AT THE AUC­TION HOUSE: RE­TURN­ING ART TO ITS RIGHT­FUL HEIRS

The Jewish Chronicle - - FEATURES - JU­LIA WEINER

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”

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