When we look at a piece of art, we enter the secret world of art. When we buy a piece of art, we enter the secret world of the art market.  When anonymity in the art market is about protecting privacy, it’s a legitimate ground for secrecy. When secrecy paints a picture of a thinly regulated art trade where anonymity is used as playground to shield all kinds of doubtful behaviour and ownership, it is questionable.

Law firms

Some law firms play a crucial role in this questionable secrecy in art market. Those law firms service their clients by incorporating and operating shell companies in ‘friendly’ jurisdictions and perform money laundering services as their core business. Law firms boost their client’s assets and inject them into the legal economy, through different money laundering schemes. Those activities contribute to create complex shell company structures to avoid taxes.  While legal, these also allow the firm's clients to operate behind an often impenetrable wall of secrecy.

Panama Papers

On 3 April 2016 the Panama Papers gave an unprecedented look at the connection between international art trade and offshore secrecy. 109 newspapers, television stations and online media presented around 11.5 million e-mails, documents, treaties, declarations and bank statements.  With 2.6 terabytes this was hitherto the biggest data breach ever and all this data came from the law firm Mossack & Fonseca from Panama. The leaked records paint a picture of a thinly regulated industry where anonymity was regularly used to shield all kinds of questionable behaviour and help shed a light on its clients' often doubtful financial dealings.

Mossack Fonseca provided many of its clients with the tools to secretly carry out high-end art transactions worldwide for works by artists such as Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Chagall, Matisse, Basquiat and Warhol. Most of those transactions are technically legal correct, but morally condemnable.

The painting ‘Seated man with a Cane’ by Amadeo Modigliani for instance appeared in the Panama Papers. This Modigliani painting is subject of an intriguing art crime case. This art crime could be defined both as a white collar crime and as Nazi looted crime.

Modigliani case

At the end of the First World War in 1918 Amadeo Modigliani made a series of portraits, including this oil painting 'Seated Man with a Cane'. The man portrayed is believed to be George Menier and was the heir to the eponymous chocolate factory Menier. The painting ‘Seated Man with a Cane’ was last seen during the Venice Biennale in 1930. After the Venice Biennale in 1930 the painting Seated man with a Cane was in all probability owned by Oscar Stettiner, a British Jewish art dealer with an art gallery at the Avenue Matignon in Paris. With Europe entering a Second World War, the painting Seated Man with A Cane faded away from its rightful owner. In 1946 Oscar Stettiner filed a claim in France to begin the process of recovering the painting. Oscar Stettiner died two years later, with his petition still pending, while the painting ’Seated Man with a Cane’, became a subject of a shady art market.

In 1995 after decades the painting reappeared in the art world. The painting ‘Seated Man with A Cane’ was surrounded by mystique, because the anonymity of the owner. It was for the claimant Phillipe Maestracci, grandson of Oscar Stettiner, not possible to file a fruitful law suit just because of all this secrecy that concealed  the owner. Due to the Panama Papers revelation of the current owner, a missing link this art crime ‘Modigliani’ case, a legal way can now be found to settle the complex ownership dispute with the (well-known) owner.


International art trade becomes easily contentious when it involves opposing legal traditions. Common law and civil law countries have different laws governing ownership. In every ownership dispute, there is a tension between the competing rights of a good faith purchaser and an original owner. The outcome of an ownership dispute is therefore often complicated, as the application of one’s jurisdiction over the other leads to incomparable results. Courts are sometimes called upon to decide between the laws of two or more jurisdictions, and faced with vindicating legitimate owner’s rights over another

The only way to end this everlasting hide and seek in the art world, of concealing ownership of disputed art works, and the liberating word that would avoid many complex ownership disputes, is transparency. The Modigliani case is an example that transparency in ownership of an art object can contribute to avoid morally reprehensible international art trade.

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