What the hang? Artist finds stolen work in auction
Reputable auction house gets egg on its face - twice - over stolen piece by Joburg artist
A stolen artwork was about to be auctioned off, until the artist received an invitation to the auction.
As if that wasn’t enough of a jolt for Paul Emmanuel, the auctioneer then told him it had returned the artwork to the seller, whose name it would not reveal.
Strauss and Co has since said this was an error and the painting, Twelve Phases of an Orange, is still at its Johannesburg office.
Recounting on Facebook what had happened, Emmanuel said he clicked on a link in a Strauss and Co e-mail and discovered that a “publication proof” of the hand-printed, hand-coloured, limited-edition lithograph was listed in an online auction.
A publication proof is a display item that an artist uses to show potential buyers. “A publication proof is never sold by my studio and is damaged and defaced in this way on purpose, to clearly indicate that it is not part of the commercially available, signed and numbered edition,” wrote Emmanuel.
It was only after receiving the invitation to the online auction that he discovered the proof was missing.
“To date, there is no record of this particular publication proof ever leaving my studio,” says Emmanuel who “immediately phoned Strauss & Co and informed them of … the stolen item”.
He also told them it had no commercial value.
When he followed up last week to say he wanted to retrieve the stolen artwork, he was told it had been “handed back to the seller” and that the auction house could not “legally reveal the identity of the seller”.
This caused outrage on Facebook, with many coming out in support of Emmanuel and sharing the post on their social networks. The artist also opened a case at the Brixton police station on Sunday.
Strauss and Co senior art specialist Alastair Meredith said “an innocent clerical error” was to blame for Emmanuel being told the artwork had been returned to the seller.
“The artwork was always in Strauss and Co’s possession. We are not permitted to name buyers or sellers as they are protected by a confidentiality agreement. This agreement falls away, of course, in the case of fake or stolen items.”
Meredith said the auction house had withdrawn the item from the sale “immediately” after learning it was stolen. He admitted it was “rare” for publication proofs to appear on the secondary market, but it was “not unheard of”.
He said the artist had since been given the correct information, which was that the artwork “is safe, and is in our offices in Houghton”.
He added: “We will go through the required legal procedure so that the work is returned to the rightful owner … and will co-operate fully with any investigation, should one go ahead.”