Auction house due diligence: What diligence is due?

Friday, April 30, 2010
Bonhams in London just removed a collection of Roman sculptures from its auction when Christos Tsirogiannis and Dr David Gill questioned the provenance surrounding lot 137, a marble sculpture of a youth. David Gill published a photograph persuasively suggesting that the stone figure was linked with a looted item once in Giacomo Medici's possession. Medici was the target of one of the largest modern day efforts by law enforcement to uncover illegal antiquities trafficking.

The statue's appearance at auction raises the question of due diligence. Why was not better diligence used by Bonhams? It is acknowledged that conducting a title history for a large number of objects appearing at auction is labor intensive. However, due diligence to discover the provenance of an antiquity cannot be left to a simple search of the Art Loss Register. Such a register can never produce the history surrounding where an ancient object came from. Attorneys (few that they are) who investigate provenance employ a systematic methodology that covers the bases as best as possible. Auction houses should strive to do the same. Indeed, the diligence due must be meaningful, not superficial.

Those auction houses that employ compliance officers are to be commended for improving their due diligence. While we still have more to do with regard to developing an accepted framework that details what diligence is exactly due, the introduction of a functioning and competent compliance officer inside an auction house can help.