Art & Culture

Navigating the Art Market

Words by Noah Charney

30 June 2020

The European Fine Arts Fair, TEFAF Maastricht, the Grande Dame of fine art fairs, opens this weekend, Saturday 16th March. It is the place to buy antiquities and Old Masters, where the highest-end gallerists will bring their star offerings. This year, one can shop for a portrait by Salviati, a Nabeshima serving dish, an entire country estate in silver miniature, a Duchamp, a Man Ray, an antique Tiffany brooch, and far more. It is where the cream of Old Master works are displayed, and a must-visit event for collectors of such objects. A place to see and be seen, with parties and lavish dinners behind the scenes, and a great deal of art (and money) changing hands.

Such events are glamorous and exciting, but there can be traps among the offerings. Major art fairs like TEFAF are the least likely places to encounter problematic cultural heritage objects, since they are so high-profile, visible, vetted and with the objects for sale normally showcased long before. Such fairs hire firms to check objects against databases of stolen art, to ensure there are no matches, and if there is any purchasing venue where one can rest assured, as much as you possibly can, that the goods are legit, it is here. But there can be slips through the cracks, even here.

An ancient Persian relief of a soldier from circa 510-330 BC was seized while for sale at TEFAF’s New York satellite fair and returned to Iran, from whence it had been looted in 1936. Last year a buddha statue that had been looted from India, one of 14 objects stolen in 1961, was repatriated and the Egyptian government formally requested a review of objects offered at TEFAF New York. There are chinks in even the most prominent suits of armor. So, what can a buyer on the lookout for collectible art do, to ensure that they are not accidentally buying a problematic object?

These are the sort of lessons that most collectors do not learn, and the sort that are taught on the ARCA Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection. Academic director, Edgar Tijhuis, describes how to ensure that a buyer is not criminally liable if caught out having bought looted or stolen art. “A buyer must be able to prove two key things: due diligence and good faith. A good faith purchase means that you genuinely believed the object to be legitimate when you bought it. Due diligence means that you must show that you were proactive in checking to make sure that the object was not known to be problematic, for instance by checking the object against a stolen art database.” Big fairs like TEFAF do that sort of checking ahead of time, but problems can sometimes arise with objects that were never registered as stolen, and therefore would never appear on a stolen art database anyway.

The biggest problem is with looted antiquities, which are often taken straight out of the ground in clandestine excavations. If they were buried centuries or even millennia ago and exhumed illegally, then they will never have been registered as part of a collection or archaeological excavation, and therefore there will be no record. Thus, it’s important to keep in mind that, just because an object is for sale at a fair that has their objects checked against stolen art databases, this does not mean that none of the objects are stolen or looted. It just means that none of the objects offered found a match in the database.

Another important point is to double-check to make sure that provenance, the documented history of an object, is authentic and matches the object it’s meant to match. “It’s a good idea to always ask a dealer for provenance,” says Lynda Albertson, CEO of ARCA, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art. “If they don’t want to provide it for you, or if there is none, then that’s a red flag.”

Sometimes provenance will be artificially attached to an object that it never had a relation to, for example an export license for one Etruscan vase might be used as documentation of another vase, in order to lend it the illusion of legitimacy. Such machinations are rare, but it is worth looking into each entry into the object’s history, to make sure that it is not a fabrication (for example, an object might have an entry that it was exhibited in a gallery that turns out never to have existed), and that each entry really does correspond to the object in question.

It is also generally wise to simply avoid buying objects from conflict zones, even if provenance suggests that the object was legitimately exported and has an ownership history. Samer Abdel Ghafour, a Syrian archaeologist who worked for UNESCO, is a graduate of the ARCA Program and taught a course in Beirut on protecting cultural heritage that was run by UNESCO and ARCA, warns “there are objects, for instance coming out of Syria, that have fraudulent histories associated with them, as a way to get them through the market. It’s the safest way forward to simply avoid antiquities from conflict zones, just as most galleries and auction houses refuse to handle art that has gaps in its provenance during the Second World War. Better to be safe than sorry.”

Nearly every object in a major fair will be legitimate, and it is the tiny percentage of the exceptions to the rule that make the headlines. Still, it is always better to go shopping for cultural heritage, to be prepared and willing to ask questions, and be ready to step away, rather than buy something illicit or questionable. Stolen art and looted antiquities only have their place because there is a market for them, and almost no buyers of such objects are aware that what they are buying is stolen. The number of known criminal collectors of hot art is negligible. It is the unknowing buyers, those who assume that all is well, who can inadvertently promote an illicit trade that is a known funding source for organised crime groups and even terrorists. Shop wisely and safely, to preserve cultural heritage now and in the future.

For pointed guidance on art collecting and acquisition in general, don’t hesitate to consult our art specialists.

More to explore

Art & Culture

A guide to Hong Kong Arts Month

The annual arts festival returns this March – here’s everything you need to know.

Read more
Art & Culture

2023’s best exhibitions by female artists

Although historically underrepresented in major galleries, female artists are putting on many shows this year. Here, our Art Advisor selects her top…

Read more
Art & Culture

Unmissable London exhibitions in 2023

Quintessentially’s Art Advisor outlines some of the shows we can look forward to this coming year.

Read more


Stay in the know with our monthly newsletter – a complimentary edit of everything new and noteworthy in the luxury world.

By signing up to the newsletter you confirm you have read & agree to the Privacy Policy.

Contact us