Swiss Italian lawyer Giovanni Rossi advises wealthy clients on how to avoid the legal pitfalls of art collecting.
You have specialised in art law for a number of years. How does art law in the region differ from the rest of the world?
Allow me first to clarify there is not a strict and precise legal definition of art law as such. Under this broad denomination we can include many different areas of law such as contracts, corporate, IP, data protections, taxation and inheritance. We could say art law is a broad umbrella covering legal aspects related to the purchase or sale, protection and asset organisation of works of art.
Being experts in all these areas of law, my colleagues and I typically provide our legal assistance to art collectors, art professionals and artists, depending on their needs and circumstances, in a variety of local and international matters. Just to give a few examples, we assist in the sale and purchase of art work, in the lease of art between galleries and museums, in the legal and corporate organisation of an art collection, in the illegal reproduction of art over the internet and also in forgery matters and litigation over the restitution of art works.
It should also be noted that when dealing with art law in the region, especially if there is an international element, than local legal laws and regulations must be read in conjunction with international ones and they become part of a more comprehensive set of norms to apply. For example, in Switzerland it is possible to house a private collection in a foundation while here in the UAE this is currently not possible.
Is it a subject matter collectors are becoming more familiar within the region or is there still a lack of education surrounding the rights and ownership of art pieces?
In my experience, collectors in this region are not sufficiently aware of the means and available legal tools to organise, preserve and protect an art collection for the next generation.
They are mostly global nomad individuals with properties (including art collections) in various part of the world. They typically live in several countries during the year and enjoy collecting and moving their artworks across continents too. That is why they often seek our advice on how to consolidate their art collections under the appropriate legal and tax structures.
In support of the international crackdown on the black market trade of looted cultural artifacts, the FBI recently announced art dealers might be prosecuted for engaging in the trade of stolen Iraqi and Syrian antiquities. Do you believe the law is stringent enough in this region when it comes to prosecuting collectors or dealers who engage in this activity?
The issue is not so much whether the law here or anywhere else is stringent enough but instead how stringent the enforcement is against such crimes, which is the means to prevent these crimes from happening. I believe international cooperation and intelligence on one side and the establishment of specialised art police forces on the other side, do play a very important role and can contribute to cracking down on these international crimes.
With an economic downturn expected in the region this year and with countries like China experiencing a significant decline in art market sales, do you believe this will affect the value and popularity of regional artists’ work?
My view is that in times of crisis, investments in luxury goods—art included—actually increase as they are typically anti-cyclical to economic downturn.
The art market is also more global and subject to common international trends as well. Korean art, for example, is becoming trendy and some Korean artists are becoming popular in the Middle East.
How will the opening up of the Iranian market since sanctions have been lifted affect the art market there? Will the value of Iranian artworks increase now that artists themselves are more accessible?
Even if sanctions have been lifted, it is going to take some time and many legal and economic reforms before the whole of the Iranian economy, not only the art market, can develop and fully show its potential.
I am not in the position to comment on the value of Iranian art works but it could be reasonable to assume Iranian artists will want to become more known internationally, not only or mainly in the Middle East. I can only hope the value of their artworks will increase once they will become global phenomena, as has happened in the past for Chinese artists who used to be known mainly in Hong Kong and Asia and now can be found in many modern art museums all over the world.
As a collector yourself, is there a calculated process you follow before buying a piece or do you buy from the heart without knowing who the artist is?
I am of Italian origin so it is in my blood to follow my heart. My very small collection of contemporary art has been created over the years with my wife. We purchase our artworks together when they speak to both our hearts and souls.
What is the main motivation behind your collection?
Besides those few contemporary art pieces, my family and I have been art collectors for generations. I cherish our collection of what in Italy is called the arte musiva or pietra dura technique—an artwork created using cut and fitted, highly polished coloured stones juxtaposed with a technic similar to marquetry. This technique dates back to the renaissance and flourished in Florence, where my family come from. It is also known as mosaico fiorentino. Besides this, my motivation is purely aesthetic. I buy what I like.
How many clients do you advise on art? Are they mainly private or government clients?
We advise mainly private clients, both individuals and corporations. In Switzerland we also advise museums and lenders providing financial solutions purely on an art asset-backed basis.
Christie’s will this year celebrate a decade of auctions in the region. How has that changed the landscape of art in the UAE?
Auctions are important vehicles through which art deals are accomplished and a good thermometer of how hot a particular market is. Christie’s has done remarkable work these last years in the UAE in educating buyers on all kind of obligations normally associated with such purchases, including payment terms and conditions.
Is taxation an issue for collectors who buy from Christie’s in the UAE, assuming they do not pay tax but then transport the artworks to homes in Europe?
Even if the UAE is tax-free, taxation is always an issue. This is a very complex subject. One needs to consider taxation from a global standpoint: it is an issue for individual collectors who have assets all over the world and need to protect their global wealth but it is also an issue for international companies who decide to invest in art collections for tax benefits, even if here in the UAE they might not have a similar incentive yet.
Moving art collections from country to country triggers many legal issues, especially in the case of ancient art, not only in terms of custom duties or tax issues.