Ethical Art Collecting in the Internet Age

Emilie Trice | March 25, 2022

Photo by Dendy Darma Satyazi on Unsplash

Ethics and art collecting should not be mutually exclusive.

In response to allegations of looting, museums worldwide are returning cultural artifacts to their countries of origin and restitution cases—including those stemming from the Holocaust—attempt to finally right historical wrongs, the topic of ethical art collecting has perhaps never been more urgently debated within the international art world. 

With war raging across Ukraine, sanctions currently leveled at Russia (and Putin's inner circle of Oligarchs) are also reverberating throughout the art market. Russian art collectors, looking to tap into their collections’ value amidst the rapidly declining ruble, have allegedly been trying to liquidate their art holdings via European galleries, reportedly with no success. (source)

The issue has even gone mainstream—American pop star Demi Lovato took to their social media recently to brag about recent acquisitions they had made of “ancient Egyptian artifacts,” a flex which was almost immediately challenged across Twitter by actual scholars and professional art historians. 

Among said scholars was archaeologist Peter Campbell, a cultural heritage lecturer at Cranfield University in England who, after reviewing Lovato’s posts, concluded, “I have never seen provenance like this. None of the critical information is included. Were these exported in 1869 or last year? Where are the copies of the export permits? Who owned them previously?” Without clear answers to these questions, the objects in question were likely transported, traded, and acquired unethically.

An even-worse-case-scenario was also suggested via a tweet; Erin Thompson, a professor specializing in art crime, questioned if Lovato’s “ancient tablets” could have actually been “looted from Iraq, to support insurgent groups like ISIS.” (source) Lovato’s original Instagram “story” post has since expired, but this example shows how little the general public—including celebrities—truly understands about the ethical consequences of acquiring art, ancient or otherwise, with questionable provenance. 

"Bad actors" and the contemporary art market

Antiquities are often the most prevelant source of such controversies, the majority having been "acquired" during the heights of bloody colonialism, but collecting contemporary art can also have ethical issues. For starters, there’s the proliferation of “flipping” recently purchased art at auction for a quick profit, as well as other attempts to manipulate an artist’s market for personal gain—usually to the detriment of said artist's overall career. There’s also the tendency to acquire art solely for the future tax write-offs that occur when the artwork is later donated to an institution, and securing that art in a tax-free shipping/storage “freeport” until the time of donation. 

These are not new issues. They are long-standing problems in the art world, which gallerists have attempted to rectify through sales terms and other tactics, few of which are ever enforced. A highly publicized example of a sales contract gone awry was reported by Bloomberg in early 2022, when an invoice created by Paula Cooper Gallery was involved in several lawsuits. 

One well-known collector (and private museum-founder) had acquired a highly sought-after Cecily Brown painting from the gallery and signed off on the sales terms—essentially a contract between seller and buyer— which stated that if the buyer resold the painting within three years of purchase, he would do so via Paula Cooper Gallery. Instead, the buyer was allegedly in cahoots with another collector—who had less access to certain blue chip artworks—and intended to resell the painting to him directly for a 10% commission (around $70,000). 

When the painting was then, again, quickly and quietly resold for a small gain, the gallery caught wind and initiated legal proceedings against the original buyer. They apparently settled with that first buyer, but the entire situation thrust their sales contracts into the public sphere, literally, and blew the proverbial lid off of the art market’s unethical recesses. 

Since invoices, including their terms and “conditions of sale,” are a critical part of provenance, these documents should always be stored together with their accompanying artwork(s). That way any buyer down the line will know if they are going against the original terms and thereby acting unethically when acquiring a piece from the secondary art market. Doing so could jeopardize their standing with any number of galleries and dealers, who often speak to each other and keep “do not sell lists,” not to mention their reputation as a collector within the art world as whole. 

In the last few years alone, the art market has become the subject of actual regulation—a far cry from its previous designation as “the last unregulated market.” There are now anti-money laundering laws, as well as KYC (know-your-customer) regulations intended to cut down on the more nefarious uses of “art as an asset.” That being said, the effects of these recent regulations have yet to be fully understood across the entire art market.

A new code for ethical contemporary art collecting

Recently, Artsy reported on a new ethical art collecting consortium, which officially  released a Code of Conduct for Contemporary Art Collectors (the Code) during the Arco fair in Madrid in early 2022.

According to the group’s website, “A code of conduct for collectors would only make sense if it came from collectors themselves, in an act of self-regulation and as a gesture of accountability.” 

There are seven segments of the Code, including “Interacting with Artists,” “Supporting Institutions,” and “Interacting with Dealers.” The entire code can be downloaded from the site as a PDF. There is also a self-assessment form to confirm the ethics your own collecting activities.

As stated on the site, 

“The Code is a voluntary set of principles and standards that is meant to inspire and guide contemporary art collectors’ behaviors, inciting us to ask ourselves important questions to better face the challenges of today and tomorrow, and become proactive agents toward a more fair and socially just artworld…the Code is not an attempt to moralize or tell anyone how to collect.

There are as many ways of collecting as there are collectors, and that diversity is precious. No one will enforce the Code, it will rely on peer-to-peer accountability. Nevertheless, we believe that at this point in time, a bold discussion on these topics among collectors is necessary to start raising the right questions.”

According to Artsy, “The code also cautions collectors against buying art solely as an investment citing its ethical implications, and encourages collectors to make sure the artist’s career sustainability is a priority.” These are all important things to consider when buying a contemporary artwork and it’s high time such issues are discussed openly, with collectors taking personal responsibility for ensuring such standards are met.

The art world, in essence, belongs to everyone. That also means, however, that it is up to all of us to design systems that benefit the majority, rather than the elite few. 

Other ways to help increase equity in the art world as a collector include:

  • Buying from (and supporting) local galleries, especially those outside of major “art capitals.”

  • Not asking for an egregious discount when negotiating the price for an emerging artist’s work.

  • Instead of storing art in freeports, find a regional museum or academic gallery where the work can be exhibited and seen by an audience, which will help to increase that artist’s exposure.

  • Take a holistic view of your art collection to ensure that you are including works by artists of color, women artists and other minority groups who have been traditionally underrepresented

How Artwork Archive helps collectors ensure proper provenance and ethical collecting

As your collection grows, it’s imperative to maintain accurate records for your acquisitions—not only for yourself and your investment, but also for the artists represented in your collection. By publishing your collection online—for example—scholars, curators, and academics can find you on the web for any exhibitions or publications they are working on, which could ultimately benefit the artist’s career. 

It’s also important to remember that provenance is enhanced by a work's exhibition history, so any museum loans could help your collection accrue more value in the long run.

Artwork Archive allows collectors to compile digital copies of all provenance documentation centrally in their account. Each artwork record has a field for “additional files” where the account holder can upload scans and other digital files related to the artwork’s history, as well as dedicated fields for publication histories, exhibition histories, and an artwork’s chain of ownership over the course of its lifetime.

In terms of substantiating provenance, additional files should include as many of the following as possible:

  • Original bills of sale, i.e. invoices from galleries, auction houses, etc.

  • Certificates of authenticity, signed by the artist when possible.

  • Import and/or export proforma invoices, to prove the objects entered the country legally.

  • For secondary market works: condition reports and any applicable restoration reports.

  • Anything else that verifies the authenticity of an artwork, including: personal letters from or to the artist and other ephemera, catalogue raisonne scans, appraisals, press clippings and/or exhibition announcements that include the artwork in question, etc.

You'll need these documents to properly insure your art, appraise its value for estate planning purposes, or deaccession it at auction or via a gallery. Ultimately, the more information you can link to any given artwork, the better.

Sharing your art collection online helps support scholarship

Opening your collection up to the public via an Artwork Archive public profile (they're not just for artists!) or other web presence can help expose your collection (and the artists represented in it) to a wider audience, many of which might not have access to traditional art spaces, such as museums, and the like.

As a collector, you are a steward of culture and are safeguarding these works for future generations. Doing so ethically will benefit not only your own collection as a whole—and the livelihoods of the artists and gallerists whose work you’re supporting—but the general public as well. 

When art is sold to a private individual, it's a bittersweet moment for the artist. Often, artists are not informed by galleries who has acquired their pieces. That means, they essentially lose track of where their works are living and who is safeguarding the longevity of their art. With the gallery landscape in constant flux, it's not uncommon that, when a gallery goes out of business, their represented artists lose access to that information forever. 

By publishing your art collection online, you are giving those artworks a new life, safely and ethically. It's time to normalize exposing private art collections to the public, in a way that increases access not only to "the art world," but to broad audiences outside of traditional venues. Doing so will benefit the artists in your collection, scholars and curators conducting research and organizing exhibitions, as well as the next generation of artists. 


Interested in organizing your collection with Artwork Archive? We're here to help. Contact us to start archiving your artworks and ensuring that your legacy is protected for decades to come. 

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