Charges of smuggling against Sotheby's, the premier auction house, have cast a shadow over the ethics of international trade in rare art.
Managers at the American-owned firm admit they are "profoundly depressed" at disclosures that a Milan-based employee was caught by TV cameras offering to smuggle valuable paintings out of Italy for auction in London.
Possibly even more disturbing for the firm, founded in 1745, was a claim on the same British television program that Sotheby's has also been accepting for sale priceless artifacts stolen from sites in the Indian subcontinent.
British archaeologist Colin Renfrew says auction houses should consider halting the sale of antiquities altogether to avoid playing a part in "the worldwide increase in the looting of antiquities and in their illicit trafficking and sale."
Meanwhile, Sotheby's and the British government have begun separate probes into the smuggling charges. Sotheby's also wants to know why its main competitor, British-owned Christie's, was able to overtake it in profits recently.
The TV program that made the smuggling charges set up a sting by meeting with Roeland Kollewijn, Sotheby's old masters expert in Milan, and asking him to smuggle a painting by the 18th-century Italian artist Giuseppe Nogari to London. Mr. Kollewijn, who has since resigned, was caught saying the painting would fetch twice as much in the British capital than if it was sold in Italy.
The program went on to claim that Sotheby's has been selling artifacts unearthed by archaeologists in India and illegally exported by Bombay middlemen to London.
Art journalist Peter Watson, who made the TV program, says Sotheby's "knowingly and repeatedly sold smuggled antiquities."
Mr. Renfrew, the archaeologist, says establishing the source of such artifacts can be "exceptionally difficult." He adds: "Morality in this area is still evolving."
The London Times reported Feb. 7 that "the entire London art market" has fallen under suspicion because of the allegations against Sotheby's.
Britain's Department of Trade and Industry has launched an urgent inquiry into the implications for a trade that earns the country large amounts of money in foreign art deals.
Nicholas Faith, an author who has made a special study of the global art market, says the accusations against Sotheby's "cause me no surprise."
"The smuggling of valuable artifacts has been a fact of life for centuries," Mr. Faith says. But the latest revelations are "shocking in their sheer scale," he says.
Smugglers focus on countries where the local authorities tend to be lax in their handling of the documentation of art and antiquities exports, Faith says.
Italy and India are both seen as "soft" targets where officials tend to turn a blind eye to illegal exports and exact fees for the help they offer.
For Sotheby's, the smuggling charges have arisen at a difficult moment in its worldwide activities. Owned by Michigan property developer Alfred Taubman, and doing business in 43 countries, it scored a huge success last spring in New York with the auction of items once owned by the late Jacqueline Onassis.