A blind eye for art

Some years ago, I was asked to do some AML training for a well-known art auction house.  I remember two things about the day: I was by far the shortest and fattest woman in the place, and everyone spoke in reverential tones about “pieces”.  I’m one of those dreadful people who knows nothing about art, but knows what she likes – mainly, pictures of things that I can recognise, done with a skill that I do not myself possess.  So yes to an oil painting of a ship or a horse, and no to a set of flashing lights.  An article in this week’s Spectator magazine reminded me that there is a middle option that I had quite overlooked: dictator chic.  But there is a more serious side to this than a mere matter of taste.

The article explains that the former home of ousted Ukrainian PM Viktor Yanukovych is now a tourist attraction, with visitors traipsing through his games rooms, gawping at the bottles of brandy featuring Viktor’s portrait (look here if you don’t/don’t want to believe me), and photographing each other amongst the garden statuary.  Many of the pieces (see: I’m doing it now – but I’m still not tall and thin) have already been put on display at the National Art Gallery in Kiev.  But what the more cynical have noticed is that several of them are still sporting tags which show that they were purchased in London’s leading auction houses: “A large and hideous ormolu clock boasts a Christie’s tag, identifying it as Lot 177 in the ‘Opulent Eye’ sale held at South Kensington last September.  It sold, according to the Christie’s website, for £20,000.  Further on, another tag flutters from the ankle of one of a set of four fake-bronze classical statues.  Lot 200 in the same sale, they fetched £265,875.”

But it might all be above board, right?  Well, it seems that there is no way of knowing.  According to the article: “In private, people in the business admit that turning a blind eye is the norm.  According to the National Crime Agency’s latest annual report, auction houses made just 26 ‘suspicious activity reports’ between them in the year to last September — compared with more than 250,000 from the banks.”  Perhaps the laziness/boastfulness of Yanukovych has accidentally provided us with a possible stick, wielded now by the curators of the National Art Gallery in Kiev: naming and shaming the auction houses involved.  After all, with proof positive of where the items are now, surely the authorities can ask to see specific CDD records relating to those sales.  Personally, I would focus on source of funds questions…

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4 Responses to A blind eye for art

  1. Claire says:

    Looks easy to launder money through art… I’d be happy if my art would just pay enough do do my laundry 😉 One day! But yes, don’t they need to ask where the money comes from with which people are paying these expensive pieces of art?

  2. That’s certainly the theory, Claire – but I am told that the culture of confidentiality is still strong in the art world, with it being in rather poor taste to ask about money. This obviously needs to change, as the evidence that the art world is being abused by criminals (including corrupt PEPs) is plain for all to see.
    Best wishes from Susan

  3. Claire says:

    It seems there is too much confidentiality for people who have too much money, and too little for people who have none. It’s obvious to me that if we want a better distribution of honestly earned money, there has to be more transparency. In case you didn’t know yet, my Keirsey personality is The Idealist (the Healer to be more specific) 🙂

  4. Pingback: The fine art of future planning | I hate money laundering

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