Oct 26, 2010

Setting the Price Point for Stolen Art

Noah Charney was interviewed by Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace yesterday.  Charney argues that the majority of art theft after World War II can be traced to organized crime syndicates, and that the media actually helps set the price point for the black market transfer of high profile works of art.

The interview appears after the jump.

Oct 25, 2010

China Wants its Rabbit and Rat Back

China looks to be redoubling its efforts to repatriate the bronzes from the Summer Palace, enlisting Jackie Chan, erecting a statue of Victor Hugo who decried the looting in 1860, and circulating a petition.

From AFP:

China has renewed a call for the return of relics looted from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing 150 years ago -- an act seen as a cause of national humiliation at the hands of Western armies.
The Yuanmingyuan, a summer resort garden for the emperors of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), was pillaged by a joint British and French military expedition during the second Opium War on October 18-19, 1860.
Cultural officials have urged private collectors in China to forgo profits from the antiquities trade and return the looted relics, the China Daily reported Tuesday.
The Yuanmingyuan park authority has also called on museums to return such items, and for a boycott on auctions featuring relics, the Global Times added. . . .
"At least 1.5 million relics from the Yuanmingyuan have either been looted or otherwise lost over the years," the China Daily quoted Chen Mingjie, head of the Yuanmingyuan park administration, as saying.
Xinhua news agency, citing the UN cultural body UNESCO, said some 1.64 million Chinese relics are housed in more than 200 museums in 47 countries, some of which are believed to have been looted from the Yuanmingyuan.
In recent years, cultural relic experts from China have sought to categorise and bring back looted Chinese antiquities, but their efforts have been waylaid by legal and historical obstacles, the China Daily said.

From Medici to Deutsche Bank

Why do banks buy so much art?  To earn prestige apparently. Yet that prestige may come at a cost as banks do not want to be seen spending extravagantly in the wake of the mortgage crisis and bailouts.


Few banks collect art to make money. A liquidation auction of art from collapsed investment bank Lehman Brothers in London on Sept. 29, for example, raised $2.6 million. Not bad, but it won't make a dent in the $613 billion in liabilities the bank had run up when it folded.
Art confers respectability and respect, according to Joan Jeffri, director of the arts-administration program at Columbia University's Teachers College, and banks need those more than ever. From the mighty Medici banking dynasty in Renaissance Florence to the giants of the 19th century, like John Pierpont Morgan, art has been used to project status and power.
You could argue that the banks have done a better job of acquiring art than they have of acquiring financial assets. What's more valuable: a Richard Diebenkorn painting or a toxic collateralized debt obligation? "The people responsible for managing these corporate collections have professionalized," Jeffri says. "Whereas it was once the wife of the CEO or some personal friend managing the CEO's interest in art, now banks have art departments and on-staff curators."


  1. Eben Harrell & Frances Perraudin, Cultural Assets: Banks Stock Up on Art, TIME,  http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2024218,00.html?artId=2024218?contType=article?chn=bizTech (last visited Oct 25, 2010).

SAFE Award Reception

SAFE (Saving Antiquities for Everyone) will be honoring four individuals in New York this week.  From their announcement:
On October 29, 2010, SAFE|Saving Antiquities for Everyone will be honoring four distinguished individuals who use their law enforcement and legal expertise to passionately combat the illicit antiquities trade and fight to protect cultural heritage:

  • James E. McAndrew - a special agent with the Department of Homeland Security 

  • Robert Goldman - a well-known attorney and art crime expert. 

  • David Hall - U.S Attorney and Special Prosecutor for the FBI Art Crime Team.  

  • Robert Wittman – Founder of the FBI’s Art Crime Team and New York Times Best Selling Author of Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures.


    Oct 20, 2010

    Another Federal Circuit Rules Against Claudia Seger-Thomschitz

    "Two Nudes (Lovers)", Oskar Kokoschka
    The First Circuit Federal Court of Appeals in Boston has held that the MFA Boston is entitled to retain ownership of this work. The work was the subject of a sale in 1938 to a dealer in Paris.  The MFA Boston purchased this work in 1972, attorneys for the claimant contacted the Museum in 2007 about securing the return of the work, and the Museum brought suit in January of 2008 to seek a declaratory judgment of the work, precluding any claim by Ms. Seger-Thomschitz.

    The history of the work is complicated.  It depicts the artist and Alma Mahler, the wife of Gustav Mahler. The claimant argued the painting was sold under duress by Oskar Reichel a physician and gallery owner in Austria. The work had been consigned on several occasions to an art dealer, Otto Kallir. Kallir later left Vienna, eventually coming to New York, and he brought this and some other works of art with him. He sent money to Reichel's sons at this point. In 1939, the work was sent to Paris; in 1945 it was sold to a New York dealer for $1,500; Sarah Blodgett purchased the work in the 1940s; she gave the work to the MFA Boston in 1972. Claudia Seger-Thomschitz, though apparently not a blood relative of Reichel, had nonetheless been designated as the sole beneficiary of his estate and was described as his "select-niece".

    The claimant learned in 2003 that she might have a claim to the work, and though she is a nurse with no professional expertise in nazi-era suits, the court imposed a burden on her to seek the return of the work.  The Court made clear it was not judging the legality of the museum's acquisition of the work in 1973, pointing out that

    Precisely because they do not address the merits of a claim, statutes of limitations do not vindicate the conduct of parties who successfully invoke them. Although we make no judgment about the legality of the MFA's acquisition of the Painting in 1973, we note the MFA's own disclosure that, when confronted with Seger-Thomschitz's claim, it initiated a provenance investigation for the Painting that it had not done before. The timing of that investigation may have been legally inconsequential in this case. However, for works of art with unmistakable roots in the Holocaust era, museums would now be well-advised to follow the guidelines of the American Association of Museums: "[M]useums should take all reasonable steps to resolve the Nazi-era provenance status of objects before acquiring them for their collections — whether by purchase, gift, bequest, or exchange." American Association of Museums, Guidelines Concerning the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects During the Nazi Era (Nov. 1999)
    The decision comes just as the Jewish Claims Conference has launched a database with 20,000 objects from the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), the Nazi's art-looting task force.  For more on the database, see Catherine Sezgin's excellent discussion here. Perhaps that database will urge more museums and private owners with objects once owned by Nazi-era victims, which was surely one of the primary motivations for the  initiative. Because court actions are difficult options for claimants. In August the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals held Ms. Seger-Thomschitz did not have a timely claim to another Kokoschka work against Sarah Blodgett Dunbar who had inherited the work in 1973 because too much time had elapsed and Dunbar had acquired title to the work via prescription.
    1. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, v. Seger-Thomschitz,--- F.3d ----, 2010 WL 4010121 (1st Cir., 2010).
    2. Dunbar v. Seger-Thomschitz, 615 F.3d 574 (5th Cir., 2010).  

    Oct 18, 2010

    Marion True Interview

    The Chimera d'arezzo, on loan at the Getty from the Museo archeologico di Firenze 
    Hugh Eakin has an interview with Marion True in the online version of the New Yorker. She seems relieved her trial is over, but also a little angry that she was the sacrificial curator:


    There is the remarkable fact that without ever reaching a verdict, the trial had an enormous effect on American museums.
    My greatest sadness is that the Italians were able to intimidate the entire American art world, and especially museums, without having to produce any evidence at all. Why didn’t museums band together and say, “How are we going to deal with this?” They ran off instead to make their own deals—deals which may not exactly be very good in the long run. Why did we hand over all this stuff without asking for more documents? The trial was a gigantic threat that everyone reacted to. The message was, “You could be next.”

    Another irony is that precisely some of the changes in museum standards you were calling for in the nineteen-nineties have now come to pass. There is much more talk now of using major loans from archaeological countries in lieu of purchases—something that you had been advocating for many years.
    That’s right. But I haven’t seen a genuine opening about loans. There are plenty of things that could be done in loans, possibilities for collaborations. Italy has lent the Chiamera of Arezzo to the Getty, a kind of trophy piece. In truth, there are hundreds of objects sitting in the basements of Italian museums, at Pompeii, everywhere, that need to be conserved. Why not lend them to American museums for conservation work, and so they can be seen?

    Has the Getty made any effort to reconcile with you?
    No. And I have nothing but the greatest contempt for them in the world. They acted like I ran the place. Above me I had a chief curator who was deputy director, a director, an in-house counsel, a president, a board of trustees to whom the president reported, and a chairman of the board. What about the lawyers who drafted the acquisition policy, who were supposed to be vetting all documents? They were perfectly happy to assure all that [the alleged acquisition of illegal art] was my work. Never once have [former Getty director] John Walsh or [his successor] Deborah Gribbon stepped forward to say one word about their responsibility.


    Read more 
    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2010/10/marion-true.html#ixzz12j9eQuDR

    Oct 15, 2010

    Footnotes

    Oct 13, 2010

    Five-year Trial of Marion True Ends

    The Italian case against former Getty Museum antiquities curator Marion True, seen at the Los Angeles museum in 1998, has abruptly ended.
    Marion True, while still at the Getty
    Jason Felch reports today that the trial of ex-Getty Museum curator Marion True concluded with a "whimper" today.  That seems exactly right.  No verdict was reached, no dramatic finish, only the mundane operation of an Italian legal technicality which ended the trial because too much time had elapsed. 

    Italy's renewed focus in recent years on the flow of antiquities into American Museums has resulted in a number of embarrassing returns by American institutions, and no one exemplified that shaming more than Marion True, who would be photographed every time she entered the court.  This trial has been proceeding along in fits and starts for the last five years.  When she was charged, it was the first time an American Museum official was charged by a foreign government, but it has not been the last.  The trial was a lightening rod of sorts, channeling opinions about the antiquities trade and the American Museum community, all to one very high profile, but also very slow legal proceeding.  As Felch points out, during the 5 year legal proceeding we have seen the return of more than 100 looted or stolen antiquities from American museums to Italy.   
    1. Jason Felch, Charges dismissed against ex-Getty curator Marion True by Italian judge [updated] LA Times Culture Monster, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2010/10/charges-dismissed-against-getty-curator-marion-true-by-italian-judge.html (last visited Oct 13, 2010).
    2. Nadja Brandt, Italy Drops Conspiracy Charges Against Ex-Curator Marion True, Getty Says, Bloomberg, October 13, 2010, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-10-13/italy-drops-charges-against-ex-curator-marion-true-getty-says.html (last visited Oct 13, 2010).
    3. Elisabetta Povoledo, Case Involving Former Curator Marion True Ends, Arts Beat, New York Times, http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/13/case-involving-former-curator-marion-true-ends/ (last visited Oct 13, 2010).

    Oct 6, 2010

    Stealing the Mystic Lamb Review

    I've just finished reading Noah Charney's "Stealing the Mystic Lamb:  The True Story of the World's Most Coveted Masterpiece".  This review should probably begin with a disclosure.  Noah is a friend and colleague, first an internet acquaintance, and now we meet up every summer in Amelia during ARCA's MA certificate program which he founded

    This work tells the story of one massive 2-ton altar piece, the single most stolen work of art of all time, and one that should be familiar to anyone who has taken an introduction to art history course.

    After dropping the reader into history as allied forces are searching for the altar piece during World War II, we learn early on that this work was the prize of Hitler and Napoleon.  That this massive masterpiece was nearly destroyed many times over.  Yet somehow it has endured. 

    And we should all be glad it has.  The object itself is stunning, Charney in the first chapter takes the reader through the importance of the painting itself, how it helped launch the career of Jan van Eyck, how art historians have puzzled over how much of the work was completed by van Eyck's brother Hubert, how the artist used intricate symbolism, how it helped usher in the era of oil painting and beautiful detail.  But perhaps most importantly, the discussion of this painting and all it symbolizes reminded me why art matters, and how a stunning work of art can change the way we all see the world, and each viewer gets a chance to re-learn or even re-evaluate those shifts in opinion.  And in the end the work begins with a lively account for why individuals have stolen, mutilated, and coveted this work of art.

    Next the reader learns about the artist himself, about the "Magician in the Red Turban". the reader also learns about attribution, the recent decline of connoisseurship in the appreciation of art, how the movement of art can cause the re-appraisal of works of art as  happened when the Albert Barnes Collection is preparing to move and many of its Old Master paintings were found to have been misattributed.  We learn about the creation of the Louvre, the place the Ghent altarpiece played in the creation of that museum, and how many of the arguments made for a universal museum were made by Dominique Vivant Denon who served as the architect of the art looting during Napleon's reign.   

    Charney spends great care telling the story of the altarpiece during both World Wars, noting the debt we art theft writers owe to Karl Meyer, Robert Edsel and Brett Witter's fine work telling the story of the Monuments Men, and Lynn Nicholas among many others.  Yet what really comes through in Charney's book is a breathless story which merges history, towering figures like Napoleon or Hitler and their associates, art, artists, and imagery that revalidates why so many are interested in the study of art theft:  these are really good stories.  And it ends with an epilogue, yet another of the work's enduring mysteries, that should not be spoiled here.  

      Oct 5, 2010

      Will the Supreme Court Take Up Nazi-era Limitations Periods?

      It might.  The U.S. Supreme Court has asked the Solicitor General to submit a brief on the issue of whether states can enact more permissive limitations rules when they may conflict with the foreign affairs doctrine.  Marei Von Saher has been pursuing her claim against the Norton Simon Museum over these two works by Lucas Cranach the Elder.  Von Saher is seeking certiorari with the Supreme Court—and the court has not granted review, it just wishes to hear the position of the federal government first, before deciding whether to review the case. 

      The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled earlier this year that California may not set aside special rules for Nazi-era claims because it conflicted with the federal government's ability to govern foreign affairs.  The claimant Marei Von Saher is the successor in interest to Jacques Goudstikker who bought the works in a 1931 auction in Berlin. The works remained there in Amsterdam until 1940 when the Nazis instituted a forced sale. After the war, Desiree Goudstikker reached a settlement with the Dutch government. She received some of her husband's inventory, but did not claim another set of works because that would have meant returning the purchase price received from the Germans.

      The Dutch government transferred these Cranachs to George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff, the descendant of a noble Russian family who was thought to have lost the paintings to the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution.  Stroganoff-Scherbatoff sold these works to the Norton Simon Museum in 1971.  The 9th Circuit held first that California's special limitations rule for works looted during the Holocauset era, Sec. 354.3 conflicts with the foreign affairs doctrine.  Though it does not conflict with Executive Branch policy via the President, it does conflict with a power reserved to the Federal government, as California created a "world-wide forum for the resolution of Holocaust restitution claims". 

      As a consequence, the claim was left to general limitations principles.  In California the Discovery Rule applies.  A claimant must bring her action within three years of discovering her claim.  This means actual discovery, but also when a reasonably prudent claimant should have discovered she had a claim, and the work first went on display in 1977. 

      Yet even if the Supreme Court denies certiorari, Von Saher may have recourse under the new limitations period rules recently signed into law by Gov. Schwarzenegger, which attaches an actual discovery date on the beginning of an action, eliminating the sometimes difficult due diligence requirement.

      Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last week signed into law a new art-theft bill that doesn’t mention the Holocaust but gives all claims seeking the return of stolen art from museums, galleries and dealers a better shot at withstanding the legal argument that they were filed too late. In suits over allegedly stolen art and other scientific, historic and cultural artifacts, the statute of limitations has been extended from three years to six, and the six-year clock starts running when the plaintiff first learned where the object was. Previously, a museum could argue that the clock began running when a work’s whereabouts was first publicized to the extent that someone seeking its return should have known about it then.

      "Adam and Eve"  went on display in 1977 when the Norton Simon opened, prompting Los Angeles Times art critic William Wilson to write that he had experienced “a plain shock of unmitigated aesthetic fulfillment” upon seeing them. Museum founder Norton Simon bought the Cranachs from an heir of Russian aristocrats in 1971, and The Times first reported on them in 1972, saying they were among the industrialist's holdings that were being loaned to Princeton University for an exhibition.

      Von Saher’s attorney, Lawrence Kaye, said Monday that her legal team, which includes E. Randol Schoenberg, the Los Angeles attorney who in 2006 secured the return of five looted Gustav Klimt paintings from the Austrian government, will wait to see whether the U.S. Supreme Court reinstates the voided California Holocaust art law. If it does not, she would be able to amend her suit to proceed under the state's new art-theft law. But the new law also would allow the Norton Simon Museum to use legal grounds other than the statute of limitations to press its argument that Von Saher waited too long to claim "Adam and Eve."

      1. Mike Boehm, Norton Simon's disputed 'Adam and Eve' getting closer look from Supreme Court | Culture Monster | Los Angeles Times (2010), http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2010/10/art-adam-eve-holocaust-norton-simon-.html (last visited Oct 5, 2010).

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