Dec 31, 2012

The Best Heritage Writing of 2012


Thanks to everyone who has stopped by at one point or another here this year. I wanted to share below some of my favorite writers, reporters and bloggers writing about cultural heritage this past year.

One of my favorite stories this year was Nancy Greenleese's profile of Dr. Laurie Rush at the annual ARCA conference and her work with others to raise awareness in the U.S. military to the destruction of archaeology. Dr. Rush's writing on the use of cultural property as a 'force multiplier' was an example of thoughtful practical action that can be taken to secure heritage.

In terms of blogging, every year more and more voices join the blogosphere, and its always a pleasure to see more and more voices enter the conversation and offer unique perspectives. I found myself reading every post at Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino's Chasing Aphrodite which has taken the investigative reporting of their book and expanded its scope to include other figures in the antiquities trade, including Douglas Latchford, and Subhash Kapoor. First-class investigative reporting has been one of the cornerstones of the heritage protection movement, and their thoughtful thoroughly researched writing has been a terrific resource.

Speaking of reporting, I want to highlight in particular the reporting of PRI's The World, which has offered some of the best first-hand accounts of antiquities looting, especiall the ongoing looting in Egypt and in Syria. The New York Times also has a dynamic reporting team in Tom Mashberg and Ralph Blumenthal, who have done excellent reporting on Cambodia's efforts to block the auction of a disfigured and looted Koh Ker statue at Sotheby's in New York.

For those interested in the day-to-day developments in the American legal system, Rick St. Hilaire's wonky 'cultural heritage lawyer' does a terrific job updating the progression of cultural heritage prosecutions and seizures. His coverage of the Peter Weiss coin smuggling prosecution, Subhash Kapoor, and the Ka Nefer Nefer were particularly outstanding.

Though I haven't read all the entries, the ambitious and much-needed encyclopedia being compiled by the Trafficking Culture folks will surely stand as an important resource for many years to come, it's a must-read for anyone interested in the field. Entries on the 'Fano bronze', Giacomo Medici and Gianfranco Becchina are particularly excellent examples.


In case you missed it, some of my personal favorite moments of the year including teaching a field class in Cerveteri with Stefano Alessandrini with the ARCA class of 2012, experiencing the salt mines and graffiti trains of Kansas, coaching another super group of lawyer's to be at the cultural heritage competition moot court competition in Chicago, and visiting the best student art history conference, the Arthattack conference at Guelph.


And lastly, though its not writing, the moving documentary 'Lost Bohemia' by Josef Birdman Astor is the best examination on film I've seen to chronicle the importance of preservation in all its forms. It is a straightforward effort to save something which is at risk. But its emotional core is the lives and decline of the artists it presents. Preservation is such an urgent thing when its impacting a living community. And though it was released in 2010-11, it was new to me this year. The documentary presents the residents who had been living for decades in the studio apartments above Carnegie Hall. The dancers, photographers, actors, music makers, writers and other characters had created this idyllic creative scene, and were being removed for the creation of offices and cubicles for Carnegie Hall. It's not got a happy ending, but reinforced for me why heritage matters and how much hard work even small victories require. I'll leave you with the trailer, please seek it out where you can find it.





Cheers to 2012 and thanks for reading!

Dec 27, 2012

On Sentencing Antiquities Looters

Last week a number of folks drew my attention to the news that in Greece two men have been sentenced to life in prison for dealing in antiquities. The objects they looted and handled were worth an estimated €12 million. Two more men were jailed for 20 and 16 years. Based on the very brief AP report, it seems the men were digging near Thessaloniki close to an ancient cemetery.

I have seen a few remark that these very stiff sentences should be applauded and even are a sign that the Greek government takes archaeological looting seriously. I don't know the specifics of this case, and it is not clear if these four sentences will be appealed and what kinds of parole options the violators will have. So we are dealing with a number of unknowns. And as a result I'd like to make a humble plea for a little sobriety when sentences of this nature are handed down. Too many archaeologists and other advocates hop up and down and either rejoice at these strong sentences—or criticize probation and fines which are at the other end of this spectrum. I think having a vigorous debate about what role prosecutions, and custodial sentences may play in reducing looting is a welcome development, but one should not make the mistake of jumping into sentencing policy without at least some cursory introduction very complicated field.

The deterrent power of criminal sanctions is very much an open question about even the 'big' crimes the justice system is supposed to prevent, things like murder and armed robbery. In the United States and in many other nations the criminal justice system is an imperfect mechanism which too often is asked to accomplish things it cannot. To expect this flawed institution to come riding in and solve the problems of heritage management, looting, and theft is terribly unrealistic. As many have pointed out, there is no magic bullet for heritage crime. Police and prosecutors have a role to play, but the stakeholders need to step up as well. Nations of origin, auction houses, buyers, and museums should not expect a flawed institution to fix what they are unable or unwilling to fix themselves.

Dec 20, 2012

2nd Circuit Rules for the Met in a Bolshevik-era restitution suit

"Portrait of Madame Cezanne", Pierre Cezanne (1891)
Pierre Konowaloff has lost a bid to secure the return of some art confiscated nearly a century ago. Konowaloff is the successor in interest of a Russian art collector who had his art collection confiscated in the 1917 Russian revolution. The 2nd Circuit held the claim is barred by the act of state doctrine, upholding a 2011 dismissal of the claim in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York. In its simplest form, the doctrine protects the U.S. Executives dealings with foreign nations by requiring claimants like Konowaloff to seek a remedy with the state doing the expropriation. The doctrine states that separation of powers requires that federal courts not challenge the validity of decisions by recognized foreign sovereign governments.

In 1911, Ivan Morozov purchased the work. Morozov was a Russian art collector, and lost this work and another Van Gogh currently held by Yale University after the Bolshevik seizures during the Russian revolution. Konowaloff is the great-grandson of Morozov. The Soviet Union in 1933 needed funds and decided to deaccession (if I can use that term in this context) the painting. The paintings were purchased by Stephen Clark, an American who bequeathed the Cézanne to the MET and the Van Gogh to Yale University. Yale decided to initiate a declaratory suit, getting ahead of the lawsuit, and is still ongoing.

So the Bolshevik-era claim has been extinguished. One wonders though if the way courts treat the act of state doctrine in this context may be different from the ways it might treat foreign ownership declarations of other works of art. That's a question I don't have the answer to. It may be there are peculiar aspects of the doctrine. But on balance this seems like nations are given the benefit of the doctrine when it comes to situations where museums have long possessed these objects, but they aren't given the same advantages in other repatriation cases. That may be because of problems baked-in to the doctrine, or not. I'm not aware of any direct act of state doctrine argument which bends for claimant-nations, it seems primarily to assist current museums attempting to fend off suits arising from Nazi-era takings.

  1. Philip Boroff, Met Museum Sued Over Cezanne Painting Stolen by Bolsheviks From Collector, Bloomberg, December 8, 2010.
  2. Konowaloff v. Metropolitan Musem of Art 11-4338-cv (2nd Cir. 2012)

Dec 17, 2012

DeMott on "Artful Good Faith"

Deborah A. DeMott, a Professor at Duke Law, has an interesting essay titled "Artful Good Faith: An Essay On Law, Custom, AndIntermediaries In Art Markets" appearing in 62 Duke Law Journal 607 (2012). From the introduction:

This Essay explores relationships between custom and law in the United States in the context of markets for art objects. The Essay argues that these relationships are dynamic, not static, and that law can prompt evolution in customary practice well beyond the law’s formal requirements. Understanding these relationships in the context of art markets requires due attention to two components distinctive to art markets: the role of dealers and auction houses as transactional intermediaries as well as the role of museums as end-collectors. In the last decade, the business practices of major transactional intermediaries reflected a significant shift in customary practice, with attention newly focused on the provenance (ownership history) of objects consigned for sale and on long-standing concerns with an object’s condition and authorship. During the same time major museums developed new policies and practices applicable to new acquisitions and objects already in held in collections, focused in particular on archaeological objects and ancient art, as well as paintings present in European countries subject to the Nazi regime between 1932 and 1945. The Essay argues that, in both cases, law furnished the backdrop to significant shifts in customary practice, augmented by heightened public knowledge and concern. Custom evolved in response to salient episodes of enforcement of the law, which furnished further rallying points for newly broadened or awakened public interest and concern. The relationships explored in this Essay are relevant to ongoing debate about the merits of the underlying law. In the United States, it has long been true that nemo dat quod non habet—no one can give what one does not have—with the consequence that a thief cannot convey good title. The subsequent transferees lack good title and are not insulated against claims by the rightful owner even when the transferees acted in good faith. To be sure, an elapsed statute of limitations may furnish a defense, as may the equitable doctrine of laches. Prior scholarship notes that the United States is unusual, but not unique, because it does not recognize any good-faith purchaser defense in this context and because it does not require that the rightful owner of a stolen object compensate the good-faith purchaser as a condition of obtaining the return of the object. However, this scholarship does not acknowledge (or does not emphasize) the significance of transactional intermediaries within art markets or the operation of customary practices of museums and transactional intermediaries. This Essay thus adds the context requisite to evaluating the merits of the relevant law.

 An interesting approach which examines the successes generated with increased attention on Nazi-era taking of art and the antiquities acquisition policies of North American museums. Connecting legal shifts and the shadow they cast on auction houses and museums is an important consideration as we attempt to make informed recommendations about how the law should change.

Dec 13, 2012

Documenting Destruction in Syria from Afar

Since Clemency Coggins criticized the looting of Maya sites in an influential 1969 article, there is a rich tradition of young archaeologists criticizing looting and destruction of sites. PRI continues its excellent reporting of looting in areas in the Middle East by speaking with Emma Cunliffe, an archaeologist who has been tracking the destruction and looting of sites in Syria using facebook feeds and Youtube videos. We don't just hear anecdotal stories of looting anymore, often times if someone has a phone or suitable camera, we can see video as well.

Every day she goes online, sometimes for a few hours, to monitor the Facebook feeds of local Syrian groups for word about damaged sites. She’ll scroll past horrific photos of dead children till she comes across mention of a new archaeological site that was shelled or plundered. She says it’s incredible just how much you can find out from these posts. “It’s a new world online now,” she says. “The prevalence of social networking sites like Facebook, ease of access to YouTube, and the way that most people’s mobile phones can take video, means that, all those people who are desperate to share information have a real easy way to upload it and make it accessible.” Cunliffe did her Ph.D research on monitoring Syrian archaeological sites with satellite imagery. When fighting turned fierce in Syria, she began to consult imagery much closer to the ground – videos and photos posted by concerned Syrian citizens. Sites were being damaged and also looted.

PRI embedded videos of looting in Syria. This video Cunliffe found shows looting in a necropolis in Northern Syria:



  1. Clemency Coggins, Illicit traffic of Pre-Columbian antiquities, 29 Art J. 94–114 (1969).
  2. Daniel Estrin, Why One Researcher is Documenting the Damage to Syria’s Archaeological Sites PRI’s The World (2012), http://www.theworld.org/2012/12/syria-archaeological-treasures/ (last visited Dec 13, 2012).
 

Dec 10, 2012

Is Cultural Heritage a Human Right?

One of the horses from a four-horse chariot group
The Guardian reported over the weekend that Turkey plans to petition the European Court of Human Rights for the return of sculptures from the mausoleum of Helicarnassus, currently held by the British Museum.  Norman Palmer is quoted in the piece, "I have not heard of it [human rights] being used to raise a claim for the specific restitution of particular tangible objects … This would be a novel claim." That strikes me as exactly right, I' don't see a direct human right to specific cultural objects. And my initial reaction is skeptical of attempting to use a rights-based approach for repatriation. One difficulty that this principle will have is in application. How would a court decide what should be repatriated and what should not. Are all objects from a region tied to that people's human rights? And is this right only related to the original situs of the object. Could Londoners argue that they have a corresponding human right in some of the objects in the British Museum which is created because of the display and care of the objects. Lots of interesting questions, and this will be a legal challenge to follow closely. The Guardian makes sure to note that Turkey has had its own human rights record challenged by the Strasbourg court.

The mausoleum sculptures were first removed from what is now modern Turkey in 1846 by the British ambassador to Constantinople and others were taken in subsequent excavations by archaeologist Charles Thomas Newton.

The piece also notes that the mere act of announcing a challenge will raise questions about the British Museum's ownership of the sculptures, and will of course cause similar questions to be asked of other bits and pieces of the ancient 7 wonders which are currently held by the British Museum.


  1. Dalya Alberge, Turkey turns to human rights law to reclaim British Museum sculptures the Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2012/dec/08/turkey-british-museum-sculptures-rights (last visited Dec 10, 2012).

Dec 7, 2012

Salt mines, graffiti and the mysteries of Kansas

The world has 7 wonders. But Kansas has 8. The effort to promote and advertise the beautiful, weird and historic corners of the state was an effort to, I guess, encourage some state pride and promote some prairie tourism. Despite the folksiness, the list is delivered free of irony. Many of the sites are indeed worth seeking out. The list is incomplete though.

Graffiti Train
Imagine 200 of these flashing by 
The periodic accidental graffiti shows are one wonder I would have nominated. The spaniels and I experienced this by accident one humid August morning. Graffiti has started to earn the distinction of esteem. And I guess I've started appreciating more as well. But I'm not sure I realized its ability to really have a transformative effect until you are confronted with it in the last place you'd expect—a gravel road in small town Kansas. The French Spaniels didn't think much of it, and at first I was a little frustrated our little  treated to a free rapid fire show of the stuff. The locals may not think much of their cluttered grain and cattle cars, but for those who think this is an art form, the contrast is a real trip. And who knew our food travels in such style.


So despite the omissions, the only wonder we were able to fit in to our last Kansas visit was an attraction known to the locals as the Underground Salt Mine. I had heard that groups as diverse as the Koch brothers, hollywood studios, and the National Archives have contracted to store documents, artifacts, film and other objects which their caretakers feel need to be secure but don't need to be used. It's not billed as such, but it must be among the the most secure storehouses in the world.
Joni and I sporting breathers and hard hats

The mine itself is 650 feet below ground. When you take the tour you receive your very own hard hat and breather (just in case something happens). After a wait in a gift-shop area, and a short video of the history of the mine itself, visitors crowd into elevators and enter the elevator that takes us down to the mine.  Despite the safety warnings that are an ominous beginning, the mine itself was surprisingly comfortable. It is lit and open and has a pleasant feel. Despite a few hours spent at the various exhibits, none of our little group was in a hurry to leave. That may have something to do with the fact that the temperature in the mine is a constant 68 degrees all year long. And at our August visit the 'surface' temperature was nearing 100. The mine itself is a museum carved out of one of the largest rock salt deposits in the world. At the tour we learned the mine has produced rock salt (not for eating as we were repeatedly told on the tour, I think to prevent visitors like me from licking the walls). The salt is removed in a large checkerboard pattern where large square pillars of left to support the rock above and to allow fresh air to circulate in the mine.

At the tour, we are reminded that what goes down in the mine stays there. So trash and newspapers are left there. The mines purpose was to blow up walls and extract industrial-quality rock salt. Its purpose is not for eating, but rather for use in 'preserving hides and for use in road salt'. On the tour we are told the demand for the salt isn't what it used to be. And current mining operations take place many miles from the museum, and the blasting of the walls to produce workable removable salt rock only takes place late at night.



Another treat is an electric tram which visitors are told is a "dark ride". An ominious title that I wasn't too keen to participate in. I imagined a fast and scary ride, but the tour was quite pleasant. But the main draw for me was a glimpse at the underground vaults. And I guess it makes sense that we weren't really allowed to see much of this part of the mine. On the tour we were often reminded that the mine has a perpetual 68 degrees and 40 percent humidity. Perfect conditions for preserving lots of documents.

The company which operates this massive underground storehouse is named 'Underground Vaults and Storage'. It has original film negatives of films like Gone with the Wind and Ben Hur, oil and gas charts, health records, and other assorted things. According to the company's history the company was incorporated in 1959 when a group of Wichita businessmen, no doubt influence by Cold War concerns, decided to make use of the space, environment and conditions that was being created in the Carey Salt Mine. During World War II of course forces on both sides used salt mines to safeguard and hide works of art from the enemy.

When many of these works were seized by allied forces that led to the strange juxtaposition of American GI's, mine cars, and works of art.


Pictured here are American GI's at the Merkers salt mine in central Germany and Manet's In the Conservatory. Robert Edsel of course has been collecting the stories of these Monuments Men, which accounts for the work of these soldiers between D-Day and V-E Day.

I'm not sure if the Wichita businessmen would have been veterans of the war, or if they would have been familiar with the use of these mines to store works of art—but its seems very likely. At present the mine has a lot of the folksy charm of a goofy populist museum. But in the storage areas are objects from museums, governments, businesses, and others. The imagination wanders at the scope of material which might be collected there, and what might be lost. We know about the rediscovered libraries like the now strewn to all corners of the globe Cotton library, or even the tradition of preservation of islamic texts in Timbuktu (which is now at risk). Will the massive archive in Hutchinson and its other locations in Kansas City and elsewhere be forgotten or neglected, taken up by some future researchers or looters?


Dec 4, 2012

Student note on using the first amendment to protect uncommissioned graffiti

Some art by Ack! here in Houston, now painted over
Margaret Mettler, a JD candidate at Michigan Law has posted her student note on SSRN: Graffiti Museum: A First Amendment Argument for Protecting Uncommissioned Art on Private Property, 111 Michigan Law Review 249 (2012). From the abstract:

Graffiti has long been a target of municipal legislation that aims to preserve property values, public safety, and aesthetic integrity in the community. Not only are graffitists at risk of criminal prosecution but property owners are subject to civil and criminal penalties for harboring graffiti on their land. Since the 1990s, most U.S. cities have promulgated graffiti abatement ordinances that require private property owners to remove graffiti from their land, often at their own expense. These ordinances define graffiti broadly to include essentially any surface marking applied without advance authorization from the property owner. Meanwhile, graffiti has risen in prominence as a legitimate art form, beginning in the 1960s and most recently with the contributions of street artists such as Banksy and Shepard Fairey. Some property owners may find themselves fortuitous recipients of “graffiti” they deem art and want to preserve in spite of graffiti abatement ordinances and sign regulations requiring the work’s removal. This Note argues that private property owners who wish to preserve uncommissioned art on their land can challenge these laws under the First Amendment, claiming that, as applied, regulations requiring removal are unconstitutional because they leave the property owner insufficient alternative channels for expression.

An interesting paper. As the value of graffiti increases, the law must catch up to help landowners who want to hold on to it. An idea which runs counter to the municipal ordinances which want to clean it up. The idea of who owns something that has value, but has no owner challenges a lot of the our underlying assumptions about property.


Dec 3, 2012

Dallas Museum of Art Announces 6 Repatriations

The Orpheus Mosaic, once looted and now returned to Turkey
In a press conference today Max Anderson, the new director at the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) announced an agreement with Turkey to return this 2nd Century AD Roman Mosaic, and other objects. The mosaic was acquired in 1999 at a public auction at Christie's in 1999 for $85,000. According to the DMA, after noting on Turkey's cultural heritage ministry website that there had been an Orpheus mosaic missing, Anderson contacted Turkish officials. He was given photographic evidence showing the and comparing the mosaic with a border, being removed by looters near ancient Edessa, modern Sanliurfa in Southern Turkey.

In announcing the return, Anderson also announced a new initiative called 'DMX' which attempts to seek loans and exchange agreements. A move that if successful would position the museum to pioneer the ideals of a universal museum while also respecting the laws and restrictions placed on objects by their nation of origin.

But other objects were also revealed. The DMA officials also announced that they had uncovered objects in their collection from Edoardo Almagià, an on-again/off-again antiquities dealer who has been tied to looted antiquities by Italian officials. The other objects may be more interesting, including:

  • a pair of bronze shields decorated with the head of the man-bull deity Acheloos, dating from the 6th century B.C.E;
  • a red-figure krater, designed for the burial of Greek nobles in southern Italy, dating from the 4th century B.C.E;
  • the head from an antefix, dating from the 6th century B.C.E; 
  • and a calyx krater, dating from the 4th century B.C.E.
The volute krater, 4th century B.C.E. its
provenance was "English collection"
Almagià is an interesting figure. In a 2010 interview with the Princeton alumni magazine, he is boldly critical of Italy's heritage laws, and the agreements between Italy and the United States:

You are immediately equated with a criminal nowadays by being a collector. You have in Italy hundreds of thousands of people that have antiquities at home. They might have inherited them or bought them. In my youth, there were flea markets, and you could buy every antiquity you wanted. All those people that bought things – are they all criminals? It’s like Prohibition in the United States – there’s a criminal underworld. Italian law leads to crime. By legalizing the market in antiquities, you destroy the black market and eliminate the incentive to make forgeries.
He has been investigated by the public prosecutor in Rome since 2006, and his New York apartment has also been searched by U.S. Customs officials. Chasing Aphrodite points out that the returned material has ties to the usual suspects: Gianfranco Becchina, Robin Symes, and Giacomo Medici. And also notes other museums have similar objects. Given Turkey's increasingly muscular calls for repatriation, the DMA has positioned itself to create favorable agreements with foreign nations, and also set itself apart from other institutions with similar material with insufficient histories. When I see these objects at a museum, with a scant or nonexistant provenance listed, I assume it must be looted. Forward-thinking museums are increasingly doing the same. And despite what value there may be in viewing the object in a 'universal' museum, that probable criminal history increasingly renders the display of these objects unjust.


  1. Michael Granberry, Dallas Museum of Art returns rare work of Roman art, signs memorandum of understanding with Turkish government for international exchange Center Stage, Dallas News (Dec 3, 2012).

UNESCO Director General Bokova on Protecting Cultural Heritage during conflict

Damage in Aleppo, Syria
In an op-ed for the IHT UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova discusses the damage done to cultural sites in northern Mali, Syria and elsewhere. She argues that "Culture stands on the frontline of conflicts, deliberately targeted to fuel hatred and block reconciliation." That's exactly right I think. The challenge will be what the rest of the world can do to prevent and repair this destruction.

She outlines the concrete steps UNESCO is taking: crafting an international legal framework, building stronger culture coalitions, and use culture to prevent conflicts:

Unesco works across the globe to harness the power of culture to bring people together and foster reconciliation. I saw this personally when Unesco helped restore the Old Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia Herzegovina, destroyed during the war in the 1990s. We saw the same power during the restoration of the Koguryio Tombs complex in North Korea, undertaken with the financial support of South Korea. This might sound high-minded compared to the terrible news we hear every day from conflict zones. And it is true that culture alone is not enough to build peace. But without culture, peace cannot be lasting. The world thought big when the convention was adopted in 1972. We need to think big once again, to protect culture under attack. We often hear that protecting culture is a luxury better left for another day, that people must come first. The fact is, protecting culture is protecting people — it is about protecting their way of life and providing them with essential resources to rebuild when war ends. This is why, for culture also, there is a responsibility to protect.

  1. Irina Bokova, Culture in the Cross Hairs, The New York Times, December 2, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/03/opinion/03iht-edbokova03.html (last visited Dec 3, 2012).


Nov 29, 2012

Gold Hand Sculpture Stolen from Christie's

Auction houses are often in the news for the fantastic sums their works achieve, or for protesting they didn't know this or that work was looted or stolen. It's not often they are the victims of theft. This work by Turner prize-winner Douglas Gordon has been stolen from Christie's auction house. There are fears it is likely going to be melted down for its scrap value. Given the work is solid gold, that scrap value is considerable, likely £250,000. Apparently Christie's was not forthcoming about details of the theft to the artist, who was also the sculpture's owner:

He said Christie's only told him about the disappearance of the sculpture after he had spoken about the theft elsewhere. Gordon, who owns the work, said: "It is like someone borrowing your car, and then you finding out from a neighbour that it has been crashed," he said. "It looks like I am the last person in the chain to know." Gordon said he had first heard of the theft second-hand, from a curator, last week; a Christie's representative contacted him on the morning of 29 November, 16 days after the crime was reported to the police. Scotland Yard confirmed it was "investigating the alleged theft of a piece of artwork from a secure warehouse in the King Street area of Westminster. The incident was first reported to police on 12 November". A Christies's spokesman said: "This matter is under investigation and we are in contact with all parties involved. We cannot comment further." A source at the auction house said Gordon's gallery had been informed right away, and that a Christie's representative had attempted to contact the artist on 28 November. The theft from Christie's storage facility – which claims on its website "world-class security, management and expertise" – is likely to cause significant reputational damage for the auction house. A spokesman declined to comment on arrangements at the storage facility, citing the need to keep security measures confidential. A source said: "Given the sheer volume of works of art that come in, this as an extraordinarily rare thing to happen."

There are no reported details about the theft from the storage facility.


  1. Charlote Higgins, Turner prize-winner’s work stolen from Christie’s, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2012/nov/29/turner-sculpture-stolen-christies (last visited Nov 29, 2012).

Nov 28, 2012

Montreal MFA Repatriates Maori Remains

Last week the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts returned a Toi Moko to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington. The Toi Moko is a tatooed and mummified Maori head. This repatriation is the latest in a series of repatriations the Maori have successfully achieved in the past two decades. There is a lot of hard work and negotiation involved in these returns, so the ultimate return is a welcome occasion. At the ceremony the head was not permitted to be filmed or photographed. The head was laid "under a sheer black cloth, it was wrapped in cellophane and packaged in a series of protective boxes for transport. All the while, a group of Maori chanted, prayed and sang during an emotional ceremony". The Globe and Mail, reporting on the ceremony reported:

In the 19th century, Europeans became enamoured with the heads and the Maori began using them almost like currency to trade for muskets and other coveted objects. While some were sold and traded, others were stolen because of their value as curiosity items. “Before, they were received as works of art. They were people and they are people,” said Michelle Hippolite, co-director of the Museum of New Zealand. “In our culture, remembering that they are people first is what is most important.” The head that ended up in Montreal was obtained by F. Cleveland Morgan in 1949 at the Berkeley Galleries in England, before being donated to the museum. The Maori estimate that they have retrieved about 320 of the 500 known remains around the world, located in 14 different countries. That doesn’t count private collections, but some collectors have come forward after hearing about the campaign to repatriate the heads.
  1. Sidhartha Banerjee, Canadian museum gives back mummified Maori head, The Globe and Mail, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/canadian-museum-gives-back-mummified-maori-head/article5546908/ (last visited Nov 28, 2012).

Shearing on Australia's Heritage Law Framework

Susan Shearing, a Lecturer at the Australian Centre for Climate and Environmental Law at the University of Sydney has authored "Reforming Australia's National Heritage Law Framework" in Volume 8(2) of the Macquarie Journal of International and Comparative Environmental Law (2012). (PDF) From the abstract:
It is argued that while some useful initiatives have been adopted in response to the review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, the overall response of the Government has been disappointing, focusing on refining procedural frameworks to facilitate a streamlined approach to heritage assessment and approvals rather than substantive reform to the EPBC Act. Further, there has been limited progress in reforming national laws dealing with indigenous heritage, movable heritage and historic shipwrecks.

Nov 26, 2012

Olympia Antiquities Recovered

Recovered objects stolen from a museum in Olympia, Greece in February (24 Nov)
Some of the recovered objects from Olympia
In February of this year armed men stole 80 small objects from a museum in Olympia dedicated to the Olympic games. They were armed, were able to overcome a lone security guard, and smashed the display cabinets and stole close to 80 small objects. At the time there was speculation by the Mayor of Olympia and others that Greek austerity measures had led to diminished security, making the theft easier to execute. After an undercover operation with an officer posing as a buyer, all of the objects have been recovered, most of them buried in a field only 3 km from the museum.

Given such a high-profile theft, in an olympic year, it is safe to assume that Greek authorities made recovering these stolen objects a high priority. A task which at the time was seemingly more difficult as there was speculation that these small, portable objects would have been easily shipped abroad or smuggled across the Adriatic to organized criminal networks in the Balkans. But it seems the objects did not make it far away from Olympia.

On Sunday authorities in Greece announced three Greek men were arrested in the city of Patra after an undercover officer posing as a potential buyer was offered one of the highlights of the theft, a Bronze Age gold ring. The remaining objects were found in a field near Olympia, where they had been buried inside a sack. So congratulations are in order for Greek law enforcement. And given the context of the theft, it is noteworthy that the Greek Public Order MInister Nikos Dendias told reporters on Sunday that "Despite the difficult economic situation we are not being lax on security issues, especially over our cultural heritage."

 Here is some video of the press conference and the recovered objects from Al Jazeera:


 


  1. Greek police recover stolen Olympia artefacts, , http://www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2012/11/2012112582211277291.html (last visited Nov 26, 2012).
  2. Greek police recover stolen Olympia artefacts, arrest three, Reuters, November 24, 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/11/24/us-greece-olympia-idUSBRE8AN08H20121124 (last visited Nov 26, 2012).

Nov 15, 2012

Call For Papers: Art, Culture and Heritage stream, SLSA, York University, March 26-28

I've been asked to forward on details of a call for papers for the 'Art, Culture and Heritage stream' for the upcoming Socio-Legal Studies Association 2013 conference in York March 28-30. The convenors are Janet Ulph and Charlotte Woodhead, details of the conference are here, and here are details for the call:

This stream seeks to bring together discourse on the interface between, art, culture, heritage and the law. To this end papers will be welcomed concerning the legal and non-legal regulation of art, culture and heritage as well as the rights which exist in respect of these. Furthermore, participants may wish to engage in debates concerning the role played by ethics in the context of preservation of the past and the need to curb the illicit trade in cultural objects. Papers may include, but are not limited to:


  • The de-accessioning or acquisition of objects from museums and other cultural institutions;
  • Legal protection of artistic works, the built environment and objects of cultural importance;
  • The illicit trade in cultural objects;
  • The relationship between property and culture;
  • Cultural rights and human rights;
  • Cultural institutions and the law;
  • Minority rights and interests relevant to culture and heritage;
  • Art and aesthetics and their relationship to law;
  • Cultural discourse on law; and
  • Law and humanities.

Silbey on Images in/of Law

Jessica Silbey, of Suffolk school of Law, has an interesting piece which appears in a symposium issue, Images in/of Law, in 57 N.Y.L. Sch. L. Rev. 171 (2012–2013). From the introduction:

The proliferation of images in and of law lends itself to surprisingly complex problems of epistemology and power. Understanding through images is innate; most of us easily understand images without thinking. But arriving at mutually agreeable understandings of images is also difficult. Translating images into shared words leads to multiple problems inherent in translation and that pose problems for justice. Because images are inherently “what we know” (because they are “what we see”), insofar as most of us process our experiences first through sight, images do not naturally lend themselves to linguistic translation. We don’t believe they require translation because we are so sure of what we see, and yet comparing and sharing understandings of images requires communication through words. Despite our saturated imagistic culture, we have not established methods to pursue that translation process with confidence.

Other articles from the symposium are available here.

Nov 14, 2012

Prosecutors Allege Customs Violations in Koh Ker Statue Forfeiture

Prosecutors have amended their complaint which seeks to forfeit this Koh Ker Khmer statue. Much of the press coverage focuses on whether the colonial French government or some other legal enactment created ownership rights in the statue before the time it was removed.  I don't have a pacer account and access to these court filings, but based on the reporting it appears prosecutors saw a difficult path to victory in attempting to apply colonial French law to the statue. Instead they are also seeking a more straightforward argument: arguing that the importers of the statue lied on their customs forms. From the NYT:

Prosecutors say that in 2010, when the statue was being imported into the United States, the owner submitted an inaccurate affidavit to American customs officials, at Sotheby’s request, stating the statue was “not cultural property” belonging to a religious site. The government contended in its filing on Friday that both parties knew the statue, a mythic Hindu warrior known as Duryodhanna, valued at up to $3 million, was stolen when they agreed to ship it from Belgium to New York. The government says it can prove that the statue in fact came from a Khmer Dynasty temple, Prasat Chen, part of a vast and ancient complex called Koh Ker.

If prosecutors can establish these statements were inaccurate, the more difficult question of which law might apply to the statue would be largely irrelevant. This is the same legal principle used when prosecutors successfully forfeited a 4th-century B.C. ancient golden phiale from Michael Steinhardt in 1999. Lying to customs officials is a violation of the law, with its own forfeiture provision. If the prosecutors can establish this, a successful forfeiture seems very likely.


  1. Tom Mashberg & Ralph Blumenthal, Sotheby’s Accused of Deceit in Sale of Khmer Statue, The New York Times, November 13, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/14/arts/design/sothebys-accused-of-deceit-in-sale-of-khmer-statue.html (last visited Nov 14, 2012).
  2. United States v. An Antique Platter of Gold, 184 F. 3d 131 (2nd Cir. 1999).

Nov 13, 2012

Art theft with pistols, a long drive and a cemetary


                     
              This photo released by the South African Police Service (SAPS) on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012, shows the four paintings stolen from a museum in its capital hundreds of miles away in a cemetery under a park bench in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Brig. Marinda Mills of the SAPS told The Associated Press on Tuesday that officers found the paintings in Port Elizabeth, about 1,100 kilometers (700 miles) from Pretoria where they were stolen. (AP Photo/South African Police Service)
Four recovered works from this photo released
by the South African Police Service
Four works of art stolen from a museum in Pretoria South Africa appear to have been discarded hundreds of miles away near the coast in Port Elizabeth. On Sunday the thieves paid for their admission to the art museum and asked the curator to show them around the museum. Then, presumably after seeing what they liked they pulled out their pistols and stole five works of art. Today it seems four of the works have been recovered in a private cemetery 700 miles away. There must be an interesting story here, perhaps more details will emerge and that fifth painting will hopefully be recovered soon.

Nov 1, 2012

An Update on Looting in Egypt

Human Remains Exposed to the Elements at El Hibeh

After the revolution and the theft of 50 objects from the Cairo Museum in Egypt last year, the New York Times reports that looting continues in a systemic way. Of the stolen objects from the Cairo museum, 29 objects have been recovered, but many of the sites in the rest of Egypt are at risk to looters.
The number of illegal excavations and thefts has worsened to the point that groups are organizing heavy machinery to carry out extensive digs. “This wasn’t just someone taking their shovels and digging holes in the sand,” said Deborah Lehr, chairman of the Capitol Archaeological Institute at George Washington University, who has been charged with helping the Egyptian government protect its antiquities. “These were bulldozers, and gangs of men over a period of time.”

  1. Farah Halime, Revolution Brings Hard Times for Egypt’s Treasures, N.Y. Times, October 31, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/01/world/middleeast/revolution-brings-hard-times-for-egypts-treasures.html (last visited Nov 1, 2012).

Oct 27, 2012

Can the Statute of Frauds Impart More Transparency into the Art Trade?

A recent ruling in the New York State court, Appellate Division, has caused quite a stir among folks who follow the art trade.  There has been some initial speculation among observers of the art trade that this ruling may cause the trade to meaningfully shift the way it does business and impart much-needed transparency into the sale of art. Unfortunately the shift is incremental only, and will not in itself change the way the art market does business. Larry Rothfield hopes the ruling "will give policymakers a reason to start thinking more carefully about how that market could and should be regulated in ways that do the most possible to prevent looting of archaeological sites." Paul Barford similarly  thinks about what this might mean for auction houses and the "old argument that the collecting history has been lost can no longer be believed by those who want to shut their eyes to freshly 'surfaced' (from 'underground') material." In reality though, the likelihood that this ruling will have much of an impact on the art trade or the antiquities trade generally remains remote. Here's why.

The facts of the case are straightforward. A buyer, Albert Rabizadeh, refused to pay the purchase price for a work of art he won at auction, and because the Jenack auction house failed to comply with the Statute of Frauds, the appellate court in New York has held the contract to be unenforceable. The provision at issue is a New York state law known as the statute of frauds. the term stems from a jolly old legal principle which the English Parliament passed in 1677. The original purpose of the law was to prevent fraud from being given legal effect in certain important agreements. It encouraged contracting parties to reduce their bargain to a writing so as to prevent a 17th century jury from enforcing contracts that had never been made. This provision has now been largely done away with under English law, but survives in the U.S. under the Uniform Commercial Code.

Currently the legal safeguards known as the statute of frauds require a signed writing for certain kinds of contracts to be enforced (the sale of goods over $500, the sale of land, contracts that can't be performed within a year, etc.). The contract at issue in the dispute between Rabizadeh and Jenack was over a silver and enamel box, a Russian work of art, which was bid for $460,000 including the buyers premium. It might have looked something like this.

New York's state law provision requires that at the time of sale the nature of the property, the terms of sale, the name of the purchaser, and the name of the person on whose account the sale was made shall be entered in something called a sale book. N.Y. Gen. Oblig. Law § 5-701(a)(6)(2012). Both New York and California have enacted these kinds of provisions, and it should be noted these two states surely account for the bulk of the American art market and a substantial share of the world art trade as well. Any changes made to how auctions are conducted in these jurisdictions demands serious attention. General practice in the art trade has been to skirt by and assume that the anonymous number is enough to satisfy the requirement that the seller and buyer are named in writing, and this is the argument the Jenack auction house pressed unsuccessfully on appeal.

The New York court held that the consignor's number (in this case 428) was not enough to satisfy the plain language of the statute. Now the question becomes, does this ruling require auction houses to reveal the identity of buyers and sellers? Yes, but only to each other. From my reading of the decision, only the auction house, the buyer and the seller would know who each other are. And even so, the only time that this requirement of transparency were to be enforced would be if a buyer refused to pay, as happened here, or if there were some other difficulty with the agreement. There may be other creative steps the auction house could take to ensure buyers who do not pay their winning bids can be removed from the auction process.

All of this would only incrementally shift the needle towards imparting the light of day into the art trade, which is anonymous and involves a labyrinthine set of relationships between all the parties involved. I have been a big advocate of more transparency in the trade, but I do not think this ruling by itself will accomplish much in that regard. At present it seems likely that the auction house, likely joined by others will attempt to appeal this case to New York's highest court. And even if this ruling were to be upheld it seems likely that that the big auction houses would attempt to have the New York state legislature correct any errors they feel were made. Justice Skelos himself acknowledge this in the opinion:

To the extent that the requirement in General Obligations Law § 5-701(a)(6) that the memorandum contain the name of, rather than an assigned number for, the "person on whose account the sale was made" may be at odds with the general industry practice, and may be burdensome to consignors or auction houses or both, a change in the law to eliminate that requirement may be warranted. However, consideration of the propriety of that change is not for the courts, but rests with the Legislature.
So we will wait then for this dispute to reach a final result, and wait for any potential action by the legislators in Albany. Should more consideration be given to the role of the UCC and the art trade, this would give heritage advocates an opportunity to revisit the current practice of the auction art market, which would be a welcome change.

Finally a quick reply to Tom Flynn, who I've never known to have much good to say about lawyers. There's nothing wrong with that of course, but in this case he badly misses the mark badly. He brandishes a quick indifference to the role of courts and makes the claim that this four-judge panel has dealt a blow to the New York art market and the "judges, largely ignorant of the nuances of the art trade" have done damage here by as he puts it: "sticking their oar in." If one disagrees with this ruling, the real culprit is the New York state law, which was likely drafted to assist auction houses in using the courts when difficulties arise in an auction. The court merely applied the plain text of New York's statute of frauds. If one were impolite enough to label anyone ignorant, it would hardly be these judges. If given the opportunity to thoroughly read the court's straightforward opinion and word his thoughts more carefully one hopes Tom would see that what the New York court has done here is apply the law as it was given to them by the New York legislature.  It was the auction house itself which brought suit, attempting to enforce a bid. I can understand frustration with a result, but judges do not simply pick a tree and grab a rope. They apply the law as it is, to the facts as they are presented.


  1. Jenack Inc. v. Rabizadeh, 2012 NY Slip Op 6211 (2012).

Oct 26, 2012

U.S. Repatriates 4,000 Looted Antiquities to Mexico

Yesterday U.S. law enforcement officials returned 4,000 object to Mexico. They are the fruit of 11 different investigations in cities like El Paso, San Antonio, Fort Stockton, Phoenix, San Diego, Chicago and Montana. These kinds of 'art on the table' news conferences are quite common. But I admit to feeling conflicted about them. On the one hand they certainly speak to the degree of seriousness with which ICE agents and the Federal Government take these crimes. But as with any crime that becomes federalized like this, the incentives are I think primarily geared towards rewarding these big investigations and successful returns. Yet the underlying problems endemic to the antiquities trade itself are not treated or targeted. It is an important step, but also the more of these returns I see (and there are a lot of them) the more frustrating it becomes as well. Because these investigations target the objects. There is no mention of arrests, prosecutions or of much of anything which would produced sustained compliance on the part of the art trade.

In fact after reading the news release I feel more pessimistic about the mass of objects which are being smuggled up from the south. Consider that three statues were smuggled in by a migrant worker on a bus; another clay statue was hidden in luggage in El Paso; another statue was hidden in the dash of a vehicle; a grinding stone was found in another vehicle; another millstone was found in the back of a truck; and the list goes on. These are straightforward and low-cost means to smuggle the objects into the country. We cannot I think expect ICE agents to catch every smuggled object found in luggage, trucks or cars. The trade itself and art buyers need to step up at some point and correct a market which routinely accepts these looted and stolen objects. But that kind of sober reflection on these recoveries is not to be found in the statements of U.S. and Mexican officials. From the ICE news release:

"The plundering of cultural property is one of the oldest forms of organized cross-border crime and has become a worldwide phenomenon that transcends frontiers," said HSI Assistant Director Janice Ayala. "The teamwork and cooperation that exists between ICE's Homeland Security Investigations and our Mexican law enforcement counterparts, as well as with U.S. federal, local and state law enforcement agencies made it possible for us to secure these cultural artifacts and to ensure that they are returned to the government of Mexico. HSI will remain committed to combating the looting and trafficking of Mexico's cultural treasures."
Consul General of Mexico Jacob Prado stated, "The restitution to Mexico of more than 4,000 archaeological pieces, which were seized by ICE's Homeland Security Investigations special agents, is proof of the excellent collaboration that exists between Mexico and the United States, and attests to the relevance of the institutions and legal framework that our authorities have developed to successfully address the many different issues of our bilateral agenda." Consul General Prado also expressed the gratitude of the government and the people of Mexico to the six HSI offices involved in recovering the artifacts, "for their support to ensure the restitution of these archaeological pieces, which are part of the cultural heritage and the historical memory of the people of Mexico."

Oct 24, 2012

International Symposium on Nazi-looted art at the Peace Palace, Nov. 27

I have been forwarded some details about an international symposium: Fair and Just Solutions? Alternatives to Litigation in Nazi-Looted Art Disputes: Status Quo and New Developments. The symposium is taking place in the Peace Palace in the Hague, the Netherlands on 27 November 2012.

This symposium is being staged to mark the tenth anniversary of the Dutch Restitutions Committee, an independent committee that advises on claims relating to Nazi-looted art. The chairman of the Restitutions Committee is Willibrord Davids. During the symposium five European looted-art advisory committees, distinguished scholars, experts, representatives of museums, art dealers, auction houses and pressure groups will explore the question of how to reach a fair and just solution in disputes about Nazi-looted art. Attendees at the symposium will not only gain a good overview of the current state of affairs, but will also be able to share their thoughts about desirable developments in the future. Registration for the symposium is open to anyone with an interest. For more practical information about the main issues, the programme and the registration form please go to the Restitutions Committee’s website: http://www.restitutiecommissie.nl/en/symposium_introduction.html.

An Update on the Koh Ker Statue and Sotheby's

The United States and Cambodia are locked in a legal battle with the auction house Sotheby's over this 1,000-year-old statue of the Hindu warrior Duryodhana that may have been looted from the Cambodian temple complex at Koh Ker.
Anthony Kuhn reports for All Things Considered on the ongoing dispute between Cambodia and Sotheby's over this Koh Ker statue. The feet were found at the complex, but Sotheby's is attempting to prevent any seizure of the statue. This looting likely took place in the late 1960's. The Cambodians make a compelling case for the statue, while Sotheby's refused to comment for the piece. I'll update the case here as it develops.


Oct 23, 2012

Looting and Cultural Destruction Happens in Big Prosperous Cities Too

The environmental justice movement got its start here in Houston when communities saw the unjust impact of hazardous siting decisions. Today this same neighborhood is at risk of gentrification, historical destruction, and architectural looting. I made a case and talked about the idea of cultural justice for areas like this in a forthcoming piece.

But I suspect Lenwood Johnson, in this terrific video report by Houston's alt-weekly, the Free Press, makes a more compelling case than I ever could:


Oct 22, 2012

New Book on the Illicit Trade in Art and Antiquities

I've been forwarded information on what looks to be an excellent new work by Janet Ulph and Ian Smith, The Illicit Trade in Art and Antiquities: International Recovery and Criminal and Civil Liability, published by Hart. The publisher has kindly offered readers of this blog a discount. Here are the details:


This new text provides practical guidance on the modern law relating to cultural objects which have been stolen, looted or illegally exported. It explains how English criminal law principles, including money laundering measures, apply to those who deal in cultural objects in a domestic or international setting. It discusses the recovery of works of art and antiquities in the English courts where there are competing claims between private individuals, or between individuals and the UK Government or a foreign State. Significantly, this text also provides an exposition of the law where a British law enforcement agency, or a foreign law enforcement agency, is involved in the course of criminal or civil proceedings in an English court. The growth of relevant international instruments, which include not only those devoted to the protection of mankind's cultural heritage but also those concerned with money laundering and serious organised crime, provide a backdrop to this discussion. The UK's ratification of the UNESCO Convention on Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970 in 2002 is considered. The problems posed in attempting to curb trafficking in art and antiquities are explored and the effectiveness of the current law is analysed. Janet Ulph is Professor of Commercial Law at the University of Leicester and the main author ofCommercial Fraud: Civil Liability, Human Rights, and Money Laundering (Oxford University Press, 2006).
Ian Smith is a barrister based in London at 11 Stone Buildings, and co-author of Smith, Owen and Bodnar, Asset Recovery: Criminal Confiscation and Civil Recovery (2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, 2007).
 Link to table of contentshttp://www.hartpub.co.uk/pdf/9781841139647.pdf
Oct 2012   352pp   Hbk   9781841139647RSP: £75 / €97 / US$150 / CDN$150DISCOUNT PRICE FOR BLOG READERS: £60 / €78 / US $120 /  CDN $120
http://www.hartpub.co.uk/books/details.asp?isbn=9781841139647
Order OnlineIf you would like to place an order you can do so through the Hart Publishing website (link above). To receive the discount please mention ref:‘ULPH_SMITHBLOG’ in the special instructions field. Please note that the discount will not be shown on your order but will be applied when your order is processed.

Oct 17, 2012

Reactions to the Kunsthal Theft

Yesterday we learned that the Kunsthal Museum (I've also heard it described as essentially a gallery) had suffered a theft of seven works of art in a late night theft, likely aided by the building's difficult-to-secure windows. The tireless Catherine Sezgin has a good roundup of all the news reports at the ARCA blog.  Here's some reactions from the security and law enforcement experts I found thoughtful:

Anthony Amore, the director of security at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston debunks the popular impression of art thieves in an Op-Ed for the New York Times:

As usual, a combination of master art thieves and faulty security was blamed. But this seductive scenario is often, in fact, far from the truth. Most of us envision balaclava-clad cat burglars rappelling through skylights into museums and, like Hollywood characters, contorting their bodies around motion-detecting laser beams. Of course, few of us have valuable paintings on our walls, and even fewer have suffered the loss of a masterpiece. But in the real world, thieves who steal art are not debonair “Thomas Crown Affair” types. Instead, they are the same crooks who rob armored cars for cash, pharmacies for drugs and homes for jewelry. They are often opportunistic and almost always shortsighted.
Chris Marinello of the Art Loss Register tells NPR's Morning Edition:

MONTAGNE: And do insurers pay ransom?  
MARINELLO: Absolutely not, they do not want to encourage further art theft and then the thieves are going to have to go to Plan C. They usually contact me and see if I have any ability to pay them to return the works. They won't succeed there, either. The pieces are likely to travel in the underworld at a fraction of their true value, maybe five or 10 percent, used as currency for drugs, weapons, even something called a Get Out of Jail Free card. If a criminal thinks that they're going to be arrested, they may try to make a deal with the prosecutor for a lesser sentence, if they have information that leads to the recovery of the seven paintings.   
MONTAGNE: Is it likely than that they will resurface eventually?  
MARINELLO: Well, I have a lot of faith in the Dutch police and they are meticulous. We might see something over the next few weeks. I mean sometimes when they realize they can't get rid of the haul that they just brought home, they just return them. But if we don't see that happening in the next few weeks, it could be decades before these resurface.
Bob Wittman, formerly of the FBI's art crime team talks to the Atlantic:

Here's the story on selling stolen art. Paintings that are stolen like last night, those pieces that were taken out of the Kuhnsthal museum, are not going to get sold on any kind of market, whether it's a black market or any kind of market. They're going to get recovered. But what happens with pieces that are worth much less -- let's say the $10,000 and less market, pieces that aren't well known -- is a burglar goes into a home and steals a $5,000 painting. That can be sold in a flea market, that can be sold on what they call the secondary art market, because it's not well known. And that's the vast majority of art heists. It's not these once a year museum thefts. It's burglaries around the world. And that's the major part of the art theft business and the collectibles business. Even the smaller works of art have no value if they have no provenance, authenticity, or legal title. But when you talk about pieces that are under that amount, people don't do the due diligence. When people go in and pay $5 million for a Cézannes, they're going to do the due diligence to make sure everything is right. If a piece is $300 at a flea market, it's not done.



Oct 16, 2012

Massive Art Theft at the Kunsthal museum in the Netherlands

One of the 7 stolen works
In what is being called a well-planned and bold theft, thieves stole seven works in a pre-dawn theft from the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam. Alarms went off at the museum after 3 am, and security found there were 7 missing works.

Ton Cremers told the Dutch outlet De Volkskrant that the problem may be with the layout of the museum itself, which while great to view art is difficult to secure: "As a gallery it is a gem. But it is an awful building to have to protect. If you hold your face up to the window at the back you have a good view of the paintings, which makes it all too easy for thieves to plot taking them from the walls".

The large windows at the Kunsthal museum
Many will likely begin imagining what high sums these stolen works could bring on the market. And there will of course be much of the usual speculation about why the works were stolen and how the thieves plan to benefit from their theft. But much of that discussion is moot because these stolen works are now well-known. Images of the stolen works are surely being given to the Art Loss Register, law enforcement agencies, and art dealers, so these works can never be sold in a legitimate market. In one sense then their market value means little.

 They have a kind of value though, in that they are so precious, that the museum, the owners, and the authorities may be willing to take—or at least the thief thinks they will take—the unwise step of paying a ransom. Or other criminals may try to launder some or all of the works through different individuals, in much the same way the Leonardo Yarnwinder was transferred. As a kind of a very beautiful set of poker chips.
It might be possible that a rich mastermind has so-enjoyed these works that he or she hired thieves to steal the art.But these real-life Dr. No's don't really exist. I admit it makes for good Bond villains, but there has been no convincing evidence that this is why people are stealing rare objects. Most likely of all, these beautiful clear windows made for such an easy target that the thieves stole first and will decide to worry about selling the works later.

Here is the current list of stolen works:

Pablo Picasso's Tete d'Arlequin;
Henri Matisse's La Liseuse en Blanc et Jaune;
Claude Monet's Waterloo Bridge, London, and Charing Cross Bridge, London;
Paul Gauguin's Femme devant une fenetre ouverte,
Meyer de Haan's Autoportrait and
Lucian Freud's Woman with Eyes Closed.

Oct 11, 2012

Footnotes


  • The oft-stolen Ghent altarpiece is being restored at a cost of $1.3 million, only a piece or two will be removed from display at a time. But if you can't make it to Ghent you can view the whole altarpiece in 100 billion pixels here.
  • The now-closed Knoedler art gallery has settled a suit involving an allegedly forged Jackson Pollock. 
  • In case you missed it, Arnold Peter Weiss, a prominent physician and coin collector wrote an essay on buying ancient coins as part of a plea agreement. Chasing Aphrodite has published the essay on scribd.
  • Public lands officials in Idaho are urging people not to disturb the increasing number of antiquities and other sites which are being revealed by the plague of forest fires.
  • Apparently some use their art to secure loans.
  • The four thieves in the theft of Chinese art from the Fitzwilliam in Cambridgeshire have been convicted, but where's the art?
  • Art forger Ken Perenyi continues to claim he's doing everyone a favor by forgin' art. I've got his book sitting on my desk but haven't had a chance to read it just yet. In an interview with Janice Harper he claims:
"My lawyers said at the time, 'Ken, when your own victims circle the wagons to prevent you from being indicted, that's got to be the definition of the perfect crime.'" Why would they protect him? Perhaps a better question is why would they turn him in? To do so would reveal not only the fact that they were duped. It would also mean they could not continue profiting from his work. "I would say from the art world establishment... the money is immaterial. They're not interested in trying to recover money at all. What they are worried about is their reputation. ... At the time of [the FBI] investigation, they had several important paintings that had gone through the auction houses that they knew were authored by me. And by looking at those paintings they would say, 'Oh my God, if he was good enough to do this, this certainly wasn't the first. So if he's indicted, what is this going to open up?'" What it would open up, Perenyi suggests, is that there are well over a thousand of his paintings out there right now, masquerading as "authentic." How does that impact the buyers of these works?

Oct 9, 2012

Tushnet on Images in Design Patents

The 1937 design patent for the coke bottle
Rebecca Tushnet of Georgetown Law has an essay titled: "The Eye Alone is the Judge: Images and Design patents", 19 J. Intell. Prop. L. 409 (2012).

Design patents are an area of intellectual property law focused entirely on the visual, unlike copyright, patent, trademark, trade secret, or the various sui generis protections that have occasionally been enacted for specific types of innovation. Judges and lawyers in general are highly uncomfortable with images, yet design patents force direct legal engagement with images. This short piece offers an outsider’s view of what design patent law has to say about the use of images as legal tools, why tests for design patent infringement are likely to stay unsatisfactory, and what lessons other fields of intellectual property, specifically copyright, might take from design patent.

More on the Destruction in Syria


Destruction in Aleppo

Michael Danti, an archaeologist who has worked near Aleppo talks about the damage to the Souk there and elsewhere in Syria on PRI's the world. It is a 6 minute interview:
 

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