AT THE AUCTION HOUSE: RETURNING ART TO ITS RIGHTFUL HEIRS
Richard AronowitzMercer ( right) is head of restitution for Sotheby’s Europe. He works with the company’s worldwide head of restitution, Lucian Simmons, to monitor all the auction house’s fineart catalogues and ensure that provenance “is as complete as we can make it”. Catalogues are then passed to the Art Loss Register, which checks the physical object against its object-matching system. “Recently, we worked together to return to the rightful heirs a painting that came to Sotheby’s Tel Aviv,” he explains.
Verifying provenance, Mr Aronowitz-Mercer says, is a specialist task. “I really enjoy detective work. I’m quite an obsessive person. Piecing together very complex provenance and pinning things down to precise dates is something I find compelling.” This can involve research in archives and libraries, and contacting colleagues in countries where looting took place to check local archives.
Restitution, he explains, is “an issue of central importance” to the auction house. “We want to ensure as far as possible that we do not sell objects that are war loot unless they have been restituted to their original owners or a settlement has been reached. Sotheby’s is a commercial organisation that is trying to do right by the heirs of families and by our buyers.”
So what would happen if someone brought in looted work to sell? “If a looted work comes on to our premises, we have a moral obligation to resolve the situation. We cannot just ignore it. We would inform the owner that there was a problem with the work and contact the rightful heirs. Usually a compromise is reached, the piece is brought to auction and sold for the benefit of both parties.”
But are auction houses showing such interest in restitution issues because it opens a new market when they are asked to sell restituted works? “I don’t agree. In some ways we have led the way. In any case, there are often so many heirs the only logical conclusion is to bring work to auction, as you can’t time-share a painting.”
There have also been accusations that special terms are made available to those with restituted art to encourage them to sell through specific auction houses. Mr AronowitzMercer acknowledges that this is the case, but gives another reason. “We do often waive the seller’s commission, but this is because we consider it a moral obligation to do so. We don’t want to be making money out of war loot.”
“We want to ensure as far as possible that we do not sell objects that are war loot unless they have been restituted to their original owners”