Thursday, 9 February 2017

UKRG Culture Club: The Paris Secret by Karen Swan

The Paris Secret by Karen Swan
‘Not every door should be opened’

(Not every book should be opened!)

I was given this book and I thought from the cover it wouldn’t really be my kind of thing, but I thought I’d give it a try anyway.  As I suspected, I realised quite soon that the book was a romantic clichĂ© and I was about to give up and put it in the charity bag, when on page 48 I read a reference to  the Art Loss Register.. ‘ It was the absolute first step on this path; nothing could be decided without the feedback from those records’.  ‘Provenance was paramount to explain how it had ended up here’.

Those lines made me sit up, take notice and carry on reading!  Someone was talking my language and the mantra of Registrars across the world.  The story unfolds of a young woman, Flora, who previously worked at Christies, and now works for a private art dealer.  At an exciting multi-million pound auction she receives the news from her employer that they have been asked to deal with a potential art collection sale for the Vermeil family in Paris.  The potential is unknown as the family have only just discovered the property they own exists.  It has remained untouched and closed for over 70 years.  It was last used in 1943 when it was closed up and given to a notary to secretly hold the deeds until certain other family members had died.  One last relative of that era is still alive, but she is aged 99 and refuses to give away any secrets.  The apartment has only come to light because someone has broken into it and made a discovery.

On investigating the apartment Flora discovers 203 paintings, 57 sculptures and 316 artefacts just as they were left lying around the apartment in a jumble in the 1940s.  Of course there weren’t just any old artworks in the newly discovered property; Flora uses her expert knowledge to identify Manet, Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne and Renoir – conveniently.  There follows a lovely process of cataloguing, even a kind of matrix of importance and type is put into use.  The type of collections management project many of my colleagues would delight in undertaking.  There are some twists and turns to keep you interested whilst the audit is undertaken such as the revelation of a duplicate apartment, a broody and moody handsome Vermeil son and even a fight involving a stuffed ostrich.  Who knew working with art collections was such fun?

And the due diligence continues, by page 71 the narrative explains to the reader that ‘..checking if a painting is reported as missing or stolen is ‘the first step in due diligence any time an artwork of this importance re-emerges on the market’

There is a brief discussion about how the uncontrolled environment in the apartment may have affected the art works, but this is soon dismissed with  ‘Obviously humidity would have changed throughout the year as the space wasn’t climate controlled, but all things considered, not a disaster’.  So luckily all the works are in good condition and ready to sell – if only they can just sort out that provenance.

Not surprisingly, once Flora starts digging, the possibility of the art stash being connected to Nazi loot increases.  ‘The resistance flooded the market with good-quality fakes to dupe the Germans as it was.  If we can’t show a step-perfect paper trail, all bets are off. The painting’s authenticity will be thrown into doubt if we go to market saying it was found in an abandoned apartment and clients explain how they came by it’.  So there is a race to prove both that the paintings are not fake and that they weren’t looted or bought from Nazi collaborators.

Depending on your point of view this due diligence chase is the focus of the book, or the development of the feisty romance between Flora and Xavier Vermeil could have been the intended focal point.  *(Spoiler)* Of course he turns out to be a gifted artist in his own right, but hides his talents from the world, of course both Flora and Xavier have unfolding tragedies in their families and of course they argue bitterly, realise they have been mistaken about each other and end the book falling into each other’s arms.  Not before the provenance has been proved I might add. 

Flora correctly proves that the paintings had belonged to Jewish families.  At first she thought Xavier’s late grandfather, who had last used the apartment, was a despicable Nazi collaborator, collecting art from vulnerable Jewish families and then amassing a fortune from their misfortunes.  But then it is revealed that in fact he would buy the paintings and ship them to Switzerland, with a hidden compartment that would hide the children of the Jewish families and get them to safety.  He had been part of The Oeuve de Secours aux Enfants (Children’s Aid Society) a French-Jewish humanitarian movement that worked with The Resistance early in the War. 

Overall, this wasn’t a great read for me, but I did enjoy the seeing aspects of the Registrar’s role being a central part of the novel.   I think this may be the only book that uses due diligence as a plot device to keep the heroine occupied in a location near her interest so that the romance can blossom.  If you like cheesy romantic stories, with some underlying good documentation principles – this is the book for you!

By Lynn Wall
National Museums Scotland

Friday, 4 November 2016

GIS and Loans by Carol Warner, Manager, Government Indemnity Scheme, Arts Council England

We all appreciate the benefit of GIS in supporting our sector, indeed without it, many of the amazing loans and exhibitions that make our jobs such rewarding ones, could not happen. ACE estimate the scheme saves the sector £15 million pounds a year, from supporting recent loans as diverse as the stunning Ostro Topaz to King John’s teeth!

Although most registrars have a well-thumbed copy of the GIS guidelines to hand there is always more to learn so it was interesting to hear from Carol Warner, who manages the scheme for ACE, with some updates and FAQ’s.

The focus of the presentation was a summary of the new guidelines around the conditions precedent. These must now form part of the loan agreement though a side letter or email (moving with the times!)  is permissible as long as that letter or email references the original loan agreement and does not contradict it.  Without the conditions precedent included, the basis on which cover has been provided is null and void and there is no legal basis for paying a claim.

Carol then ran through a number of the most commonly asked questions about GIS and rather than going into detail here, you can find them and their answers in the copy of her presentation now available on the UKRG website.

She also looked at a number of queries from lenders which are becoming more common and what the solutions are;

War and /or Negligence clause - this can be covered if some set questions can be answered. For example if war cover is requested during transit details of transport and routes will be requested.

Comfort letter regarding claim process – This confirms the process and procedure should a claim be made.  Once ACE is satisfied with a claim they will pay in 4-7 working days.

Inalienability –  The concept of inalienability is not recognised in English law but ACE can issue a comfort letter stating that “ the indemnity offered by the UK Government does not affect title to the object” In England it is possible that title may be transferred to a finance company or retained by the owner. Whoever has the title must be listed on the indemnity schedule otherwise this may make it invalid.

Contingency or Difference in Condition insurance is an increasingly frequent request from Italian institutional lenders. This usually requires the borrower to pay a premium to the lenders insurance agents to cover everything not covered by GIS.

Touring exhibitions – GIS cover for transfers.
Having recently negotiated two different agreements with partners for two similar touring exhibitions I was very interested to hear what the advice would be. Carol advised that where a UK partner is the lead partner for a tour then two legs would usually be covered. Otherwise the benefits to the UK public have to be demonstrated and the cost of commercial insurance calculated to show the savings which could be made.

The full presentation is now on the UKRG website and further information can be found on the link below.

Thanks to Carol for the update and thank you to UKRG for giving me a bursary towards the cost of attending the AGM event.

By Jacqui Austin, Lead Registrar: Loans, touring & partnerships, National Galleries of Scotland

Friday, 30 September 2016

UKRG Culture Club: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Welcome back to UKRG Culture Club! Every few months we will be looking at how Registrars, and the issues we face, influence and are portrayed in popular culture. A registrar’s role, as we all know, has many different guises – the issues we face are commonly reported in the news and media, and find their way into popular culture. This blog will be reviewing exhibitions that catch our eye and reporting on how registration issues are highlighted in pop culture, through literature, film, music and beyond.

UKRG Committee would love to hear from you! Please send your own UKRG Culture Club reviews to Becca England, Supporting Officer

This month, Becca England, UKRG Supporting Officer is reporting on The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, reviewed by The Guardian as “The story of a boy who loses a mother and gains a painting”

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown and Company, 2013) 784 pp.

*Spoiler alert!

Having hotly anticipated the release of Tartt’s most recent novel after enjoying The Secret History so much, I was thrilled to learn her latest offering would focus on the art world.

The Goldfinch is a fascinating, albeit long, novel that follows the life of Theo Decker. We first meet twelve-year-old Theo at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York with his beloved mother. They are visiting her favourite painting: Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch (in the collection at The Mauritshuis in the Hague and due to be displayed at the Scottish National Gallery next month) which is part of a temporary exhibition of Dutch Masterpieces. Whilst they are visiting, a bomb detonates in the museum and his mother is killed. In the ensuing panic, an elderly man seemingly motions towards The Goldfinch. Theo snatches the painting without considering the ramifications and flees.  The book is an exploration of the emotional and practical consequences of loss, and the potential for a piece of art to haunt your life...

The practicalities of a terror attack in a museum

This book throws particular light on a number of issues Registrars have to manage. As Theo is fleeing the scene after the bomb detonates, Tartt gives us a sense of real life:

“The hallway seemed to stretch for miles. Fearfully I crept along, peering into offices where the doors happened to stand ajar. Cameron Geisler, Registrar. Miyako Fujita, Assistant Registrar.” The specific use of the term Registrar jerked me to life!

Naturally, the entire scenario of the novel is distressing - however even more so for those of us who would be involved in managing the aftermath of an event such as this. As the narrative unfolded, I inevitably started to run through my head the processes a registrar needs to go through should this occur: what are the insurance implications? What would the type of damage be? What immediate conservation would be required? How quickly could we get into the building? How high on the emergency services’ lists would the artworks be in the event of a terror attack? What would the ramifications be for future loan negotiations? How many calls would I have to field from lenders? Where are my checklists??

As well as the practicalities of the terror attack itself, this book does raise an interesting point about the safety of artworks in an emergency situation. Theo’s act is audacious; however the threat of a member of the public stealing an artwork in the melee is real. This story is potentially far-fetched, yet (unfortunately) plausible.

Due Diligence and the blackmarket

The other strand that interested me professionally was the concept of stolen artworks resurfacing decades later. Unbeknownst to Theo, his childhood friend Boris had stolen the painting and replaced it with a textbook of similar weight (!) when they were children. By the time Theo is an adult, The Goldfinch is being used as a bartering tool by gangsters on the black market. Hopefully we won’t ever have to come across provenance this outrageous when performing our Due Diligence research – but it could happen! According to ACE Due Diligence policies, should a borrower deem an artwork to have questionable provenance such as this, they must terminate the loan in order to combat illicit trade. In the case of The Goldfinch turning up in a private collection fifty years after the theft, with no known provenance until that point – we would certainly be suspicious if it was coming in to loan!

A cheeky alternative

A contrasting read should you be interested in the murky world of art crime is Jo Nesbø’s Headhunters. This book isn’t quite the haute literature of Tartt, but it is a rip-roaring yarn about a headhunter who steals art from his clients in order to live the high life. It’s totally outrageous and hilariously entertaining. There is also a film featuring some tasty Norwegian guys – it’s the best kind of homework.

Friday, 26 August 2016

New National Museum Policies and their Impact on Collection Managers by Katie Childs (Policy and Projects Manager, National Museum Directors' Council)

Katie Childs opened the July UKRG event “Things you never knew you never knew” giving us an overview of the changes and reviews which are currently happening in the British public museums and galleries sector.

Since April there have been many changes in Parliament and the entire museum sector was reviewed in terms of how museums work together, regional and local provisions.

In her talk Katie focused mainly on the new Culture White Paper which was published in March, 51 years after the first version.
The Culture White Paper has four main targets:
                    Make culture accessible by everybody no matter people's backgrounds or education.
                    Make communities across the country benefit of culture through partnerships between national and local institutions.
                    Use culture to create international collaborations and to promote UK global reputation.
                    Increase investments and incentives in the cultural sector through government diversified funds.

In the UK cultural sector museums and art galleries play a substantial role.
In the past 10 years the number of visitors has hugely increased and museums have become extremely popular. People recognise them as important and trustworthy institutions and they enjoy spending time there.
It has been seen that museums create prosperity for communities and territory in addition to increase tourism.

Katie highlighted the importance for national museums and art galleries to share their skills and expertise working in partnership with local museums. Partnerships should be transparent, flexible, mutually beneficial, frequent and numerous. Partnerships could improve areas such as collection management, loans, storage, training sessions.

In addition Katie mentioned the following big changes that have happened since March 2016:

                    New Arts Council England Investment Model whose goals are:
- Including museums and libraries in the investment portfolio for the first time.
- Lengthening national portfolio funding agreements for three to four years.
- Opening up grants for arts programmes to museums and libraries.

                    Changes to Local Authority Funding which are happening all over the country:
1. Finance:
- Significant and rapid reduction in funding from central government.
- Will be replaced by local business rates revenue retention by 2020.
- Restriction on Council Tax rises.
- Growing statutory service costs.
- Museums are not statutory services.

2. Devolution:
- Devolution of spending decisions from central government to city and town halls.
- Secondary devolution.
- Combined authorities and elected Mayors.
- City deals.

3. Local enterprise partnership:
- Local economic planning.
- Replace regional development agencies.
- Limited museum representation.
- Can bring benefit for culture.

4. Place making:
- DCMS policy.
- Major civic institutions.
- Supporting peaceful and prosperous communities.
- Museums make a place attractive to live in, work in and visit.

                    Culture, Media and Sport Committee Inquiry

                    Scottish Cultural Strategy

                    DCMS Museums Review

                    Welsh Museums Review

                    Review of Arts Council England and Heritage Lottery Fund

Finally Katie told us it is too early for DCMS to know the consequences that Brexit will have on the museums sector. In the meantime she offered some good advice to avoid panic.

After the sad episodes of exclusion and racism happened in England straight after the referendum, museums want to reassure people they are safe and welcoming places of inclusion.
We know museums have a great impact on society but it has been very nice of Katie to remind us that if the government and people invest on museums it is thanks to our actions and expertise.

For further information, Katie can be contacted at

By Greta Casacci, Project Collections Registrar, National Galleries of Scotland

Friday, 12 August 2016

Committee Role Highlights: Web Officer

Serving as Web Officer on the UKRG committee has been hugely rewarding. The first thing I’d say, if you’re considering applying, is that you don’t necessarily need a great deal of technical expertise before taking on the role. You’ll be responsible for liaising with the company who provide our web support, Awesem, for checking that the site works, for reporting web stats at the AGM and for renewing licenses and updating content as necessary. You’ll get a handbook on how to do all of this. 

At some of our Event venues: the Canal Museum (above) and the old Design Museum (below)

That said, one of the big highlights of the role for me has been learning about, and developing experience of, website admin. I also led on a project to overhaul the website’s content, which was a very rewarding opportunity to ensure the website remains a useful and usable resource. It’s also developed my negotiation skills, advocating for UKRG’s needs to the Web Support Company and advocating to the committee the reasons for spending money on the website.
Panel Discussion at the event in Manchester, April 2016

Being part of the UKRG committee has given me lots of other amazing opportunities – from getting to know the rest of the committee to having the opportunity to give input on major sector issues. I was also very lucky to attend the European Registrars Conference in Vienna, which was a fantastic opportunity to meet colleagues from across Europe and to learn about the challenges and opportunities faced across the continent.

At the European Registrars' Conference in Vienna

Overall, it’s been a tremendous experience. If you’re considering applying and want to chat through what the role entails, please do get in touch with me.

Susannah Darby UKRG Web Officer 2014-2016

Committee Role Highlights: Treasurer

Being part of the UKRG committee has been a stimulating learning experience into the world of budgets and the importance of the role of the registrar. In my time as treasurer I have mastered excel spread sheets, become acquainted with the banks of South Kensington (an experience in itself) and most importantly learnt how to build and maintain a budget. 

This is perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the role of treasurer on the UKRG committee, previously I had no knowledge of how to build a spread sheet to document the numerous channels of money flow and ensure that the books were balanced throughout the year, but through a very tight budget produced by my predecessor I have become quite familiar with the ways we can document the numerous aspects of UKRG’s income and expenditure.
However being part of the committee is more than just spread sheets and numbers, it is about trying to increase the awareness of the role of the registrar, influence and better understand the standards of good practice among our profession. Being part of fantastic events and getting to meet all the members in person at events and by processing their membership fees has been a great way to meet other registrars and understand just how varied and narrow our roles can be.

In this capacity I have been able to travel across the UK and Europe to see other museums and learn about how they operate. As part of an exhibition team in my day to day role I have been able to learn how to better apply myself to the exhibition registration practice and positively influence the teams I work with into championing the role of the registrar in the multitude of teams with which I work.

This however is a serious role and does take some time, concentration and dedication, knowledge of budgets is not necessary but the willingness to work with excel is. Nonetheless being on the UKRG committee offers more benefits than the time you put in and I will be sad to step down from my post. 

Terri Dendy, UKRG Treasurer 2014-2016

Committee Role Highlights: Supporting Officer

The role of Supporting Officer is very broad – my main task was to create a sustainable UKRG Archive. However, my role’s flexibility means I have been able to become involved with a range of activities at committee level. I assist at Events, complete administrative tasks on an ad-hoc basis and am also looking into potential legacy projects for the ERC Edinburgh money.

Becca at the ERC Conference, Vienna, 2016
By having a presence at events, I have been able to liaise with colleagues from other museums and agencies and build better working relationships – being able to put a face to a name is incredibly helpful in a world full of e-mail. As a result of these networking opportunities I have been able to build relationships both nationally and internationally. Being on the committee means that your travel to and from events is covered. This has been a great help to me as I have been able to attend events I otherwise would not have been able to outside of London and internationally.

The UKRG Archive in full swing! © Dr Ellie Pridgeon
Setting up the archive has meant contact with many different colleagues and institutions, and helped me to gain a better understanding of the different roles within our sector, as well as the important work that the UKRG has been doing since conception. Being able to create a sustainable archive has been a fantastic achievement, as my work will create a lasting record of the important work of the UKRG.

The past 2 years have flown by, and I will always benefit from the relationships, and knowledge, I have built up with UKRG members and the committee.

Rebecca England, UKRG Supporting Officer 2014-2016