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On August 4, 2014, Cal Lane, a Canadian artist based in New York, shipped three boxes each containing three of her large Veiled Hood Stain prints to her gallery in Montreal, Art Mûr. The works were to be featured in her solo show at the gallery the following month, Veiled Hoods and Stains. However, her UPS shipment was stopped at the border and, after the gallery’s customs broker intervened, only two of the three boxes arrived in Montreal on August 13. When UPS failed to locate the missing box of prints, the postal services company PostNet launched an investigation, but to no avail. A few weeks later, with no leads, the case was closed. Then, on August 5, 2015, one of Lane’s missing prints, “Veiled Hood Stain #8” (2014), turned up on the estate liquidation and downsizing auction website MaxSold.
“A couple of days ago I got an email from a man who was bidding on one of the pieces,” Lane told Hyperallergic last week. “He was asking what the title of the piece was.”
The print, described in the MaxSold listing as “Large Unframed piece. 71X91. By Cal Lane. ‘Veiled Hoods,’” was part of an online-only estate sale in Toronto’s Etobicoke region. From an opening price of just $1, bidding on the piece had reached over $2,000 by August 12, the final day of the sale. Lane alerted her gallery, which contacted MaxSold with just a few hours left to bid and warned the auction company about the item’s problematic provenance.
“My family’s been in this business for over 30 years, but this was a first for us,” Adam Gordon, an auction manager at Max Sold, told Hyperallergic over the phone. After hearing from Art Mûr, the auction site “did something we call a ‘buyback,’” essentially bidding on its own listing until the price got so high that “nobody in their right mind would bid on it.” Less than half an hour after passing the $2,000 mark, bidding on “Veiled Hood Stain #8” closed at $6,299.99 — a bid placed by Gordon through Max Sold. The gallery subsequently reported the item as stolen to the Montreal police, who transferred the case to authorities in Toronto.
“I would bet that the ‘current owners’ did not know the provenance of the piece as you would have to be pretty dense to try and sell a ‘borrowed’ piece of art on a well-known auction site,” the bidder who first alerted Lane to the auction, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Hyperallergic. “This is the second time that I have found a missing piece of artwork on an auction site. I cannot remember which site [the first work was on] nor the artist as it was about 3 years ago, but it turns out that the piece went missing during transportation from a show in Paris to its home in NYC.”
Indeed, the seller who listed Lane’s print on MaxSold — who has since been in contact with Art Mûr about coordinating the work’s return — told the gallery that he acquired the work from another online auction site, the Toronto-based company AuctionMaxxx, which specializes in selling off wayward freight and items lost in shipping and transit.
“All three artworks were listed on AuctionMaxxx in March, according the seller, but we only know the whereabouts of one for now from MaxSold,” said Mike Patten, an assistant at Art Mûr. “The other two [— ‘Veiled Hood Stain #7’ and ‘Veiled Hood Stain #9’ —] may have been sold, we don’t know.”
However, AuctionMaxxx does not keep public records of past auctions available online, and has not responded to inquiries from Art Mûr and Hyperallergic regarding its procedures for verifying the provenance of items listed for sale on its site or the identity of the seller of Lane’s three prints in March. For now, the trail of the two missing artworks has dried up. How the box containing them got separated from the rest of Lane’s shipment, how the prints ended up on AuctionMaxxx, and why the site’s administrators didn’t see fit to investigate the provenance of three prints by a widely-exhibited living artist are all mysteries that remain unanswered. These questions, however, shed some light on a vast unchartered alternate economy of online auction sites like AuctionMaxxx with not-so-scrupulous policies, where artworks obtained under suspect circumstances can resurface and circulate without the knowledge of their rightful owners.