“Forgery is the paedophilia of the art world. Once the suspicion is raised, you are presumed guilty even when proven innocent.
It’s a shadow that never leaves, poisoning everything you touch.”
Art crime expert Toby Bull used this powerful extract from British thriller writer James Twining’s The Gilded Seal to drive home how damaging an association with fraudulent art can be to buyers and sellers alike.
He was speaking at a fascinating talk at Lyon & Turnbull’s Asian Art in London event at Hakkasan in Mayfair. Entitled ‘A Token from Hong Kong - Caveat Emptor’, it focused on China and Hong Kong, where a series of lootings, thefts and fraud cases have hit the news in recent years, such as the discovery of HK$5m of stolen goods including 15 Ming Dynasty vases in 2008, and an HK$3m jewel ‘switch’ in September 2014.
Despite the prevalence of such cases, Bull warned the global art market is poorly regulated and there is a woeful lack of data to monitor art crime. Until recently, international security agency Interpol estimated the value of fake and stolen works of art to be around $6bn a year, but it no longer puts a figure on it as it is so difficult to calculate. Meanwhile, looters and fraudsters periodically flood the market with fakes and dealers must do all they can to raise awareness of the issue and prevent such goods from circulating.
As a Senior Inspector of police in Hong Kong and a private art consultant with a background in forensic art fraud and authentication, Bull is well placed to advise on this knotty subject. In 2011, he founded Hong Kong’s first art risk consultancy, TrackArt, which, amongst other art risk advisory services, can also help in researching the lineage of high-value art to ensure authenticity. His particular interest in antiques stems from his father, whose passion for collecting - especially his love for Gillow furniture and antique clocks – “must have subconsciously rubbed off on me”.
Bull explained that the majority of art is stolen for money laundering purposes – the sale of ‘big’ art is one way for traffickers to secure easy cash. Art crime is often talked about as the largest cash-grossing enterprise after drugs and arms smuggling; unfortunately, international trade and regulatory structures sometimes facilitate, rather than block, its activity. For example, worldwide anti-money laundering (AML) regulation is devised by the Financial Action Task Force, of which Hong Kong and China are members. However, the rules only apply to financial institutions. Despite widening it to include ‘Designated Non-Financial Businesses and Professions’ (DNFBPs), this new classification does not include the art sector – not just in Hong Kong, but everywhere!
What’s more, Hong Kong is a ‘free port’, where rules governing the export of cultural goods are light-touch and looted antiquities can easily be smuggled across borders, acquiring fictitious provenance along the way. It has been an all-too-common situation to see consigned items catalogued with meaningless descriptions such as “Property of a Hong Kong gentleman”. And Bull added that, although the Hong Kong Police Force is by no means complacent to the problem, like so many countries it lacks a specific unit for investigating art crime, which is generally regarded as low priority when resources are tight and there is greater onus to protect public safety.
Another problem is the way the media portrays art crime. The victim is often the laughing stock, the perpetrator the “clever gentleman thief”, and an illicit trade, all too often in the public’s eye, becomes glamorised and sensationalised.
Sadly, there appears to be little appetite among local galleries for self-regulation and it falls upon dealers to expand their existing knowledge and help fight art crime by spotting fakes and removing stolen goods from circulation. Times have changed, Bull said – barely five years ago auction houses would have shied away from the mere discussion of art forgery and theft; today, following a harsh recession and many high-profile forgery cases, they know buyers are more diligent and expect greater transparency and assurance of authenticity, especially now during a flourishing art market period where record prices are often recorded.
As he concluded, the connoisseurship of professional dealers and auctioneers like Lyon & Turnbull has never been more crucial.
Article written by Sarah Townsend