Fine Art Title Sleuths: ARIS Is on the Case

The underwriting team at ARIS Title Insurance Corporation dives deep into the details while researching the ownership history and provenance of fine art and high-value collectibles – a special sort of detective work.

The absence of tire tracks in the snow led investigators to believe the painting’s thief had worn snowshoes.

That detail is one ARIS Title Insurance Corporation president Mary Buschman recalls clearly 25 years after several of her family’s paintings were stolen – the largest one ripped from its frame, which lay discarded on the floor.

For more than a decade, Buschman wondered what had happened to that particular painting, which had been in her family for 80 years. Then one day, she saw an online sales listing from an art gallery in New York.

“There it was,” she recalls. “It was the same painting. It was unbelievable.”

By then, Buschman was running her own gallery and attending law school. She visited the gallery and confirmed she had indeed found the missing work. Her family had pictures and other proof of ownership. Yet the process of seeking the painting’s return dragged on for more than two years, in part because it had been sold several times after its theft.

With the case at a standstill, Buschman paid a visit to another gallery owner – the one who had initially bought the stolen painting.

“I was nice, but I was very firm,” she recalls, explaining that a day later, the gallery owner signed the agreement, clearing the way for the painting’s return.

The experience gave Buschman a perspective that prepared her to be a leader in the highly specialized art title insurance market.

“Things can go wrong, to where you’re unknowingly buying something from a thief,” she says. “With slightly more due diligence, the gallery in my case may have been able to avoid it.”

A specialized solution for a special kind of risk

Ownership is critically important in art and collectible transactions. How can a buyer be certain the sculpture she wants to buy is actually being sold by its legal owner? How can the owner of a vintage car be certain it’s actually his to sell?

The stakes are high: A buyer can lose a piece of art or an object – and the money paid for it – if someone makes a successful title claim.

The ARIS Art Title Protection Insurance (ATPI) policy offers protection from such risk, as underwriters research how best to answer the ultimate question: Does a collector have legal title to a piece in order to buy, sell, lend it for exhibition, use it for collateral or give it as a gift? The answer is critical for ARIS’ clients, who include collectors, art dealers, galleries, museums, nonprofits, financial institutions, art investment funds and capital providers.

“Most people reach out to us when there is some kind of impasse, some sort of hiccup,” Buschman says. “Someone else wants the painting, or it’s jointly owned by siblings or a couple getting divorced. Maybe, all of a sudden, the seller has backed out for some reason.”

From art to armor, submissions run the gamut.

Fine art isn’t the only type of submission ARIS receives. Other items include rare books and manuscripts, ancient objects, memorabilia, rare stringed instruments, museum-quality jewelry, vintage automobiles, vintage wine and even a collection of armor.

ARIS’ policy covers theft, import and export defects, liens and encumbrances and illegal or unauthorized sales for lifetime ownership and extends to heirs-at-law, ending only when the piece is sold or donated. A risk transfer solution, the policy covers defense and provides full indemnity.

Stolen art registries, archives and Interpol: ARIS does its research.

ARIS art market risk analyst Kate Chimenti uses an extensive underwriting worksheet to analyze submissions, including provenance and exhibition history, previous owners, and pending and past transaction documents.

The ARIS team confirms submissions haven’t been reported lost or stolen by checking registries such as the FBI’s National Stolen Art File and Interpol’s database of stolen works of art. ARIS’ headquarters in New York provides convenient access to other research centers and archives, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Art Reference Library, the latter of which houses an extensive holding of auction catalogs. The research leads to one goal: quantifying the risk of future title claims.

An antique firearm, a painting in World War II Paris and art objects from around the globe

Sometimes ownership or possession history can be a mystery for decades or even centuries, with theft and looting during war and other historical events further complicating matters. It takes some sleuthing to analyze the risk of writing policies on some of the submissions ARIS receives.

Take, for instance, the 18th-century firearm ARIS recently insured. The underwriting team dug into cultural property laws and war trophy laws because the firearm had been imported from and exported to several countries. The team also had to reckon with a 170-year gap in the firearm’s provenance and multiple explanations of its background.

“The provenance normally tracks the whereabouts of the object, not necessarily who legally owned it,” Chimenti says. “That’s an even greater challenge. We had no idea where it even was. If we even had an exhibition history of a museum or gallery where it was shown in a certain year, that would be a win.”

Timelines and family trees were all part of the research done on a recent submission by a major auction house of a late 19th-century French impressionist painting by a well-known artist. The painting had been in the collection of a major Paris art dealer just before World War II and eventually wound up in the possession of a prominent collector in the United States. As part of its research, ARIS delved into the dealer’s estate and investigated one of its executors.

ARIS has insured art objects from around the world, always taking care to be sure they are not considered cultural property by their country of origin. Fully assessing the risk of a title claim is the focus of the evaluation, Chimenti says, noting that ARIS has insured objects from Africa, Central America, South America, Europe, India, Japan and the U.S.

Despite the age of some of the pieces it insures, ARIS is ready to work within the realities of present-day commerce. As an increasing volume of art sales are transacted online, Chimenti sees even more of a need for art title insurance to protect against art market title risks.

“There is an even greater risk in the online world because you just don’t really know who is behind the scene there, who you are working with in the transaction,” she says.

Helping clients figure out their purpose is part of the plan.

Although ARIS doesn’t insure authenticity, it won’t insure title to pieces revealed to be fake. Another non-negotiable? Lack of transparency on the identity of the buyer and seller. Having that information protects the policyholder.

“We have to know who is involved on both sides of the transaction; and if we don’t have that, then we can’t do our job,” Chimenti says.

Because the research can be so painstaking, cooperative relationships with clients are key. Sharing records is essential to the integrity of the process, and ARIS maintains client confidentiality.

“Those are the best-case scenarios because even if we don’t end up writing the policy, it won’t be for lack of what we’ve done to get the facts straight,” Buschman says.

Insuring title to a piece of art or a collectible is a practical move that helps protect the integrity of a collection for years to come.

“We try to get people to see that those things coexist,” she says. “You can be concerned with pragmatic things while buying a piece you really love.”

Talking through the experience is an important part of the process, Buschman says.

“Until you go through it, it’s not really your story,” she explains. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, when we are talking with someone who is interacting with us, it’s personal.”

The theft of her family’s painting made that clear to Buschman.

“It felt very personal,” she says.

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