International Foundation for Art Research: IFAR

The Internet continues to advance and develop the provision of high quality, free-access information. IFAR is one such excellent and authoritative resource, for current and historical information about art business throughout the world.

It has recently launched two new unique and valuable online databases, which we will examine in detail: an international artlaw and ethical issues archive; and a wide range of artists’ catalogues raisonnés (

Established in 1969 as a not-for-profit-share educational and research organisation, IFAR operates out of New York City, USA. It is ‘dedicated to integrity in the visual arts’, and provides ‘impartial and authoritative information on authenticity, ownership, theft, and other artistic, legal, and ethical issues concerning art objects’. IFAR publishes a quarterly IFAR Journal that includes a regular ‘Stolen Art Alert’ compiled in conjunction with the Art Loss Register and Interpol; organises educational events (in the US) about art business; has a uniquely impartial Art Authentication Research Service that examines works of questionable authenticity or authorship (its experts have ‘no financial interest in the outcome’ of their research and opinions) ; and for over thirty years has operated an Art Theft Database, which stimulated the establishment of the international Art Loss Register in 1991.

Like most non-commercial arts and cultural organizations in the US, IFAR relies on individual and corporate subscriptions to finance its work. It has five annual membership categories: Partner ($250 individual; $1,000 corporate), Sustainer ($500; $2,500), Patron ($1,000; $5,000), Conservator ($2,500; $7,500), or Benefactor ($5,000; $10,000); and plans to introduce a nonprofit institutional category during 2009. Unlike the UK’s Gift Aid scheme, such subscriptions are wholly tax-deductable expenses for the donor under the US revenue tax code.

IFAR’s original mission was, and still is, ‘to meet a need for an impartial and scholarly body to educate the public about problems and issues in the art world and to research the attribution and authenticity of works of art’; and this was extended in the 1970s to include ‘art theft and looting, and art and cultural property law and ethics’. IFAR has been especially active and influential in raising international public awareness of art looting during the Second World War, and in Iraq in recent times; and in influencing governments’ restitution policies and practices, especially in the US.

It is worthwhile to consider in some detail the first of the two newly launched online databases, Art Law & Cultural Property, has a comprehensive search facility with links to relevant external sources. There is direct access to international laws and regulations, and cases (mainly decided in the US), dealing with international ownership of cultural property, export laws, a legal glossary and relevant ‘cultural affairs’ contacts. Online entry to the website is without charge, though email registration is (not unreasonably) required to access specific materials and documents so as to enable IFAR to ‘evaluate the usefulness of the site and improve its next iteration’.

The first sub-tranche of the Art Law & Cultural Property database deals with International Cultural Property/Ownership & Export Legislation. A graphic world map invites the user’s click to choose a continent or region, which reveals a list of countries from which then to access specific documentary materials dealing with art export and ownership laws – in the original language and in English translation. Historical legislation is also included, which may be relevant to sourcing the rules of a country that operated (and will invariably still apply) at the time the art was acquired or imported or exported; as are relevant international conventions and bilateral agreements; plus contact information for appropriate ‘government official(s) in each country to whom a query regarding the legality of acquiring a work can be addressed’. To maintain its authority and relevance, IFAR will need to update the data regularly; and promises to do so.

The entry for the UK, for example, offers wide-ranging and excellent resources, dealing amongst other things with: relevant UK legislation for the repatriation to its lawful country/owner of stolen or looted art; restrictions on export from the UK of works made more than 50 years before the date of export, depending on its market value – such as ‘paintings in an oil or tempura medium’ the value of which is £180,000 or more, or ‘any [other] article’ the value of which is £65,000 or more; ownership of  ‘treasure trove’ (antiquities found buried in the UK; criminal penalties for knowingly dealing with ‘tainted’ cultural property; plus the UK’s international obligations and agreements, such as the 1970 UNESCO Convention for the repatriation of art looted during the Second World War.

The second sub-tranche of the Art Law & Cultural Property database deals with Case Law & Statutes. Though US-centric, it nevertheless offers valuable insights into perhaps the leading cultural nation’s court’s approach to international cultural issues (especially repatriation of tainted cultural objects). One interesting and unique feature of this resource is that it includes not only a large number of decided cases/precedents, but also descriptions of cases settled out of court that are normally agreed subject stringent for provisions for non-public disclosure. The cases are helpfully grouped into eight broad categories, some reports usefully showing an image of the disputed work: World War II-Era/Holocaust Related Art Loss; Cultural Property (Antiquities) Disputes Over Non-United States Property; United States Cultural Property; Art Theft (other than World War II and cultural property looting); Other Ownership Title Disputes/Claims Including Conversion[misappropriation of other people’s goods] and Breach of Contract; Art Fraud, Attribution, Authenticity, Forgery, Libel, and Defamatory Statements; Valuation/Appraisal; and Copyright, Moral Rights and Other Issues.

For example, one of the reported cases settled out of court details the fascinating saga of the heirs of the Russian Abstract and Suprematist artist, Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935), and the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA). Malevich personally took 100 of his works to Germany in 1927 for them to be shown that year at the Great Berlin Exhibition of Art, and then returned to Russia. Malevich’s German friend Hugo Häring took possession of the works after the exhibition, then transferred  them to Alexander Dorner, director of the Provinizialmuseum in Hanover, for safekeeping against Nazi (and Stalinist) confiscation as ‘degenerate art’. Dorner sent16 of the works to Alfred Barr, director of MoMA, for its ‘Cubist and Abstract Art’ exhibition in1936; the works became part of its permanent collection in 1963. In 1993, following the collapse of the USSR, Malevich’s heirs claimed return of MoMA’s 16 works. After a six year legal fight, the case was settled through MoMA’s reportedly paying the heirs $5 million and returning one painting (Suprematist Composition, 1923-25, which fetched $17 million at a Philips auction in 2000); and thus achieved formal ownership of the remaining works.

The second of the newly launched online databases, Catalogues Raisonnés, aims to support research into provenance and therefore legal ownership and authenticity of works. There are two elements: a database of published catalogues; and catalogues in preparation. Users may choose to search the two elements simultaneously, or separately; then enter an artist’s surname or browse all artists’ names in the A-Z database; or search by catalogue author, or the country of the artist’s birth or death, or the art historical period. Further, there is a user-friendly and short glossary which, for example, explains the use of ‘concordance’ for cross-referencing; and the meaning of ‘fascicule’ (or ‘fascicle’: an instalment of a printed work issued serially).

The IFAR resource is yet another example of the remarkable wealth of research material freely available online. It is to be hoped that it achieves the recognition and support, and usage, it deserves.

© Henry Lydiate 2009

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This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.