthetic value into a pure monetary figure or financial asset. The first step to serious investigation is to put both of these motivations in financial terms, such as “psychic return” and “consumption benefit” respectively. Those who care primarily about “psychic return” are “pure collectors”, who purchase or hold onto artwork due to their personal regard for it and ignore price fluctuations in the market. In contrast, “pure speculators” are more willing to sell their art due to “unpredictable financial risk (price variations) and uncertain attribution” and are most concerned with the art object’s “consumption benefits.” Understanding the psychology behind these “consumption benefits” allows art historians and art criminologists to focus on individual players—such as lenders, dealers, and investors—who all have their personal psychological justifications for criminal actions. 

The Art Lending Company: “Private Banking for the Art World” Recently, news sources, including The New York Times, reported that art lending companies across America have had a recent upsurge in business from art owners, collectors, and dealers, who have decided to leverage their art objects. The most prominent companies include Art Capital Group, Art Finance Partners, Sotheby’s Financial Services, Emigrant Bank’s Fine Art Finance, ArtLoan, and lending services at the “art advisory wings” of large banks such as CitiGroup, Bank of America, USB, and Deutsche Bank. Art Capital predicts that they will make about $120 million in art-related loans in 2009, up $40 million from 2008; Art Finance Partners reports a 40% rise in business over the last six months. Similarly, owner Ray Parker Gaylord of ArtLoan says that he has “seen ‘exponential’ growth in the last year even though it charges interest rates of 18-24%.” Independent companies not attached to big banks are desirable to some clients, who wish to keep their financial affairs especially private or separate from other parts of their personal finances or for those unable to get a loan from bigger art financing companies. The owner of Art Capital, Ian Peck, admits that clients come to them in times of financial trouble—“burned by Ponzi schemes.” Generally, these art lending companies charge 40% of what they appraise the artworks to be worth. Often, they gain full possession of the art objects if their clients default. These statistics indicate the success of this corner of the art market and that it fulfills a real function for art owners in economic trouble. 

Those seeking capital can receive loans that are “asset-based”, meaning they come from temporarily exchanging property (in this case art objects) instead of being credit-based. Across the finance industry, pieces of art are considered “unconventional assets.” Art owners looking for cash have a few options: they can “borrow against” their artwork (fine and decorate arts, antiques, and collectables), receiving what is called a “term loan”; here, the owner can temporarily lend his/her art pieces without selling them outright in order to get money or “liquidity.” Another option that most private firms offer is if an owner knows he/she wants to sell an art object outright, he/she can borrow a certain amount of money based on a “low-end auction estimate” of the price in advance of the sale; this practice allows clients to continue investing while waiting for consignment to occur. Sometimes the art object is not the only object that is used as an asset and is combined with other forms of leverage in a collateral package. Additionally, some of these private companies offer loans for art dealers, based on the value of their industry, and carry out “consignment financing” to provide financial support to dealers so that they can effectively sell their art objects.

A recent article from The New York Times, published on February 23, 2009, “No Banking on Art”, uncovers the private financial situation of the famous photographer Annie Leibovitz, who was forced to do business with Art Capital Group; it is reported that she used her estates, but even more shocking, her “‘copyrights, photographic negatives, [and] contract rights’ existing or to be created in the future” for $5 million of collateral. This opens the door to uncharted territory about lending intellectual property rights in exchange for cash and signals the need for revisions in art law.

One of the most pressing issues surrounding art lending companies is that they generally pride themselves on providing confidential service; this lack of transparency translates into the potential for illegal transactions and “grey” territory. Ian Peck, co-owner of Art Capital, describes his business as being “very discreet” and advertises Art Capital as “private banking for the art world.” The New York Times withheld the name of a client of Art Capital, a former investment banker in New York, upon his request, as “he did not want friends to know his financial situation […].” If providing confidential services for clients, who are embarrassed or prideful, becomes too big of a priority for art lending companies, they run the risk of inaccurately keeping records of appropriate transactional documentation and in-house inventories. Within the body of this New York Times article, a few other clients comment on the “legal messiness” that ensues due to the lack of data open to public access; this “messiness” is amplified by the sensitivity of a business where art owners must face losing their prized possessions. In his book, Iain Robertson confirms what the news has been reporting: “the art market’s often covert and secretive buying and selling practices do encourage or at least permit high levels of criminal behavior.”

The high risk behavior that accompanies dealings in the art market facilitates what Patrick Boylan, Emeritus Professor of Cultural Policy and Management at the City University of London, calls “deception crimes.” Boylan reports that “in addition to theft (in the narrow sense), burglary or robbery, the art sector also experiences a fourth significant group of theft crimes, which are usually much more difficult to detect, namely obtain[ing] property or […] financial advantage by means of deception.” These “deception crimes” include forging documents, diverting works of art without proper authority, and money laundering. Clients run the risk of being too confident in these lenders to keep track of their art due to the persona that these private companies adopt and therefore do not impose a third-party monitor. Many of the companies mentioned in this paper purposely take on rich, famous clients such as Veronica Hearst, Annie Leibovitz, and Julian Schnabel for the status of their own business. This preoccupation with status can cause lenders to favor one client’s pieces over another, giving a certain collection favored security measures.

These social interactions and networking tasks may detract from the overall effectiveness of the business: for example, it is important for lenders to research the provenance of objects in their possession in case they were illegally acquired somewhere along the line. If the art lender does not know the provenance of an object, he/she could unknowingly perpetuate the crime by passing it on to an auction house or dealer. As their degree of separation becomes greater, these auction houses or dealers become even more “in the dark.” “Client confidentiality” also makes it easy for sellers to simply not tell the loan company that an art object has a criminal provenance and use a loan to purposely exchange “dirty money” for “clean cash.” Are protective measures in place to prevent this from happening? Furthermore, do these art lenders have the expertise and experience to come up with a monetary amount for Annie Leibovitz’s copyrights and contractual rights: a topic that hasn’t even been well established in the body of intellectual property law? Are they taking her on as a client irresponsibly for status reasons without having adequate legal background? Baird Ryan, co-owner of Art Capital boasts that “because his firm understands the art market better than regular banks, artists can make attractive borrowers.” However, are these lenders within relatively small companies prepared to take on these many different roles? 

Asymmetrical information between the buyer and seller is another way in which a lack of information transparency affects the art market. In Art & Economics, Bruno Frey confirms that art markets are driven “by a strong prevalence of behavioral anomalies” of the buyer and seller, who interact in a subjective manner while conducting business. This leads to disparity in the pricing and the background information or provenance of the art object. In Iain Robertson’s Understanding International Art Markets and Management, Professor Boylan writes a chapter that informs the study of art crime by pointing to ways in which the art market falls short:

Although there are many similarities between the art and financial markets, there are crucial differences, which make pricing art and accounting for risk in the art market much less accurate and effective than in the stock market. The measurement of art returns is subject to unacceptable levels of misinformation, and profits and losses are often shrouded in mystery. Most art businesses are privately owned, small enterprises jealously guarding price information. Client identity is confidential and the buyers prices have paid outside auction are hard to verify. Finally, there is no obvious benchmark for art, which makes risk assessment very difficult.
What Professor Boylan refers to as “unacceptable levels of information” applies to small lending companies, who conceal transactional information. In addition to creating “dark alleyways” where art crimes can occur, this lack of transparency compounds the difficulty of pricing art. The process of liquefying art assets or borrowing money against art objects presents high financial risk to the seller or loan client as well as the buyer or art lending company; this is because the translation of aesthetic value or what Iain Robertson calls “psychological dividends” into dollar amounts is not clear-cut. The seller’s assessment of the economic value of the work takes into account his/her personal regard and taste. In this way, the seller may not get as much money as he/she thinks the art object is worth. Not only is the art object devalued in a humanistic sense, but this exchange into money also paves the way for nefarious activity: art lenders can make a profit off of clients, who default and hand over their objects, by eventually selling the object to a third party auction house or dealer for more than it was originally appraised due to a discrepancy in information exchange. 

Thus, another risky area surrounding art lending companies is the physical storage of the art piece when it changes hands between buyer and seller. Taking on the role of the middle-man, art lenders must use adequately secured storage and gallery facilities when they repossess the art objects from clients that default on their loan payments. There are three areas where the art pieces could be at risk: in transit on the way from the client’s possession to that of the lending companies or from a lending house to an auction house or dealer, in the lending companies’ main facilities/gallery, and in a storage facility separate from the executive offices. In her article for Art & Crime, “Implications of Art Theft in the Fine Art Insurance Industry”, Dorit Straus tracks the number of thefts that occur in certain places; she notes that most thefts do not occur in alarmed museums, but in privately owned locations: out of thefts reported to the Art Loss Registry since 1991, 4,884 have occurred in “private residences” compared to 3,040 thefts in “art galleries and corporations”, 889 in museums, 388 in-transit and 482 in warehouses. Although there are a surprising number of thefts recorded in transit, an even vaster number of objects are stolen from galleries and corporations. 

The New York Times article, “No Banking on Art” that is mentioned in previous paragraphs above describes Art Capital’s headquarters as a swanky building on Madison Avenue previously owned by Sotheby’s that “looks at first like an art gallery.” The reporter goes on to note that “two Warhols, a pair of Rubens portraits of Roman emperors and a pink nude by the contemporary Mexican painter Victor Rodriguez hang on the cool white walls [while] a sculpture of the faun by Rembrandt Bugatti sits on a windowsill in a conference room where transactions are discussed.” It is the mix of art with financial business that is the most disconcerting: should the Rembrandt really just loaf on the windowsill in a conference room? If the lending company chooses to display its repossessed artworks (which are sometimes even put on display and open to the public), it should institute much tighter security measures that are on par with museum-level protection strategies. In addition, some companies, such as ArtLoan, declare that they prefer to make loans on items that are “physically small and thus easy to store or to ship to auction houses and dealers in case of a default.” Due to their size and portability, these small objects are prime targets for theft, vandalism, forgery, and in-house theft. This “pawnshop” atmosphere flagrantly provokes art crime.

Lastly, the storage facilities of art lending companies, similar to what Dorit Straus classifies as “warehouses”, pose potential risk to the companies and to cultural heritage protection as a whole. Art Capital’s website gives clients options to keep their works “in one of [their] secure storage facilities in New York City or displayed in [their] Madison Avenue gallery space.” However, these storage facilities most likely do not have extensive security measures and do not protect efficiently against damage. Straus points out a fact about insured art in warehouses that carries over to the discussion at hand: namely, that “many warehouses provide open storage, allowing multiple artworks from a single collection to be dispersed throughout the warehouse.” Thus, art lenders run the risk of losing or misplacing art on loan due to a lack of inventory control in these open facilities. One necessary question to ask is whether the pieces that are housed in a gallery, storage facility, or in transit, are insured. The objectification of art through business transactions can create an atmosphere over time where company members stop being as cautious with the objects, becoming less concerned about damage, destruction, theft, or misplacement. 

Although this paper has pointed out a few areas of concern in the art market that can lead to art theft, appropriation, and the manipulation of documentation for financial benefit, there are viable solutions for preventing art crime. The first key is to broadcast a public service announcement or information campaign in print, television broadcast, and online reporting that portrays art crimes as tied to the art market to be as serious as white collar crime. In the wake of public outcry over the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme, it will be easier to shape the popular conception of art crimes if their implications are compared to the scale of national and international financial crimes. The second part of this information campaign should focus on drawing out the connections between art crime as tied to the art market and organized crime syndicates: in both arenas, money laundering and the use of art as collateral can occur. Linking activity that the public regards as benign, privileged, and elite to that of drug syndicates and organized crime may make the public more conscious of the potential loopholes and dark shadows surrounding art lending companies.

Another prevention strategy that hits at the very essence of most of the problems discussed above is the “de-commodification” of objects that are part of financial transactions. This, of course, is difficult to do because, after all, art lenders and art finance companies make their business turning art objects into temporary or permanent collateral for their clients. However, is there a way to integrate the aesthetic value or “psychic return” of the artwork into the overall assessment of the monetary value? If this is accomplished, this can help deter lenders from participating in immoral (and possibly illegal) greedy behaviors such as selling the repossessed art object for more than which it was originally assessed. Other preventative measures include treating art objects as precious, meaningful cultural objects in promotional material, websites, and in day-to-day interactions with clients. If daily discourse focuses on inherent value aside from numbers, this psychology may deter criminal activity. This is especially important for massive, country-wide impersonal banks with art advisory branches that grant loans. Finally, if an art lender is working with a client that is lending a whole collection or especially a portion of his/her own works (or copyrights), the lender should make it a mission for the client to be able to keep at least some of the items outright, without loaning everything. Additionally, if subjective value is assessed, then some items can be assessed as more important and prioritized to be saved from possible repossession after loan default. According to this alternative strategy, the art financier would give out loans for many “lesser-priced” items (priced according to this subjective, personal scale) instead of a few “high-priced” items and leave out the one “highest priced” (most personally valuable) item. Basically, the art lender would balance the value of the art to the client with the monetary benefit of the art to their company in order to protect against art crime: if art objects are kept with those that love them and therefore practice exemplary safety precautions, the eventual theft or vandalism that could occur if sold to another buyer can be prevented.

These ideas about how to “foolproof” lending companies from participating in art crimes can also come from the advice of specialists who seek to revamp art investment or art insurance practices. For example, just as art lending companies offer money for art, art insurers provide cash for a stolen object, which “offers some consolation, [but] […] never equal[s] the return of the actual objects.” Therefore, art lending companies should follow the same philosophy as art insurers: that “it is thus in the best interest of both public and private collections to undertake the necessary precautions to evaluate their situation with an eye towards preventing theft.” One of these “necessary precautions” is the insurance underwriting process, which assesses areas of risk to the artwork and develops prevention strategies. Dorit Straus holds up the National Endowment for the Art’s Arts Indemnity Program as an esteemed example of how efficient underwriting and risk prevention are used to “exceed even the private sector’s insurance and industry review and diligence in risk assessment.” Perhaps the National Endowment for the Arts can serve as an example to art lenders who can apply similar strategies to their “at-risk” areas such as storage spaces, galleries, and transit vehicles. Being conscious of the risk, coming up with strategies, and taking inventory of objects, are all first steps to the proactive prevention of art crime.

Art lenders can also learn from advocates of art investment reform. The art market requires an overseeing board, an umbrella organization that maintains transparency, keeps records in the public eye, and serves as a watch-dog. David Kusin, founder of Kusin & Co., an economic research firm, recommends revamping the art market by reorganizing the board of directors of various institutions and “replac[ing] the socially connected members with independent, seasoned operating executives from other sectors to improve governance.” This non-partial overseeing board could be in charge of monitoring how art is handled during financial transactions and managing the tenuous and sensitive process of converting art into monetary value, whether as collateral or as investment.

In addition to creating an overseeing board of directors, David Kusin recommends creating both a “standardized nomenclature” and “a statistically based system for capturing sector-wide transaction data in real time” for the art market. Although Kusin focuses specifically on bettering art investment in his article, these improvements can successfully inform art lending practices. Even though Kusin postures himself in this article as looking to the future when the global capital market will rebound, these changes need to be implemented right away; these measures will not only eventually respond to a thriving market, but will also improve the transparency and structure of art finance along the way. In “The Current and Future Value of Art”, Iain Robertson suggests a similar solution: the construction of an “art index” that offers comprehensive, real-time information. He notes that six dominant global indices (including the All Art Index, the British Art Market Research, the Standard & Poor 500, the American Mei/Moses Index, the Art Sales Index, and the French Art Price Index, “only offer partial price information.” He points out the importance of “serious attempts [that] are being made to bring transparency to the art market and to create indices against which international, not just industry, investors and speculators can bet.” Not only will this improve transparency of information throughout the industry, but it will also provide realistic, accurate information that may deter investors, who do not have the means to invest in art. Additionally, an accurate assessment of the risk will prevent investors from being victims of fraud. The bottom line is that the greater the financial risk and the higher the stakes, the worse it is for the fate of that art object. If information in the art market becomes just as transparent as other financial sectors, then art objects will be at less risk for being misplaced, stolen, or illegally bought as a result of investment Ponzi schemes. David Kusin warns wisely that such overarching operational “systems don’t create monopolies, disclose propriety intellectual property or reveal operational secrets, [but] the costs of continued failure to build this capacity for the art sector are untold.”

If the suggestions above are applied to art lending practices, the probability of art crimes occurring within the art market will most likely decline. Furthermore, these preventative measures can and should be implemented more comprehensively throughout other aspects of the art market, such as art investment, art insurance, financial bankruptcy as it applies to art, and white collar crimes, such as securities fraud, embezzlement, and money laundering. In turn, the further study of how art crime is closely tied to all of these aspects of the financial market will raise consciousness about the importance of art crime and how simple it is to stop by reforming certain elements of financial transactions. This paper has touched on several practices recommended by art insurance agents, economic scholars, and art investors and has applied them to solutions for “fool-proofing” art lending. However, this is a topic that should be explored further. It is important for all players in the art finance industry to work together to revamp these practices and to pay attention to how they as individuals help to fuel art crimes. 

The implementation of these suggestions will help improve the fiscal health of the art finance sector overall, allowing art collectors, artists, and dealers, who wish to hold onto their art objects, to avoid turning to art lenders for capital as frequently. This will help to lower the art crime rate by keeping prized possessions with those that prize them on a personal level. On a psychological level, when fiscal health improves, those participating in the art market will inevitably feel less anxiety and embarrassment when no longer required to use art (or as much art) for capital. And, happiness directly affects art crime rates. Of course, ironically, this hypothetical scenario seems to benefit most everyone in the art industry except the art lending companies themselves. However, this presents a good problem for the art world: perhaps these companies can target their businesses around “consignment financing” for art dealers, to keep money moving, and around art advising for collectors and dealers. In this way, instead of primarily granting loans and exchanging art for money, art lenders can help clients maintain their personal financial health in order to keep and protect their art.

Written by Elizabeth Sebesky