Sep 29, 2009

More Art Thefts in California

Coming soon after the theft of the Warhol works in Brentwood, and the armed robbery in Belgium, there has been another major theft in California. In Pebble Beach 13 works by Rembrandt (pictured here), Van Gogh, Jackson Pollock and others were stolen.  These new works may  be worth as much as $27 million.  The works were stolen from Angelo Benjamin Amadio; who has since offered a $1-million reward for the return of the objects.

Why all these thefts?  Is it a product of the economic downturn?  Or are thieves hoping to gain some of these lucrative rewards?

Big art theft reported in Pebble Beach [Monterey County Herald, Sep. 28, 2009]

Turkey Plagued by Illicit Antiquities Trade

An interesting piece this Sunday on the problem of looting of sites in Turkey and the smuggling of objects from war-torn nations like Afghanistan and Iraq through Turkey:

According to the “Cultural and Natural Assets Smuggling Report” prepared by the Culture and Tourism Ministry based on figures provided by the Anti-smuggling and Organized Crime Bureau (KOM) of the police department, Turkey sees higher statistics related to the smuggling of historical artifacts every year.  In 2003 security authorities seized 3,255 historical artifacts that smugglers were attempting to take abroad. With a steady rise over years, this figure rose to 17,936 in 2007. And another new high came in 2008, when authorities seized 42,073 historical artifacts and detained 4,077 suspects in 1,576 operations.  Coins are the favorite of smugglers as they are relatively easy to take abroad without detection. The number of coins seized by security authorities rose from 20,461 in 2007 to 55,613 in 2008. . . .

The report also maintains that conflicts and wars tend to create a suitable atmosphere for the smuggling of historical artifacts, as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the ongoing wars allow smugglers to operate freely. The majority of historical artifacts smuggled out of these countries are sent to Western countries via Turkey. This route of smuggling implies that these historical artifacts are purchased by collectors in rich Western countries. The US, the UK, Switzerland and Japan are the favorite destinations for these items.  The report cites lack of sufficient security measures against theft in museums as the major reason for the high number of smuggling cases. Tourism is the most widely used venue for smuggling historical artifacts.Furthermore, Turkey lacks a sufficient and clear inventory of historical artifacts in the country, and Turkey does not have statistics about existing historical artifacts and about already smuggled items.

Ercan Yavuz, Turkey a magnet for smugglers of historical artifact [Today's Zaman, Sep.  27, 2009]

Sep 28, 2009

The Symes Auction

Robin Symes, the antiquities dealer with a checkered past will have remnants of his art collection sold at auction at Bonham's in Bath.  The sale is being organized by liquidators of Symes' estate.  Symes was a successful dealer in antiquities, but also played a role in the trade in illicit antiquities.  He was featured prominently in the network of dealers which sold works handled by Giacomo Medici, and the Getty.  The catalog describes the sale as the "Robin Symes Collection".  It includes the following "the items are being sold by the liquidators who make no warranty as to title, but have been given no reason to believe good title cannot be passed."  Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the history of these items.  As Francesco Rutelli told the participants at the ARCA Conference in Italy this summer:  just because one can buy these items, doesn't mean one should buy these items. 

Colin Gleadell, Art Sales:  the last remains of a scandal [The Telegraph, Sep. 28, 2009]

Sep 25, 2009

Massive Recovery of Anglo-Saxon Gold Announced

Cheek piece and sword fitting

Below is some video of the massive discovery of Anglo-Saxon gold discovered by a detectorist this summer.

Two things to note from the piece: First is that these objects were very near the surface, and may have been at risk from pesticides/agricultural damage. Second, the finder here notified the proper authorities, and an archaeological excavation was made possible. There is a terrific website devoted to the objects, with a number of images and links to news reports. It is hard I think for even the most ardent critics of the Portable Antiquities Scheme to find much fault with the result in this case. The objects have a history, archaeological excavation was undertaken, and the public can study and enjoy these terrific objects.

Sep 24, 2009

Armed Theft of a Magritte

Earlier today armed robbers stole this work, Olympia by Rene Magritte from an appointment-only museum just outside of Brussels today.  The men rang the bell, asked if visiting hours had started, and then put a gun to the attendant and rounded up the visitors, and stole the work.

No word yet on if they were wearing bowler hats.  Magritte painted the work with the man in the hat and an apple in front of his face, the Son of Man -- an image which was prominently used in the Thomas Crown Affair.  It seems unlikely thieves would risk punishment to re-enact a film, so why was the painting taken?  There are a few oft-cited possibilities:

The first, is that a collector admires the piece, and hired a thief to take it for him. We can call this the Dr. No situation. This seems the least likely possibility, but the one that strikes a chord with the imagination. Writers in this subject frequently cite the Dr. No as being responsible for thefts, and I admit it makes for good Bond villains, but there has been no convincing evidence that thsi is why people are stealing rare objects. Another similar possibility which seems far more likely is that an unscrupulous dealer may have a similar piece for sale, and if he can establish some excitement around these kinds of pieces, the price for his similar work may go up. 

Second, the thief may not have known that the object was so rare as to make its subsequent sale difficult.

Third, the thief may simply be trying to kidnap the object. They could then insure its safe return for a generous reward, or negotiate its return.

Finally, perhaps the market is doing such a poor job of regulating what is and is not legitimate, that it may not be all that difficult to sell this piece after all. This strikes me as the most troubling possibility, but also not very likely.

Sep 21, 2009

Lost Work Discovered

Ludovico Mazzolino lost masterpiece:  Lost Renaissance masterpiece discovered after 60 yearsThis work, Madonna and Child with St. Joseph, by Ludovico Mazzolino has been rediscovered after being left in storage for nearly 60 years.  A photograph of the work was sent to an auctioneer, who identified it as the work of Mazzolino.  It seems this work is genuine, and has a solid history.  Guy Schwinge, an auctioneer at Duke's of Dorchester said:

"With the help of the National Gallery we have been able to identify that it was last sold at public auction three years before Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo."

The seller is a pensioner from Cheltenham, who put the work into storage in 1950.  He received it from his great grandmother who bought it in Italy in 1862, and it had been sold at auction in London in 1812 for only £20.  

Lost Renaissance Work Discovered [BBC News, Sep. 21, 2009].  

Viking Silver Discovered by Metal Detectorists on Display in York

Vale of York Hoard vessel. Picture by the British Museum
This hoard of viking silver -- buried in the 10th century -- was discovered by Metal detector David Whelan and his son Andrew in a field in 2007.  Included in the find were 617 coins and 67 other objects.  The treasure was valued at over £1m.  They went on public display in York last week.  Andrew Morrison, curator of archaeology at the York Museums Trust tells the BBC what we know about the silver and the role it played in the Anglo-Scandinavian economy:

"We can certainly say it's an Anglo-Scandinavian hoard because of the contents," Mr Morrison insists. Among the coins are dirhams from Muslim states as far away as central Asia and Afghanistan.  "What they're showing you is trading links. That tends to be very much more the Viking side of life than the Anglo-Saxon side of life," says Mr Morrison. The Scandinavian seagoing peoples travelled and traded far and wide   The presence of "hack silver" - items such as jewellery cut into pieces for their silver value - is also "what you expect from an Anglo-Scandinavian economy," he adds. The Anglo-Saxons tended to use coins rather than bullion.  The hoard will be on show in York from 17 September until 1 November.  It will return to the British Museum while the Yorkshire Museum closes for refurbishment until August 2010. It will then return to York for "a period of time" - by which time the whole hoard, including all 617 coins, should be ready to go on display.  For Mr Morrison this co-operation between regional and national museums is "the way forward - you get the best of everything: the local input into ways of doing things, with the national expertise".  The hoard, for him, has a personal feel - it gives clues about whoever it was who hid it. The single gold arm ring among the mass of silver items could well have been of great sentimental value to its owner, he believes. Possibly it was a reward for services given by a superior ruler.  In sum, he says: "This is the lifetime's treasure of a reasonably wealthy individual."  It also helps us to remember what a wealthy and prestigious place Northumbria, centred on York, was, he observes - sometimes in the richness of archaeological finds in the city and its surroundings "we forget how it is a place with the seeds of power and glory."
Silver-gilt vessel from the Vale of York Hoard. Inset: before cleaning. Photo: British Museum.
  In an ideal world of course all these objects would be professionally excavated.  Yet these objects tell us a great deal about the culture which produced them, they can be enjoyed by scholars and the public in York and at the British Museum.  Contrast this with the Sevso Treasure, which is locked away at Bonham's auction house.  Three nations of origin, each with national ownership declarations and no similar rewards for finders, fought over those works, and the result was the trust created by the Marquess of Northampton was able to retain possession.  Whatever criticisms can be lodged with the Treasure Act and the Portable Antiquities Scheme, they reward compliance.  They work.  We still know very little about the Sevso Treasure, who discovered, and where.  The current state of law and policy produces a perfect black market.  The PAS offers a good alternative.  What is the utility of a legal regime which cannot be enforced? 

I've argued that the PAS has a lot of merit, and should be considered as a potential policy model for other nations. Rick Witschonke, reported on a conference earlier this month at the British Museum on the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and his thoughts are here

Trevor Timpson, The 'wonderful, wonderful' hoard & Getting the most out of treasure [BBC Sep. 17, 2009]. 

Sep 18, 2009

Odyssey Marine Salvage Award

One nation's underwater looters are another nation's excavators-for-hire.  Dow Jones Newswires is reporting that Odyssey Marine will receive a $160,000 award for recovering artifacts for the U.K. from the English Channel:
Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. (OMEX) will receive a salvage award of $160,000 in a settlement with the U.K. government for artifacts recovered so far from a gunship wreck in the English Channel.The company - which uses advanced technology to comb the ocean's depths for silver, gold and historical artifacts - also has filed a motion to vacate its admiralty arrest on the wreck in U.S. federal court. An admiralty arrest is a legal proceeding by which Odyssey seeks court recognition of its right to salvage a ship.Shares recently were up 14% at $2.33 in recent premarket trading. Still, that's far below its all-time high of $8.32 a share in May 2007, shortly after a separate major discovery in the Atlantic Ocean, which led to a legal dispute with Spain. Shares lost two-thirds of their value in one day in June after Odyssey was recommended to return an estimated $500 million in sunken cargo. The case is still pending.The U.K. salvage award represents about 80% of the value of two cannon recovered from Admiral Balchin's HMS Victory, a British Navy 100 gun ship lost in 1744 and submitted to the U.K. Receiver of Wreck. The company plans to contribute $75,000 of the award to support the National Museum of the Royal Navy.The company also will be involved in talks to determine approaches that should be adopted towards the wreck. Odyssey has booked losses in every year except one since it went public in 1997, but has loyal investors confident in its long-term prospects. The company generates revenue by selling artifacts and coins, from a partnership with the Discovery Channel and from leasing fees for traveling museum exhibits.  The HMS Victory is one of Odyssey's significant finds and sank in a storm with 41 bronze cannons and other artifacts aboard.Odyssey in April had admiralty arrest on about a dozen sites.

Sep 17, 2009

Redds Sentenced to Probation

Jeanne and Jericca Redd (pictured here with their attorney) have been sentenced in the federal artifact-looting investigation. They are the first to be sentenced, there are at least 26 other potential criminal defendants. U.S. District Court Judge Waddous sentenced Jeanne Redd to 36 months's probation and a $2,000 fine, and her daughter Jericca to 24 months' probatoin and a $300 fine. Federal prosecutors had recommended 18 months in prison for Jeanne. Jeanne pleaded guilty to seven felonies, two counts of violating the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, two counts of theft, and three counts of theft of tribal property. Each one of those counts carried a potential fine of $250,000 and 10 years in prison. The younger Redd admitted to three felonies for digging up a seed jar, a vase, and a vessel on the Navajo reservation. Over 800 objects, including human remains were seized from the Redds.

However Judge Waddous said "This is a community where this kind of conduct . . . has been justified for a number of years . . . This is a woman who has spent her life as a member of her community . . . I want to express my thanks, . . . I know this has been a terrible experience for all of you."
Judge Waddons is referring to the suicide of James Redd earlier this summer, and that seems to have had a substantial impact on the sentencing. It is also a general rule in sentencing that when a defendant pleads guilty, a prosecutor will recommend a much lesser sentence, but in this case the sentence fell far short of the sentence recommended by the prosecutors.

George Hardeen, a spokeseman for Navajo Nation president Joe Shirley Jr. said "The Navajo people are compassionate toward others who have had a tragic loss as the Redd family have . . . At the same time, Navajos have a deep respect for burials and ruins and teach that these are not to be disturbed. Obviously, Navajos want them left alone and not looted for their artifacts."

In an interview on NPR this morning Mark Michel of the Archeological Conservancy said "The sentence is disappointing . . . And I'm afraid it sends a message that this is not serious criminal activity."

U.S. Attorney Richard McKelvie saw it another way, "I can't imagine anybody willfully subjecting themselves to anything the Redds have gone through . . . You can't ignore the consequences that these people have suffered as a result of the investigation and prosecution of this case."

These sentences are certainly on the light side, but even if the judge had thrown the "book" at the Redds and all the other defendants, would that have a sustained impact on the preservation of the archaeological record in the Southwest? It may, or it may produce a backlash. Criminal penalties are an important component, but criminal penalties in isolation will not solve the problem. There are very different ways of valuing these sites and objects, and increased awareness of how important and valuable the archaeological record is are critical components of this process.

Howard Berkes, Mother, Daughter Get Probation In Artifacts Theft [NPR, Sep. 16, 2009].
Patty Henetz, Redds dodge prison in artifact sentencing [The Salt Lake Tribune, Sep. 17, 2009].

Sep 16, 2009

Nine Double Eagle Coins

Roy Langbord discovered in 2003 that his family had 9 of these rare double eagle coins locked away in a safe-deposit box:

The famous “double eagles” from that year were never officially released by the government. Only a few had ever made their way out of federal vaults, and only one had ever been sold publicly, in 2002. The price: $7.6 million.  And there were nine more of them in the safe-deposit box.  But after the Langbord family took the coins to the United States Mint to be authenticated in 2004, they got a rude surprise. The Mint said the coins were genuine and kept them.  The government claims that they are government property stolen from the Mint, most likely in the 1930s, by Mr. Langbord’s grandfather, Israel Switt, a Philadelphia jewelry dealer.  The Langbords went to court and recently won an important ruling. A United States District Court judge has given the government until the end of the month either to give back the coins or go back to court to prove that they were in fact stolen by Mr. Switt, a daunting task after three-quarters of a century.  Nearly a half-million 1933 double eagles were minted before President Franklin D. Roosevelt, shifting the nation away from the gold standard, issued an executive order that made owning large amounts of gold bullion and coins illegal. Two of the coins went to the Smithsonian Institution, and almost all the rest were melted down. 
 The Federal government believes the coins were stolen, and it seems unlikely these coins ever found their way to the marketplace legitimately, but the government will have to prove these coins were stolen, 75 years after they were ordered to be melted down. 

 John Schwartz, Rare Coins:  Family Treasure or Ill-Gotten Goods? [New York Times, Sep. 15, 2009]. 

Sep 15, 2009

Undoing a Sale to HItler

The Art Of Painting By Johannes Vermeer, 1666-1673 The Austrian Culture Ministry has revealed that it has received a formal request for the restitution of this work, The Art of Painting by Johannes Vermeer.  The family of Jaromir Czernin has urged its return for nearly 40 years, but the Austrian authorities refused on the grounds the sale was voluntary.  However an attorney for the Czernin family argues the work was sold to guarantee the safety of Czernin and his family.  The work was sold to Hitler in 1940 for 1.65 million Reichsmark.  Irrespective of the outcome of this request, arguing Hitler purchased the disputed work is not exactly the kind of publicity Austria's Kunsthistorisches Museum would enjoy. 

Philippe Schwab, Vienna museum fears restitution of stolen Vermeer [AFP, Sep. 13, 2009]. 

Sep 14, 2009

No Libraries in Philadelphia?

We get the State and City we deserve.  Another sign of the dismal state of liberal arts funding generally.  If the Pennsylvania State Legislature doesn't allocate funds, the Philadelphia Free Library will close on October 2nd and end all programs and services.  All books are due on October 1st. 

The Pennsylvania senate is unable to pass a budget, and this late-arriving state funding will force the closure of the entire system.  Perhaps a Pirate Party can fill the void for the citizens of Philadelphia to get access to books, movies and music.  

All Free Library of Philadelphia Branch, Regional and Central Libraries Closed Effective Close of Business October 2, 2009 [Free Library of Philadelphia]

Early Review of the Art of the Steal

The Art of the Steal is a new documentary on the Barnes foundation and its planned move from Merion.  Scott Tobias has a review for the AV Club:

As a forward-thinking art collector in the ‘20s, Dr. Albert Barnes snapped up an extraordinary wealth of post-impressionist and modernist paintings from the likes of Matisse, Picasso, Renoir, and Cezanne; though dismissed by tastemakers at the time, his collection is now valued in the tens of billions. In his will, Dr. Barnes was very specific about what the trustees were to do with his assets: He wanted them to remain housed in his small, meticulously conceived institution in the Philadelphia suburb of Merion, never to be loaned out or sold to other museums. He wanted the Barnes trustees to continue his educational mission. And most of all, he wanted to make sure the corporate foundations and politicians in Philly didn’t get their grubby paws on it. The Art Of The Steal is about how Barnes’ seemingly ironclad wishes were withered away by unscrupulous trustees, coffer-draining legal battles, and the overwhelming force of a city looking to bring in the tourist dollar. There are two sides of the story—the other being that the Barnes Foundation simply didn’t have the capital to be a sustainable entity—but the film makes its allegiances clear. And that’s not a bad thing: In this David and Goliath story, Goliath kicks the ever loving shit out of David, and the film is convincing and righteous in its advocacy. It also leaves you with troubling questions about the runaway commodification of art, the extent to which it does or does not belong the public, and just how much power the individual really has in society. Grade: B

Toronto Film Festival '09:  Day 4 [AV Club].  

Sep 12, 2009

Reward Offered for Stolen Warhol Works

A series of prominent Andy Warhol portraits of 1970's-era athletes has been stolen from the home of Robert Weisman in Los Angeles earlier this month. It seems the thieves knew what they were looking for, as the home wasn't ransacked. A reward of $1m has been offered for information leading to the return of the paintings. As has been noted many times, the theft of these works was probably the easy part, the difficulty will be trying to sell these well-known works.

Why were these works stolen?

Mark Durney wonders why these works were taken:

Were thieves simply enticed by the popularity of Warhol's athletic icons? Maybe they sought to steal Weisman's most emotionally important pieces of personal property. Could there be a market of potential buyers who feel dejected by the "absurdly" high asking price for the series in 2007?

There are four other possibilities:

The first, is that a collector admires the piece, and hired a thief to take it for him. We can call this the Dr. No situation. This seems the least likely possibility, but the one that strikes a chord with the imagination. Writers in this subject frequently cite the Dr. No as being responsible for thefts, and I admit it makes for good Bond villains, but there has been no convincing evidence that thsi is why people are stealing rare objects. Another similar possibility which seems far more likely is that an unscrupulous dealer may have a similar piece for sale, and if he can establish some excitement around these kinds of pieces, the price for his clock may go up. This is just wild speculation, and assigns a quite sinister tak to arts and antiquities dealers, a habit far too many writers in this field are fond of doing.

Second, the thief may not have known that the object was so rare as to make its subsequent sale difficult.

Third, the thief may simply be trying to kidnap the object. They could then insure its safe return for a generous reward, or negotiate its return.

Finally, perhaps the market is doing such a poor job of regulating what is and is not legitimate, that it may not be all that difficult to sell this piece after all. This strikes me as the most troubling possibility, but also not very likely.

Joel Rubin, Fortune in Warhol Pop Art stolen [LA Times, Sep. 12, 2009].

Sep 11, 2009

Soft Cultural Power

The Economist examines how well UNESCO manages its list of World Heritage Sites:

This year’s most dramatic move was a rare decision to strip a place—Dresden and the surrounding Elbe valley—of its status as a “World Heritage Site”: that is, a location deemed to be of universal worth to humanity by virtue of its built environment, ecological importance or both.
The German metropolis, belatedly restored to its Baroque glory after massive wartime bombing, was punished because of a motorway bridge that threatens to wreck the skyline. (The only other place to have been delisted is an antelope sanctuary in Oman, where the government actually wanted to renounce the status.) Meanwhile UNESCO accepted 13 new sites, including a sacred peak in Kyrgyzstan and a fortress in Burkina Faso, bringing to 890 the number of places under its purview.

What makes this whole procedure tolerable (and indeed, respected) is that it is a voluntary arrangement between governments, with groups of states taking turns to form committees that duly exercise UNESCO’s moral power. At least in theory, it is not the permanent staff of the World Heritage Centre (a smallish part of the UNESCO bureaucracy) who exercise dominion over the glories of the earth, but the 186 states that have ratified the World Heritage Convention and thus signed up to the notion that some places are too precious to be left at the mercy of one government alone.
 For an earlier post on the promise and peril of declaring an area a World Heritage Site, see this earlier post

Roerich Thieves Arrested

The thieves who stole two paintings from the Roerich Museum in Manhattan were arrested last week as they tried to sell one of the stolen works to an undercover cop at a Starbucks:

On Sept. 3, Ryjenko and Croussouloudis -- carrying the painting in a blue paper shopping bag -- traveled to a Lower East Side Starbucks to meet with the detective, police said.

While Ryjenko waited outside, Croussouloudis met with the phony collector and asked for $20,000 for the painting. She even warned him that the work of art had been stolen and that he would be unable to freely display it in his gallery, police said.

The cop then asked her to come with him to his gallery where he would give her the money. As she and Ryjenko walked with him up Allen Street, they were arrested.

A law-enforcement source said the couple denied having stolen the painting.

Couple busted with Stolen painting [New York Post, Sep. 10, 2009].  

Sep 10, 2009

Navigating the Deaccessioning Crisis

I have posted on SSRN a working manuscript of my piece Navigating the Deaccession Crisis.

I'd like to acknowledge my cohort of arts bloggers who have looked in terrific detail at many aspects of the issue, and the piece is far richer for their insights. In particular, Donn Zaretsky at the art law blog; Lee Rosenbaum at CultureGrrl; Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes;

First, the unnecessary restriction on deaccession proceeds should be eliminated. Second, when an important work of art is deaccessioned, other museums should be given an opportunity to purchase a work - to keep it in the public trust or its region - in much the same way the United Kingdom and other nations regulate the export of works of art. Finally, when any museum is considering a deaccession, it must provide reasons for the sale and publicize the decision to allow for public comment.

Here is the abstract:

A deaccession crisis confronts the American Museum community. Deaccession of art occurs when a museum decides to sell or dispose of a work of art. The crisis stems not from the practice itself - though there are indications deaccession will occur with increasing regularity. Rather the curious mixture of trust and estates law, state law, tax policy, nonprofit governance, professional guidelines, and doctrines governing deaccession all combine to form a body of rules which lack clarity and often conflict. These general and ephemeral standards preclude reasoned appraisal of whether any given sale may benefit the public. More care should be taken when crafting the rules governing our collective cultural heritage.
This article attempts to define the public interest in works of art, and provide a framework to guide in the deaccession of works of art to ensure those sales do in fact serve the public interest. The decision to sell works of art should be taken with care; but the current rules lead to a number of pernicious consequences. They have caused the loss of works from the public trust, the closure of museums and unnecessary legal battles.
Current guidelines require that deaccession proceeds be used only to purchase more art; however this rule appears to be a product of one high-profile scandal involving New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. To assist donors, museum directors and state Attorney Generals, this article proposes three changes. First, the unnecessary restriction on deaccession proceeds should be eliminated. Second, when an important work of art is deaccessioned, other museums should be given an opportunity to purchase a work - to keep it in the public trust or its region - in much the same way the United Kingdom and other nations regulate the export of works of art. Finally, when any museum is considering a deaccession, it must provide reasons for the sale and publicize the decision to allow for public comment.

Sep 9, 2009

Buying Fake Antiquities (UPDATE)

Felix Salmon has an interesting discussion of the sale of fake antiquities, prompted by Charles Stanish's initial article, with a lengthy response by Prof. Stanish himself.  As I commented there, those who follow these debates have enjoyed a thought-provoking series of responses to Prof. Stanish’s terrific initial article. I don’t doubt that many collectors are buying fakes. But I wonder at the efficacy of the typical archaeologist position—calling their actions an “irrational behavior” may be true enough, but is it wise?

As a lawyer, trying to craft a legal solution to these problems given the limits of funding and law enforcement resources is only made more difficult when partisans shout across the divide like this. I don’t dispute there are fakes, or that individuals shouldn’t perhaps collect many of the objects they collect. But we will never eradicate the desire of collectors to collect. Are there compromise positions which archaeologists may adopt that would shift this desire in helpful directions? Yes, but insulting those with a different view of material cultural heritage doesn’t get us any closer to any pragmatic solutions.


Paul Barford responds here.  He uses as examples of things which should not be compromised: the collection of wild bird eggs, drink driving, ivory poachers and child abuse.  Unfortunately he doesn't follow through with any of these analogs, and they strike me as a bit bizarre. 

He states archaeologists should not compromise.  That is one view of course, and it is played out in Mr. Barford's own blog, which does not allow commenting and has badly distorted many of my positions in the past.  Mr. Barford and I probably don't disagree on many of the core problems, indeed he probably doesn't disagree with what many collectors state publicly.  There exists broad consensus that looting of sites is a problem, and should be illegal.  The disagreement arises when we consider the legal measures which should respond.  He seems to take every instance of looting as an indication that "stronger" laws are needed.  But of course he never gives any concrete details.  I'd encourage Mr. Barford to consider the sentiments of Colin Renfrew, which I'll paraphrase:  in the 30-plus years since the 1970 UNESCO Convention, has there been a decrease in the looting of sites?  Why?  Is it all because of collectors?  Or is it instead the inevitable result of some of these laws and regulations which have created a stronger black market?  What is Mr. Barford's ideal legal framework?  Despite a primary interest in artifact hunting since the 1990's, he hasn't bothered to think about models for future policy as far as I can tell.  I'd be interested to read them. 

Deaccessioning in the UK (UPDATE)

The Southampton City Council has decided to sell parts of its permanent collection, including Rodin's Crouching Woman, pictured here, and Alfred Munnings' After the Race.  The decision was announced in July, but nobody really noticed.

Charles Saumarez Smith reports on the sale for the Art Newspaper, "[E]veryone in the museum world is aware that attitudes towards so-called de-accessioning are shifting in favour of allowing museums, in certain carefully defined circumstances, to consider the possibility of sales. It is, nevertheless, worth asking whether or not it is right that sales from one of Britain’s more significant regional art collections can reasonably be ignored."

The works could raise upwards of £5m, and only 200 works in the 3,500 piece collection can be displayed at one time. What will the funds be used for?  They will help to construct a £15m maritime museum commemorating the sinking of the Titanic.  Saumarez Smith asks the pointed question:

[I]s it sensible for Southampton town council to break trust with generations of previous town councillors, who have diligently and systematically and with a great sense of civic pride built up one of the best and most impressive public collections of works of art in the country to sell some of those works in order to celebrate the sinking of the Titanic?
Perhaps not, but if we were to apply the current rules of the AAMD to this sale, the sale would be perfectly acceptable would it not?  These works do not fall within the scope of the Southampton's collection.  In July, Councillor John Hannides, the Culture head said these works said "The Munnings has not been seen in Southampton for quite some time and that also goes for the other items too.  While they have been on display on occasions they are not central to the collection."  The good news for critics of this sale?  These works may be purchased by private individuals, but they won't leave the UK if they satisfy the Waverley Criteria, giving British cultural institutions an opportunity to pre-empt any sale abroad.

Tomorrow I'll post a working version of my piece on Deaccessioning, which encourages American museums and States to adopt a similar approach. 

De-accessioning and responsibility in the UK: Why Southampton is wrong to sell works of art to fund a Titanic museum  [Charles Saumarez Smith, The Art Newspaper from issue 205, September 2009, Published online 6 Sep 09]


Donn Zaretsky notes that I may be wrong about whether the AAMD would permit the sale:

I don't think that's right. Apparently the sales proceeds will be used to help "construct a £15m maritime museum commemorating the sinking of the Titanic." Remember, under the AAMD approach, there is only one thing you can do with the proceeds from sales of art (buy more art); you can't go and build a Titanic-commemorating museum. What's more, from an AAMD point of view, it doesn't matter whether the works "fall within the scope of the collection" or not. You can sell work that falls right square in the middle of your collection and that's okay, just so long as you use the proceeds to buy art. But if you want to use the proceeds for any other purpose, that's forbidden, even if the work no longer falls within the scope of the collection.

He's right of course if the funds are used just to construct a new museum.  However if these funds are used to purchase works of "art", a slim likelihood perhaps given that the museum is focusing on the Titanic.  But if the museum purchases artifacts from the Titanic that could be classified as "art" then the sale would be permissible under the guidelines, in the same way the Albright-Knox shifted its focus to contemporary art.  But of course the funds from deaccessioning must be made "only to acquire other works of art—the proceeds are never used as operating funds, to build a general endowment, or for any other expenses."

Sep 8, 2009

More on the Rose

Via the Art Law Blog I see that Alana Abramson has an update on the Rose Art Museum lawsuit in the Brandeis University Student Paper:

The date of the first hearing regarding the lawsuit filed against the University by three members of the Rose Art Museum Board of Overseers and the deadlines for filing motions of dismissal and preliminary injunctions were set at the case management conference that took place Tuesday, Sept. 1, according to University outside legal counsel Thomas Reilly.

The motion to dismiss a case or to file a preliminary injunction, an injunction that takes place before the verdict is determined, must be filed on or before Sept. 15, according to a schedule provided by Jill Butterworth, deputy press secretary for Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley. The first hearing is scheduled for Oct. 13, and the deadline to oppose the motion to dismiss the case is Oct. 6. 

The lawsuit was filed by Rose overseers Jonathan Lee, Meryl Rose and Lois Foster July 27 in the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts and was subsequently transferred to the Suffolk Probate Court. The lawsuit seeks to maintain the Rose's collection by stating that the University's decision to close the museum and sell its paintings would violate both the museum's ethical codes and Brandeis' commitment to the Rose family to maintain the museum solely as a public museum.

Sep 4, 2009

Crowdsourcing Archaeology

In one of a series of interviews with experts sponsored by Dow Chemical, paleontologist Louise Leakey talks about the challenges involved in finding fossils, and outlines her plan to crowdsource the search, which means introducing the public and using some of that interest to help discover fossils. Sounds exactly like some of the advantages of the U.K.'s Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Sep 3, 2009

Sotheby's Accused of Undisclosed Conflict of Interest . . . Again

HickspeaceablekingdomI see via the Wills, T & E blog that Sotheby's has been accused of an undisclosed conflict of interest by Halsey Minor, the founder of CNET.  The auction house allegedly did not disclose all the information it should have when it sold this work, The Peaceable Kingdom with the Leopard of Serenity, Edward Hicks (c. 1846-48).  Halsey bought the work at a Sotheby's auction last year for $9.6 million.

Lee Rosenbaum and Donn Zaretsky  covered the initial suit by Sotheby's back in 2008.  But now Halsey is claiming he was not informed that Sotheby's was selling the work to recoup money owed by the previous owner of the painting, and the auction house had an undeclared interest in another work Minor bought, Childe Hassam's Carriage in Winter.  The dispute arose when Halsey refused to pay for these works and another and Sotheby's brought suit.  Halsey counter-sued asserting Sotheby's conflict of interest, while Christie's has argued it has a proper "security interest" in the works, but denies this rises to an ownership interest which it should have disclosed.

The problem arises because Sotheby's made itself appear as an impartial advisor, when in reality it was motivated to sell the works to pay off the debts it was owed by previous owners of a couple of these works.  It seems Minor really relied on an employee of Sotheby's, and she did not reveal the other interests in these works.

As Zaretsky and Rosenbaum pointed out last year, both the New York Times and Bloomberg had revealed that Sotheby's had an interest in the Hicks work.  Which seemed to hurt his case of course.  But if there was another interest in another work, that could change things.

Matthew Garrahan, Sotheby's accused of painting conflict, [Financial Times]


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