Aug 31, 2007

Antiquities Problems in Bulgaria


Malcolm Moore has an excellent article in the Telegraph on antiquities smuggling in Bulgaria. Don't miss the excellent slideshow.

Not a lot is written about antiquities smuggling there, but perhaps more work needs to be done, as Bulgaria is behind only Greece and Italy in terms of antiquities in its soil. Bulgaria has taken the approach of most source nations and declared an ownership interest in undiscovered antiquities. As I've argued, those declarations do very little of their own accord. A comprehensive policy and education of the public is needed, as has been done successfully in most of the UK with the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

A police spokesperson, Volodia Velkov estimated that tomb raiding generates £4 billion per year for organized crime. That number seems a bit inflated, but there is no way to make a definitive accounting. This Thracian gold vase would be worth a few pounds surely. Just last week a man was arrested smuggling 100 objects to Germany worth £345,000.

Mr. Velkov says "Since last October, when we started the new department, we have seized 16,000 artefacts,... More than 30,000 people are involved in tomb-raiding. The business is very well-organized and the expeditions are financed by rich Bulgarians living in the US, Britain and Germany...The main route is through Germany, where there are huge warehouses full of our antiquities,...".

One approach may be to license private collectors. Archaeologist Nokolai Ovcharov says "The government cannot afford to excavate all the sites itself. So they should give out concessions and carry out rigorous checks on what is found. The longer it takes to pass a new law, the more treasure we will lose."

That seems to be the only solution available short of eliminating the antiquities trade completely, or requiring comprehensive provenance research. Until that happens, expect more looting from Bulgaria.

(hat tip to David Gill)

Aug 29, 2007

UNESCO Condemnation of the Black Swan Recovery

Koichiro Matsuura has an interesting editorial in yesterday's Miami Herald on Odyssey Marine, underwater archaeology and the Black Swan wreck. He is exactly right about the number of wrecks under the sea, how important they are, and what a resource they could be if excavated scientifically. I agree that commercial exploitation certainly damages underwater archaeological sites, but UNESCO needs to do a better job of bridging the gap between archaeology and commerce.

Rather than attempting to ban all commercial use of underwater sites, why not move forward and show how commercial exploitation can be sensitive to the archaeological context when done properly? Instead of taking a combative approach, why not co-opt these salvage operations as archaeological efforts?

Admiralty law is one of the oldest branches of the law, dating back thousands of years. The presumption has long been that the salvor will be entitled to a portion of what they find on the ocean because they have risked their equipment, or their lives in some cases to salvage underwater sites. That general position will not change any time soon. The 2001 UNESCO Underwater Heritage Convention takes an aggressive line, and prohibits all commercial exploitation of underwater cultural heritage. This is a step many nations will refuse to take. Only 15 nations have signed on, and the convention requires 20 before it enters into force. In this case, by arguing too vehemently, I think UNESCO has left itself with no say on the disposition of underwater sites found in international waters.

Here is the full text of Matsuura's editorial:

www.unesco.org

It may be the richest treasure ever discovered in a shipwreck -- hundreds of thousands of gold and silver coins. A private firm announced it had recovered them from a colonial-era vessel, dubbed the ''Black Swan.'' The story came out last May and attracted worldwide attention. But the Black Swan isn't a unique case. A few months ago, important finds were made of sunken ships, and at least one of them, off the coast of Cirebon, in Java, was destroyed. Many other such wrecks have been found and looted in recent years, in locations ranging from the northern Atlantic to the South China Sea.

Underwater cultural heritage is as precious as heritage on land. It comprises archaeological sites of great significance such as the ruins of the Alexandria lighthouse, one of the ancient world's seven wonders; the Carthage of antiquity in North Africa; the fabulous Mahabalipuram and Dwarka temples in India; and numerous Neolithic villages that remain submerged in the Black Sea.

It also includes the remains of King Philip II of Spain's invincible Armada and Kublai Khan's fleet, as well as an estimated three million sunken ships scattered on the ocean floors. These underwater archaeological sites are often better preserved than sites on dry land because cultural heritage is protected by a slow rate of deterioration and the lack of oxygen. Their inaccessibility further shields them from looting. They can therefore teach us a great deal about the origins and history of civilization.

There is an urgent need to protect this underwater cultural heritage, which for the last several years has come increasingly under threat. Technical progress in detection and diving and escalating prices on the international market for objects snatched from the deep have led to the loss of many particularly valuable archaeological sites and seen their precious cultural objects dispersed. The problem is further aggravated by the overly prevalent view of such archaeological sites as ''treasures'' that can be discovered and appropriated. They should in fact be considered essential elements of a common cultural heritage, as communal property to be preserved.

The perspective must change. UNESCO has been fighting for years to change it. In November 2001, its General Conference adopted the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. This international treaty, which now counts 15 states parties, will enter into force when 20 countries have ratified it.

The UNESCO text defines underwater cultural heritage as ''all traces of human existence having a cultural, historical or archaeological character that have been partially or totally under water, periodically or continuously, for at least 100 years.'' It promotes in situ preservation, given the importance of the historical context of the submerged cultural objects as well as the favorable conditions for conserving these objects, namely the lack of oxygen and slow deterioration as long as they remain underwater.

Condemn looting

Without presuming to resolve the sensitive issue of property of cultural objects that may be disputed between several states -- generally the state of the ship's flag and the coastal state -- and without prohibiting professional archaeology or preventing recovery activities by explorers working in responsible ways, the text establishes the principle that ``Underwater cultural heritage shall not be commercially exploited.''

The international community must mobilize to ratify the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. If we condemn acts of looting in which archaeological sites are gutted with bulldozers or Mayan steles and Khmer sculptures torn out with chain-saws, then we must also sanction underwater looting that deprives future generations of the context surrounding artifacts. The international community must have means at its disposal that are commensurate with its ambitions to protect the integrity of its underwater cultural heritage.

Koichiro Matsuura is director-general of UNESCO.

Aug 27, 2007

Treasure, Salvage and Archaeology


John Ward Anderson has an informative update on the ongoing dispute between Spain and Odyssey Marine in today's Washington Post.

I've written on this before, but here's a short recap. In May it was announced that $500 million worth of silver and gold was discovered from a wreck Odyssey has code named the Black Swan. The discovery is probably the most valuable underwater find yet discovered. Speculation abounds that the wreck could be the Merchant Royal which sank off Cornwall, or the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, a Spanish frigate sunk by the British Navy in 1804 known to be carrying a great deal of silver.

Spain suspected Odyssey Marine had discovered one of her ships, and brought a legal action against the company in Federal District Court in Florida. Later in July, one of Odyssey's vessels, the Ocean Alert, was forced to remain in port in the Spanish port of Algeciras before releasing it. Another vessel, the Odyssey Explorer, has been detained in Gibraltar because Spanish authorities have warrants to detain it if it leaves Britain's waters. This is a difficult issue as the territorial waters in the area are open to a great deal of dispute.

In the Washington Post, we get some of the comments of the interested parties. Here's what Greg Stemm, co-founder of Odyssey Marine had to say:

Shipwrecks are a resource like any other resource, and every other resource -- scientific, cultural or otherwise, whether it's coins, whether it's stamps, whether it's antiques -- it's all owned, bought, sold and traded all the time.

That's one perspective certainly, but many archaeologists are very critical of commercial exploitation of historic wrecks. James Goold, Spain's counsel gives his client's view:

Everything points to Odyssey having known exactly what ship they were looking for and having then decided to claim it was unidentified,... The law is quite clear that an owner of a ship remains the owner after it sinks, and a sovereign nation has a right to protect its cultural heritage, ... Spain has cultural heritage laws, and Spain has a program of underwater archaeology, and there are projects Spain undertakes by itself or with archaeological institutes for the public benefit, but not so someone can scoop up gold coins and sell them...
At present, the situation is untenable, as advances in technology make it easier to discover these wrecks. Also, the state of admiralty law is essentially just finders keepers. That does not seem likely to change unless the archaeology and heritage lobby can effectively negotiate with the interest of commercial exploitation. Perhaps some archaeological research is better than nothing?

The dispute will be interesting to watch unfold. If the vessel is Spanish, Spain may have rights to it if it is not deemed abandoned. However Odyssey will likely be entitled to some kind of salvage award, as admiralty rewards finders. Admiralty law assumes that a salvor should be rewarded for risking her life and property to rescue the property of another. From what I remember of my admiralty course in law school, it is likely that because this sunken treasure has been lost for a great deal of time, Odyssey Marine will likely get the majority of the value of the property. The ultimate determination is up to the judge to determine though, and will sometimes depend on how dangerous or how much skill was needed to find the wreck.

The 2001 UNESCO Convention on Underwater Cultural Heritage (UCH) precludes commercial exploitation of wrecks altogether. In an ideal world that rule might work. But archaeological resources--at sea or on land-- are seldom left alone, and few nations have signed on to the UCH convention. I think archaeologists are understandably frustrated, because they know how much such a wreck could tell us, and we don't really have any way of knowing what Odyssey is doing with the wreck.

A convention or a policy which only incorporates the view of the archaeologists will always fail, and that is the biggest problem with the UCH Convention. Major market nations, and historic superpowers with historic wrecks (like nuclear subs, warships, etc.) will not sign on. Ideally a pragmatic solution must be reached, similar to the Portable Antiquities Scheme in England & Wales or the Scottish Treasure Trove system whereby admiralty law should incorporate archaeological value into salvage disputes. At present the only value is that of the objects rescued. But the archaeological record has value as well, and perhaps that should be quantified as well. Salvors could be punished for destroying or failing to document the record. That will take legislation or treaties. Judges cannot inject such a requirement. The first step will be to build a consensus for action. In the interim, the simple finders keepers rule will prevail.

Aug 21, 2007

Pre-Emptive Archaeology

Elisabetta Povoledo of the NY Times had an interesting article last week on Odysseus, a kind of amateur archaeology group which legally excavates at-risk sites. Here's an excerpt:

The Etruscan tomb was hidden in such a remote corner of Tuscany that Andrea Marcocci, the archaeology student who found and identified it about a decade ago, was not very worried that anyone else would stumble upon it.

Then, this year, woodsmen began to clear brush in the area, and Mr. Marcocci — who had believed the tomb would be safe as long as it was concealed in a forest — realized he had to act.

“I became worried that what’s supposed to be the patrimony of mankind would become the patrimony of an individual,” he said.

Armed with a permit from the archaeological authorities (in Italy, anything found underground belongs to the state), he and a handful of volunteers began to dig.

What they found last week was a complete surprise: a tomb dating back more than 2,000 years with a cache of almost perfectly preserved ceramic and bronze funerary objects, including cremation urns for more than two dozen people.

“It was an incredible moment,” said another archaeology student, Giacomo Ghini, who was the first to spot the tops of the urns buried in dirt in the burial chamber. “We weren’t sure there would be anything there.”

This is a really interesting and exciting effort I think. Under the present system, the only sure way to insure a site will yield its historical information is to properly excavate it first. Italy has a wealth of undiscovered antiquities, but when tombaroli (meaning tomb-robbers) excavate them, the contextual information is forever lost. This group is semi-professional composed of archaeology students. Its activities were completely legal, as they had been granted a proper permit as well. These objects were also turned in to the state.

This site was not major, and thus would probably not have been excavated by anyone other than this kind of volunteer group. Even in Italy, where cultural policy is a major political issue, it is still not possible to police every archaeological site. There are simply too many.

Aug 20, 2007

Due diligence, a licit trade, and the Ka-Nefer-Nefer


David Gill over at looting matters has had some interesting things to say about due diligence in recent days. I agree with him on a number of points, including the problems caused by the destruction of archaeological sites, some of the silly rhetoric the numismatist-lobby has used on the internet and the scope of the antiquities problem generally. He has also contributed some excellent scholarly work by moving beyond mere anecdotal evidence towards concrete data.

I disagree with him strongly on the ability of a licit antiquities market to remedy some of these problems however. I think he misses the point on due diligence procedures in acquiring antiquities. You can argue they are voluntary, are not followed, or are too weak. But rigorous due diligence procedures are absolutely essential to a better state of affairs and can have a quick and quantifiable impact on the black market.

On Friday, he rightfully took John Merryman to task for using the acquisition of antiquities by Marion True for the Getty as an example of due diligence procedures which were unfairly criticized by archaeologists in 1989. Gill points out that the archaeologist's criticisms of the policy were vindicated with the decision by the Getty to return 40 objects. I think Merryman should admit he was wrong on that point. However, Merryman's more important point, and the one Gill fails to account for is that there needs to be a licit trade in antiquities with clean provenance, and the current state of regulation in source nations makes that impossible. We should also keep in mind that the new acquisition procedures of the Getty museum are now quite rigorous, and the Getty should be recognized for righting its ship. The Indianapolis museum of Art has also adopted some very strict procedures.

I do not think anyone would argue that the present legal framework of regulating antiquities works. Sites are looted, and the black market continues to thrive. The important question becomes how can we prevent that? Establishing provenance is a difficult thing to do, especially when they are often fabricated. Auction catalogs say "from a Swiss collection". Such information is not enough to create a clean chain of title. Relying on such information is not enough to satisfy a proper due diligence inquiry either.

Article 4(4) of the 1995 Unidroit Convention makes a set of recommendations for the exercise of due diligence:

In determining whether the possessor exercised due diligence, regard shall be had to all the circumstances of the acquisition, including the character of the parties, the price paid, whether the possessor consulted any reasonably accessible register of stolen cultural objects, and any other relevant information and documentation which it could reasonably have obtained, and whether the possessor consulted accessible agencies or took any step that a reasonable person would have taken in the circumstances.

The next day Gill turns his attention to the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask, pictured above. It was purchased by the St. Louis Museum of Art in 1998 from the Phoenix Gallery, run by the Aboutaam brothers who have had legal issues in both the United States and Egypt regarding antiquities transactions. An outstanding article by Malcolm Gay for the River Front Times revealed that the sculpture may have been stolen some time between its excavation in 1952 and its acquisition by the St. Louis Art Museum in 1998.

Gill points out that a number of the facts used to construct the provenance were highly questionable, including this exchange:

Hicham Aboutaam directed the Riverfront Times to a woman identifying herself as Suzana Jelinek, of Zagreb, Croatia. 'I bought the mask many many years ago, and I sold it many many years ago,' says Suzana Jelinek when reached at her Zagreb home. 'I have so many things in my collection that my children don't know what all I have.'

This raises a number of questions certainly. However, Gill fails to acknowledge the most important thing the museum did, it contacted the Cairo Museum in Egypt:

"I think for 1998, the year that this mask was acquired, the level of diligence that was done here is exemplary," says Brent Benjamin. "We had an inquiry hand-delivered to the Cairo Museum's director, Mohammed Saleh, saying that this was an object that had been offered to the museum for acquisition, and did he know any reason why the museum should not do that. We got a written response from Dr. Saleh that raised no concerns about the acquisition."

The letter the museum sent Saleh contains sparse details. The letter, penned by Sidney Goldstein, the museum's antiquities curator who initiated and oversaw the mask's purchase, says the museum has "been offered a mummy mask of the 19th dynasty and I was wondering if you know of any parallels to this object. I have never seen anything quite like it with a reddish copper-like face probably owing to the oxidation of the gold surface. It is currently on exhibition in the Egyptian exhibition at the Museum of Art and History in Geneva. I would greatly appreciate your thoughts on any parallels you might know of this piece and hope that I might have the opportunity to speak with you in several weeks by telephone about this opportunity."

Goldstein sent a photograph and physical description of the mask along with his letter to Saleh, but he did not mention Goneim by name, nor did he refer to the Saqqara excavations.

"The excavation information was not on the description of the mask because the letters [to Saleh] were sent out before the entire provenance was even discussed," says Jennifer Stoffel, director of marketing for the Saint Louis Art Museum. "This was early on, when we were only considering the object."

That is a very important fact Gill misses. To be sure, the acquisition should have raised a number of red flags; and I think the Egyptians probably have an excellent ethical claim for repatriation. But there will not be a tenable legal claim under US law. It does not appear Egypt had adequately documented their collection. If they had, and the collection was stolen from a storeroom as the article indicates, Egypt would have had an absolute legal right to the object because it was stolen, and the museum would have had a claim for the purchase price against the Phoenix gallery. This would have rewarded a diligent purchaser, punished the Phoenix gallery for selling a dubious work, and the object would have returned to Egypt.

A very important and inexpensive step which source nations absolutely must do is to document their collections. Granted, such a step may have been more difficult 10 or 20 years ago, and the letter could have provided more details to Saleh, but Egypt needs to make it easier to check provenance, not harder. The museum made a questionable acquisition to be sure, but Egypt dropped the ball as well. This reinforces Merryman's persuasive argument that source nations should consider excess cultural objects which are merely gathering dust in a storeroom. At the very least I think antiquities leasing or long-terms loans should be used. It adds to the cultural exchange, and most importantly creates revenue which can be used to protect sites and excavate them before looting takes place.

Aug 19, 2007

The Pirate Party

Frank Pasquale of concurring opinions has a fascinating post on Rick Falkvinge, head of the Swedish Pirate Party.

You might be forgiven if you thought a Pirate Party was a bit comical, but it seems their positions are surprisingly thoughtful. They advocate a reform of copyright law, arguing copyright laws today "restrict the very thing they are supposed to promote." I think that's exactly right in some cases, as copyright protection should not provide an endless revenue stream. Mickey Mouse should not dictate the life of a right. It should reward creators for their original creations, not create endless monopolies. As they argue "a five years copyright term for commercial use is more than enough". They also advocate a respect for the right to privacy, and tie in such advocacy to recent European history, "We Europeans should know better. It is not twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and there are plenty of other horrific example sof surveillance-gone-wrong in Europe's modern history."

Falkvinge spoke in July about "Copyright Regime vs. Civil Liberties" at Stanford University. It sounds cutting-edge, and it would be great to get him to come to Aberdeen as a part of our visiting scholars program. From what I can gather, he argues copyright first came about as censorship and a way to preserve the stationer's guild in England after the advent of the printing press.

As Pasquale writes:
[H]e admitted that certain works that cost a huge sum wouldn't be produced if their makers had no hope of financial return, so he favored some copyright protection for commercial uses of those works. However, Falkvinge said the threat to privacy posed by modern copyright enforcement techniques was too great to allow any legal monitoring of personal use of works.
I will make a bold and unsupportable prediction that copyright and privacy issues will become increasingly contentious, and a major political issue as the generations which grew up with the internet mature and become a political force. Pasquale has written before on copyright and civil disobedience via an AALS panel. One argument seemed particularly compelling:

Larry Solum presented an impressive application of rival philosophical views to the issue of principle-driven disobedience of copyright laws. After canvassing the shortcomings of utilitaran and deontological approaches, he presented his own virtue theory, essentially arguing that we should seek congruence between societal norms and laws. He also noted how far our DRM-loaded, anticircumvention-obsessed predicament diverges from that happier state of affairs.
It's some really fascinating stuff, and the convergence between jurisprudence and copyright laws is interesting: Rawls and piracy or the morality of cartelization, seem very interesting and move the argument beyond mere utilititarian and economic justifications for the current state of affairs.

Aug 17, 2007

Upcoming Antiquities Conference at SMU

There looks to be an excellent conference coming up at Southern Methodist University called the Future of the Past: Ethical Implications of Collecting Antiquities in the 21st Century. It aims to "explore the ethically complex and challenging world of collecting ancient cultural objects." It will be held October 18-19, 2007 in Dallas , Texas at SMU. I'm disappointed I will not be able to attend as I will be preparing for the AALS Faculty Recruitment Conference instead.

There certainly looks to be an impressive array of cultural policy scholars:

Michael Adler, Ph.D.
Executive Director, SMU-in-Taos
Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology
Southern Methodist University

Alex Barker, Ph.D
Director, Museum of Art and Archaeology
University of Missouri-Columbia

Susan B. Bruning, J.D.
Adjunct Lecturer in Law
Southern Methodist University

Emma C. Bunker
Research Consultant, Denver Art Museum
Associate/Adjunct Member of Art History,
University of Pittsburgh

Donald Forsyth Craib III, Esq.
Attorney at Law
Craib Law Office, PLC

Torkom Demirjian
Ariadne Gallery
New York, New York

David Freidel, Ph.D.
University Distinguished Professor of Anthropology
Southern Methodist University

Patty Gerstenblith, J.D., Ph.D.
Professor of Law
DePaul University College of Law

Jay I. Kislak
Founder and President, Jay I. Kislak Foundation
Chair, Cultural Property Advisory Committee

Leigh Kuwanwisiwma
Hopi Cultural Preservation Office

Lee Wayne Lomayestewa
Hopi Cultural Preservation Office

John Henry Merriman, J.D, L.L.M, J.S.D
Sweitzer Professor of Law and Affiliated Professor of Art Emeritus
Stanford University

Phyllis Mauch Messenger
Director, Wesley Center
Hamline University

Timothy Potts, Ph.D.
Director
Kimbell Museum of Art

Gary Vikan, Ph.D.
Director
The Walters Art Museum

P. Gregory Warden, Ph.D.
Professor of Art History
Southern Methodist University
Director, Mugello Valley Archaeological Project

Randall White, Ph.D.
Department of Anthropology
New York University

Henry Wright, Ph.D.
Professor of Anthropology
University of Michigan

Donny George Youkhanna, Ph.D.
Iraqi Scholar
Visiting Professor
Stony Brook University

An Overview of the Antiquities Trade

Saving Antiquities for Everyone is a non-profit organization aimed at promoting awareness of the illicit antiquities trade. They have an excellent collection of interviews which give an overview of the problem. I came across some of these podcasts a few months ago, and never got around to posting the links. There are interviews with journalists Roger Atwood, author of Stealing History and Peter Watson, co-author of The Medici Conspiracy and author of Sotheby's The Inside Story. All three are outstanding and accessible works which do a good job of giving some excellent anecdotal accounts of the antiquities trade.

There are also interviews with law Professor Patty Gerstenblith, as well as the former Chairman of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities Donny George Youkhanna.

The interviews are a bit dated. Roger Atwood in particular talks about the acquisition policies of museums. He says if museums refused to accept unprovenanced objects from collectors, this would really cut to the heart of the antiquities trade, as collectors would be unable to get the lucrative income tax deductions. That was exactly right just a few years ago, but the decisions by the Indianapolis Museum of art as well as the Getty seem to indicate the position of American art museums has shifted dramatically just in the last 12 months.

Aug 16, 2007

Be careful what you throw away

Wild story from Earth times:

Vienna - An old cross recovered by an Austrian woman from a garbage container turned out to be an 800-year-old French masterpiece stolen from a Polish collection by the Nazi regime, Austrian police said on Thursday. In 2004, the woman from Zell am See in the province Salzburg got permission from her neighbours to look through a garbage container of things they had thrown out. Among other things, she took an old, gold-coloured cross. As nobody else liked it, the woman kept the gold-plate and enamel cross under her couch until showing it to art experts earlier this year. According to experts from Vienna's Fine Arts Museum, the piece of garbage turned out to be a passion cross from a manufacturer in Limoges in France made around 1200. Similar pieces fetched up to 400,000 euros (537,000 dollars) at international auctions. Police traced the origin of the cross, showing the piece had been stolen by the Nazi regime from the Polish art collection of Izabella Elzbieta of Czartoryski Dzialinska in 1941. Pieces from the collection were moved from Warsaw to Austria, where the trail ended in 1945. The cross's fate still remains unclear. The London-based Commission for Looted Art, informed by the Polish authorities, is representing the heirs. The local court in Zell am See decided that for the time being the garbage-treasure was to be kept at the local heritage museum at Leogang, where it could be properly stored.
Pretty cool find. One wonders how much is thrown away that does not get rescued. The case presents some interesting legal issues. I imagine the heirs of the deceased collector would perhaps have a claim. I'm not sure what the relevant limitations period in Austria would be, but it may be that the limitations has expired and the finder would get to retain title.

Aug 13, 2007

Napoleon III and the NSPA

Lomi Kriel of the San Antonio Express-News has an interesting account of the FBI's confiscation of a carbine rifle owned by Napoleon III which was stolen from the Musée de l'Armée during WWII. French authorities saw an advertisement for the weapon on the internet. French authorities contacted interpol, which later involved the FBI's Art Crime Team.

Napoleon III served as the emperor of France from 1852-70, and this carbine was one of the earliest breech-loading arms produced. Ralph Diaz, the special agent in charge of the FBI's San Antonio Division said "In the big picture, the FBI doesn't typically get involved in the pursuit of a rifle... But this weapon is of great historical value to the country of France." One wonders how the rifle was stolen. I wonder if it was perhaps an American soldier, as was the case with the Quedlinburg treasures.

The FBI did not identify the seller, and it seems he did not know the weapon was stolen when he acquired it for his collection. Federal prosecutors are reviewing the case, but charges are probably unlikely. The rifle was listed for sale at $12,000, a sum which is likely far below what it would have fetched at an open auction.

There are a few interesting things about this case. First, it reveals the extent to which the National Stolen Property Act can impact the trade in art or antiquities. In this case, charges probably will not be filed, but the NSPA allowed authorities to seize the weapon and return it to France. Also, collectors of any object which might have cultural value would be wise to conduct a thorough provenance check, and if a seller cannot or will not provide one, red flags should be raised.

Catching Up

  • Frank Pasquale of Concurring Opinions talks about how the difference between viewing a digital reproduction on the internet is much less effective than viewing a photograph in person, and perhaps this is a good argument for strong IP protection of works of art.
  • Michael Lewis in Commentary magazine talks about efforts by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation to compile a stolen art database of works taken from Prussia. Many of them are now in Russia, where they were removed after WWII.
  • Stephen Farrell of the NY Times reports on Baghdad hiring dozens of artists to paint murals on concrete barriers in the city.
  • Bradley Hope of the New York Sun reported on a ceremony to return an ancient Egyptian vessel which appeared in a Christie's auction last year.
  • David Gill on looting matters compares archaeologists to animal rights activists; one would hope that not too many archaeologists take their ideas too far as some animal rights activists have done.

Aug 8, 2007

3 Picasso Works Recovered

Police have recovered 3 important works by Pablo Picasso stolen from the home of the artist's granddaughter in February. These two canvases-- Portrait de femme, Jacqueline pictured on the left and Maya à la poupée on the right. Another drawing, Marie-Thérèse à 21 ans was recovered as well. Details of the February theft are available here.

Three suspects have been arrested. In February police estimated the drawings may have been worth as much as $66 million. It seems the suspects were shopping the works to art dealers, and one of the dealers contacted French police. The suspects would have had a very difficult time selling the works, as they are widely known. Hopefully there will be a similar recovery of the works stolen from Nice on Sunday.

Aug 7, 2007

More on the Nice Thefts


Today Molly Moore of the Washington Post has more details on Sunday's theft of four works in Nice. Traditionally most French museums are free on the first Sunday of the month, and such was the case on Sunday. The thieves ordered the guards to lie down on the floor at gunpoint. They stuffed the 4 works by Monet, Sisley, and Bruegel in their bags and left--two on a motorcycle and three in a car. It seems they were after a fifth work but left it behind because they couldn't fit it in their bag. The works by Monet and Sisley were on loan from the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. One of the works taken is pictured above, Jan Bruegel the Elder's Allegory of the Earth

Patricia Grimaud, the deputy curator said "Who could expect to be held up in broad daylight like that?... They were really bold and quick, it took them only 10 minutes. I can't find the right words to describe what they did."

Moore rightly points out that "it has become virtually impossible to sell the better-known stolen pieces on the public art market." But why steal the works if there is no market? Speculation abounds that there must be some kind of market motivating these thefts. It could be a real-life Dr. No, organized criminals could be using the works as collateral, they may be hoping to ransom the works back, or the thieves may not have known how difficult the works are to sell.

As I said yesterday, the Monet and Sisley paintings had been stolen in 1999 and quickly recovered. The NY Times reports the Sisley may have been stolen in 1978 as well. Perhaps the Musee des beaux artes in Nice has some security problems?

Unfortunately the criminal and civil law does a poor job of preventing art theft. The risk of jail time is much lower than for other crimes like kidnapping or other armed robberies. The cost/benefit calculus favors art thieves in many cases as works by important artists will remain extremely valuable and there is no special legal status for important artworks. The law looks on them just like any other commodity.

Aug 6, 2007

Theft of 4 Works in Nice



On Sunday five men stole four important works from the Cheret Museum of Fine Arts in Nice. The works are:
  1. Claude Monet, Cliffs at Dieppe (1897)
  2. Alfred Sisley, Lane lined with poplars near Moret (1890)
  3. Jan Breugel, Allegory of Water (17th Century)
  4. Jan Breugel, Allegory of Earth (17th Century)
The first two works were stolen and quickly recovered in 1998. The then curator was implicated in the theft. This image is from the 1998 BBC story outlining the theft and recovery. Entry to this museum was free on the Sunday, and the men threatened the museum staff before leaving in a motorcycle and a car. As one would expect, the Police in Nice are speculating that the works have been stolen to order as the high profile of these works and the artists would make a good-faith sale near impossible.

(correction: It's Claude Monet, not Money as I typed incorrectly earlier today.)

Aug 5, 2007

Podcast with Joanna Cobley

I had the great pleasure to speak with Joanna Cobley on Tuesday, a New Zealand researcher who has an excellent collection of interviews. She calls her website the Museum Detective. You can listen to our conversation by clicking the play button on the left. We talked mainly about the cultural property trade generally. I enjoyed speaking with her, and think she right on point when she lays out 7 reasons why museums should podcast.

Evaluating the Italy/Getty Accord


Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino--nominated for a pulitzer in 2005 for their reporting on the Getty--have a can't miss article in Friday's edition of the LA Times. The subject is the agreement to return 40 antiquities to Italy.

Here's an excerpt:

The museum's youth and wealth made it an ideal target. Unlike its East Coast peers, which built the bulk of their collections in the decades before tough new laws governing antiquity purchases, the Getty came late to the collecting game. The museum didn't receive its enormous endowment until the early 1980s, just as the United States was ratifying an international agreement that, among other things, banned traffic in artifacts that had left Italy without permission after 1939.

Fine antiquities, a passion of the museum's benefactor and namesake, could still be found on the market. But museum officials often turned a blind eye to whether the artifacts had been illegally excavated and exported from their country of origin.

It's an excellent overview of this dispute, and the problem with the antiquities trade generally. It also gives the context for how the Getty got itself into this mess and how it has responded in the past months. There's a photo gallery of some of the important works which will be returned to Italy here; a helpful .pdf shows where in the Getty Villa the works are currently displayed; there's also a nice gallery of photos from Italy by Luis Sinco here (including this image of a looted grave in Castelvetrano, Sicily).

NPR's All Things Considered also covered the agreement this week. You can hear Michael Brand, the museum director, give his opinion. Patty Gerstenblith, a legal commentator on antiquities issues, also comments that this agreement rights past wrongs. Perhaps more relevant though is the Getty's decision to no longer acquire antiquities without clean title dating to the 1970 UNESCO Convention. As she says, working to stem the illicit antiquities trade "is the most important thing that museums can and should be doing at this point."

I also think the comments of Francesco Rutelli on Thursday were dead-on, and indicated a pragmatic view of the trade that many passionate advocates miss. He said efforts to stem the illicit antiquities trade "make looting more attractive." He continues "Such a decisive fight against art trafficking makes looting more attractive, in the sense that (the items) have a higher value because there are fewer... An object that a few years ago could be bought for US$400,000 (€290,250), today is worth US$4 million (€2.9 million)." He's exactly right, and its something legal commentators have been arguing since Paul Bator's seminal work An Essay on the International Trade in Art.

Aug 2, 2007

Reaction to the Italy/Getty Accord


In a joint press release yesterday the two sides announced the Getty will return 40 objects to Italy. The Cult Statue of a Goddess or Morgantina Aphrodite (pictured here) as its sometimes called will stay at the Getty Villa until 2010. In exchange there will be "broad cultural collaboration that will include loans of significant art works, joint exhibitions, research, and conservation projects." Of course the sticking point in negotiations had been the Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth, and Italy agreed to postpone negotiations on that object until the outcome of a new criminal investigation. What could a new investigation could hope to uncover 40 years after the statue's discovery? Not too much I would gather, especially considering a criminal prosecution was unsuccessful as Italy could not establish the statue was discovered in Italian territorial waters.

There are a number of good reactions to the agreement. Two in particular stand out. The art critic for the LA Times, Christopher Knight rightly points out why both sides need to work together. For one, the Getty Villa provides an excellent backdrop for displaying objects from ancient Mediterranean cultures. As he argues:

The Villa is, in fact, the only art museum in the United States devoted solely to the Greek, Etruscan, Roman and other cultures of the ancient Mediterranean. Loans of major objects to the Met and Boston will certainly add sheen to their great historical collections. But antiquities are just one small part of those museums' attractions.

There is something to be said for the total immersion that a focused museum provides. Italy, where state collections of significant antiquities are anything but scarce, has the wherewithal to provide magnificent loans that will be extraordinarily meaningful in the Villa's context. Art has richer import and significance in the context of other art.


But also, the Getty has a lot to offer Italy in return:

[T]he museum can make the best use of those loans, given the Getty's vast resources. Set aside the legal and ethical issues around the disputed Aphrodite for a moment. The work that has been done on the sculpture, in everything from conservation to historical and scientific research, is extraordinary. Dedicating those same resources to potential loans from Italy as well as to the exceptional objects in the Getty's own collection holds enormous promise.
The recent study of the Morgantina Aphrodite is an excellent example of the kinds of study which could take place. Finally, Knight argues long term loans are a good pragmatic response to the problem of antiquities looting. There is of course a great demand for antiquities, and the legitimate market is unable to meet this demand. As he says "Smart collection sharing can help relieve the pressure." I think that's exactly right.

David Gill echoes this sentiment as well. He has a new blog called looting matters. He and his collaborator, Christopher Chippindale, have done some excellent work using concrete data to establish certain classes of antiquities are most likely illicitly excavated. They have done excellent work on cycladic figurines in particular. This along with the work of Ricardo Elia on apulian vases has helped to establish a solid and definite problem with provenance. Gill notes that several items on the list of 40 objects to be returned are from the collection of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman. He argues many objects in that collection were illicit.

In any event the accord is a welcome development. Source nations and museums should be working together. A combative relationship weakens both sides and distracts from the salient issue: antiquities are an extremely valuable commodity and their trade and disposition must be responsibly regulated.

Correction:

I misspelled Christopher Chippindale's name and incorrectly attributed Ricardo Elia's work. I have corrected the second-to-last paragraph accordingly. Many thanks to David Gill for pointing out my errors.

Aug 1, 2007

Italy and the Getty Reach a Deal

The Associated Press is reporting an agreement has been reached between Italy and the Getty. The baseball trading deadline yesterday must have inspired both sides. As expected the deal will include loans from Italy. The Morgantina Aphrodite will stay at the Getty until 2010. The two sides agreed to postpone negotiations over the Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth. What remains unclear is how this deal will affect the prosecution of former curator Marion True. One would hope the Italians were not prosecuting her merely to leverage the Getty into returning objects.

Here's the wire story:

ROME (AP) - The Italian Culture Ministry said Wednesday it has reached a deal with the J. Paul Getty Museum for the return of 40 artifacts _ the latest victory in Italy's efforts to recover antiquities it says were looted from the country and sold to museums worldwide.

Italy and the Getty also agreed on widespread cultural cooperation, which will include loans of other treasures to the Los Angeles museum, the ministry said in a statement.

"Both parties declare themselves satisfied with the fact that, after long and complicated negotiations, an agreement has been reached and now they move ahead with a relationship of renewed cooperation," the statement said. The Getty has denied knowingly buying illegally obtained objects. Most of the artifacts will be returned within the next few months, according to a calendar drawn up by experts from both sides.

The agreement includes one of the most prized works in dispute, a 5th century B.C. statue of the goddess Aphrodite, which will remain on display at the Getty until 2010, the ministry said. Italian authorities believe the 2.2-meter (7-foot) statue, bought by the Getty for US$18 million in 1988, was looted from an ancient Greek settlement in Sicily.

The ministry had threatened to suspend all collaboration with the Getty if a deal was not reached by the end of July. Despite the agreement announced Wednesday, the fate of some treasures that had been in contention was left hanging.

The statement said the two sides agreed to postpone further discussion on at least one key piece that had held up negotiations for months: the «Statue of a Victorious Athlete,» a Greek bronze believed to date from around 300 B.C.

The museum believes the bronze was found in international waters in 1964 off Italy's eastern coast and that Rome has no claim on it. The Italians say the statue was pulled up by fishermen near Fano and that even if the find occurred in international waters the statue was still brought into the country and then exported illegally.

Italian authorities have launched a worldwide campaign to recover looted treasures and had been at odds with the Getty over dozens of antiquities they say were illegally dug up and smuggled out of the country despite laws making all antiquities found in Italy state property.

Authorities have signed separate deals with New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts for the return of a total of 34 artifacts _ including Hellenistic silverware, Etruscan vases and Roman statues _ in exchange for loans of other treasures.

Italy has also placed former Getty curator Marion True and art dealer Robert Hecht on trial in Rome, charging them with knowingly receiving dozens of archaeological treasures that had been stolen from private collections or dug up illicitly.

The two Americans deny wrongdoing. It was not immediately clear if the political agreement would affect the trial.

New Addition to Top 10 Art Crimes


The FBI Art Crime Team announced on Monday that it was adding the theft of Frans Van Mieris A Cavalier (Self Portrait) which was stolen from an Australian Gallery back in June. The work may be worth as much as $1.4 million Australian. The work is not large, measuring about 30cm x 26cm. The Director of the Art Gallery of NSW, Edmund Capon said "To be honest, I could slip it under your coat... it could have happened that way".

The Top 10 Art Crimes list was initiated in 2005, and since then 10 of the various examples have been recovered:

  • A Rembrandt self-portrait and Renoir's Young Parisian from Sweden's National Museum theft;
  • Goya's Children with a Cart from the Toledo Art Museum theft;
  • Munch's The Scream and The Madonna from the Munch Museum theft in Oslo;
  • and the Cellini Salt Cellar from the Kunsthistorisches Museum theft in Vienna.
  • Also recovered was the Statue of Entemena from the Iraqi Looted and Stolen Artifacts entry.
That's an impressive start, and indicates there is a growing need for continued publication of high-profile thefts like these.

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