Mar 31, 2009

"We actually invited the Spanish government to send Archaeologists along."

So said Greg Stemm on the Today show last week discussing the ongoing dispute between Odyssey Marine and Spain. The interview was primarily an excercise in corporate self-promotion for the upcoming special on the sister network at 10 p.m. (ET) on Thursday, April 2, on the Discovery Channel’s “Treasure Quest.” Nonetheless there were some interesting comments made, though there was very little attention paid to archaeology or the importance of preservation of the site and the remains of the vessel.

The odd thing about this dispute and the Today segment in particular are the insistence on painting the controversy in terms of pirates and buried treasure and other romantic ideas. The reality of underwater heritage is far mor nuanced and important.

A few excerpts:

“The ship is the history and national patrimony of Spain, not a site that may be covertly stripped of valuables to sell to collectors. Odyssey was well aware that it is off limits,” said Spain’s American attorney in the case, James Goold.

Odyssey, a publicly held company that is a leader in deep-sea archaeology and treasure recovery, found the vast trove on a 2007 expedition in what it says are international waters off Portugal and the Straits of Gibraltar. The coins were spread over an area the size of several football fields at the bottom of the ocean.
After filling a chartered Boeing 757 with the coins and shipping them to Florida, Odyssey returned to the area to further investigate the site. There they were boarded by a Spanish warship, and the ship and crew were held for several days in a Spanish port.

Stemm concedes that the treasure may have been that carried by the Mercedes, but said that the identity of the vessel has not been established. One difficulty in doing that is that the Mercedes was hit in its powder magazine during the battle and blew up, leaving little actual wreckage at the bottom of the ocean.
Even if it was the Mercedes, Stemm said, that still does not automatically mean that Spain has sole claim to the treasure. Odyssey has argued in court that the Mercedes was carrying the treasure under contract with the merchants who owned it, and as such was acting as a merchant ship and not a warship.

“The Mercedes, if it was the Mercedes, was carrying a merchant cargo,” Stemm said. “While governments can take a sovereign immune warship and say that nobody can salvage it, they can’t say that you can’t salvage goods on behalf of merchants. In fact, we have the descendants of a lot of the merchants that had goods aboard the Mercedes that have come into court and said, ‘We think Odyssey should salvage these goods for us.’ ”

“And remember, there is not even a shipwreck there,” Stemm added. “This is like several football fields of just coins, scattered out over the bottom.”
Stemm says that the original expedition was to an area where his company believed a number of ships had sunk over the years. He said Odyssey notified the Spanish government of its intentions to search the area.

“When we went out to look in this general area, we thought there might be some Spanish shipwrecks,” he told Curry. “We actually invited the Spanish government to send archaeologists along. They just never got back to us.”

Goold has told other news outlets that Spain did respond to the invitation, telling Stemm, “Sunken ships are cultural heritage. Spain does not do commercial deals. It's national patrimony.”


Looting Underwater Sites

Three British divers have plead guilty to looting treasures from a wreck off the coast of Spain:


Peter Devlin, Malcolm Cubin and Steve Russ, all commercial salvagers from Cornwall, were arrested in June 2002 on suspicion of stealing gold and diamonds from a sunken ship off the coast of Galicia, in northwestern Spain.

The three faced prison sentences of up to six years each and heavy fines for theft and destruction of Spain's cultural heritage. But at a court in Santiago de Compostella yesterday, they pleaded guilty in return for suspended sentences and a fine of €1,000 plus €2,500 costs each.

"We are now convicted criminals in Spain but relieved that after seven years the ordeal is finally over and we won't have to go to prison," Mr Cubin (38) a father of four from Truro, said. "We're disappointed because it's not what we wanted at all and still maintain we did nothing wrong, but there was nothing else we could do."

Mar 30, 2009

UK May Revise Nazi-looted Art Policies

The UK is considering new legislation that would revise the restitution process to more easily allow national museums to return works of art looted during World War II.  The Holocaust (stolen art) restitution bill would allow these institutions to return objects from their collections.  Andrew Dismore, the Labour MP for Hendon is quoted in the Guardian:  "I hope it will close another chapter from the Holocaust . . .  It means recognising a right that has been denied for decades. I suspect many people would be prepared to allow their artwork to stay in public collections but it's their right to decide what happens to it."

The change is needed because of cases like this one:



When the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, the Feldmanns were evicted from their home, leaving a collection of Old Master drawings in Gestapo hands. Arthur died after being tortured by the Nazis in the Spilberk Castle prison in his home city of Brno. Gisela died in Auschwitz.

With the help of the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe, Feldmann's descendants proved that four of his drawings had ended up in the British Museum. The museum was prepared to return them to the family but was blocked by a high court judge. Instead the family negotiated a deal, including an ex-gratia payment of £175,000, that allows the drawings to remain in London. 

Feldmann's grandson Uri Peled, 66, who lives in Israel, said that although he did not wish to have the items returned, the principle of the bill - allowing the rightful owner to make the decision about what to do with their art - was important.
 The change will open speculation for claims for other works in UK institutions that may have been taken under less-than-appropriate circumstances—like the Parthenon marbles, the Benin bronzes, the Rosetta stone, or the Lewis chessmen.  As such the legislation is limited to "objects stolen between 1933 and 1945 by the Nazi regime".  Though the legislation is sharply focused on a narrow historical period, one wonders why only those objects are left open for restitutions when the others are not.  The Second World War was a special circumstance perhaps, but its not clear how that historical period is different from other conflicts. 

Mar 26, 2009

Treasure Hunting in South Texas

The Houston Chronicle has the story of a dispute before the U.S. District Court over who has title to a 'barkentine' which was sunk in 1822 when it was hit with a hurricane:


The Texas Historical Commission this week filed notice that it will ask the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to let it into a lawsuit over who has legal claim to what might be a shipwreck buried 160 miles southwest of Houston, near the Mission River in Refugio County.
“It’s like highway robbery,” Internet treasure hunter Nathan Smith complained Wednesday of the state trying to take away his possible $3 billion claim two years after he filed the lawsuit.
Inspired by the National Treasure movies, Smith read up on lost loot and used the Internet to look for a barkentine that got lost on a South Texas creek in an 1822 hurricane that killed half the crew, leaving the other half to a local cannibal tribe.
Once he spotted something and checked it in person with a metal detector, Smith filed a lawsuit in early 2007. The case was tried last December in a Houston federal court, where he was opposed by landowners who say Smith’s shoeprint-shaped vision is on their land, which they say sometimes floods with the tides.
One issue here is how the court views the findspot. Smith or the state of Texas will have a claim only if the area is determined to be "navigable waters". If not, the landowners would have title perhaps. Another issue are the heritage laws of Texas:
Steve Hoyt, a marine archeologist for the historical commission, said he cannot comment on the case but that “our intervention is to seek a determination that, if the vessel (if it exists) is in a navigable waterway, it is the property of the state of Texas.”
According to the Antiquities Code of Texas, Hoyt said, historic shipwrecks on submerged lands are the property of Texas, including all parts and contents of the vessel. Hoyt said such wrecks cannot be disturbed without a permit issued by the commission, and those are only for scientific and historic research.


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The Munch Effect

Earlier this month a church in Larvik, Norway was robbed of a work by Lucas Cranach, Let the Children Come to Me.  The work was soon recovered, and will be displayed again later this summer after it is restored. 

It is often said that a high-profile art theft or media attention can actually be a good thing for increasing visitors.  Ludvig Levinsen, the general manager of church affairs is quoted in the Art Newspaper, and speculates on this "Munch effect", a reference to the increased attention paid to that artist when his works have been stolen in recent years.  Levinsen speculates on the stolen Cranach from his church, "When it was stolen it created a lot of international media attention . . .  Now that we have the painting back we hope people are more aware of what we have."

Mar 25, 2009

The Darker Side of Art Theft

On Friday, fifteen works of art were taken from a home near Bruton in Somerset.  A woman was tied up during the theft, and wasn't found until the next day.  From the BBC:

[T]he woman suffered bruising and was left "extremely shaken and distressed".
The robbers took 15 paintings, which included Endymion by George Frederic Watts and Apple Blossom by George Clausen.
They also stole some antiques, a safe containing jewellery and a green Mercedes 220.
Det Insp Jim Bigger said: "The size of the some of the items, and amount of property, stolen would suggest that a van or some other fairly sizeable vehicle would have been used."
 This comes soon after the recovery of stolen art in addition to firearms, heroin, marijuana, and cash which were recovered in New Haven.  Over at the ARCA blog Noah Charney points out "Even with a relatively small-time crook, such as the local New Haven heroin dealer who had stolen art, guns, and drugs in his home, the connection between art theft and 'more serious' crimes is evident." 

Mar 23, 2009

The True/Hecht Trial Continues

The ongoing trial of Marion True and Robert Hecht continued last week in Rome.  It is worth remembering perhaps that this prosecution began in 2005 and alleges True and Hecht conspired to traffic in illegal antiquities. One of the important pieces of evidence are the pictures seized in a 1995 raid of a Geneva warehouse. 

A number of arguments and defenses still need to be presented, and as Elisabetta Povoledo reported on Friday in the NY Times, True and her lawyers intend to defend the acquisition and challenge the prosecution's evidence on each object.  At the trial True said "If ever there was an indication of proof of an object coming from a certain place, we would deaccession it and return the object, regardless of the statute of limitations".  The difficulty is the two very different views of what this "proof" may entail.  True will argue that there was no direct evidence for many of these objects that would indicate they were looted; however the prosecution will surely counter that there must have been some indication that these objects could not have just appeared out of thin air, and these masterpieces were certainly looted.  The trade itself capitalizes on these different views by hiding and shielding from view the history of an object. 

There are no indications the trial will conclude any time soon, however when it does, one wonders if there is a  possibility that the defendants may earn a not-guilty verdict.  What consequences might that not-guilty verdict mean?  I think to avoid the possibility of other kinds of acquisitions and prosecutions in the future, we should hold institutions to a higher standard of good faith, and the requirements for this should be made plain for museums, dealers and judges to evaluate future acquisitions. 

Mar 16, 2009

"Like water on a leaky roof"

That's how James Cuno describes the 1970 UNESCO Convention in a Q&A with Science News.  He makes some correct criticisms I think, but I differ with him on the ultimate remedy for these difficulties.  I think we need to start with an open antiquities trade in which the history of objects is published, open to the public, and even enlists 3rd parties evaluate the propriety of acquisitions.



What was the effect of the UNESCO 1970 treaty on looting of archaeological sites?
It hasn’t stopped looting. In fact, from what we hear, looting is increasing.  Looting is not a leisure pastime. People don’t decide to become a looter rather than being a lawyer. They are desperate people doing desperate things. In situations of a failed economy, a failed government, the absence of civil society, internecine warfare, sectarian violence, drought — whatever — conditions emerge that can create pressures for looting. Simply criminalizing the illegal acquisition of goods won’t stop looting. It hasn’t stopped the trade in drugs or trade in stolen materials of any kind.
So an important artifact with dubious provenance for sale on the open market, available for anyone else to buy, isn’t available to foreign researchers?
Right. So fewer and fewer things are entering into the public domain.  These export constraints are creating black markets. And like water on a leaky roof, looted artifacts are finding the path of least resistance to a buyer somewhere. I’ve heard they’re going to the Arab Emirates and Asia. What I can tell you is that they’re not coming to museums in the United States and Europe [which adhere to UNESCO 1970].

Just because other nations and buyers may be buying looted objects does not I think justify their purchase by North American institutions.  There are flaws with the Convention, but it has produced some important changes in heritage law and policy.  It has helped elevate the importance of national ownership declarations, and it has raised the general profile of heritage policy.  It has not yet produced a perfect regulatory framework, and though the convention has some drawbacks, we could also point to lackluster implementation or enforcement by many nations at the market end. 

Getty Shifts Gears

Interesting story by Mike Boehm in today's LA Times (via) on the decision by the Getty Trust to cut its operating budget by 25% in the coming year.  The cuts are in response to losses in investments which have totalled $1.5 billion since July:

Its portfolio dropped 25% during the last half of 2008, from $6 billion to $4.5 billion. That still dwarfs the $2.1-billion endowment of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which announced plans Thursday to lay off 10% of its workforce, partly because of an endowment loss approaching 28%.

The reductions at the Getty should focus on operations that can easily expand again, Wood said Friday. Cuts may well be in store for temporary exhibitions, which have totaled more than 20 a year. The Getty may also defer buying new works for its collections of ancient art, European art from before the 20th century, illuminated manuscripts and photography.
Nearly any organization with an endowment of any kind is surely making some difficult decisions.  But the Getty has always been the financial giant among North American museums; and in some cases that purchasing power got it into some difficult situations with nations of origin when it purchased or acquired antiquities.  

Mar 11, 2009

Applying Lessons Learned in Afghanistan?

Last week National Geographic reported that 1,500 antiquities were returned by Great Britain to Afghanistan.  The objects had been confiscated over the last six years at Heathrow Airport. 
On February 17, a Red Cross freighter plane touched down at the Kabul Airport, carrying the looted treasure back to its homeland. The artifacts are now at the National Museum. Returning the enormous shipment took more than a year to organize, and involved the cooperation of participants from around the globe.

The Heathrow collection includes more than 1,500 objects spanning thousands of years of Afghan culture: a 3,000-year-old carved stone head from the Iron Age and hand-cast axe heads, cut rock crystal goblets, and delicate animal carvings from the Bactrian era, another thousand years earlier. The oldest artifacts in the collection include a marble figure of an animal showing similarities to artifacts dating to the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, dating as far back as 8,000 years.

That would seem to be very good news, but  Larry Rothfield asks an important question, what is being done now?  This would seem particularly pressing with the reports that President Obama may escalate the conflict in Afghanistan, to protect Afghan sites.  Particularly compelling is his argument that: 

Afghanistan offers an opportunity for all those who did far too little to protect Iraq's sites -- the military, the State Department, UNESCO, cultural heritage NGOs, collectors, dealers, and the museum community -- to develop a coherent, focused, and cost-effective set of initiatives. . . .   But surely a task force given modest resources could come up with some measures that could make a real difference. Is anyone working on this problem?

Work Stolen from Norweigian Church

This work, Suffer the Little Children Come Unto Me by Lucas Cranach the Elder was stolen from a Lutheran church in Larvik Norway police announced on Sunday. They discovered the theft after responding to an alarm early on Sunday morning. 

It seems one or more thieves climed a ladder, broke a window, and took the work.  The painting on wood panels had hung in the Church since its construction in 1677.

Discussion on the Need for Social and Cultural Theory

An exciting discussion is taking place this week at the University of Chicago Law School Blog "Beyond Economic Analysis of Intellectual Property: The Need For Social and Cultural Theory?" many of the same issues that occur in the intersection between commerce and heritage in the antiquities or art trade also exist when other intellectual property is bought and sold or subjected to legal regulation. The conversation began with a post by Hadhavi Sunder, who makes some excellent arguments that Intellectual Property needs to move beyond its traditional economic justifications.

Over the course of the last century intellectual property has grown exponentially, but its march into all corners of our lives and to the most destitute corners of the world has paradoxically exposed the fragility of its economic foundations while amplifying its social and cultural effects. Today intellectual property laws bear considerably upon central features of human flourishing, from the developing world’s access to food, textbooks, and essential medicines, to the ability of citizens everywhere to democratically participate in political and cultural discourse.

Despite these real world changes, intellectual property scholars insist on explaining this field through the narrow lens of a particular economic vision.Intellectual property is understood solely as a tool to solve an economic "public goods" problem: nonrivalrous and nonexcludable goods such as music and scientific knowledge will be too easy to copy and share—thus wiping out any incentive to create them in the first place—without a monopoly right in the creations for a limited period of time.

These are some heady concepts, and I think these are some excellent ideas. I've tried to construct the argument elsewhere that in the context of antiquities we need to value the broader cultural value of antiquities in constructing and formulating heritage policy.

Other posts in the series this week include:



Mar 9, 2009

More on the Dutch Recovery

Is stolen the same as sold?  David Charter for the Times has more details on the recovery of eight works stolen 22 years ago.  He reports that in December a middleman in Dubai tried to sell the works back to the insurance company. 

The detective, Ben Zuidema, [who was hired to investigate the theft two decades ago] said that he was contacted out of the blue by a man wanting to sell the paintings back to the insurers for €5 million (£4.5 million). Included in the offer was €1 million for Mr Zuidema to facilitate the deal.
 The good news is the works were recovered, however many were folded and badly damaged, including this work by Jan Brueghel the Younger. 

The story gets stranger with respect to a still-missing ninth work.  As the private detective Zuidema told Dutch reporters this still missing work may have been destroyed by the gallery owner Robert Noortman who died two years ago.  That is certainly a very serious accusation, and one which Noortman is no longer alive to defend against.  He is quoted by the Dutch news agency Algemeen Nederland Persbureau that "I shared my findings about him with the police in Maastricht, . . .  But in the end it did not lead to the finding of the paintings."
At the time Noortman claimed that "Stolen is sold".  True enough for the bottom line, though it is a pretty distasteful sentiment as these works were lost for 22 years, and have emerged very badly damaged.  

(photo credit:  Ruben Schipper/EPA)

Mar 8, 2009

8 Works Recovered 22 Years After the Theft

On Saturday Dutch prosecutors said three people had been arrested in connection with a theft which took place in 1987 from the Noortman gallery in Maastricht.  In the statement Dutch prosecutors said "The suspects were apparently trying to sell the art works to the insurance company that had paid out 2.27 million euros (£2m) after they went missing . . .  The investigation has yet to determine where the paintings have been for more than 20 years,"

 The works were by 17th Century artists David Teniers, Willem van de Velde and Jan Brueghel the Younger, as well as 19th Century painters Eva Gonzales, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro and Paul Desire Trouillebert.

Mar 6, 2009

It Takes a Thief to Install an Alarm

File:Saliera.pngThis is the Cellini Salt Cellar, an elaborate gold and enamel table decoration, measuring only 10 inches in height. It was stolen on May 11, 2003 from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. It was later recovered in January 2006 near Zwettly, Austria. The thief, Robert Mang was an alarm-systems installer with no criminal history. The theft was listed at one time as one of the FBI's Top Ten Art Crimes.

He claimed to have had a couple of beers before the theft. He climbed into the museum which was covered in scaffolding at the time, and took the work. After hiding it under his bed for a couple of years he attempted to ransom it back. 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. Though eventually a photo of him was circulated and he was forced to turn himself in to the authorities

Mang turned himself in to the police, and served two years and nine months in prison. Now it seems he will return to selling and installing alarm systems: (via) "he had distributed advertising leaflets and made appointments to check on the state of installed alarm systems or to install new ones . . . his lawyer Lukas Kollmann said: 'He wants to be left alone in order to lead a normal life again.'









Photo Credit: Herbert Pfarrhofer/European Pressphoto Agency

Mar 4, 2009

On Paying Art Ransoms

In 1994, two works by JMW Turner in the Tate collection:   
Shade & Darkness - the Evening of the Deluge (Shade & Darkness)File:William Turner - Shade and Darkness - the Evening of the Deluge.JPG

and Light & Colour (Goethe's theory) - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (Light & Colour), 1843: 

File:William Turner, Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory).JPG



















were stolen from the schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt during a loan exhibition. Late last week the Telegraph had an interesting piece on the role of Lord Myners and a £3.1 million pound ransom which was paid to a German lawyer acting as a middleman for the thieves. 

Mr Daley challenged Lord Myners over the ransom money after another Tate director admitted in a television documentary that a fee had been paid.

Lord Myners claimed he had been "given an undertaking" by the executives of the Tate that no ransom had been paid.

Mr Daley said: "Lord Myners told me the money had been paid as part of a sting operation by German police, but Sir Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, had stated quite clearly in court that the German lawyer was in touch with the people who had the paintings and they were prepared to hand them over in return for payment.

The piece seems more focused on Myners' role in another controversy with the pension fund at the Royal Bank of Scotland.  The interesting point I think is that the High Court, in a closed hearing, made a determination that the trustees of the Tate actually had a legal obligation to pay the ransom.  From the Tate's own press release in 2005:



Tate applied to the High Court for final authority to enter into the transaction. The hearing was held 'in camera' in order not to prejudice ongoing operations. The Trustees of Tate, as the Court acknowledged when authorising the payments by Tate, were under a legal obligation to preserve and recover trust property. Accordingly, subject to the recovery being legal (as the Court ruled it was) and the risks of the operation being proportionate, Tate's Trustees were under a positive legal obligation to enter this transaction.

Tate made payments to Edgar Liebrucks and was responsible for the expenses of those helping in the investigation. It was acknowledged by the Court, and Tate, that the payments to be made by Tate to Edgar Liebrucks might well be passed on to others, including those holding the paintings. However, once Tate had paid the money to Edgar Liebrucks, it had no control over that money. Tate does not know to whom Mr Liebrucks made payment of the monies he had received from Tate. The relationship between Edgar Liebrucks and his contacts was a matter for the German authorities and regulators to pursue, not Tate.

Though the ransom had the blessing of the high court, it may not have been a sound one for the security of museum collections generally.  Mark Durney at Art Theft Central highlights the piece and speculates on ransoms and art theft generally.  He first summarizes the work of criminologist Simon Mackenzie:

The "flag effect" argues that certain types of properties that have been stolen from in the past stand out as more attractive targets to thieves. In "Criminal and Victim Profiles in Art Theft: Motive, Opportunity and Repeat Victimisation," in Art Antiquity and Law 2005, Mackenzie cites for an example of the "flag effect" the rash of thefts across Canada inspired by the prospect of a reward after a ransom was paid for the return of six painting stolen from the Toronto Art Gallery in 1959 (10). After the Toronto art theft, "flags" were placed on galleries and museum by virtue of their poor security. 

He goes on:

In the case of the Tate and its Turners, at the time the museum claimed to have kept quiet on the amounts paid for the stolen Turners "in order not to jeopardise the operation." Also, Lord Myners maintains that the payments were made to informants, and were not ransoms. However, Friday's article reiterates that the payments, according to the director of the Tate, were made to a German lawyer acting as middleman for the thieves.
Over at Art Knows Tom Flynn argues:

The Tate commented that the most important objective in the Turner negotiations was the recovery of the works of art. What about ethics? The fact that by paying a recovery fee the Tate might have sent out the wrong message to other criminals seems to have been ignored, along with the fact that art theft often involves violence.
Paying ransoms is generally a very bad idea.  It provides a revenue stream for the art thieves, and its one of the only revenue streams if the work is particularly well-known.  Even if an object is sacred, and beautiful and irreplaceable—it is still probably better to risk its destruction or mutilation rather than encourage other thefts. 

Not Paying for the Bronzes

I'm catching up on all of the reactions to the decision by Cai Mingchao, the general manager of Xiamen Harmony Art International Auction Co. and the winning bidder on the two Chinese bronzes which were recently sold at Christie's Yves St. Laurent auction in France.  Art Observed does a great job collecting many of the reactions which appeared in the press.

Tom Flynn asks the right question I think, "Are we entering an era of guerilla activism, where sabotage of art auctions becomes another weapon in cultural heritage repatriation disputes?"

I think Christie's is scrambling along with other major auction houses to make sure something similar cannot or will not happen again.  Mingchao is of course subject to civil penalties under French law, perhaps even criminal as well.  If Christie's pushes that approach, they may risk a difficult public relations battle, as Mingchao has quickly become a sort of national hero in China.  But it is hard to see how they can just do noting.  If one bidder can disrupt the process in this way, all a nation of origin needs to do is enlist a wealthy or sympathetic bidder to disrupt the process of any future object which might be similarly sensitive. 

I think it is another indication of the increasing role that nations of origin are playing in the heritage marketplace.  I'm not sure how many wealthy bidders would be willing to stake their reputation or future ability to bid on such a move in the future, but this was a cunningly simple, very shrewd strategic move by Mingchao and the Chinese.  They wanted to disrupt the market in these objects which had been looted, and did a brilliant job doing so. 

From AlJazeera English:


 

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