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Art Crime

Posted Jun 02, 2013
Written by Fran Zeman
Category General

Almost totally unregulated internationally, buying and selling art presents a ripe territory for laundering money derived from illegal activities. A recently published NY Times article summarized a 2007 attempt to import a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, titled Hannibal , into the United States. The customs declaration said the painting inside the shipping crate had a value of $100.00. The article mentioned that the value of this painting $8 million. The painting is now “in custody”.

This is of course newsworthy since it involves art at a high level of the market.  What about artworks that are not so newsworthy?   19th century industrialists went to Europe to buy art to create the perception that they were cultured and educated.  In a way, nothing has changed; art is being used as means to legitimatize questionable business practices and questionable sources of income.  Long shrouded in secrecy, the business of buying and selling art is a perfect vehicle to transform assets. Auction houses and dealers alike can get caught up in a bad situation willingly, especially if not well informed, because they want to obtain a consignment or close a sale. Trades or sales can be masked beneath a myriad of supposedly legitimate business entities, making it difficult to impossible to uncover buyers or sellers true identities. Although there are “due diligence” tools in place, for the bulk of mid-low range properties being bought and sold, there is a different level of scrutiny along these lines. Think about it: it may well be that billions of dollars of art and objects are traded illicitly.