Buying, owning, and selling fine art is literally a beautiful thing. It brings beauty and inspiration into your life and the life of others. Fine art is also an industry and marketplace that can be very difficult to navigate for enthusiasts and those that simply appreciate it. Counterfeiters and thieves around the world are constantly working hard to make a quick sale, and we have seen all too often good people (and institutions) getting ripped off, and when that happens there is very little that can be done. Refunds are rare in the art market. Collectors have to be very careful about what they buy to ensure they make a wise investment. In the instances that a buyer purchases a piece that was stolen or does not have the correct provenance, the buyer is not only out their purchase price, they will also be without the piece, as it must be returned to its rightful home. This is a story of that very unfortunate situation. If it can happen to a top-10 public university, it can happen to anybody.

Ruffner Art Advisory works with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to examine pieces on a regular basis. Recently, we were asked to appraise a 1,000-year-old Vishnu stele.  It was a stunning artifact, exhibiting the height of artistry from the Pala Period. The quality of the carving and stone strongly suggested that the stele had once been the focal point of a Bengalese Hindu temple.

While we were appraising and authenticating the stele, we discovered the unusual circumstances of how the piece ended up in a nondescript warehouse in Florida. The stele was part of the criminal case against Subhash Kapoor, a renowned antiquities dealer that had been arrested by Interpol in Germany and extradited back to India in 2011 for 86 counts of looting and fraud. Mr. Kapoor had sold East Indian artifacts to some of the most respected museums and collectors around the world, netting him over $100 million U.S. Dollars.

The piece that we were tasked with examining was purchased in the ’90s by the University of Florida for their Samuel P. Harn museum where it was displayed for over 20 years. Like all of Mr. Kapoor’s victim’s, the University of Florida thought they were acquiring a legitimately sourced antiquity or at least one that was acquired before the Antiquities Act of 1980. Unfortunately, their stele had been looted, snuck out of India and presented with fraudulent paperwork on a non-existent provenance.

While Mr. Kapoor’s case garnered a lot of attention from the art market and international news, this particular case illustrates the importance of properly conducting due diligence before investing in any piece of art or antiquity – and ultimately not only losing all of that investment but the piece as well.

A large part of our appraisal process involves researching comparables in both public and private sales.  While auction results can be deciphered primarily online with an occasional phone call to an auction house department specialist, we also connect with dealers about private sales in these very discreet high-end sales. Through our discovery process and upon uncovering the actual history of how and where the piece had traveled, we determined that the piece was literally worthless now due to it being looted and connected with Mr. Kapoor, and our conversations with other experts, unfortunately, confirmed that fact. The piece became untouchable, all because it had passed through Mr. Kapoor’s hands.

While we were glad that the stele would be rightfully returned to its temple in India, we were saddened that a respected, top-10 public university system was now out both their financial investment and the piece that thousands of visitors had enjoyed viewing at one of their museums. As stunning as this stele was, it literally had zero market value.

The silver lining to this unfortunate situation is that it can serve as a good reminder to everyone in the fine art market. If it can happen to an institution with multiple experts in the field, it can happen to anyone. Ultimately, it would have been much less expensive to hire a qualified art advisor who could have objectively and meticulously researched any potential deals and navigated the art and antiquities market. Art should bring peace to your soul, beauty into your home or office (or museum), and value to your portfolio. If you’re considering buying a piece of fine art, we strongly encourage you to work with a qualified art advisor. And if you don’t currently work with one, or would like a second opinion, we’d be happy to speak with you.

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