Philip Hensher: The painting to buy if you have $135m

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The Independent Online

Ronald Lauder, the cosmetics heir, has bought a great Klimt, a portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, for $135m, the largest sum ever paid for a painting.

It was confiscated from the Belvedere in Vienna, who had acquired it from one of Göring's plunderings of Jewish collections, and given back to the Bloch-Bauer heirs. An extraordinary sum of money, one might think, which no painting can really be worth.

The painting has a tortuous history, including the strange fact that Frau Bloch-Bauer wanted, in her 1925 will, to leave it to the Belvedere - the courts decided that she would probably have changed her mind subsequently.

Thankfully, the painting isn't disappearing into a private collection, but will remain on public display in the Neue Galerie in New York. It is an enormous sum, but one only has to stand in front of this magnificent painting to start thinking that if one had Mr Lauder's money, one might also spend it in the same way.

The price we may pay for Sarah's Law

Law-makers always ought to be distinctly suspicious of any proposed law which isn't called by a conventionally drab title. Parliamentary officials won't permit any Bill to bear a short title which argues its own benefits - they have, for instance, refused to allow this Government to put forward a Bill with the word "modernisation" in the title.

Ten years ago, the US government approved a law universally known as "Megan's Law", and now the British Government is considering introducing it here as "Sarah's Law". These titles alone should induce some scepticism.

Who, after all, would choose to argue against a Megan Kanka, who, in 1995, was raped and murdered by her New Jersey neighbour, a sex offender known to the police but not to his community? Or, in this country, Sarah Payne, another seven-year-old murdered in the same circumstances in 2000? The murders were extraordinarily evil, and certainly one has considerable admiration for Sarah Payne's mother, Sara Payne, who with great persistence has pursued a general case.

Nevertheless, actually to name these laws after the poor victims themselves seems to me an unworthy attempt to close down debate. The law itself proposes something very controversial: that parents should be informed if a sex offender is living in the vicinity. Thinking that is a bad idea doesn't automatically put one on the other side of the argument from Sarah Payne.

In the first place, this law addresses only the risk to children posed by strangers. Those cases may be the ones that interest red-top newspapers the most, but they are in a minority. Most child-abuse cases occur within the family, and it is not fanciful to suppose that a large number never come to light at all.

By comparison, many registered sex offenders may never pose any real risk to children. The acquisition of pornography, for instance, is certainly not a victimless crime, and should be treated very seriously, but one wonders whether many such people pose a direct threat to the children of their neighbourhood.

There's no doubt that people who have been found guilty of such crimes lead very difficult lives. They will, for instance, generally find it difficult to find work; they won't have much choice about where they live. I don't say that one should feel a great deal of sympathy for such people, but they will probably find themselves living in places where violence and disorder are taken for granted.

We've seen plenty of examples of what happens when communities get hold of information of this sort in an informal manner. In one famous instance, the house of a paediatrician was besieged. That is almost funny, but what happens when the police find themselves under the conflicting obligation to release the name of a sex offender to his neighbours, and simultaneously to protect the sex offender from the actions of those neighbours? Can we really believe that such information would be complete and completely understood, in the first instance; and secondly, that it would always be acted on responsibly?

Of course, the results might not be completely bad. The information, once released, would probably send the price of houses plummeting in the immediate vicinity, allowing those of us who, childless, don't care if we live next door to a paedophile to snap up mansions for a song. But can anyone doubt that the flow of information would encourage vigilantism, and, worst of all, drive paedophiles to disappear from the police radar? So long as they feel that this information is held by the police, and used responsibly by the police, they may well co-operate. Once it starts being handed out to anyone who asks for it, the consequences for children and for sex offenders who, after all, have probably already paid the price once, may be truly terrifying.

* Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia written by anyone who feels like it, had some harsh words for any student who used it as a source. "For God's sake," he said, "you're in college. Don't use the encyclopaedia." Splendid man. Actually, Wikipedia looks like a positive Casaubon of pedantic accuracy compared to some of the things one sees cited by students. If you ever see any truly bizarre assertion in a student essay, these days you will always find a neat footnote beginning "www". When questioned about the plausibility of this, a student will always wail, "I got it off the Net", meaning "I know it might not be true, but it's hardly my fault". The credulity of the ignorant has never been so unkindly exploited as it is by the unedited assertions to be found on the internet.

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