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Who is responsible for a painting’s ownership?

In the past we have had occasions where we have lent paintings to clients to sell on our behalf. I was reading an article where an art dealer is suing an auctioneer after it turned out that the work had been stolen from a private collection.

This painting was bought for £1100 and was subsequently identified as being painted by a minor old master. However, the art dealer’s plan to sell it for £25 000 was scuppered when police officers informed him that the painting had been stolen

Now the dealer is planning to sue the current auction house for the £23,632 profit he says he could have made from the sale.

The court was told that the painting, since returned to its owner, was entered into an auction in April 2010.

There was no problem with the painting until police took it for a criminal prosecution which was later dropped. He is suing the auctioneers as “agents” for the person who entered it in in 2010. The police dropped that case but gave the painting back to the original owner. Should he own it as he bought it? Should the initial auction house shoulder the blame for not showing due to diligence as to where the painting came from?

We have had similar situations where paintings have been sold on our behalf, agreements signed as to the property being ours until funds are received in full, yet we have never received the payment. We have seen our paintings in auction but the police do nothing as they say that the ownership belongs to the person who bought it from our agent who has since absconded. Should they be sued for not showing due diligence? Where should an auction house stand?

This is a very complicated issue which seems to show us the murky side of art ownership. When an expensive painting is purchased provenance is key to establishing authentication and transparency. At what point or value should this be overlooked?

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