Secrets and lies — the role of restorers in art crime


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This article was originally published by The Art Newspaper, an editorial partner of CNN Style.
The arrest of the British antiques restorer Neil Perry Smith in July is not the first instance of a restorer becoming embroiled in crime.

Smith was extradited to the US and charged on 29 counts for his alleged cleaning and repairing of 22 stolen antiquities for Subhash Kapoor, the dealer accused of leading a conspiracy to loot and offload an estimated $143 million worth of antiquities from Asia onto the New York art market. Another British restorer, Richard Salmon, was similarly accused of helping to cover the artifacts’ true origins. Neither Salmon nor Smith could be reached for comment.

“Without restorers to disguise stolen relics, there would be no laundered items for antiquities traffickers to sell,” said Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance in a press release announcing Smith’s indictment. “Behind every antiquities trafficking ring preying upon cultural heritage for profit, there is someone reassembling and restoring these looted pieces to lend the criminal enterprise a veneer of legitimacy.”

A Shiva Nataraja statue that was among the stolen items allegedly possessed and restored by Neil Perry Smith. Credit: Manhattan District Attorney’s Office

This latest investigation is reminiscent of the case of another now infamous British restorer, Jonathan Tokeley-Parry, who served three years of a six-year sentence in the late 1990s after being convicted of transforming genuine antiquities into garish-looking tourist goods, to enable them to be smuggled out of Egypt. And two of the best-known art forgers — Tom Keating, who died in 1984, and Eric Hebborn (pictured top), who was murdered in Rome in 1996 — also started out their careers as self-styled art restorers.

More recently, the restorer Mohamed Aman Siddique was embroiled in a fraud trial concerning the faking of paintings by one of Australia’s best-known artists, Brett Whiteley. After being found guilty alongside the art dealer Peter Stanley Gant in 2016, he was acquitted the following year, with the judge stating the court was not “equipped” to ascertain the authorship of the works in question.

Code of conduct

“The motivation for such restorers-turned-forgers is often ego, wanting to prove they are as good as the artist they are forging, and perhaps wanting ‘to get one over’ on the art world,” said Simon Gillespie, a leading art conservation and restoration expert based in London. “If they get away with this, they remain invisible and then write their memoirs and become famous.”

Such high-profile cases raise questions as to whether the conservation profession is tightly regulated enough, a question also raised when botched examples of restoration occurs. Most notably, in 2020, the Spanish “restoration” of a copy of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s “Immaculate Conception” went viral online after its attempt to recapture the original features fell comically short.

“Normally, in these (botched) examples, they are artists who participate (as) pseudo-restorers, which has very serious consequences for the heritage,” said Francisco Manuel Espejo Jiménez, the president of Spain’s association for conservators and restoration professionals, ACRE, which is pushing for increased regulation of the sector.

Artist Tom Keating standing in front of one of his works, his impression of Constable painting 'The Haywain', at a press conference in London. He admitted flooding the market with imitation paintings as a protest against art "merchants."

Artist Tom Keating standing in front of one of his works, his impression of Constable painting ‘The Haywain’, at a press conference in London. He admitted flooding the market with imitation paintings as a protest against art “merchants.” Credit: PA Images/Getty Images

While there is no regulation of such professionals in the UK, the Institute of Conservation (Icon) runs an accreditation system. 

“All of our members also have to abide by a code of conduct and therefore can be the subject of a complaint made against them which is investigated and action taken if needed,” said Sara Crofts, Icon’s chief executive, adding that this happens “very rarely.”

She says Neil Perry Smith was not Icon-accredited and emphasizes the importance of establishing the difference between conservation and restoration when choosing which to work with (the latter better understood as just one type of conservation).

On a more positive note, the role that conservators have played as expert witnesses in art crime investigations and trials is significant, including the $25 million lawsuit the defunct gallery Knoedler settled in 2016 after a couple accused them of selling a fake Mark Rothko painting, among dozens of other works. Experts including the art conservator James Martin were key to identifying inconsistencies in the alleged forgeries.

Read more stories from The Art Newspaper here.

Top image: The late Eric Hebborn

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