European auction houses, dealers and collectors are failing to make adequate checks to avoid handling stolen artworks, an art lawyer has warned after recovering from an Italian auction an old master painting taken from its British owner in a burglary more than 30 years ago.
Christopher A Marinello, who specialises in recovering stolen art and resolving title disputes, said: “We do find a lot of stolen and looted artwork in civil law countries such as Italy, France and Germany. Consigners of tainted works of art often try to hide behind the good-faith purchase laws of these countries while performing little or no due diligence.”
He spoke to the Observer after negotiating the return from Italy of a landscape painting by Jan van Goyen, a 17th-century Dutch painter, which was stolen in 1979. Negotiations were particularly delicate because, under Italian law, if someone buys a stolen work in good faith the buyer is sometimes entitled to keep it. Marinello was able to prove to the Italian auctioneer that the painting was one of nine pictures stolen at night by criminals who broke into the home of Paul Mitchell, an antique picture frame specialist in London.
Marinello, who has recovered £200m worth of stolen and looted art in seven years, confirmed that it had been stolen: “The Italian auction house involved did not search the work, but the dealer did. While losing out on a potential future sale, the [dealer] protected his reputation and saved himself significant sums in legal fees defending a case over title to the painting.”
Unless more dealers, collectors and auctioneers make such checks, he added, other stolen items will remain undetected. “It’s the same concept as having a survey done prior to purchasing a home. Considering the values involved, why wouldn’t you want to know if there were serious title issues before purchasing fine art?”
Asked why they had not made such checks, Marinello stopped short of suggesting that the buyers had not wanted to know about doubts over an artwork’s legality: “Perhaps it’s the excitement of getting a good deal.”
A reward is being offered for information leading to the recovery of the other eight lost paintings, including Still Life with Oyster Shells (1646) by Pieter Claesz, and Lake of Nemi at Sunset (1780) by Joseph Wright of Derby.
Mitchell said his experience of being reunited with the Van Goyen after more than three decades will give hope to other people who have suffered thefts of their family’s treasured items.