Kim Kardashian West was identified earlier this week in a civil suit brought by the US government claiming she was the intended beneficiary of an allegedly imported ancient Roman sculpture. When the artwork entered the United States in 2016, federal authorities confiscated it and are currently demanding its forfeiture. According to the lawsuit, Italian authorities inspected the sculpture and determined that it was stolen and imported from Italian territory. (A Kardashian West spokesperson told CNN that she “never bought this item” and that “this is the first she has heard about its existence.”) Kardashian West is not named as a claimant in the case, and does not accuse her of any wrongdoing.)
The complaint says the allegedly looted sculpture was sold by an established dealer and shipped by a reputable international customs broker.
Allegations of art looting and piracy conjure up visions of backroom dealings and the black market, but the allegations in this case indicate that, in most circumstances, nothing could be further from the facts.
According to the legal lawsuit, the sculpture was shown at the world’s premier international global art fair, where dealers, private collectors, and museum curators from around the world buy from a specially curated gallery stock. According to the court documents, the allegedly stolen sculpture was also sold by a reputable international customs broker and delivered by a reputable international customs broker. For all of these safeguards in place, will an illegally acquired antiquity really fall between the cracks?
Sadly, the conclusion is yes — and way too simply. For years, antique pieces of art have been stolen from archaeological sites and storerooms and shipped across foreign borders, only to be discovered on the legal art market. They are then acquired by private and public collections. Unlike in the case of vehicles or real estate, where a suspicious buyer may obtain a certificate of title proving possession, there are few protections in order to ensure that consumers of fine art are purchasing legitimate products. This is particularly valid for antiquities such as the supposed Kardashian West sculpture.
A smart art collector understands that the trick to ensuring their purchase is legal is to investigate its provenance, or the past of possession. A careful inspection of an object’s provenance will show whether it has been robbed or sold in the past, as well as whether it is lawfully on the market. However, certificates of provenance for ancient and archaeological materials are particularly simple to falsify.
Why is this the case? Although we may be certain that a Rembrandt painting has been in existence — anywhere — since its creation and today, it is almost never understood whether an ancient piece of art on the market was literally taken from the earth (whether licitly or illicitly) and, therefore, when its collecting history started. We can guess with equal certainty that an antique has been in circulation for a week, ten years, or a hundred years in the absence of solid evidence of its provenance.
The challenge in determining the provenance of ancient works of art is a flaw that unscrupulous traders would easily manipulate. Several art dealers have been prosecuted in recent years for smuggling stolen antiquities. By offering conveniently unverifiable evidence about provenance, these traders reportedly persuaded clients that their wares had long been out of the ground. According to the blog Chasing Aphrodite, authorities say indicted antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor received signed declarations from private collectors with misleading attestations, such as one claiming the collector bought a figure from “a European collection in 1969.” According to the site, dealer Nancy Wiener, who was arrested in 2016, reportedly provided ambiguous claims of possession, such as that her items had been in a “European collection” for decades. (Both cases are still in the works.) According to the web, dealer Nancy Wiener, who was convicted in 2016, made vague allegations of ownership, such as her objects being in a “European collection” for decades. (Both cases are currently being worked on.)
Dealers wanted to reassure customers that the items had a long history in private collections by claiming they had not recently been stolen or exported in violation of export and import rules. Nonetheless, the items were reportedly stolen recently, and all have since been returning to their countries of origin, according to Chasing Aphrodite. Plundering antiquities like those sold by Kapoor and Wiener will continue to change hands openly as long as buyers take sellers at their word and do little to validate the facts they’re given.
This takes us to the sculpture associated with Kardashian West. According to the lawsuit, it was for sale with the following provenance: “Old German album, purchased before 1980.” This will seem to be reassuring at first. However, it raises some concerns: What set is this, exactly? What is the definition of “old” (is “before 1980” now “old”)? Most notably, where did this knowledge originate? Is it focused on documentation, publications, or personal reminiscences? How will a customer be fairly certain that this knowledge is correct?
Inquiring these pointed questions does not actually mean that the evidence is misleading or that the vendor selling the sculpture is unethical. Legitimate items can move through the art market with the same provenance argument, the source long forgotten and the details never called into question. Illegitimate artifacts, on the other hand, move into the exchange as well. As a result, before making a purchase, consumers should consider the following: If my possession of this piece is disputed in the future (as it is now with the confiscated Roman sculpture), will I be able to claim that I own it legally?
It will be unjust because in this case, consumers, not sellers, bear the burden of due diligence. Also good-faith purchasers will face legal, economical, and reputational consequences if they are suspected of having stolen pieces of art in their hands, as the current news report illustrates. It is in the best interests of art buyers to do their research before parting with some money. Private collectors, dealers, and museums that fail to purchase poorly classified pieces of art may help to maintain demand for well-researched and lawfully purchased antiquities. However, if consumers buy undocumented works of art and take claims like “Old German set” at face value, archaeological looting and the illegal trade will thrive.