LONDON – A painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir sold in February at Sotheby’s auction house in London for a little more than £1 million (around ¥150 million).
The price set no records and the work is not especially famous, but what has now made this sale notable is that the painting appears to have been stolen from a Japanese collector more than 10 years ago.
In August 2000 the unnamed collector told the police that Renoir’s “Madame Valtat” and five other expensive paintings had been stolen from his residence. Little was heard about the stolen paintings until “Madame Valtat” was listed for a Feb. 5 auction of impressionist art.
Sotheby’s said by email that inquiries had been made to the seller regarding acquisition of the painting and that the seller “provided representations and warranties that they were the rightful owner of the property and that it could be sold free from any third-party claims.”
Sotheby’s also said it was in discussions with the parties involved but refused to disclose whether police authorities were a part of these discussions.
Despite checks that have been put in place to prevent stolen art from slipping through the net, it appears the painting was not placed on global stolen art registers such as those compiled by Interpol and the Art Loss Register, a private organization funded in part by auction houses and insurance companies that specializes in tracking and mediating cases of stolen art.
According to the ALR’s chief investigator, Christopher Marinello, failing to register on these databases makes it much more difficult to keep track of stolen art because auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s often rely on items being registered when carrying out their checks.
Marinello said Japan in particular is behind the curve in sharing information about stolen art.
Some 270,000 items are listed on the ALR’s register, which includes information from Interpol and the FBI’s stolen art databases. Around 400 Renoir items alone are on the register. Overall, it sees approximately 10,000 new items listed each year. Only 31 items, however, have been listed from Japan, which Marinello described as “one of our weakest areas.”
He said the issue stems partly from language and time zone differences, but he also suggested that Japanese police could do more.
“There is a language difference, but in today’s world that shouldn’t make much of a difference,” he said.
“Police forces all over Japan should be reporting works of art to Interpol at the very least and a private central database of stolen art that will actively check the marketplace to locate the items.”
Marinello noted that despite the minimal number of items registered from Japan, Japanese collectors who had listed with the ALR had been “very successful” in recovering their stolen items.
The ALR sifts through listings from auctions and fairs around the world in the hunt to track down stolen items, and although recovery rates are not especially high — 5 to 10 percent — Marinello believes this rate is improving due to an increasing number of listings being posted on the Internet.
Items can often be recovered many years after the theft, with some pieces being recovered 25 years after the initial loss. But for Marinello the key to successful recovery is making sure stolen items are listed quickly. He said it becomes difficult for police to make arrests in older cases where statutory limitations may come into play and witnesses may have disappeared.
While Marinello believes that the Japanese police could be more proactive in listing stolen artwork, he also feels the ALR could also do more to advertise its services in Japan and other parts of Asia.
He hopes that in the future, he can help to spread the word in this region through seminars and other events.