Christie’s employs incompetence as smuggling technique

Christie’s is using a variety of techniques to get the paintings out of Europe and over to the unquenchable NY market. Recently, that has meant fronting legal fees for WWII-era restitution claims. But now we hear of a new method, which we might call accidental-but-actually-intentional smuggling.

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The case centers around an oil sketch of The Hunt of Meleager and Atalanta by Rubens. The picture was the star lot in Christie’s old master sale in London in December of 2005, going for £3,144,000. The Art Newspaper reports that name of the buyer has not emerged, but he is understood to be a private collector from the New York area.

Now at that point facts get a little vague.

Our inquiries suggest that the junior employee knew that the Rubens already had an export licence for New York, to enable it to be displayed for five days at Christie’s Rockefeller Center, a month before the auction. This was a temporary export licence, which was not valid after the sale, and a serious error was made in assuming the picture could be re-exported. Last month, Christie’s told The Art Newspaper: “Our policy is to adhere strictly to all applicable laws and standard processes for the international transport of works of art. In the exceptional case of The Hunt of Meleager and Atalanta, a human error led to the accidental shipping of the picture to a client without completion of the appropriate export licensing process. Christie’s regrets the error and are co-operating fully on this matter with all relevant authorities to rectify this situation.”

What’s so silly about the excuse is that Christie’s knew from the moment the NY area buyer bought it, that they would have to present the object to the cultural authorities for an export permit. If they had already sent it to NY to show it off before the auction, they knew there would be US interest. And they also knew that it was a picture that would be one routinely checked up on by the UK cultural protection authorities. Since, in fact, that’s exactly how its export was detected. Still, the just-do-it-apologize-later tactic may actually work. The work’s been put out for purchase at £3,300,000. But it’s not certain whether any UK collector or public collection is going to be able to find the funds by Nov. 11 to buy it.

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