The potential sale of a collection of paintings stolen from a Dutch museum by Ukranian militia has made headlines this week.

But when the theft does not make the headlines, how can you protect yourself from buying stolen art?

The Dutch heist

In early 2005, a collection of 24 Golden Age paintings, including those by Dutch masters dating from the 17th Century through to the 20th Century disappeared over night from the Westfries Museum in Noord, in northern Holland not far from the capital city of Amsterdam.

It has now been reported that these paintings are on the brink of being sold by a collection of nationalist militia and art criminals with links to the Ukranian Security Service.

The museum has now spoken out after negotiations with the militia fronted by an expert stolen art investigator have reached a dead end, despite an offer to compensate the militia’s expenses. Despite the militia initially stating the paintings were for sale for €50 million. The museum has refuted this saying they are worth a modest €1.3 million. The militia have now responded that the works are available to buy for €5 million, raising fears a buyer will be found and the works of art will soon disappear from the reach of the museum.

The museum’s director Ad Geerdink stated:

“we want to sound the alarm to let potential buyers know that they are dealing with stolen art, to give a correct representation of the actual value of the art works, but also to send a signal that these art works only belong in Hoorn.”

Art buyers beware!

Just as professional criminals launder money to obscure its criminal origins – often through multiple transactions – the same can occur with art. Whilst notable pieces are well known, there is no central register of art ownership (such as the Land Registry for property) and lesser known pieces can be very hard to identify uniquely (not least from descriptions).

For this reason art buyers should always approach their next investment with caution, as owning a piece of work that is stolen will be unsaleable and may have to be surrendered to police.

To reduce the risk of buying stolen art, buyers can take the following steps:

  1. Check whether the piece has been registered as stolen on specialist databases, such as the Art Loss Register and Art Recovery International.
  2. Look for an unbroken chain of ownership for the piece. Ideally the provenance would go all the way back to the artist himself, but in practice this is often not possible, particularly for paintings that are hundreds of years old. Pieces that exchanged hands during particular periods – such as before and during the Second World War – should be approached with caution. Where there is any doubt as to where the work originated from, or over who previously owned it, buyers should ask for more information and consider carefully whether to proceed with the purchase.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask the seller for details about the artwork. If you are not happy with the answers then it may be best to walk away.

This article was written by Fred Clark, Trainee Solicitor at Boodle Hatfield