Welcome back to UKRG Culture Club! Every few months we will be looking at how Registrars, and the issues we face, influence and are portrayed in popular culture. A registrar’s role, as we all know, has many different guises – the issues we face are commonly reported in the news and media, and find their way into popular culture. This blog will be reviewing exhibitions that catch our eye and reporting on how registration issues are highlighted in pop culture, through literature, film, music and beyond.

UKRG Committee would love to hear from you! Please send your own UKRG Culture Club reviews to Becca England, Supporting Officer [email protected].

This month, Becca England, UKRG Supporting Officer is reporting on The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, reviewed by The Guardian as “The story of a boy who loses a mother and gains a painting”

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown and Company, 2013) 784 pp.

*Spoiler alert!

Having hotly anticipated the release of Tartt’s most recent novel after enjoying The Secret Historyso much, I was thrilled to learn her latest offering would focus on the art world.

The Goldfinch is a fascinating, albeit long, novel that follows the life of Theo Decker. We first meet twelve-year-old Theo at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York with his beloved mother. They are visiting her favourite painting: Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch (in the collection at The Mauritshuis in the Hague and due to be displayed at the Scottish National Gallery next month) which is part of a temporary exhibition of Dutch Masterpieces. Whilst they are visiting, a bomb detonates in the museum and his mother is killed. In the ensuing panic, an elderly man seemingly motions towards The Goldfinch. Theo snatches the painting without considering the ramifications and flees.  The book is an exploration of the emotional and practical consequences of loss, and the potential for a piece of art to haunt your life…

The practicalities of a terror attack in a museum

This book throws particular light on a number of issues Registrars have to manage. As Theo is fleeing the scene after the bomb detonates, Tartt gives us a sense of real life:

“The hallway seemed to stretch for miles. Fearfully I crept along, peering into offices where the doors happened to stand ajar. Cameron Geisler, Registrar. Miyako Fujita, Assistant Registrar.” The specific use of the term Registrar jerked me to life!

Naturally, the entire scenario of the novel is distressing – however even more so for those of us who would be involved in managing the aftermath of an event such as this. As the narrative unfolded, I inevitably started to run through my head the processes a registrar needs to go through should this occur: what are the insurance implications? What would the type of damage be? What immediate conservation would be required? How quickly could we get into the building? How high on the emergency services’ lists would the artworks be in the event of a terror attack? What would the ramifications be for future loan negotiations? How many calls would I have to field from lenders? Where are my checklists??

As well as the practicalities of the terror attack itself, this book does raise an interesting point about the safety of artworks in an emergency situation. Theo’s act is audacious; however the threat of a member of the public stealing an artwork in the melee is real. This story is potentially far-fetched, yet (unfortunately) plausible.

Due Diligence and the blackmarket

The other strand that interested me professionally was the concept of stolen artworks resurfacing decades later. Unbeknownst to Theo, his childhood friend Boris had stolen the painting and replaced it with a textbook of similar weight (!) when they were children. By the time Theo is an adult, The Goldfinch is being used as a bartering tool by gangsters on the black market. Hopefully we won’t ever have to come across provenance this outrageous when performing our Due Diligence research – but it could happen! According to ACE Due Diligence policies, should a borrower deem an artwork to have questionable provenance such as this, they must terminate the loan in order to combat illicit trade. In the case of The Goldfinch turning up in a private collection fifty years after the theft, with no known provenance until that point – we would certainly be suspicious if it was coming in to loan!

A cheeky alternative

A contrasting read should you be interested in the murky world of art crime is Jo Nesbø’s Headhunters. This book isn’t quite the haute literature of Tartt, but it is a rip-roaring yarn about a headhunter who steals art from his clients in order to live the high life. It’s totally outrageous and hilariously entertaining. There is also a film featuring some tasty Norwegian guys – it’s the best kind of homework.