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Here is a challenging problem: I want to find out who owns a painting. The painting in question is a minor work by an important European impressionist-era artist. If it were to be auctioned today, it would probably sell for at least $2 million. It was last seen when it sold at auction in the early 1980s. However, the buyer was private and anonymous.

I have sent emails to academic specialists who are experts in the artist and they do not respond to my messages. I talked to one professor who is an expert in 19th-century fine art and she told me that a few key European dealers probably know who has the painting, but they will not reveal anything to me because they consider such information to be a professional or trade secret.

I sent an email inquiry to a famous Dutch "art detective" offering to hire him to identify the painting's owner, but he made no answer to my inquiry.

So, I am stumped. How do I find out who owns the painting? Legally, of course.

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  • Hi Tyler, point of information: Legally, in what jurisdiction? The reasons you were given may be good reasons; but, not necessarily the real reason. Your motive for having the information may be questioned and/or questionable. Finally, the owner may not be the one in possession of a/the piece of your interest. No doubt you've already researched the issue from the other side—how to attain and maintain your anonymity from others—to find gaps in the security. Writing a screenplay/novel/docudrama?
    – Stan
    Apr 17, 2021 at 21:51
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    Auction houses and art dealers will guard their clients' and customers' privacy closely, because it's an important part of their reputation. If you suspect a particular individual has it hanging on their wall, there are various ways to confirm, from checking their Instagram to breaking and entering. Otherwise (especially if it's in a bank vault/specialist art storage company) you will have to rely on asking around, gossip, etc.
    – Stuart F
    May 4, 2021 at 11:43

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You could always have a replication done and then challenge the authenticity of any other copy, but as Stan, and Stu already mentioned if you are trying to locate a piece of art that doesn't belong to you, the only thing that you can do is ask anyone and everyone that knows about that particular piece. Any painting of that value is going to have provenance to backup the authenticity. That takes many people along the way to produce and maintain.

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