When museums and galleries around the world closed their doors to visitors, and tourist streams to heritage sites slowed to a trickle, many directors had to implement drastic spending cuts.
Thousands of employees lost their jobs or had their salaries slashed. Even the lucky staff placed on government furlough schemes faced an uncertain future. The true price of these cost-cutting measures will emerge only when cultural institutions take stock of their collections again.
Over the past 30 years, the art market has developed robust protocols to prevent the trade in stolen art. However, these rely on thefts being reported to centralised databases in a timely fashion.
Most countries’ laws give good title to people who buy an object unaware that it had been stolen, if no former owner comes forward to reclaim the object from them within a set number of years from the date of purchase. To prove a purchase in good faith, buyers and/or sellers must carry out a due diligence check before the transaction to ensure that no former owner is actively searching for the object in question.
A convenient and credible way to do this is to perform a search on the database of the Art Loss Register (ALR). If a match is made before the legal time limit has expired, the stolen object can be seized by the police and returned to its legal owner. Ideally, the trail will still be hot enough for the thieves to be apprehended and brought to justice.
Once statutes of limitation have expired, good-faith purchasers become legal owners and theft victims lose their automatic right to reclaim their lost property. The ruinously expensive and long-running legal battle of the Guggenheim Museum over a Chagall watercolour stolen by a mailroom clerk in the mid-1960s and located in a private collection in 1985 illustrates the problem of asking courts to adjudicate between the interest of a not particularly attentive theft victim and a good-faith buyer.
My book, Lost Art: The Art Loss Register Casebook explores commercial resolutions of thorny disputes. The ALR can prevent the sale of stolen art in the open market, so new owners often opt to negotiate compromised solutions with former owners. Yet, even with a strong moral case for outright restitution, new owners usually demand significant compensation to give up their treasures.
With many museums having to operate with fewer staff, thefts may not be noticed for years, leaving stolen objects to circulate in the open market – with the possibility of property rights being legally transferred. One option is to register valuable and particularly vulnerable objects as “at risk” straight away.
This prevents them from ever being sold and any attempt to bring them to the market immediately alerts their owners to security breaches. However, given the potential scale of the problem, this is not a practicable catch-all solution.
Ultimately, governments must devote the necessary resources to safeguard our cultural heritage and take stock of what has silently disappeared from national collections in these extraordinary times. The sooner, the better.
Anja Shortland is professor of political economy at King’s College, London, and author of Lost Art: The Art Loss Register Casebook