Governments around the world have stepped up their efforts to combat money laundering in recent decades, with regulations that require financial institutions to put systems in place to detect and report suspicious activity. The amount of money involved is substantial: According to a 2018 survey from PwC, global money laundering transactions account for roughly $1 trillion to $2 trillion annually, or some 2% to 5% of global GDP .
The problem isn’t their argument that seller’s should reveal themselves. It’s the slapdash evidence and flawed logic they use. The story’s biggest problem begins with the lede where it is argued that real estate sellers are transparent. Several graphs deeper in the story it is revealed that real estate transactions that are on a par with major art transactions are, in fact, not transparent. How do we know that? Because the Times tells us about a pilot program that requires transparency. Here’s the opening graph:
Before addressing those questions, it is useful to consider how provenance is relevant to sales of art. Art litigation generally falls within one of three categories: disputes concerning ownership, disputes concerning authenticity, and, to a lesser extent, disputes concerning value. The provenance of a work may bear on each of those potential areas of dispute. Obviously, to the extent provenance represents a chain of title, it may bear quite directly on a dispute concerning ownership. (If “H.W. Göring, Berlin” is listed in the provenance, that is probably a red flag).3
In the last decade, reported revenues from the Chinese auction market have expanded ninefold, now higher than those of its American counterpart. Records have been set for Chinese masters that compete with the West’s already inflated prices for Warhol and Picasso — if such records even end up holding, given some buyers who are refusing to pay because of doubts about authenticity.
Also the documents supposedly supporting the authenticity of the art were forged. According to the art fraud detective, the fraudulent art pieces looked like they had been purchased in a dollar store because they were so bad. When the police searched his one-room condo, some of the works still were wet with paint. At the time of his arrest, another buyer filed a complaint that the piece she purchased from him was a forgery (Moore, 2004).
Fraudulent misrepresentations are one thing, but do sellers who proudly “stand behind the works they sell” really intend to be strictly liable (i.e., without fault) for any error or omission in the provenance or exhibition history? Do sellers undertake to do independent investigations of the provenance, or do they just pass along the same information they received when the work was acquired? In practice, more sophisticated art market participants, such as the major auction houses, include disclaimers (in fine print) in their terms and conditions of sale, but when smaller galleries and dealers sell art they rarely incorporate such protections against liability for faulty or inaccurate information.
“There are museums in the past who have wanted to take something of high value down and replace it with a replica, but that’s a behind-the-curtain thing,” says Timothy Carpenter, a supervisor and special agent in the FBI’s art theft program who frequently lectures collectors to do the same. “If you’ve got this $10 million painting that you’re concerned about, you can probably afford to make a $5,000 copy made and hang it. It’s the only guarantee to keep their painting safe if they don’t have security on their residence.”
— The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates the amount of illicit money that is laundered each year to be between “2 - 5% of global GDP, or $800 billion - $2 trillion in current US dollars.” The difficulty of knowing exact figures accounts for the huge margin within estimates. The UN’s estimates specifically cite “Mega-Byte” as an issue, defining the term as “money in the form of symbols on computer screens the can move anywhere in the world with speed and ease.”