Tackling the art underworld

one of the paintings in a series called Desert Flowers by Bibi Barba, who is the artist launching a IP lawsuit against a hotel in Poland for the use of this work in its interior design. Source: SBS

Falsified art is not the first thing that comes to mind when people think about high stakes crime, but as the health of the art industry continues to be affected by forgery and fraud, artists and authorities are fighting back.

In the coming months Aboriginal artist Bibi Barba will travel to Poland to launch legal action against a hotel she says breached her intellectual property.

Around two years ago, the Ms Barba discovered that the recently opened Eclipse Hotel in Poland had appropriated one of her works in much of its interior design.

She says she was never asked for permission, or provided any copyright royalties, and that the designer simply told Ms Barba that she was inspired by her work.

“I was just gutted. Because those two particular paintings that I painted were now displayed all over the place,” said Ms Barba.

“A 44-room hotel – bar tops, table tops, wall panelling in restaurants, soap dishes and chairs and to the exact colours that I actually painted those paintings.”

She said the particular paintings used by the Eclipse Hotel and designer Ewa Smuga carried personal significance.

“It really hurt, it really hurt to the bone,” said Ms Barba. “Particularly those images, those paintings that I painted.”

“As an artist it's passion, it's your life on canvas, so for someone to just come in and say we'll do whatever we want with it – that's a violation of my human rights.

“It's about my livelihood now, it's a battle for my artistic life really, so bring it on.”

The issue of art crime is not restricted to artists missing out on royalty payments or acknowledgment.

Rife with fraud and forgery, the global art crime market is estimated to be a multi-billion dollar a year trade – FBI estimates put the figure at between $4 and $6 billion worldwide.

At a recent symposium hosted by the University of Western Sydney, law enforcement, experts and artists met to discuss cases such as Ms Barba's and the broader spectrum of art crime.

University of Western Sydney art historian Dr Pamela James told the conference regulatory reform is needed to effectively combat the problem.

“No auction house and no art dealer is regulated in the same way that every second hand dealer and pawn shop is regulated, which I find extraordinary,” she said.

“The way that the law stands at the moment, is that prosecuting under laws of fraud, that's normally the field in which these issues appear, it's very difficult to find the avenue in that legislation to be able to suit it to a work of art, because a painting in not a document in the fraud sense.”

In a recent art forgery case in Sydney, the court heard that around a third of works on the Australian art market could be forged.

But experts and authorities believe it is difficult to be certain about the true scale of the art crime industry, as many cases remain unreported.

Deputy Commissioner of NSW Police, Nick Kaldas, says criminal authorities need to find ways to tackle that problem of underreporting, as it keeps them in the dark about the scale of art crime.

“A real need definitely exists to build a clearer picture of the extent of this problem,” he said.

“And I have to say, as Rumsfeld once said in America, ‘we don't know what we don't know,’ and I know that sounds silly, but the reality is there's an awful lot we don't know about what's happening in this space.”

Ms Barba said that to preserve the integrity of the artist at a time of digitisation, there needed to be strong protections for creators of artistic works.

“Why should we hide our art? Why should we hide our livelihood? If we are good at what we do and we want to sell our art on our own website, why should we be scared to do that?”

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