BRITAIN'S top auction houses are helping to keep the market for stolen art alive by refusing to guarantee that works they sell were not looted by the Nazis.
This is despite growing pressure from museums and galleries who have been advised not to buy paintings or artefacts without being certain of their history.
Yesterday it was claimed that the failure to co-operate of the art world, from small dealers to Sotheby's and Christie's, has left institutions vulnerable to buying works looted during Second World War.
Sharon Page, a restitution expert who is responsible for major purchases at the Tate Gallery, said that no auction house or dealer in Britain would give her the guarantees she wanted, even though the more contract-conscious Americans were able to do so.
The standard contract that she had devised to prevent the purchase of stolen goods was invariably returned by auctioneers and dealers who offered their own, less rigorous documents instead. Ms Page said: "There is still considerable reluctance in the art market to having such acquisition contracts, other than those which exclude all liability on the part of the vendor as to title and provenance."
The situation had created a problem for gallery trustees who were torn between their obligations to add to their collections and not wanting to buy looted art, she added. "If a museum finds something that is a real gap in their collection, there's a huge dilemma about what to do if there are doubts about provenance."
The problem is particularly acute when a gallery is pitted in the bidding against private buyers, many of whom are still willing to take a risk on a potentially suspect work.
A trade insider said: "The galleries are effectively being told: take it or leave it."
The issue has come to a head in the past two years as pressure to resolve issues arising from the war has increased.
Lucian Simmons, of Sotheby's, said the auction house was now much more sensitive to issues of provenance and had tried to take a lead in tackling the problem. It had set up an internal "due diligence" system and staff were trained in it. …