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Christie’s website hack shows how the art world has become a target for cybercrime

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Christie's website hack shows how the art world has become a target for cybercrime

A ransomware hack was the last thing the precarious fine arts market needed, but that’s what it got when Christie’s website went down days before it began its important 20th and 21st century. May Auctions in New York.

Guillaume Cerutti, CEO of the French-owned auction house, helpfully called the attack a “technological security incident.” Christie’s posted its auction catalogs on a separate site, the sale went ahead with sales of $640 million, and 10 days later the website came back to life.

But that was not the end. The reality of the hack was far from an “incident” and has shocked some of the richest people in the art world in the latest example of how cybercrime – and especially the theft of personal information – is becoming an industry in boom.

The cyberextortion group RansomHub has now claimed responsibility for the hack In a message on the dark web, and with it a sample of information, he claimed to have access to “sensitive personal information… of at least 500,000 of his private clients around the world.”

The hacker’s message included a countdown clock to know when, the extortionist threatened, they would release the data they had stolen. But they also said they had “attempted to reach a reasonable resolution” until Christie’s negotiations with the gang were abruptly interrupted.

Christie’s, which reported global sales of $6.2 billion last year, has stressed that it had found no evidence that hackers had compromised “any financial or transactional records” and had only taken “a limited amount of personal data.”

This is not the first time that auctioneers, dealers and art fairs have been affected by cyberattacks. In 2021, Art Basel dealers received a warning that their information could have been exposed.

Last year Christie’s accidentally exposed the location data of hundreds of consigned works. The Art Newspaper reported in 2017 that customers at nine galleries were hit by a simple phishing operation using fake invoices involving a scammer posing as a figure in a gallery to obtain payment from a collector for a work of art. .

“While Christie’s most recent breach may not involve financial information, it may contain contact information for its high net worth clients, and that is potentially concerning because it could lead to the commission of more cybercrime,” said Dr. Chris Pierson, CEO of BlackCloak. , a company that specializes in protecting the digital lives of high-profile figures and their families.

“The main issue for Christie’s is reputation and they need to get ahead of the curve in terms of communicating with their customers and making sure they know what information is available so they can protect themselves and know what Christie’s is doing to make sure this works. “It won’t happen again,” Pierson added.

But any type of exposure is not welcome. The art market depends on discretion and opacity. For dealers, both private and public, success depends on matching buyers with sellers and knowing who has what and who is looking to buy.

But that information is unlikely to be in a database, says one knowledgeable private dealer, because it is the province of specialists who jump from one auction house to another, or to a private gallery, based on that knowledge. Last week, for example, it was announced that Sotheby’s Brooke Lampley, the auctioneer’s global president and global head of fine arts, who had previously led Christie’s impressionist and modern team, would join Gagosian.

Still, art market lawyer Thomas C. Danziger warned ARTnews, “to a skilled hacker, the personal data of Monet’s consignor may be worth as much as his bank PIN code.”

But mega-wealthy art buyers and sellers often operate behind a system of agents and advisers, and dealers said this month that it was notable that auctions were sparsely attended and bidding thin, suggesting buyers were already on site for expensive works. and many through a third-party guarantee system.

“They were withdrawing offers on the chandeliers,” says a private trader.

The opacity of that system was the focus of a lawsuit in New York this year when billionaire Russian art collector Dmitry Rybolovlev lost a legal battle with Sotheby’s over his claim that the auctioneer colluded with a fee-charging Swiss art dealer. as a dealer and agent and, Rybolovlev claimed, defrauded him of more than $160 million.

The threat of art fraud, often involving false provenance, has helped create a growing industry of security specialists, some of whom offer AML (anti-money laundering), anti-sanctions and KYC or “know-the-know” services. your customer”.

RansomHub, the extortion group attempting to extort Christie’s, is one of approximately 30 different gangs that incestuously change their names and affiliations and operate from Russia or the former Soviet bloc.

BlackCloak’s Pierson says the decision whether or not to pay ransom demands is a business decision.

“In this case, if Christie’s is in operation and this is just an extortion attempt to prevent names from being released or names being released, then a ransom is less likely to be paid because it is more of a reputation issue.” Pierson said.

Private traders hope that problems at public auction houses will turn their business around. But art sales in both are hard to find. May sales in New York were down 50% from 2022. Sotheby’s is headed for job losses in London, and more cuts are likely at locations in Europe and New York.

Christie’s, owned by Francois Pinault, has not announced similar measures, but much of the art business also moves behind closed doors. Dealer Larry Gagosian has clearly taken note: his latest exhibition, Icons from a Half-Century of Art, is strictly by appointment.

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