When you sell your home the paperwork details the sale, including your name, and the title search lists the names of the people who owned the property before you. But when someone sells an artwork at auction — even something worth $100 million, much more than your house — the identity is typically concealed.
Oh, the paperwork might identify the work as coming from “a European collection.” But the buyer usually has no clue with whom he or she is really dealing. Sometimes, surprisingly, even the auction house may not know who the seller is.
Secrecy has long been central to the art world. Anonymity protects privacy, adds mystique and cuts the taint of crass commerce from such transactions. But some experts are now saying this sort of discretion — one founded in a simpler time, when only a few wealthy collectors took part in the art market — is not only quaint but also reckless when art is traded like a commodity and increasingly suspected in money laundering.
“The art market is an ideal playing ground for money laundering,” said Thomas Christ, a board member of the Basel Institute on Governance, a Swiss nonprofit that has studied the issue. “We have to ask for clear transparency, where you got the money from and where it is going.”