Jul 31, 2007

Italy Blinks

Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino report in today's LA Times that Italy and the Getty have reopened discussions over 46 potentially illicit antiquities. New discussions are possible because it seems Italy has relented in its claim to the "Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth". As I and others have argued, Italy's claims to the bronze are weak: the statue was found by chance in the Adriatic, it was probably created in Greece, it has been in the Getty for 30 years, and Italy was unable to establish any wrongdoing during criminal proceedings in the 1960s.

As to a new criminal investigation:

A senior Italian official said the culture ministry decided that the fate of the statue should not be negotiated until a new criminal investigation into the statue's discovery and export from Italy is complete. The official asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak on the record while negotiations were ongoing.

The new investigation, being conducted by a regional magistrate, was requested several months ago by a local citizens group in Fano, hometown of the fishermen who found the statue, brought it ashore and hid it in a cabbage field before selling it to a local dealer.

But even its citizen sponsors admit the investigation is unlikely to uncover the full story of the artifact's discovery and export from Italy. Nearly four decades have passed since the bronze athlete left Italy under mysterious circumstances, and many of the people involved have since died.

This is a welcome development, and allows both sides to engage in meaningful negotiations. In the past Italy has given loans of other objects in exchange for the return of contested works. Negotiations will likely be difficult though, as the Getty has 45 contested antiquities, and the criminal trial of Marion True overshadows much of the negotiation. It will be interesting to hear what Francesco Rutelli has to say about this development, as he has argued very strongly for some months that the Bronze must be returned.

Jul 30, 2007

Catching Up

Noteworthy items from the last week:

  • A former employee of the State Museum in Trenton New Jersey was charged with stealing a rare atlas worth $60,000.
  • Charles McGrath of the NYT speculates about who will succeed Philippe de Montebello at the Met.
  • Shaila Dewan, also of the NYT looks at the interesting litigation surrounding the Gees Bend quilters in Alabama.
  • Black College Wire looks at the possibility of the return of more vigango to Africa.
  • Tom Flynn of ArtKnows looks at the growing market for Aboriginal art.
  • Another instance of theft of public art, this time in Wisconsin.
  • Bucky Katt of Get Fuzzy "found" a new Monet.

Jul 27, 2007

Antiquities and Politics


On Wednesday, Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times gave an interesting perspective on the Italy/Getty dispute. He expressed some of the same ideas I've had for months. Namely, that Italy does not have a strong claim the the "Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth" and Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli, who Lee Rosenbaum has labelled the "Great Repatriator", is using Italian cultural pride to earn political capital.

To start, Knight could not foresee the recent dispute over a da Vinci loan taking place in the US:

Imagine Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) chaining himself to the gates of New York's Metropolitan Museum to protest the loan of Emanuel Leutze's "Washington Crossing the Delaware" to a foreign museum.Unimaginable? That's the point. The brawl over the Leonardo loan was overwrought, but in Italy it was politics as unusual.
As I said back in March, "Cultural policy is a much more prominent part of Italian politics than in many other countries." Knight makes an interesting connection from this kind of outrage to recent Italian/American relations:

The flash point was Prodi's advocacy for the controversial expansion of an American Army base in Vicenza. Thirty thousand peaceful protesters poured into the streets in December, followed by 80,000 in February. Then a motion in the Italian Senate to support the government's pro-U.S. foreign policy failed, much to Prodi's surprise. His precarious coalition government temporarily collapsed. It's still riven with fissures, and the left remains its most unruly faction.

Rutelli's escalating anti-Getty posturing is old-fashioned political demagoguery, pitched to voters back home. The ultimatum symbolically proclaims that powerful American interests cannot push Italy around, making the government look tough. The emptiness of Italy's legal and ethical claims for the Getty Bronze are beside the point.
I think that is exactly right. The engine driving Italy's very effective public repatriation campaign is Italian respect for their own culture. I've spoken with some Italians about this very issue, and their immediate response is "of course the bronze should go back". But in this case such pride may be doing more harm than good. I've included a very unscientific poll at the left just to see what readers may think about this dispute. I expect to hear more from both sides in the coming week, as Rutelli's deadline expires.

The "Ghost Marbles"


The New Acropolis Museum is nearing completion (it may open in 2008), and it is attempting to make a powerful statement about where the parthenon/elgin marbles belong. The museum was due to be finished in time for the summer olympics in 2004, but a number of delays have pushed back completion. It seems some of the sculptures will be displayed, while the missing pieces will have plaster copies displayed behind a gray screen. Sharon Waxman visited the new museum this week and included some pictures, including this one. Here's an excerpt:

[Dimitris] Pandermalis, [President of the new museum] intends to exhibit the frieze of the Parthenon, with the actual sculptures at the height shown here, and with plaster casts of the many friezes still at the British Museum behind a grey scrim. You can't help thinking of that as another deliberate gesture, and as the scrim as a kind of shroud. Pandermalis, however, is anything but emotional. "It's the pride of the nation," he says quietly. "But I prefer to be silent on the issue."


Interesting stuff, and I have no doubt the image of the parthenon in the distance, along with the shrouded missing pieces will act as a powerful symbol. Lee Rosenbaum also talks about a recent presentation Pandermalis gave in New York:

But during a recent slide presentation in New York---showing the current appearance of the new museum, as well as renderings of what it will look like when it opens (possibly in late 2008)---Dimitris Pandermalis...revealed a new approach to the problem of the missing marbles. Instead of an empty space, the slide showed an image of one of the Greek-owned marbles chockablock with a copy of the British-owned slab that would have originally been beside it on the façade of the Parthenon. Together, they completed the relief of a horse. So that there would be no confusion between the original and the copy, the latter was veiled by a scrim, making it appear like a "ghost," as Pandermalis put it.


Whether this shifts the position of the British Museum will be interesting to see. I wonder if all of the missing pieces will be "Ghosted" or if its just the pieces held by the British Museum. After all, bits and pieces of the Acropolis are scattered all over Europe. Also, what is the rationale for only shading the marbles in the hands of others, what about the destruction when the Acropolis basically exploded when the Venetians landed a direct hit on the powder magazine in the 17th Century?

Jul 26, 2007

4 Old Masters Rediscovered


Four works by Lucas Cranach the Elder have been discovered at a German antique dealership 27 years after they were stolen from a Lutheran church in Klieken in East Germany. The thieves were never caught. Art experts have said that only a handful of experts would have been able to recognize the works as Cranach's work.

This highlights again the problem of two innocents. What the brief wire reports do not say is that the antique dealer probably has superior title to the works. I'm not too familiar with German art law per se, but in most Civil law systems a good faith purchaser will have superior title to the original owner. The dealer has not done anything wrong, and neither has the Church which was victimized. As a result legal systems have a difficult time allocating rights between the two relative innocents. Once again its a reason why databases such as the Art Loss Register should be consulted every time a work of art of any kind of value is purchased. There is no indication whether the dealer consulted any art loss databases, but he should have. Provenance research is the cornerstone of a licit art market, and the best practical way to prevent art theft.

Jul 25, 2007

Should the Getty send the Bronze to Italy?


We are approaching the deadline imposed by Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli to send the "Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth" to Italy. Rutelli has said the Getty has until the end of July to return 47 antiquities to Italy or risk a "real embargo". The Getty has announced it will return 26 of those objects, not including the bronze, but the two sides seem unable to broker a deal. In early July Rutelli announced from Fano, the Italian fishing community where the fishermen first brought the bronze ashore, that he had submitted a "final proposal for dialogue and agreement [and if no deal is done,] a real conflict will begin, a real embargo--that is, the interruption of cultural and scientific collaboration between Italy and that museum."

I'd like to summarize the reasons the Getty has refused to send the bronze to Italy, and why Italy wants the bronze to be included with the other repatriated objects. I'm curious how folks feel about this dispute. I've added an unscientific poll at the left where you can cast your vote.

Before I summarize the two arguments, I should make clear that Italy has no legal claim to the statue. They cannot file a suit and ask for the return of the object both because they cannot prove the statue was removed from Italian waters, and the statute of limitations has probably expired anyway. Rather Italy is making an ethical argument for the statue.

How the Statue Was Found:

The Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth” is an almost life-size figure of an athlete wearing a victory wreath. The Statue was created in Greece, possibly by Alexander the Great’s Court Sculptor Lysippos, but it may have been sculpted by another. It was created sometime between the 4th and 2nd Century B.C.

In June, 1964 the Statue was recovered in modern times, by complete accident, off the northern Adriatic coast by fisherman from the Italian city of Fano. They pulled up a heavy object covered in barnacles. The most likely explanation for the find in the Adriatic is that it was taken from Greece in Roman times, and the vessel was lost at sea. A number of Greek objects were taken by invading Roman armies, the most noteworthy instance was during the fall of Syracuse. When the fisherman returned to Fano, they decided to sell the statue. The statue changed hands a number of times.

We know that Giacomo Barbetti purchased the statue from the fisherman. For a time, Barbetti and his two brothers stored the statue at the home of Father Giovanni Nagni. Barbetti then sold the statue to another man for 4,000,000 lire, not a great sum of money. It would have amounted to about $4,000. In 1966, the 3 Barbettis and Father Nagni were charged with purchasing and concealing stolen property under Italy’s 1939 Antiquities Law. The prosecution reached the Court of Appeals of Rome, however it overturned the convictions for 2 reasons (1) The prosecutors did not establish the statue came from Italian waters, and (2) there was insufficient evidence demonstrating that the statue was of “artistic and archaeological interest”. After the Barbetti’s sold the statue, the Provenance (chain of title) of the statue is a bit vague, and open to some speculation. Most likely it went through a series of owners, in an attempt to achieve a bona fide purchase at some point. It went from a Brazilian Monastery to England, and later to Munich.

In 1977, the Getty Trust purchased the Bronze for $3.95 million. It has been publicly displayed since 1978. Until 2006, Italy made no more formal requests for the Bronze, though they did ask the Getty to evaluate the possibility of returning the statue to Italy in 1989.

Italy's Claim

Italy’s claim relies on the creation of some kind of nexus between Italy’s cultural heritage and the Bronze based on the time it was brought ashore by the fishermen at Fano. Italian authorities have at various times labelled the bronze as stolen, despite the fact Italy is unable to establish the statue was found in it's own national waters, and as a result its national patrimony law will not apply. However, Italy does ban the export of antiquities, and the statue was almost certainly illicitly removed from Italy before traveling to Switzerland and Frankfurt before its sale to the Getty.

The Getty's Response

The Getty has said that Italy had no claim to the bronze once it left Italy. In fact, Italian law would shield a good-faith purchaser in this case. Italy was unable to establish the statue was found in Italian waters during the criminal prosecutions in the 1960's. Also, the Getty has argued the statue has been at the Getty far longer then it ever stayed on Italian soil.

We don't know if the Getty knew about the statue's illicit export when they bought it, or if they tried to research its provenance before the purchase. I've stated who I think has the stronger claim in the past, but I'm interested in what others may think based on the arguments put forward by both sides.

Jul 23, 2007

Coins, Country Houses and Law Enforcement

Karin Goodwin has a piece in The Herald today titled Masterpiece Detectives: inside the investigator's art. It details the theft of 2000 coins from Lord Stewartby recently, and covers all the big thefts from Madonna of the Yarnwinder to the Isabella Stewart Gardner theft. She also talks with the former middleman for stolen art "ArtHostage", as well as Dick Ellis the former head of the Met art and antiques squad. Here is an excerpt:

Lord Stewartby's coin collection was said by experts to be unique. The former Tory minister started it when he was just four years old and, more than 60 years later, he had amassed almost 2000 coins, dating back as far as 1136 and valued at more than £500,000.

They included a silver penny minted under the reign of Robert the Bruce and others struck under James I and II. In short, it was the most historically important collection in Britain. A leading numismatist, the 72-year-old peer had retired in May and, anticipating time to concentrate on research, had taken his collection home to Broughton Green, the house in the Borders where 39 Steps author John Buchan once lived, to be catalogued. But it seems he was not the only person attracted to rare coins. Between June 6 and 7, while he and his wife were on holiday, the house was broken into and the collection taken. "It was such a great shock," he said at the time.

The £50,000 reward he has put up for information leading to its safe return speaks volumes about his determination to get the collection back. That means a select band of individuals may be wondering if the phone will ring requesting their expertise. A group of former senior police officers - most of whom worked for the Metropolitan Police's art and antiques unit - loss adjustors and international data-base co-ordinators are the UK's art detectives.

For the most part they insist that criminals behind art thefts are not really any different from any other. They reject outright too, the myth of a Dr No-type figure sitting in his nuclear bunker surrounded by precious masterpieces and fine antiques.

But it's certainly big business. Internationally, an estimated 10,000 works - collectively worth billions of pounds - are taken from museums, private collections and country homes every year. These supplement the catalogue of the already missing, which runs to some 479 Picassos, 347 Miros, 290 Chagalls, 225 Dalis, 196 Durers, 190 Renoirs, 168 Rembrandts and 150 Warhols. Internationally, the most famous thefts include that of 13 works, including a Vermeer and a Rembrandt and collectively worth $300m, from the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston.

Mark Dalrymple is credited as having "founded the Council for the Prevention of Art Theft (Copat) in the late 1980s... It resulted in the abolition of the market ouvert principle, and, for a while at least, better co-operation from dealers." The market overt rule had long been criticized as a "medieval relic" and I think the last straw was the theft of valuable works from Barristers at Lincoln's Inn. A Reynolds and a Gainsborough portrait were stolen, then sold at Bermondsey for £ 145. The Barristers had to purchase the work back because the good faith purchaser had good title under the market overt exception to the common law rule nemo dat quod non habet (meaning he who has no title passes no title). Professor Norman Palmer wrote briefly about the event in an editorial here.

Otherwise its an interesting overview, which highlights the difficulty in protecting remote country houses and garnering enough law enforcement resources. The Met's art and antiques squad has only 4 officers, and those are in jeopardy of being halved.


Error:

I misread the source article and made a pretty obvious mistake. ArtHostage, the former stolen art handler, was of course not credited with helping to bring about the end of the market overt principle. Rather it was Mark Dalrymple. Many thanks to ArtHostage himself for pointing out the error. I have corrected the relevant text in the first and second-to-last paragraphs. You can read his thoughts here.

Jul 21, 2007

Week in Review

I think I'll try a new feature of listing some newsworthy items I didn't get around to writing about during the week. The best source for a regular list of topical art and antiquities items is the Museum Security Network though. Here's some items I didn't get around to discussing this week:

  • The Wimbledon Guardian reports a £200,000 statue was found chained to a fire escape.
  • The Art Newspaper asks if Italia Nostra's opposition to the repatriation of a statue of Venus to Libya is a bit hypocritical.
  • A 600 pound bronze bear was stolen from an office in Arizona.
  • Tom Flynn looks at a possible lawsuit over the "discovery" of a new Titian, and whether auction houses have dropped the ball.
  • Russia claims to have lost a mind-boggling 160,000 objects from their collections in the 20th century.
  • Internet Radio seems to have earned a temporary stay of execution.
  • Lee Rosenbaum is very critical (perhaps unnecessarily) of a collaboration between the AAM and the State Department on cultural exchange.

Jul 20, 2007

Immunity and WWII Spoliation

Via the invaluable Museum Security Network I saw today that Marilyn Henry of Forward has an interesting overview of the Malevich litigation pending in Federal Court in Washington D.C. It implicates many of the ideas I talk about in my forthcoming article to be published this fall in the Cardozo Arts and Entertainment Law Journal, Why Federal Criminal Penalties for Dealing in Illicit Cultural Property are Ineffective and a Pragmatic Alternative available on SSRN.

Here is an excerpt of Henry's article:

A lawsuit over ownership of 14 paintings by Russian artist Kazimir Malevich is currently pending in federal court in Washington. The case is complex, but this much seems certain: The court’s ruling will strongly influence whether American courts remain open to claims for Nazi-looted artworks being held by European museums.

A major issue in the Malevich lawsuit is the American government’s grant of immunity from seizure. It is one of two federal measures, one legal and one financial, that promote international cultural exchange.

The government’s goal is certainly commendable, but in the interest of cultural exchange it effectively allows the rights of victims of art theft or expropriation to be overridden. Taken together, the two measures create the bizarre scenario of the American government subsidizing the exhibition of misappropriated or looted art at American museums while barring victims from filing claims in American courts for these artworks.

There is nothing sinister in the measures’ intent, which help museums enormously. The federal legal protection and financial support for international loans enables them to mount shows that are culturally significant and often reap substantial economic benefits for the museum’s home city. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, said two recent exhibitions — “Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde,” and “Americans in Paris, 1860-1900” — generated $377 million for New York.

Those exhibitions were made possible, in part, by immunity from judicial seizure issued by the State Department, and a federal indemnity that insures artworks and artifacts against loss or damage while in transit and on loan for exhibition in the United States.

The immunity from judicial seizure assures foreign institutions that artworks lent to the United States will be returned. It dates from 1965, when foreign lenders, primarily in the Soviet Union, feared that the objects could be seized as payment for court judgments or held as collateral for commercial debts. That happened in 2005, when officials at the Swiss border briefly impounded masterpieces from the Pushkin Museum as payment against the Russian government’s debt to a Swiss company.

Of course the City of Amsterdam and the Stedelijk Museum don't want to part with the works because they don't feel they've done anything wrong. I don't know too much about this case but here's what I've gathered. The Stedelijk Museum was sued in federal court in Washington D.C. by 35 descendants of the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich. At issue are 14 Malevich works.

The Stedelijk Museum probably acquired the works in 1958 from a German architect named Hugo Haring. Some allege Haring didn't really own the paintings; and the ownership documents he provided to the museum had been forged so he could sell the paintings to the museum.

In 1927 Malevich brought the paintings to Germany for an exhibition, but entrusted them to a group of German artist friends when he was forced to return abruptly to the Soviet Union where he died without being able to reclaim them. The three friends of Malevich who were holding the paintings either died or fled, leaving the works in the control of the architect Haring. He may have hidden the paintings until after the war, when he came in contact with prospective buyers from the Stedelijk Museum.

Malevich's descendants did not bring claim to the paintings until after the fall of the Soviet Union. They initiated their lawsuit in US federal court in January 2004 when the paintings arrived in the United States for an exhibition. Like Maria Altmann, the Malevich heirs are basing their claim on the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA).

The dispute is ongoing. It's an interesting case, and the natural consequence of the favorable standing many claimants enjoy in American courts. The drawback of course is it will be more difficult for American museums to loan works of art, especially if claimants wait to publish their claim until the works are on display in the US, and then announce their claim.

Metal Detectors Discover Important Viking Hoard in Yorkshire


A father and son metal detecting in a field near Harrogate discovered what could be the most important Viking hoard discovered in Great Britain in 150 years. The hoard was likely buried some time in the 10th century.

The two detectors, David and Andrew Whelan, found 617 silver coins, a gold arm-ring and a gilt silver vessel. The objects come from Afghanistan, Russia, Scandinavia and Ireland among others.

To qualify as treasure, generally speaking a find must be composed of valuable materials like silver or gold. Such was the case here, and as a result the finder and the landowner will receive an award based on the value of the find. In this way, the treasure act encourages finders to report their discovery. Of course they will also receive a great deal of publicity for this important discovery.

There are problems, because its application hinges on the composition of the find. But it does an excellent job of forming a good compromise between treasure hunters and archaeologists. These metal detectors are compensated; while if there was simply a national ownership declaration, finders might be tempted to hide their discovery and sell it on the black market.

One of the local treasure Coroners, Geoff Fell stated at the treasure trove inquest in Harrogate that "Treasure cases are always interesting, but this is one of the most exciting cases that I have ever had to rule on. I'm delighted that such an important Viking hoard has been discovered in North Yorkshire."

Michael Lewis, the deputy head of the British Museum Treasure Scheme praised the finders because "[they] resisted the temptation to tip the hoard ... That gave the museum the opportunity to investigate the hoard."

This find seems to have produced great results for everybody. Metal detecting cuts both ways. Responsible detectors like the Whelan's can really add to the body of historical knowledge, but there are irresponsible detectors as well, as the forthcoming nighthawking (detecting at night) study to be conducted by the British Museum will reveal.

The BBC has an account here, with pictures and video. There is more detail here from 24dash. Hat tip to Cronaca.

Jul 18, 2007

The United States Introduces Import Restrictions for Cypriot Coins


The Cultural Property Advisory Committee has recommended, and the State Department has issued an import ban on Cypriot coins. Here is an excerpt from the Federal register notice outlining the new import restrictions:

Coins of Cypriot Types
Coins of Cypriot types made of gold, silver, and bronze including but not limited to:

1. Issues of the ancient kingdoms of Amathus, Kition, Kourion, Idalion, Lapethos, Marion, Paphos, Soli, and Salamis dating from the end of the 6th century B.C. to 332 B.C.

2. Issues of the Hellenistic period, such as those of Paphos, Salamis, and Kition from 332 B.C. to c. 30 B.C.

3. Provincial and local issues of the Roman period from c. 30 B.C. to 235 A.D. Often these have a bust or head on one side and the image of a temple (the Temple of Aphrodite at Palaipaphos) or statue (statue of Zeus Salaminios) on the other.
Jeremy Kahn of the New York Times has a summary in today's paper here. The new restriction is noteworthy because the Cultural Property Advisory Committee has never placed restrictions on ancient coins before. However, no request for restrictions by another nation has never been refused, so this was the likely outcome. To trigger a recommendation for import restrictions, a source nation must show it is working to police its archaeological sites, and the ancient sites are in danger of being pillaged. It seems Cyprus was able to make that claim, though we won't be able to know the actual deliberations which went on because the deliberations of the CPAC are secret.

Cyprus' ambassador Andreas Kakouris said in the NYT article "We are very pleased coins have been added to this ... Coins constitute an inseparable part of our own cultural heritage, and the pillage they are subjected to is the same as other archaeological material."

Representing the other side though is Peter Tompa who said "This decision shows that the Department of State is putting the narrow interest of the cultural bureaucracies of foreign states and the archaeological community over those ordinary Americans who believe that collecting increases appreciation of the past and helps preserve artifacts."

It's a difficult issue I think. The work of numismatists has helped archaeologists to be able to date their finds. However, ancient coins are found in the same areas as other archaeological materials. I argue in my thesis that the bilateral implementation of the 1970 UNESCO Convention which the US and Switzerland have undertaken can be quite effective, and at least gives a voice to the interests of antiquities dealers. They may not think their views are taken into account in the CPAC, but it is a much stronger voice than they have in other nations. The restrictions are limited as well, they extend for five years only, and have to be renewed.

In my view the solution is a compromise which strongly restricts the trade in the most important objects, but allows a limited and licit trade in surplus and other objects. To fund these efforts I propose antiquities leasing and other initiatives. The magic bullet which could end all of these problems though is the publication of detailed provenances for all sales. Unfortunately the current climate does not promote the sharing of that information.

Jul 17, 2007

Tyler Green and the Nelson-Atkins' Bloch Building


Tyler Green has a fantastic review of the impressive new Bloch Building at Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins museum, pictured here at night. Here's part of what he wrote:

In the last few minutes of full daylight Holl's building seemed to be as much a glass pile as museum's main building is an Indiana limestone pile, only whiter and cleverer. But as the sun began to set, a couple things happened: The building lit up. It lost weight. It gave away a second set of secrets (more on that as the week goes on).

The young men playing flag football stopped and stared. Out of nowhere about half a dozen photographers materialized, tripods at the ready. A taxi drove up, stopped, and out ran a man with a digital camera. He ran around snapping snapping, and then jogged back to his cab. Kids rolled through on bikes -- not privileged kids from the ritzy neighborhoods to the east of the museum, but city kids. The photographers and the yuppie football players treated the new building with reverence, but these kids rode their bikes right up to it. They touched it, tapped it, yelled , "Hey, it's glass!" They parked their bikes and ran around the exceptional Mark Di Suvero that sits in front of the Bloch Building -- which seems just right because Rumi reminds me of a whirling dervish.

He's going to write more about the new building this week. Green has a refreshingly populist view of art criticism. His review on NPR of the new Getty Villa was excellent as well.

Though most art is bought and sold in New York, Los Angeles, or London, we shouldn't mistake those places as the center of the art world. Really terrific art exists everywhere. Green's account of the impact this new building has on the regular people who live in the area strikes me as unique and a breath of fresh air. I think the cosmopolitan idea of spreading art and its influence when done respectfully holds a lot of promise. But to be truly cosmopolitan art and antiquities should be enjoyed everywhere, not just in New York or London. I guess that is why I'm skeptical of a lot of the criticism heaped on the new Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas. The idea of a World-Class art institution in Arkansas strikes me as exciting. I should note for the purposes of full disclosure that I grew up in Lawrence, Kansas just a short drive from the Nelson-Atkins. It's where I first started to like art, so I'm very excited to get back there and see what all the excitement is about.

Also, I personally get quite frustrated with the idea that there should be centers to the art world.

Picasso Theft from a Seattle Mall


Two etchings by Pablo Picasso were stolen from the Bellevue Square mall last week the Seattle Times reports. This is Bacchic Scene with Minotaur which was taken along with Aquatinte 26 Mai 1968. It seems a woman distracted the store clerks by asking about a work in the back of the gallery while two men casually took the etchings out of the mall. These aren't masterworks, but their $92,000 estimated value is nothing to sniff at.

The chances these drawings will be returned quickly are probably not good. The most likely scenario is that a subsequent purchaser who didn't know about the works' tainted past will end up in a dispute with the gallery or the Insurance company if the gallery was able to insure the works. The Seattle piece says "unscrupulous art collectors have few qualms about purchasing stolen pieces for their private collections." I think that may be over-stating the case a bit. In most situations the ultimate litigant is a buyer who was unaware a work had been stolen. This is why buyers should always consult organizations like the Art Loss Register before every significant purchase, and provenance should be thoroughly researched.

Jul 16, 2007

Comparing Digital Images to Art Theft Databases

David Nishimura at Cronaca noted a piece from Discovery News which provided more details on the cell phone technology which can take a picture of a piece of art and then compare it quickly with an art theft database. I wrote about this new development back in March. The technology allows an investigator to take a digital photo of the object with a cell phone, which is then sent to a central server. The image analysis system then compares the picture with the user's database. It identifies similar works based on shape, outline, color, or texture, and then returns a list of the top ten closest hists.

At Present, the systems works on paintings, carpets and coins; though they hope to extend the system to work on 3-dimensional objects soon.

Nishimura seems to be a fan of the idea:

Sounds like a pretty simple and practicable idea, patching together well-established technologies. Take a database of images of stolen artworks, and search it using other images and a pattern-matching application. You'll end up with some false positives, of course, but as long as the matching algorithm is reasonably sophisticated, you should still have a useful tool for flagging possible problem paintings for further investigation.
I think that's right, though the problem of course is which database to check. At present there are a number of different theft databases. The largest and most successful is the Art Loss Register. However that site is not accessible to the public at large. You have to pay for and request the ALR to conduct its own search of its data. Though this technology would seem to make that process easier, Julian Radcliffe, the chairman and most vocal proponent of the ALR says "None of the imag matching is good enough to replace the art historians we use."

That may be true, but as I've argued before, the first company which figures out how to make a simple, universal and easy-to-use database will really stand out, and will also really help to legitimize the art and antiquities trade generally. Until such a database exists though, we will continue to see good faith purchasers buying stolen or illicitly excavated works leading to the classic art law dispute between an original owner and a good faith purchaser. In these cases both parties are relative innocents and the law can have a difficult time evaluating the respective claims.

Sharon Waxman and Source Nations

I want to point out an interesting blog by Sharon Waxman, a culture writer for the New York Times. She's writing dispatches from the middle-east while doing research for a forthcoming book on the antiquities and repatriation problem. She seems to have some impressive contacts, and has already talked about meeting with people like Zahi Hawass, Egypt's Antiquities Minister. The question of repatriation is a difficult and controversial subject, and many journalists have done excellent work on the topic in the past. Books by Peter Watson and Roger Atwood have been particularly excellent. Waxman's forthcoming work certainly starts with some fascinating stories and conflicts, and I'll be interested to see her take. Here is an excerpt of her time spent with Hawass:

I'm sitting in the office of Zahi Hawass, chief of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, in Cairo. His office, in the SCA headquarters on the island of Zamalek, is a garden variety Egyptian bureaucrat's bland mix of tan walls and oversized stuffed furniture. (Happily, the wireless Internet works.) But there's a curious thing in the lobby. In a large vitrine, the famed bust of Nefertiti -- see it at left -- sits in a place of honor. Strange because this is a copy, and Egypt has no end of authentic artifacts to show off in the lobby of its antiquities service. The bust has not been in Egypt since its discovery in the first part of the 20th century. It now lives in Berlin, and is prime on Hawass's list of requests for loan in 2012. Berlin has responded that the statue is too fragile to travel. Hawass does not accept this argument, and continues to push.

Jul 13, 2007

Spain and Odyssey Marine

The Spanish civil guard has seized a vessel belonging to Odyssey Marine soon after it left Gibraltar. As I've stated in earlier posts, Odyssey Marine found a 17th Century wreck somewhere in the Atlantic, which it says may be worth $500 million. The gold has already been shipped back to the United States. Both Odyssey Marine and authorities from Gibraltar say the ship was illegally seized because it was in international waters according to the BBC. However, as I've said before it isn't at all clear where Spanish waters end and International waters begin, and the interested parties have of course not clearly laid out their maritime boundaries. I don't consider myself an expert on admiralty law, so I'm not really sure who has the stronger claim to the treasure which was shipped back to the United States. I do know that the Federal case pending in Florida will be interesting to watch unfold. From the cultural policy perspective though, I haven't seen any evidence that Odyssey is conducting serious archaeological study, though perhaps they are.

(Hat tip to David Nishimura at Cronaca)

Jul 12, 2007

Dividing a Nazi Art Dealer's Collection

Catherine Hickley wrote a very interesting article for Bloomberg on the efforts by France, Germany and Switzerland to divide Bruno Lohse's art collection. Here is an excerpt:

Bruno Lohse, a German art dealer appointed by Hermann Goering to acquire looted art in occupied France, dispersed his private collection of Dutch 17th-century masterpieces and expressionist paintings among friends and relatives in his will, the lawyer handling his estate said.

Lohse died on March 19, aged 95, and has since become the focus of a three-nation investigation into a looted Camille Pissarro painting discovered in a Swiss bank safe that was seized by Zurich prosecutors on May 15. The painting's prewar owners said the Gestapo stole it from their Vienna apartment in 1938. Lohse controlled the Liechtenstein trust that rented the safe.

``Paintings have been willed to relatives and friends in individual bequests,'' Willy Hermann Burger, the executor of Lohse's will, said in an interview at his home in Munich. Burger, who declined to name the beneficiaries or disclose details on individual artworks, said he's sure none of the paintings in Lohse's private collection are looted.

Lohse became Paris-based deputy director of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, the Nazis' specialist art-looting unit, in 1942, according to the interrogation report compiled by the U.S. Office of Strategic Services' Art Looting Investigation Unit, which questioned him in Austria from June 15 to Aug. 15, 1945.

The E.R.R. plundered about 22,000 items in France alone, according to the O.S.S. reports. The Jewish Claims Conference estimates that the Nazis looted about 650,000 artworks in total.

``There is a lot of art still missing and we believe that a significant proportion remains in private collections, especially in Germany and Austria,'' said Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, a not-for-profit organization based in London that helps families recover plundered property.

Adding to the difficulty is the fact that Lohse became an art dealer in the 1950's, and thus most of his private collection is probably legitimate. However, the Pisarro found in the Swiss bank vault, Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps is probably looted, at least according to the Art Loss Register. This all underscores the importance of establishing and checking provenance for works of art when they are sold or donated. If the various European prosecutors are not as aggressive as their American counterparts have been, a lengthy and complex legal dispute between the successor and the descendants of the original1938 owner will likely ensue.

Jul 11, 2007

More Posturing from Francesco Rutelli


Italy's Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli just returned from a visit to the United States, and no visit is complete without more criticism of the Getty. Yesterday Rutelli repeated his claims. The LA Times has a good compilation of the Wire reports here. There is little new information save a new deadline. Rutelli says the Getty has until the end of July to return contested objects, else risk a "real embargo" which would preclude loans and collaborations with Italy in research and conservation projects. Rutelli said he had submitted a "final proposal for dialogue and agreement [and if no deal is done,] a real conflict will begin, a real embargo--that is, the interruption of cultural and scientific collaboration between Italy and that museum."

What exactly the "final proposal" entails is unknown. Ron Hartwig the Getty spokesman did say that Rutelli sent a "very cordial...very encouraging" letter and that Michael Brand had "responded in kind". As I understand it, the Getty has agreed to return many of the contested objects which Italy wants. However, the Getty is unable to reach an agreement because Rutelli has insisted no deal can be finished without the return of this statue, the "Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth". I've discussed this particular claim before, which you can read about by clicking the label below. Italy has no legal claim to the bronze statue, and a weak ethical argument for its return as well.

Rutelli is trying to associate the stronger claim the Getty has in the Bronze statue with the other objects with far more dubious provenances. It gets Rutelli's comments in the papers, and it keeps the repatriation issue open, but seems unlikely to lead to a workable compromise.

UPDATE:

Rutelli made yesterday's announcement from the fishing port of Fano in Italy, where the statue was brought ashore by the fishermen who found it. I have updated the first paragraph accordingly.

Jul 10, 2007

In the News

I saw a couple of noteworthy items in the papers this morning.

First, there was an interesting note of a legal event held in London last week. Edward Fennell of the Times Online in his "In the City" feature talked about this event:

Last week Withers hosted one of the most curious legal events I have ever attended. In a gripping account to a smart multinational audience of art professionals, insurers and well-heeled collectors the firm’s art recovery expert, partner Pierre Valentin told how he helped to recover paintings from the Bakwin collection that had been stolen in America in the 1970s.

Working with the Art Loss Register (which operates in that seductive area where culture and money meet glamour and crime) Mr Valentin described a Hitchcock-like thriller featuring painstaking research, dodgy Russians and even murder – but all ending in happy success for the resolute legal sleuth. As the tale unfolded we could see on display the very “McGuffin” that had driven the drama – the collection of paintings themselves by Cézanne, Matisse, Soutine, Vlaminck By the end of an astonishing evening Withers had proved itself a true ornament to the City’s legal scene.


I take it Whithers must be a firm of Solicitors. Sounds like some fascinating stories. I do not know about this particular case, but I am familiar with Pierre Valentin. It sounds fascinating. Here is hoping he makes it up to Scotland.

Second, I noticed an AP story by Ariel David which has been picked up by a number of papers in recent weeks. I haven't noted it before but it is an interesting story of the notorious tombaroli Pietro Casasanta who has testified at the True/Hecht trial and Rome. Here is an excerpt:

It used to be so easy for the “tombaroli,” Italy’s tomb raiders.

Pietro Casasanta had no Indiana Jones-type escapes from angry natives or booby-trapped temples. He worked undisturbed in daylight with a bulldozer, posing as a construction worker to become one of Italy’s most successful plunderers of archaeological treasures.

When he wasn’t in prison, the convicted looter operated for decades in this countryside area outside Rome, benefiting from what he says was lax surveillance that allowed him to dig into ancient Roman villas and unearth statues, pottery and other artifacts, which he then sold for millions of dollars on the illegal antiquities market.

“Nobody cared, and there was so much money going around,” he recalled. “I always worked during the day, with the same hours as construction crews, because at night it was easier to get noticed and to make mistakes.”

Night Metal Detecting Looting Britain?

Archaeologists claim so, at least in Jasper Copping's article in the Sunday Telegraph. They claim the practice, called "nighthawking", is destroying context in a number of protected sites. These detectors then sell the works on the internet or eBay. These claims of antiquities transactions on the internet are thrown about a great deal, but I'm aware of no concrete study or even much in the way of supporting evidence of this claim, though there are sometimes anecdotal claims which are thrown about.

It seems that English Heritage and the British Museum have commissioned a £100,000 study into the scope of the activity, which might lead to new legislation to deal with offenders.

There certainly are problems with the Dealing in Cultural Objects Offences (Act), which makes it difficult to establish wrongdoing when purchasers do not inquire into an object's provenance. If new legislation is forthcoming, to be truly effective it needs to pinpoint the difficulty in regulating good faith purchasers, and raise the bar for the inquiry which must go into their decision to buy.

The nighthawking problem does reveal why protecting rural and historic sites can be so difficult. The Treasure Act has problems to be sure, but I have argued that it is a good and pragmatic compromise between archaeologists and antiquities collectors. When qualifying treasure is found under the Treasure Act (which applies only to England and Wales), finders are required by law to report the finds, and are rewarded for doing so. The forthcoming study will be interesting, and the actions by these unscrupulous detectors may run the risk of destroying the delicate compromise which the Treasure Act has created.

Jul 6, 2007

More on Odyssey Marine

NPR's All Things Considered had an interesting story on Odyssey Marine yesterday. It's a good chance to hear both sides of the debate.

One of the founders of the publicly traded company, Greg Stemm said, "The only thing we're saying right now is that we've really recovered about a half-million coins, and a number of artifacts that are from the colonial period ... that were in the Atlantic Ocean."

But the attorney representing Spain, Jim Goold says "The U.S. has a lot of Navy and other ships that have sunk around the world... The idea that … anyone can take U.S. government property just by looking around in the water and pulling it up without authorization … just doesn't work. And that's not what the courts say."

It will be interesting to see how this case unfolds. It strikes me there is a tremendous tension between studying the wreck scientifically and commercially excavating it. The UNESCO Underwater Heritage Convention precludes commercial exploitation of wrecks. Finding a workable compromise between commerce and archaeology is particularly difficult with underwater heritage. This massive half a billion recovery from the still unidentified wreck underlines the problem.

Jul 4, 2007

Morgantina Antiquities


Elisabetta Povoledo has an article in today's NY Times on the Morgantina Aphrodite currently on display in the Getty Villa. I've written about this particular dispute many times, most recently in relation to the Getty's Francavilla Marittima project which brought together experts to try and determine where precisely the statue originated.

Here's an excerpt:

In the Aidone Archaeological Museum, which houses artifacts from a nearby dig at an ancient Greek settlement called Morgantina, visitors settle for a large poster at the entrance depicting the statue and announcing a national campaign to bring it back.

“This is her rightful place,” said Nicola Leanza, the culture minister for Sicily, who, like many others, argues that the goddess was illegally excavated from Morgantina.

The Getty, which bought the statue in 1988 for $18 million, isn’t so sure.

For nearly two decades it fended off the Italian government’s sporadic claims to the sculpture. But as the demands grew more pressing, the Getty acknowledged that there might be “problems” attached to the acquisition. In November it announced that it would study the object and reach a decision on whether to hand it over within a year.

“We are on target to achieve that objective,” Ron Hartwig, a Getty spokesman, said in an e-mail message. (The museum has already offered to transfer title to the statue.)

Yet the people of Aidone are tired of waiting. For this town the statue has become a blazing symbol of Italy’s legal and moral battle against foreign museums and private collectors that bought archaeological artifacts with hazy backgrounds, plundering the nation of its heritage.

It's an interesting article which summarizes Italy's position, and why repatriating antiquities means so much to individual communities both because of the cultural wealth, but also in terms of new visitors. That may also indicate why the institutions currently holding them are loathe to return them even though they may have been acquired without enough due diligence of checking into their provenance.

Jul 2, 2007

Ransom or Prison


Last week a man was sentenced to five years in prison for the theft of this Benvenuto Cellini salt-cellar. The 500 year-old work may be worth as much as $50 million. Robert Mang stole the gold an enamel sculpture from Vienna's Fine Arts Museum in 2003, easily skirting the security cameras and alarm systems.

He knew of course that there was no legitimate market for the object, so instead hid the salt-cellar under his bed and then buried it in a forest. He sent a number of ransom notes to the museum's insurance company threatening to melt the work down if he wasn't paid €10-million. A number of thieves attempt to ransom their ill-gotten gains back to the insurance companies or original owners, and its unclear how often a ransom is paid. In this case certainly, the owners and insurers made the rigt decision, but it must have been a difficult one in the face of the potential destruction of the work.

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