Jan 31, 2007

Return of the Hoosier Battle Flag

The Indianapolis Star has an article by Vic Ryckaert describing the theft and return of this Indiana battle flag from the 25th Indiana Volunteer Regiment. The flag disappeared from the Indiana World War Memorial around 1985. The flag was discovered by a member of the FBI's Art Crime Team. It had been hanging in a bank lobby in Fremont, Ind., since 2000. The flag, valued at $60,000 was taken into battle in the Civil War at battles such as Shiloh, Vicksburg and Atlanta. The indications are that this flag was used for a veteran's day ceremony, and never returned. This kind of low-grade theft, which results from inefficient institutional procedures probably accounts for the lion's share of theft in the conventional sense of the word. Add the flag to the list of 850 items which have been recovered by the Art Crime Team since its inception in 2004. There are 12 full time agents working on the squad, stationed at various field offices throughout the country. Though the market will never be truly legitimate until there is widespread provenance checks for cultural property, this is a notable first step. It shows that an increase in resources can have a significant impact on the illicit trade.

Marischal Museum Returns Maori Remains

The University of Aberdeen's Marischal Museum has decided to return 9 toi moko, or preserved, tattooed heads. According to the press release, "the University follows a standard procedure when responding to a request for repatriation... [it] involves an expert panel who will consider various issues, for example the history, the status of the people making the request and the importance of the item". The toi moko will now return to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, where they will be cared for under the "protocols established by their Maori elders". Human remains are a difficult issue, but it appears that the University has gone about this repatriation in the right way. Sometimes the remains have been embalmed in toxic chemicals such as arsenic, or formaldehyde; thus making it difficult to simply bury them. Often times specialist are required. In addition, though this certainly does not appear to be the case here, when native groups seek the return of remains or other objects, it sometimes highlights the dichotomy between the way their ancestors lived and their lives today. Also, institutions need to be careful which tribe they are returning remains or objects to. Often, there may be multiple tribes with a claim. For those interested in this area, Michael Brown's Who Owns Native Culture is an excellent place to start.

Jan 30, 2007

Can anybody own a masterpiece?

It may be possible according to a special article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram by associate professor Alan Saxe at the University of Texas, Arlington. Like most things, you just have to invest before the works get too popular. It's a quirky little story. Apparently, this frugal young professor started buying great works by Chagall, Matisse, Norman Rockwell, Henry Moore, and others in 1965. He entered into a monthly credit plan, and he started buying these works before their value started to skyrocket into the millions. This Chagall work,"I and the village" is on display at MoMA in New York. It was not part of the works purchased by Saxe, but can you imagine a work of this quality hanging in what Saxe calls a "tiny domicile leased for $99 a month completely furnished -- one bedroom, bathroom, mini-kitchen and "living" merged together." Saxe says that as his collection grew, he started to grow uneasy about the possibility of theft or damage. He eventually donated them to art museums.

That is the nature of art I suppose. One day it's just a painting, and as time passes it becomes worth millions. Only in rare circumstances do paintings become masterpieces immediately. There is a period of scholarship and connoisseurship which starts to raise the profile of works of fine art; Art is, of course, subjective. I'm not an expert in art history by any means. But what makes a work a masterpiece? Nations of the world have cobbled together massive and cumbersome regulatory devices to protect and regulate them. Perhaps that is because by default, these works are going to go up in value. Picasso, Chagall, and Da Vinci aren't painting any more. But might instead we focus our resources on creating new art, and fostering appreciation of more living artists. I get frustrated from time to time when I read about cultural policy, because it assumes in many cases that beauty is a finite resource. I'm not convinced of that. Though it would undoubtedly be a travesty, if all the world's paintings were lost we would still find a way to create beautiful images wouldn't we? New masterpieces would take their place. There is a value in allowing a humble academic or a "ordinary" person to own works of art. Art isn't just for the super-rich in my view.

Jan 25, 2007

Correction: "Where the Snow the Pastures Sheets"

The media have been mistaken as to the painting stolen from Bourton-on-the-Water in Gloucestershire. Last week, I wrote about the theft of a Joseph Farquharson from a private residence. I posted an image of the painting, but I posted the wrong painting because The Herald incorrectly stated the name of the painting. I received a kind email from Grizelda Graham, daughter of the 89 year-old theft victim. She wrote , "We don't know why the media have entitled our stolen painting 'sunlight and shade' - the title on the back of my painting is 'where snow the pastures sheets.' It is very beautiful, and we are keen to publicise its theft widely in the hope that someone will spot it and return it to us." This is the image of the stolen painting she gave me.

Hopefully the media will correct their mistake soon, and continue to publish the theft. I suggested she contact the Art Loss Register in her attempts to get the painting back.

Buy a brushstroke, "save" a Turner

This watercolor by JMW Turner, "Blue Rigi" was sold at a Christie's auction in June, 2006 for £5.8 million. Here is an article from the Guardian, discussing the sale at auction, which set a record for the highest price ever paid for a British watercolor. The buyer's identity is, of course, a complete mystery. The work has been deemed of Waverley quality, and thus export of the work has been temporarily delayed to allow British institutions to raise enough funds to keep the work. The arts minister, David Lammy placed a temporary restriction on the work until July 22, but that delay has been extended until March 20. That may not be the final date though, dates have been extended in the past to allow for money to be raised. The arts minister should be very wary of extending the date too long though, as the private purchaser may decide to challenge the legality of the whole scheme as a violation of human rights. The law authorizing the ban was actually an emergency provision passed in 1939 on the eve of the Second World War, and was later adapted to allow UK institutions a chance to raise funds to buy the work. One consequence of this rather haphazard system is the reliance upon the ability of the interested parties to raise enough funds. That becomes increasingly difficult as the price for art increases. Also, if the seller of the work chooses, she can simply decide not to sell the work.

The only example I'm aware of the Waverley Criteria temporary export prohibition being challenged was in 1994 when the Getty tried to challenge repeated extensions to the ban on the export of the Three Graces which is currently jointly owned by the Tate and the National Gallery of Scotland.

This also draws strong parallels to the recent successful efforts to prevent the Gross Clinic from leaving Philadelphia. At least that work was publicly displayed. This Turner is privately owned, and not displayed to the public. How has the cultural heritage of the UK been damaged if a seldom-shown work is sold to a different individual in another country? I think that "saving" this work is a bit of a misnomer, especially considering two slightly different Rigi's exist, one displayed in Australia, and another in the US National Gallery. If nothing else, the campaign to purchase this work is really ingenious. One wonders why it took so long, but in the last few days the Art Fund has just initiated a really creative fund-raising project. One can choose to "buy a brushstroke" for as little as five pounds, and the website gradually shows how much of the work has been "saved". I suppose the market will decide. If you think the cultural patrimony of the UK will be forever tarnished by allowing the work to be owned by a mysterious foreign individual, you can donate to the effort. So far, £25,214 has been raised. Hopefully the seller will not choose to keep the painting if the funds are raised.

3 Year Italian Investigation Yields Marble Reliefs

From the Daily Mail, it seems Italian police have recovered 12 marble reliefs depicting Roman gladiators. USA Today picks up an AP story as well, available here. The panels were discovered buried in a garden near Fiano Romano. The reliefs, made of Carrara marble, are thought to date to the 1st century BC. The images are stunning, as David Nishimura rightly points out. Officials say the pieces will be studied, restored, and then displayed at the Villa Giulia in Rome.

The Prosecutor, Paolo Ferri, says individuals have been charged, but their names have not been released. One thing I would like to know is, what archaeological context was destroyed in the process of removing this from the decorated tomb? How will the raiders be punished? I wonder as well, why the investigation took three years. That's a very long time; I imagine they were waiting to catch the raiders trying to sell the pieces to a dealer or international buyer.

(Image by Plinio Lepri, AP)

Jan 23, 2007

High Court in London Denies Iranian Ownership Claim

A frustratingly sketchy Reuters article indicates that Iran has lost in its attempt to reclaim a carved limestone relief, like this one, from the ancient city of Persepolis. Unfortunately, its an example of shoddy legal reporting. It only gives us the result. It provides none of the legal arguments. An earlier story from The Telegraph gives a good background. The dispute was between Denyse Berend, who purchased the relief in New York in 1974, and Iran. It seems Iran was arguing that the relief was removed sometime after the city was first excavated in 1932 by Ernst Herzfeld. If I had to guess, I would say the High Court ruled in favor of Berend because too much time has passed since she bought the object. More than likely, Iran has let the Statute of Limitations run. Frequently, the issue of whether a claimant has brought a timely action is outcome determinative. When I can get my hands on the opinion, I'll write more. It could be a significant decision, as it might give us a better idea of the law in England and Wales regarding foreign patrimony laws.

Jan 22, 2007

The Getty Trust's Position on the Statue of a Victorious Youth

This bronze statue, known as "the Statue of a Victorious Youth" was purchased by the Getty in 1977 for close to $4 million. It has been attributed to the Greek sculptor Lysippos, the 4th century BC sculptor for Alexander the Great. However, it may be a work by a later Greek sculptor in the same style. Today, the nearly life-size statue is one of the excellent pieces of the Getty's Greek and Roman collection. It was found in 1964 by fisherman from Fano, somewhere in the Adriatic Sea.

Last Friday, I received an email from Ron Hartwig, of the Getty, complete with a copy of the memo sent last November to the Italian Government regarding this bronze statue. The memo, prepared by the law firm representing the Getty is a detailed account of the legal and factual history surrounding the statue. As he stated to me, "[The Getty] are committed to reaching an agreement with Italy, but doing so based on a scholarly approach, and mindful of relevant law." That seems quite a reasonable proposition to me, and paints a much different picture than the one many Italian authorities are portraying. Certainly, the Italian Cultural Ministry is laying strong claims to the bronze in the media. Just last week, Francesco Rutelli said of the bronze,

"the bronze Athlete that was hauled up in a fishing net from the waters of the Adriatic sea and later secretly smuggled out of Italy in total violation of its laws. Paradoxically, museum founder John Paul Getty declared before his death that he did not want to acquire that work without its official certification and clear title. This is not a legal question, but a question of ethics. It is a matter of transparency in relations with the public and correct behavior in the antiquities market."

There are a lot of problems with the antiquities market, but I'm not sure how they are linked to this statue. I'd like to lay out the Getty's position on the statue, and then evaluate Italy's claims. It seems clear to me, based on the memo provided, that Italy has a very weak legal and ethical argument to make for the return of the work. The bronze statue was pulled up by Italian fishermen in 1964. The Getty claims it was 30-40 miles off the coast of Italy. The Italian territorial waters extend only 6 nautical out to sea. Italy claims that the statue was found in Italian territorial waters, which would have vested title to the work in the Italian state. However, it seems there was a prosecution in 1966 of the Italians who had purchased the statue. The men were acquitted, and after an appeal, the Court of Appeals of Rome upheld the acquittal because there was no sufficient evidence introduced at the trial that the statue was found in Italian territorial waters. According to the memo, the capatin of the Ferrucio Ferri, Romeo Pirani, has stated unequivocally that the statue was found over 30 miles offshore. Another fisherman on the boat, Igli Rosato, has said the statue was found 32 nautical miles from the shore. It's surprising to me that this fact has not been given more attention. An Italian court has essentially ruled that there is not enough evidence to support returning the statue.

After the statue was found, it was probably taken ashore to Italy. When it left Italy, it would have probably violated Italian export restrictions. However, courts of one nation do not generally enforce the export restriction of a foreign state. Though American courts recognize foreign patrimony laws, they most certainly do not recognize foreign export restrictions. Thus, in terms of legal claims for the return of the bronze, Italy has no tenable claim, and would almost certainly fail if they chose to bring suit.

What then of the ethical arguments? Certainly, Italy can argue that the statue was illegally exported, and thus should be returned. However, that claim may have been more persuasive when the Getty was considering purchasing the statue. As it stands now, the statue has been displayed by the Getty since 1978, and has been one of their signature pieces, such that the statue is now often referred to as "the Getty Bronze". Further, the statue was created in Greece, not Italy. If any nation has a claim to it based on the idea that it is a part of their cultural patrimony, it is Greece. Also, the reason the trade in illicit antiquities is so damaging, is that it often causes the loss of the archaeological context surrounding an object. However, those concerns are not present in this case, as the statue was most assuredly a chance find.

In the end, it seems clear to me that the legal and ethical arguments supporting the removal of the statue to Italy are quite tenuous. The question then becomes, why has Italy argued so stringently for the return of the statue? Perhaps they do feel strongly that this statue belongs in an Italian institution, or perhaps they are using it to leverage the Getty into returning other works. In any case, though the Getty could have certainly been more cautious in many of its purchases in the past, it seems to me, based on the evidence I have seen, they are on solid legal and ethical grounds in choosing to proudly display this bronze statue.

Diplomats Transporting Illicit Antiquities?

Martin Bailey of the Art Newspaper has an article on an unpublished Dutch report by Jos van Beurden which indicates diplomatic bags are being used to smuggle antiquities. Under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, diplomatic bags should "not be opened or detained". The article is short of any hard numbers, and it seems the unpublished paper is only based on anecdotal evidence. However, a number of influential writers in the field, including Colin Renfrew, have indicated that diplomatic bags are a big source of the problem.

It seems we are stuck between a rock and a hard place here. On the one hand, without more data on the amount of objects being smuggled, it will be difficult to recommend a change in current practice. However, the anonymity which pervades the antiquities market seems to preclude the gathering of that data. Perhaps it will take a high-profile incident to force a change in current practice.

I am not convinced that these are a huge problem. Shouldn't diplomats have better things to do than smuggle antiquities. In addition, without more information, this would only seem to add to the speculation.

Jan 19, 2007

Theft of a bust of Rodin's "The Thinker" (UPDATED)

A number of bronze sculptures, including one of the casts of Auguste Rodin's "The Thinker" has been stolen from a Dutch museum. Though it is not particularly rare (there exist 74 other casts of the work), it may be worth hundreds of thousands of Euros. This is another in a string of recent bronze thefts. Some bronze busts have recently gone missing from the Pere Lachaise cemetery as well. Tragically, the works may be melted down, as bronze can be quite valuable. There is also speculation that the bronze may be used to make counterfeit ancient coins.


Two men have been arrested in connection with the thefts. As I suspected, it appears the thieves were only after the bronze to melt it down. They were apparently quite surprised at the level of media attention. Sadly, it appears that one of the legs was sawed off in preparation for melting it down. On the bright side though, perhaps they can use one of the other thinker busts to reconstitute this one.

Jan 18, 2007

Prosecution of Marion True and Robert Hecht Resumes in Italy (UPDATED)

There is a slew of new reports marking the continuation of the high-profile antiquities prosecutions in Rome. The New York Times has a piece, and the Washington Post picks up an AP story. Francesco Rutelli also has an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal, which can be downloaded from the Italian Ministry of Culture's website here.

Is there anything new being said? Not really. Much of the back and forth involves trial tactics and public posturing on the part of Rutelli. Though he has some good arguments in his opinion piece, much of it is frustratingly vague or inaccurate. When he speaks of Italy "renouncing possession of these works of art" in reference to 46 contested objects held by the Getty, he conveniently fails to acknowledge the Getty has agreed to return 25 of them. Also, his claims of providing "exhaustive and reliable documentation" to the Getty may be true, however if the evidence were as damning as he indicates, Italy would certainly have first, asked US federal prosecutors to initiate a civil forfeiture action as they did in US v. An Antique Platter of Gold 184 F.3d 131 (2d Cir. 1999). This would have allowed for the return of the objects, while the US Department of Justice foots the legal bills. Thus, it seems to me that the evidence Ruteli is discussing may not be quite as damning as he indicates. He also makes it seem as if the issue of this bronze Athlete found in the Adriatic sea clearly belongs to Italy. This is a gross oversimplification. There seems to be good arguments that the object was found in international waters, and was in fact Greek in origin. Though he may be right that the bronze came ashore in Italy, the law violated would be an Export restriction, not a state-vesting provision. This makes Italy's claim much different. If nothing else, the article was well-timed to coincide with the reopening of the trial in Rome though.

At the trial itself, the testimony of Pietro Casasanta seems intriguing. He details over 50 years of his experience dealing in Italian antiquities. He was testifying for the prosecution, not because he had any ties with the defendants, but because he played a role in the antiquities trade in general. He indicated that "From one day to the next we went from art experts to criminals...I saved thousands of artifacts that would have been ground into cement. ... It's a shame that they don't make me a senator for life." Interesting comments, especially given Italy's recent efforts at stemming the trade. Perhaps the biggest gain Italy has made in recent years is cutting off Switzerland as a transit state. Switzerland has recently signed on to the UNESCO Convention and, more importantly, secured a bilateral deal with Italy.


Lee Rosenbaum continues her good work on this controversy by soliciting a response from Michael Brand, Director of the Getty Museum. He clarifies many of the charges leveled against him. Perhaps most interesting, he indicates that the Getty is careful when repatriating objects. In fact, one of the objects claimed by Italy "a Kore ... had been claimed by both Italy and Greece, and we now have agreed to return that object to Greece. This is precisely why we have to respond to these claims very carefully." That seems reasonable, and in fact much of Brand's comments paint a picture of the Getty attempting to work out a reasonable compromise with Italy.

Of course, the true nature of the negotiation process may lie somewhere between Brand and Rutelli's conflicting accounts. However Rutelli often seems inclined to elevate the rhetoric. However, regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, it would seem that the Italians have accomplished a great deal. Certainly, reputable institutions and museums are now thinking twice about acquiring Greek, Roman, or Etruscan objects which might have come from Italy. A protracted public relations struggle is certainly not good for the public image.

Jan 17, 2007

Art Theft in the Cotswolds

Joseph Farquharson's "Sunlight and Shadow", valued at £150,00, has been stolen from a private residence. There were 6 people in the house while the painting, along with other works and a grandfather clock were taken. Though thefts from museums and public institutions often make headlines, more works may actually be stolen from private homes. This may be an example of thieves being unaware of what they have stolen. In my view, the best way to prevent these kind of thefts is to insist on a transparent art market.

Jan 16, 2007

Easiest Thefts Ever?

Thieves made off with $4 million in rare coins last week. This is the second year running that the Florida International Numismatist Convention has been hit. One might imagine that these collectors and dealers would be a little more careful. This year, a handful of masked robbers stole the coins at knifepoint. Last year they merely broke into the cars in a parking lot and made off with $450,000 in loot.

The recent robbery took place in the valet parking line at the Peabody Hotel. Some of the most valuable coins taken include coins like this one, dating from 1843 and President Tyler. David Nishimimura points out that perhaps the dealers should have used an armored car service. Once again, authorities do not know how the objects will be sold, as they are extremely rare, and would probably be quite difficult to get rid of. The art isn't in the theft, it's in the selling. There remains a healthy debate about whether these kind of coins rise to the level of cultural property. Though they are valuable, they are not particularly rare.

Golf, Donald Trump and the Stone Age

Aberdeen's own Press & Journal details a potential headache for Donald Trump. The billionaire has been planning a new golf resort here in the North-East of Scotland, between Balmedie and Newburgh. The plans include 2 courses, a village, and a 5-star resort. It may all cost up to £5 billion. Unfortunately, these hills may contain Stone Age relics. An environmental assessment is currently underway. There is no definitive proof that the dunes contain relics, however Ian Shepherd, an archaeologist with the Aberdeenshire Council speculates that, "the coast would have been rich in food sources and a perfect place for hunter gatherers. They could have found whales washed ashore, seals for hunting and wildfowl further inland. Our evidence is that these areas were really at a premium."

If I had to guess, I'd say that the chances of this kind of development were to be held up by some archaeological concerns are quite slim. Perhaps a compromise could be worked out wherein parts of the development are excavated. There always exists a tension between archaeology, environmental concerns, and development. My personal view is that the impacts of the courses and hotel would likely be far less intrusive than that of the oil industry in the wider area. Though I should confess I'm an avid golfer, and one could not imagine a more perfect setting for golf.

Jan 13, 2007

Italy takes aim at Japenese museums

Italy's aggressive repatriation campaign is continuing, this time in Japan. Italian authorities have compiled a list of 100 objects it claims must be returned. Many of the works are currently housed at the Miho Museum in Koka. Italy plans to make a request for the return of the objects under the 1970 UNESCO Convention. The way in which Japanese authorities respond to these claims will likely be dictated by the quality of the evidence which Italian authorities are able to produce. Most reports claim that these objects are stolen, and that term is likely inaccurate. Probably none of the objects are stolen as we normally think of the crime. Most likely, they were illeglly excavated and/or illegally exported. Italy has claimed an ownership interest in its antiquities, and also put strong restrictions on their export.

Jan 11, 2007

Marion True on Trial in Greece as Well

The New York Times devotes an article to bail being set in another trial of former Getty curator Marion True in Greece yesterday. The trial involves this greek funerary wreath, allegedly removed from the country 15 years ago. The Getty agreed on Dec. 11 of last year to return the wreath to Greece. I discussed that decision earlier here. The NYT reports that in total, five people have been charged in the case, "Ms. True... two Greeks accused of digging up the wreath in northern Greece, Georgios Tsatalis and Georgios Kagias; L. J. Kovacevic, a Serbian national accused of putting them in touch with a middleman; and Christoph Leon, a Swiss-based antiquities dealer who sold the wreath to the Getty in 1993 for $1.1 million."

True faces a potential 10 year prison term. I found the comments of the investigating magistrate Apostolos Zavitsanos quite interesting, "The wreath's value of over a million dollars determined the nature of charges brought against Ms. True." Why do prosecutors use the monetary value of an object to ascertain the seriousness of a crime in this context? It seems to run contrary to the underlying rationales for nationalization of antiquities and restrictions on their export. These restrictions are based on the idea that the important loss which occurs is to the archaeological context, and not the loss of the actual object. If Greece were simply concerned with the loss of beautiful objects, why not just dig up the whole peninsula? Sentencing should also incorporate how much knowledge was lost as a result of the looting in my view.

True has been understandably upset in recent weeks. Back in December, Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino of the LA Times managed to uncover a bitter letter written by True to the Getty Trust. True argued that her supervisors were aware of her acquisitions, and were fully appraised of the itinerant risks. The LAT quotes her letter, "Once again you have chosen to announce the return of objects that are directly related to criminal charges filed against me by a foreign government...without a word of support for me, without any explanation of my role in the institution, and without reference to my innocence." Though the increasing number of criminal charges leveled at her seem to render her cries of innocence increasingly desperate, I can see her point.

It seems as if True was not doing anything much different from other curators and purchasers during this period. The one difference may have been that the vast funds at the Getty's disposal dictated that she would buy more objects . The trials will show whether she violated Italian and Greek law; however it makes me uncomfortable when a few members of a group are targeted as examples, while others go unpunished. The flaw occurs across many areas of the law, but seems more acute when we think about cultural property. Successful prosecutions are few and far between.

Jan 10, 2007

A Gauguin will stay at the TMA

A Federal District Court in Ohio has denied the ownership claims of 15 people seeking an interest in this work. "Street Scene in Tahiti" by Paul Gauguin was purchased by the Toledo Museum of Art in 1939. It's current value is estimated at between $10 and $15 million. A copy of the opinion memorandum is available here, courtesy of Harvard Law Professor Harry Martin III. The work belonged to a German Jew, Martha Nathan. In 1937, she left Germany to escape Nazi persecution. The next year, in 1938, Nathan sold this work to a group of art dealers she had known for some years, who were Jews as well. The three purchased the work for 30,000 Swiss Francs, ($6,900 USD). As Judge Zouhary notes, "this sale occurred outside Germany by and between private individuals who were familiar with each other. The Painting was not confiscated or looted by the Nazis; the sale was not at the direction of, nor did the proceeds benefit the Nazi regime."

The work has hung in the TMA since its purchase in 1939, and Nathan brought other Restitution claims for Nazi persecution, but did not file a claim for the painting. In this case, Judge Zouhary applied Ohio's 4-year statute of limitation. The trick with limitations periods hinges on when the limitations period has started to run. Under Ohio law, the discovery rule dictates that a claim accrues when a claimant discovers, or should have discovered the injury. This is precisely the kind of claim a statute of limitation is intended to cover. It also highlights that often in these cases, the issue of whether a limitations period has expired will often prove outcome-determinative.

The case is a bit peculiar. Often, it is the claimants who bring suit. However, in this case the Toledo Museum of Art preemptively brought an action last year in a quiet title action. Whether the claimants will seek an appeal remains to be seen, but it seems likely given the value of the work. However, they do not have a great set of facts to work with here. Their ultimate success seems quite unlikely.

Sonic Fingerprints

From Wired News, apparently Italian geophysicist Pietro Cosentino has been using sonic tomogopraphy to fingerprint wooden, ceramic, and stone objects. The non-invasive process records sonic vibrations after an object is struck with a small rubber hammer. The technology could have some interesting possible uses for identifying objects. There are a few potential hurdles though. First, the technology is extremely expensive. The sonic fingerprinting system costs between 15,000-20,000 Euros. Also, the sonic fingerprints change over time, so the process must be conducted regularly to be effective. There is also a risk of some less-than trustworthy individuals using the technology for false identification.

Jan 8, 2007

Thefts in Auckland New Zealand

Thieves have stolen a Charles Goldie portrait and an Oxford Lectern bible from Auckland University's library over the holidays. Like most Universities, it seems Auckland shut its doors over the holidays, and the theft was not discovered until employees came back from their holiday break. It's unclear how the thieves will attempt to sell the two objects, as they would be easily recognizable by any dealer. However, those claims are made every time there is a high-value robbery such as this.

Perhaps police are trying to discourage the thieves from attempting to sell the objects, or perhaps the theft was made to order. Regardless of how difficult these objects are to sell though, they keep getting stolen. The portrait, "Planning Revenge" was recently returned from Canada. I cannot find an image of that work, but this is a work called "A Noble Relic of a Noble Race", which might be similar. Sadly, the work was recently returned to New Zealand, after spending the last 70 years in Canada

More on Civic Cultural Heritage, the Ozarks, and Eakins

Daniel Brook of the Boston Globe has a can't miss article on the "Gross Clinic" fund raising efforts in today's edition, available here. He neatly summarizes all of the salient issues in the dispute, and rightly points out the hypocrisy in an American city, which owes much of its artistic resources to the power of its Gilded Age benefactors, crying foul when an important work is purchased by wealthy outsiders. Were Philadelphians perhaps upset at the idea of Bentonville Arkansas, home to Wal-Mart, upstaging its own perceived cultural importance? I think so. The article echoes a lot of the arguments I've been making here, namely that the civic export restrictions are quite similar to the policies implemented by source nations to protect their own archaeological heritage.

Jan 4, 2007

Art Beat Constables

Lucian Harris of the Art Newspaper has an article on efforts of the London Metropolitan Police to recruit volunteers. Shockingly, the center of the second-largest art and antiquities market in the world, London, has only four full-time officers in its Art and Antiquities Unit. Furthermore, the Art squad has been told that it could become disbanded if it does not become 50% self-financing by 2008. What precisely "self-financing" would be does not appear clear to me. In response, the squad has been recruiting volunteers from museums, universities, and insurance companies to serve as Special Constables who will spend one day every two weeks patrolling markets or doing undercover work. The volunteers will receive training in police procedure and specialist art squad techniques.

The goal of the effort is to build bridges between the police and the art world. Perhaps the program will garner results, but I'm highly skeptical. What self-respecting art dealer would risk damage to his reputation by putting on a police uniform and patrolling the streets of London, looking for stolen masterpieces (such as Camden Passage, pictured here)? The measure seems a bit bizarre, and if authorities in London are actually serious about limiting the trade in illicit cultural property, there are much better, more practical ways to proceed. Authorities could start by amending the extremely weak Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003.

This measure seems to me a public relations jaunt, and one that carries a substantial risk of backfiring. Could you imagine the Italian Carabinieri adopting such a scheme? I think not.

(Image Courtesy of Channel 4)

Thomas Jefferson's Quran

Cultural property may often be used for present-day political purposes. NPR's All Things Considered has a nice piece on Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress. He announced last month that he wanted to be sworn in with a Quran. A slew of criticism ensued, and Ellison responded by announcing he plans to use a copy of the Quran once owned by Thomas Jefferson. It was a very smart political move, especially considering Jefferson helped to create America's religious toleration. He considered his writing of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom one of his three most important life accomplishments.

Jan 3, 2007

How Do Dealers Acquire Antiquities?

Bo Emerson of the Atlanta Journal Constitution has a nice article in yesterday's edition tracking the efforts of Jasper Gaunt, curator for Emory's Michael C. Carlos Museum, in his successful attempt to acquire this Hellenistic marble head of a goddess, dating from the 2nd or 1st century BC. The work sold at a Sotheby's auction in New York for $486,400.

It's a very interesting article, and highlights the way the insular antiquities-buying community works. One thing struck me about the article. Though dealers may, with the best of intentions, strive to acquire objects with a detailed provenance, thereby insuring the objects were not illicitly exported or excavated, you pay a premium for them. That is, if an upstart cultural institution is trying to expand its collection, and has only limited funds, it may be difficult to pay a higher sum for works which are provenanced. It would seem to pose a difficult moral dilemma. Should a curator risk buying an unprovenanced object if it means they might add to the prestige of their institution? I think that's a very real temptation. Of course, working against that temptation is the increasing scrutiny leveled at cultural institutions who are accused of holding illicitly excavated, looted, or illicitly exported objects.


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