Museum v dealer: who’s to blame for cyber theft of £2.4 million Constable sale?

A painting by one of the greatest 19th-century English artists has found itself at the centre of a cyber-hacking scandal.

In November 2018, the art dealer Simon C. Dickinson sold a rustic scene by John Constable (1776-1837) to the Rijksmuseum Twenthe in the Netherlands for a costly £2.4 million. The painting, entitled A View of Hampstead Heath: Child’s Hill, Harrow in the Distance, is a prime example of Constable’s famous landscape style in the 1820’s and had been keenly sought after by the museum.

But Dickinson never received payment. Cyber hackers managed to infiltrate the deal between the two parties and steal the complete sum.

“This unfortunate event highlights the dangers of cybercrime in the art world, which is regrettable for both the museum and Dickinson, especially when both are victims in this instance,” said Emma Ward, Dickinson’s managing director.

It is believed that the hackers gained access to private correspondence between Dickinson and the museum. By posing as Dickinson, they swapped out the genuine payment details for those of a fraudulent bank account in Hong Kong.

Since the dramatic heist, the dealer and museum have been embroiled in a court battle. London judge Mark Pelling initially dismissed the Rijksmuseum’s attempt to sue Dickinson for negligence because it “owed a duty of care to maintain reasonable email cybersecurity.” Now the museum is serving another application to amend the claims against Dickinson by pursuing alternative claims for damages.

Both sides still maintain it was the other who was hacked. Gideon Shirazi, the museum’s lawyer, originally claimed that Dickinson’s negotiators were aware of the fraudulent emails, but they failed to act upon this knowledge.

Silence would give rise to an implied representation,” explained Shirazi. “By saying nothing, they said everything.”

On the other side of the argument, Dickinson’s lawyer asserted that the museum should have independently queried the legitimacy of the bank account. Lawyer Bobby Friedman argued that “instead of accepting the reality of the situation, the museum has reacted by pursuing a series of hopeless claims against SCD [Dickinson], in the hope of pinning the blame for the museum’s mistake on SCD.”

The Rijksmuseum Twenthe currently have possession of the painting, which is blocking Dickinson from trying to resell the painting.

Experts are now warning the art world against the perils of remotely conducting large sum business transactions. Whilst many countries have been placed in lockdown due to the Covid-19 outbreak, experts advise galleries to be extra vigilant for fraudsters in these uncertain times.

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