Executive Interview: Sandra L. Cobden

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Senior Vice-President and General Counsel
Dispute Resolutions and Legal Public Affairs at Christie’s

Sandra Cobden has been a New York-based litigator for more than
twenty years. For the last seven years, she has worked at Christie’s managing their disputes, legislative interests, and governments affairs. She is also an adjunct law professor at Benjamin Cardozo School of Law, where she teaches art law.

Prior to joining Christie’s, she worked at Debevoise & Plimpton for almost 15 years on a number of major corporate litigations, including numerous regulatory investigations, complex class actions, and international and domestic arbitrations. In addition, she served as executive director to Rosie’s For All Kids Foundation, General Counsel to the Comfort Diner Restaurant Group, and a law clerk to Judge Harold Ackerman of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey.

What is your primary area of focus at Christies?

Originally, I was brought onboard for my dispute resolution skills. Since then, my job has expanded to restitution claims, cultural property disputes, and assisting law enforcement. I act as a liaison between the various dispute parties during negotiations and in reaching a settlement.

What are Christie’s guidelines for researching the provenance of Antiquities?

Christie’s does have a clear set of guidelines in place for vetting antiquities before they can go to sale.

  1. Christie’s requires written documentation that the item was out of the country of origin by a certain date. The date changes depending on the country, the beginning of any conflict, and the default date is 2000.
  2. Christie’s researches provenance of the object. We assist the consignor in gathering documents and confirming the authenticity of the provenance documents. If there are invoices, they are checked against the original company records and the date of entry is confirmed. Christie’s often checks with outside scholars and experts if there are any further questions about the object.
  3. Once the antiquities department has signed off on the item, it is sent to the legal department for final review. The legal department is separate from the specialist’s departments, and they review the provenance documentation before the object is cleared for sale.

Does Christie’s have access to government investigations or documentation on known antiquities launderers?

Christie’s gathers as much information as possible about illicit antiquities for our internal database, but we do not have access to ongoing investigations. We check international stolen art databases such as The Art Loss Register, Interpol, and the FBI Art Crimes database, but they are inadequate for information on antiquities. There is a tremendous amount of unpublished and private information on looted and stolen antiquities that are not available to us, making the vetting process extremely difficult.

What are the biggest challenges for Christie’s while researching provenance for antiquities?

The biggest issue in vetting antiquities is the lack of public information and a substantial database. Christie’s vets against all public records and any information we have accumulated over the years, but there is still a tremendous amount of private documentation. One example being the Medici archives detailing the thousands of illegally excavated antiquities, which Italy keeps private. There needs to be a government cultural property database with images and descriptions of known looted antiquities.

How does Christie’s handle cultural property disputes?

There are two things Christie’s does during cultural property disputes that I believe should be reinforced by all participants of the antiquities market.

  1. When Christie’s is informed of a title claim, we hold the object until the dispute is resolved. The item is not returned to the consignor, and Christie’s helps in the negotiations to come to a settlement. If there is a law enforcement investigation, any information regarding the consignor is shared immediately.
  2. Christie’s holds their private sales to the same standards as their public auctions. The items are vetted the same way, and if it is not fit for sale in a public auction, the item will not be sold privately.

If everyone participating in the antiquities market adhered to these two standards, it would greatly help restitution claims come to a settlement.

What do you think is the best way to move forward?

  1. Most importantly there needs to be a database. Without public records, it makes it extremely difficult to vet the objects.
  2. There needs to be a clear dispute resolution system, and the focus should be on settlements. If the antiquities market replicates the Holocaust model, a mediated and negotiated structure would help find creative ways to settle the disputes. The current model has a high burden of proof that can leave claims unresolved.
  3. The antiquities community needs to come together to combat the issues at hand and form solution. It is sad that I am often the only auction house representative attending conferences on cultural property disputes. We all have the same goal and want to stop these issues from arising, but we can’t get to that place until we begin to communicate.
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Marina Lahowin

Marina Lahowin

Marina Lahowin studied abroad in Athens, Greece focusing on Ancient Greek Sculpture before attending the University of Miami to double major in Art History and Business Management. She is currently working as an Assistant Art Appraiser in Miami while finishing her degree. In January she will be moving to Paris, France to pursue a career in the art market and will continue to promote provenance research and ethical collecting.
Marina Lahowin

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