Art Dealers Fight to Save Tarnished Image
Moyes, Jojo, The Independent (London, England)
JAuction houses were yesterday closing ranks in the face of accusations that employees of Sotheby's were guilty of smuggling art into Britain. But many admitted that their timing could not have been worse, as the industry fights a "triple whammy" of new regulations that threatens to send much of the lucrative trade abroad.
Sotheby's, the oldest and largest firm of auctioneers in the world, yesterday suspended some of its senior staff members after allegations of involvement in smuggling Italian art treasures, whose movement is restricted under law.
It also emerged that officials from the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of National Heritage were planning to meet to discuss the matter but no official inquiry has been launched. George Bailey, the managing director of Sotheby's Europe, although critical of the methods used to obtain the evidence, said he could not condone actions against the law or the firm's strict rules. The allegations were made in last night's Dispatches programme on Channel 4 and followed an investigation by the arts journalist Peter Watson. Many dealers said yesterday that they were appalled by the news, because of the damage to the industry's reputation at an "particularly sensitive" time. Auction houses are facing what has been described as an unprecedented threat from three new areas of legislation; droit de suite - a levy on contemporary art sales; unidroit - a treaty which returns "stolen" goods, and the imposition of Value Added Tax on art imports into the European Union after 1999. These issues threaten to send much of London's long- standing and lucrative trade to New York and Switzerland. Mr Bailey said that while he accepted that wrongdoing had been uncovered, the implications of widespread corruption in an industry that had made great efforts to regulate itself were "unhelpful". He added: "It would be a great pity if this particular incident within Sotheby's was allowed to blemish the reputation of the London market which is now better regulated than ever before. …