Rocketing fine art prices are increasingly putting auction houses in the frame for litigation if they incorrectly identify the provenance of a multimillion-pound work.
International specialist lawyers meeting in London last week blamed an evolving art market for a gradual rise in expensive disputes over the authenticity of art purportedly created by renowned artists.
What was once a field dominated by established and knowledgeable collectors has been overrun by wealthy arrivistes, who treat art as a commercial investment on a par with other valuable commodities.
If an auction house slipped up and sold a Monet as a Manet, the price differential would not be large enough to trigger a law suit for compensation. Flog a painting today as a Warhol and it turns out to be the creation of a lesser pop artist, and you'll hear from lawyers.
Karen Sanig, a partner at Mishcon de Reya, agrees that inflated prices - and greater access to information - are causing auction houses pause for thought. "They adapt by ensuring that their terms of business are robust," says Sanig. "This, for the most part, protects them from successful negligence suits in the UK." Auction house terms and conditions of sale have been considerably beefed up in a bid to avoid litigation, and some lawyers suggest they could have been tightened to the point of being unfair. Terms of sale now routinely include authenticity guarantees, meaning that buyers can claim their money back if a piece turns out not to be what the auction house claimed.
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