Stolen Art and How to Avoid Buying It

It used to be that if you worked with a reputable dealer and verified the authenticity of the object you were buying, you could be confident about a purchase. But to avoid litigation in today's art world, buyers also need to ask questions about previous ownership. Here's some advice from experts:

* Ask questions about the provenance, or history of ownership, of an object. "A certificate of authenticity doesn't mean that an object wasn't stolen, only that it is authentic," says Jeff Kleinman, of the Washington-based Society to Prevent Trade in Stolen Art, Ltd (STOP).

* Confirm that an object is not listed as stolen with the New York-based Art Loss Register (666 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10103. Phone: (212) 262-4831. Fax: (212) 262-4838).

* Be clear up front that the dealer will take an object back if it turns out to have been stolen or illegally exported. "Use the rule of reason: If a dealer tells you something about the provenance of a work that violates common sense, it generally is not true," says Ronald Tauber, chairman of the Art Loss Register.

* Keep records of your own efforts to verify that you are not buying stolen art. "Increasingly, US courts are weighing the precautions collectors and dealers took to avoid obtaining stolen works against the steps theft victims took to make their losses known to the art world," says Tom Hamilton of Trans-Art International, a Washington-based firm that searches the history of ownership of works of art (1511 K Street, NW, Suite 1100, Washington DC 20005. Phone: (202) 737-4913. Fax: (202) 628-0627).

* Increasingly, buyers also need to make sure that an object wasn't illegally exported. "Request that the dealer provide proof of a valid export permit for archaeological objects, especially if the piece was recently brought out of countries that have signed cultural property agreements with the US, such as Mali, Guatemala, Peru, and Canada," says anthropologist Susan McIntosh, a member of Cultural Property Advisory Committee, which investigates such requests for import controls.

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