Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Colorado Man Pleads Guilty in Four Corners Case

In March, Loot! reported on the suicide of Ted Gardiner, a 52 year-old former grocery store CEO and artifacts dealer who was one of 26 individuals from three states charged with illegal trading of antiquities.

The Salt Lake City Tribune reports that 0ne individual charged in the case pleaded guilty on Tuesday to two misdemeanors. Robert B. Knowlton admitted to illegally selling a Native American pipe. The buyer was an undercover operative for the Bureau of Land Management. Court reports indicate that the pipe was excavated from Bureau land.

The misdemeanors each carry with them a year of prison and and a $10,000 fine. Sentencing will be on November 19.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Raid Leads to Discovery of Ancient Underground Tomb

A raid of the home of individuals suspected of illegally digging for antiquities in Turkey led to the discovery of two tunnels from the house to an ancient tomb.

The AP reports that Turkey's Culture Minister described the discovery in western Turkey as an "important archaeological find" and called for legal archaeological digs in the area. 5 individuals were arrested in connection to this discovery and the ministry suspects they looted and sold antiquities from the tomb on the black market.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Appeal Rejected in Case of Tibetan Environmentalist

The Washington Post reports today that a Chinese court has rejected an appeal from Tibetan environmentalist and philanthropist Karma Samdrup, who was sentenced on June 24 to 15 years in prison for robbing and dealing with looted antiquities. The charges against Samdrup date back to 1998, when he is said to have aquired looted artifacts, but were not pursued until this year.

Samdrup's attorney maintains that his client acquired the objects in good faith. The environmentalist's supporters have argued that the charges were brought against Samdrup after he pubically expressed support for his two brothers, who were detained after they accused Tibetan officials of poaching endangered species in Tibet. The supporters see the charges as punishment for Samdrup's decision to speak against Tibetan authoriies.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Hungary Sued!

The New York Times' Carol Vogel reports today that a lawsuit has been filed by the heirs of Hungarian banker and art collector Baron Mor Lipot Herzog, calling for the return of a collection of artwork valued at more than $100 million. The lawsuit is against the Hungarian government, along with several museums administered by the government.

The lawsuit follows two decades of failed attempts by the heirs to convince the government to repatriate the collection, which includes works by Velázquez, Monet, El Greco, and Zurbarán. The Herzog collection was dispersed during World War II; some pieces were left in museums for protection, while others were stolen by the Nazis and later recovered and returned to Hungary. In 2008, a Hungarian court decided that the government did not need to return the artwork to the Herzog family.

The lawsuit calls for the return of 40 known works in Hungarian museums and asks for an inventory by the Hungarian government of all artwork from the Herzog collection in its possession.

The New York Times quotes the Herzog family's attorney described Hungary as “one of the countries that has been the most recalcitrant” when it comes to returning looted and stolen artwork. The family has engaged in legal claims with Poland, Russia, and Germany over the return of artwork. In the case of Russia, there is a 1999 lawsuit that is still pending.

According to Vogel, experts describe the Herzog case as "the world’s largest unresolved Holocaust art claim."

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Christie's Called on to Return Three Objects

The Wall Street Journal reports today that Italy and archaeologists are calling on Christie's International to return three objects that are slated to be sold at a June 10 auction. The antiquities are believed to have been illegally excavated in Italy.

The disputed objects include a Roman marble torso from 2nd century CE, an Apulian cup from the 4th century BCE, and a Greek figure of a goddess from the 3rd century BCE. Those advocating the objects' return to Italy argue that the artifacts have murky provenances and appear in thousands of Polaroids from Giacomo Medici's collection of stolen antiquities. They have cited the 1970 UNESCO Convention when calling for repatriation.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Christie's plans to continue with the June 10 auction. A New York City spokesperson stated,

With respect to these particular lots, Christie's has not been notified of a title claim by any government authority, nor are these lots identified as problematic by the Art Loss Register or Interpol," she said. "As an added measure, Christie's has undertaken its own research into this matter and has found no evidence to support the need to withdraw these lots. Unless and until Christie's receives a title claim, we plan to proceed with the sale of these lots.
It will be interesting to see if the sale is halted before June 10. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Diamond Duel

UK's Telegraph reports that India is calling for the return of the Koh i Noor diamond, a jewel that has been in British possession since 1849 when the East India Company defeated the Maharaja of Punjab. The jewel was turned over as tribute to Queen Victoria following the Indian defeat.

India argues that the jewel was illegally obtained by the British and was worn by Mughal emperors and Maharajas for centuries before the British seizure. The British government has rejected the call for relinquisment, arguing that the diamond was "legitimately acquired."

In light of this, we may expect more Indian efforts that seek the return of artifacts obtained by Britain during colonial rule.

Update: Paris Museum Theft

The ever informative New York Times reports that Paris's Museum of Modern Art will reopen on June 10, in the aftermath of the theft on May 19-20. According to the NYT, "the thief was able to take advantage of a flaw in the museum’s alarm system, which had been malfunctioning for several weeks, leading to speculation that the thief may have had inside assistance."

Please see Loot!'s May 23 post about the Paris theft.

Italy vs. Princeton

The New York Times reports today that Italy is carrying out an investigation into J. Michael Padget, Princeton University Museum of Art antiquities curator. Padget is being investigated for "illegal export and laundering” of Italian archaeological objects. Also included in the investigation are Edoardo Almagià, former New York antiquities dealer, and two co-defendants that the NYT has not named at this time.

A 14-page legal document from Rome identifies nearly two dozen archeological objects that the Italians argue were looted from Italy. The document reports that the pieces were transferred from Almagià to Padget and the Princeton Museum. Padget has responded to the charges, stating that he is innocent of any wrongdoing. Almagià, a Princeton alum, has called the case "absolutely ridiculous."

The news has come as a surprise to some in light of recent agreements between a number of US museums and the Italian governments, which were aimed at resolving antiquities disputes. In October 2007, Princeton agreed to turn over eight antiquities in exchange for loans of significant cultural importance. This agreement also allowed for "Princeton students will be granted unprecedented access to excavation sites managed by the Italian ministry for the purposes of archaeological study and research," according to the 2007 Princeton news story.

Hugh Eakin of the NYT explains that the Princeton-Italy agreement was signed during the trial of former Getty curator Marion True, who was charged in an Italian court of having ties to two antiquities dealers who trafficked in illicit antiquities. Eakin writes, Though the agreements by Princeton and other museums did not explicitly rule out future Italian investigations of museum dealings, they were widely seen as ending the threat of further legal action against American museum staff members."

We will follow this case as it develops.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Debunking Art Crime Myths

USA Weekend debunks some perceptions of the world of art crime in an article available online. The article is based on the reflections of FBI special agent Robert K. Wittman, founder of the FBI Art Crime Team who went undercover to retrieve priceless works oart.

For readers who are in the Philadelphia area, Robert Wittman will be speaking at the Penn Museum on Tuesday, June 8 at 6pm.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Missing Linz Album Resurfaces

Check out this New York Times slideshow of one of the recently rediscovered albums that illustrate Hitler's plans for the never realized Führermuseum in Linz, Austria. The album resurfaced outside of Cleveland in the home of John Pistone, who, as a young American solider, took the album back to the US as a souvenir. The Monuments Men author Robert M. Edsel encouraged Pistone to return the album to Germany.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Art Theft in Paris

Interpol has reported an overnight burglary on May 19-20 at the Modern Art Museum in Paris. Five works by modern masters have been stolen from the Museum and a global alert has been issued. Jean-Michel Louboutin, Interpol's Executive Director of Police Services stated,
These extraordinary paintings by these great masters are so recognizable that they will be difficult to sell in any market. Their inclusion in INTERPOL’s publicly accessible works of art database will allow any legitimate buyer of paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Leger and Modigliani to determine whether their purchase would be legal and for the public to remain alert as to what has been reported stolen.
The stolen works include:

Still Life with Candlestick by Fernand Leger (1922)

Pastoral by Henri Matisse (1906)

Woman with Fan by Amedeo Modigliani (1919)

Olive Tree near l'Estaque by Georges Braque (1906)

Pigeon with Green Peas by Pablo Picasso (1911)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Artifacts Returned to El Salvador

USA Today reports that US officials returned dozens of Pre-Columbian and Mayan artifacts to the country of El Salvador today following a joint investigation led U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the National Civilian Police of El Salvador.

USA Today provided a link to the ICE website where a statement about the investigation is available. The investigation began three years ago, when a customs agent observed what appeared to be artifacts coming into the United States with a destination of Alabama. The investigation led to the arrest of a man and woman in El Salvador who were advertising Mayan and pre-Columbian artifacts on sites such as E-Bay and selling to customers in the United States and around the world.

ICE Deputy Assistant Secretary Alonzo Pena said today,
We are celebrating today the fruitful collaboration of all our agencies in protecting the cultural heritage of the people of Latin America. More than that, we are honoring the dedication of our law enforcement officers in working together to find the culprits in this Internet scheme, stop the leeching of priceless pieces of El Salvador's history and bring those responsible to justice. This is another step in our long partnership with El Salvador.
The US has a Memorandum of Understanding with El Salvador concerning the import of pre-Hispanic archaeological artifacts. The Memorandum, which was first signed in March of 1995, was recently extended for another five-year period. It imposes import restrictions on artifacts leaving El Salvador without an export permit or without documentation that proves the objects first left El Salvador before the restrictions were established.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Two Sides of the Same Coin

When it comes to the regulation of ancient coins, there is a debate that has arisen in the United States. This weekend, The Washington Post explained that for generations coin collecting took place without any regulations in place. However, in recent years, the United States began to place restrictions on the import of certain ancient coins in an effort to curb the larger problem of the illegal excavations of archaeological sites and the illicit trade of cultural property. Ancient Cypriot coins and ancient Chinese coins were restricted in 2007 and 2009, respectively, and coin collectors, or numismatists, have expressed concern that Roman coins will be next. Under the regulations, anyone who brings these coins into the United States must have export permits from the Cypriot or Chinese governments or documentation proving that they were excavated before the regulations were put in place or discovered outside of Cyprus and China.

The debate has garnered attention following the seizure of 23 bronze coins at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport last April. The coins have a worth of $275 and were purchased by the Missouri-based Ancient Coin Collectors Guild. In the lawsuit filed this February in Maryland federal court, the collectors of the guild argued that coins were circulated so often during the ancient world that it would be impossible to prove conclusively where they were excavated. In addition, the guild questions how far-reaching the effects of the regulations will be in light of the fact that the restrictions will apply only to American coin collectors.

Wayne G. Sayles, executive director of the guild, acknowledges the importance of laws that safeguard cultural property. However, he argues that coins are in a different category than archaeological artifacts and work of art because of the comparatively lower value. In addition, Sayles explains to the paper that "collectors keep, study and protect coins that museums don't want."

Richard M. Leventhal, an anthropology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is of a very different opinion. He tells The Washington Post, "Coins are part of the record of our past. To learn about the past and think about our identities and cultural heritage, coins have to be included. Ripping stuff out of the ground destroys our knowledge of who we are and where we came from."

On May 5, both Sayles and Leventhal were present at a hearing before the State Department's Cultural Property Advisory Committee with regard to an agreement with Italy restricting the import of certain Roman artifacts. Archaeologists want coins added to the list, while collectors like Sayles are lobbying against this addition.

So what side of the coin do you agree with? Should ancient Roman coins, for example, be treated the same as ancient Roman pottery or a statue and protected?

A Writer's Take on the Parthenon Marbles

On May 9, The New York Times ran an article from the ever-insightful Michael Kimmelman, the paper's chief art critic and author of the wonderful The Accidental Masterpiece. In it, Kimmelman examines the one of the most famous cultural property debates, the Parthenon or "Elgin" Marbles. Loot! took a look at this case on February, 1.

Kimmelman argues that Greece makes a good case for the return of the Marbles. When arguing for their return, the Greeks cite the recently opened Acropolis Museum, its location overlooking the ruins of the Parthenon, and the cultural significance of the Marbles. However, Kimmelman believes that the British, who house the Marbles in the British Museum, "still make the better case." The Marbles arrived in England two centuries ago when English ambassador Lord Elgin removed them with the permission of the ruling Ottomon power. The British maintain that the Marbles are seen by millions of visitors each year in the context of a collection of artifacts that tell the story of human civilization and culture.

Kimmelman acknowledges that his opinion might not be widely popular. He writes,
Siding with the imperialists drives good people bonkers, I know. It’s akin to Yankees worship, with the Greeks playing the underdog role of the old Red Sox. That said, patrimony claims too often serve merely nationalist ends these days, no less often than they do decent ones, never mind that the archaeological and legal arguments by the Greeks, while elaborately reasoned and passionately felt, don’t finally trump the British ones.
Kimmelman is of the belief that cultural property is changeable. He writes, "Art, differently presented, abridged, whatever, can speak in myriad contexts. It’s resilient and spreads knowledge and sympathy across borders. Ripped from its origins, it loses one set of meanings, to gain others." He argues state borders become less significant when reflecting on a work of art like the Marbles.

He writes,
It summons distinct feelings to those for whom it’s local, but ultimately belongs to everyone and to no one.

We’re all custodians of global culture for posterity.

Neither today’s Greeks nor Britons own the Parthenon marbles, really.

Although I found it interesting to learn Kimmelman's opinion on the case of the Parthenon Marbles, one paragraph caught my attention in particular. He writes,

Americans, excepting Indians, may find this whole issue hard to grasp. We don’t tend to think in terms of American cultural patrimony, save perhaps for the Liberty Bell or the Brooklyn Bridge, because we’re an immigrant nation worshipful of the free market. Demanding the return of American art and artifacts to America sounds, well, un-American, not to mention bad for the bottom line. We are too diverse in our roots, too focused on the present, too historically amnesiac and individualistic (not to mention rich) to worry overly about a collective culture or who might own it.
What do you think? Are we as Americans less sensitive to issues surrounding cultural property?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Auction House Attention

The UK's The Independent reports that Bonhams auction house in London removed a collection of Roman sculptures from an auction to be held yesterday. Concerns that the pieces were illegally excavated were raised by Cambridge archaeologist, Christos Tsirogiannis and Swansea University's Dr David Gill. The researchers have suggested a link between at least one of the sculptures and infamous antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici. Gill has compared a Polaroid photograph of taken by Medici of Roman sculpture once in his possession and a piece that was slated to be sold at Bonhams. A police investigation into four works and internal investigation by Bonhams are reportedly underway. Medici was convicted of dealing in illegally dealing in stolen antiquities in 2004.

Also in the press this week is the oldest auction house in France, the Hôtel Drouot. The New York Times reported on Monday about an ongoing investigation following twelve arrests made in December.
A dozen people were arrested on suspicion of coordinated thefts, most of them “commissionaires,” members of Drouot’s clannish corporation of handlers and transporters; since then, four more have reportedly confessed to stealing. The police are said to have recovered more than a hundred missing objects and artworks, including several Chagall lithographs and a Courbet valued at as much as $135,000. [NYT]
Merchants claim that auctioneers at Drout, who make a commission with a sale, engage in "ballot stuffing," a practice in which they place fake bids to push prices up. The "most persistent rumors," however, have surrounded practices of theft by auctioneers or handlers. Works that were intended to be sold at Drout have disappeared outright from various locations and trucks in before reaching the auction houses.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Merkers Mine Discovery

In late March of 1945, General Patton's troops crossed the Rhine and advanced into the heart of Germany. On April 4, the Americans took the village of Merkers and established a command post in Kieselbach. At the order of General Patton, a curfew was put into place in the area.

On April 6 1945, two American military policemen stopped a pair of women, one of whom was pregnant, outside of the German town of Kieselbach and advised them that a curfew was in effect. The women, who were French displaced persons, were walking to town to see a midwife, but were driven back to Merkers by the MPs. During the drive, one of the Americans observed a mine that they were passing and asked the women what type of mine it was. One of the women revealed that it was a mine where the Germans had stored gold reserves and artwork weeks before.

The women were correct. Inside the mine in Merkers, the American troops discovered gold and currency valued at $500 million (today $15 billion), which was intended to finance the ongoing war. Although the press at the time was more interested in reporting about the gold reserve, the troops discovered a staggering amount of artwork, which the Monuments Men worked toward relocating. Robert Edsel writes that in April 1945, 32 ten-ton trucks left Merkers Mine for Franfurt. Monuments Men George Stout's inventory "listed 393 paintings (uncrated), 2,091 print boxes, 1,214 cases, and 140 textiles, representing most of the Prussian state art collection" (Edsel, 299).

A 1945 Newsreel about the Discovery of Merkers

The U.S. National Archives has some truly remarkable photographs of the Merkers Mine discovery in its collection:

Troops with Manet's Wintergarden

Eisenhower touring Merkers

Harold Maus from Scranton, PA (Yay!) examines Durer engraving

In addition, check out Discovery Channel's video about Merkers Mine and note the reference to the Amber Room, discussed in earlier post.

Bradshe, Greg. "Nazi Gold: The Merkers Mine Treasure." Quarterly of the National Archives 31:1 (Spring 1999): Prologue.
Edsel, Robert M. with Bret Witter. The Monuments Men. New York: Center Street, 2009.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Loot in Pop Culture: The Simpsons

It's always interesting when issues surrounding looted or stolen objects of cultural property show up in pop culture. The always clever Simpsons shared their version of where Vermeer's Concert, one of the works stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, ended up. Shame on you, Mr. Burns!

Thanks to The New York Times ArtsBeat for posting this clip!

Concert by Vermeer, stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Interview with Art Detective

The Boston Globe published a very interesting interview with former Scotland Yard detective Charles Hill, who has combated art crime for decades and has retrieved "a museum's worth" of stolen art during his career. Hill discusses the motivations for art theft but stresses the difficulty to resell stolen art. The Gardner art heist occurred 20 years ago this week, but Hill is confident that the works will resurface.

Have you ever wondered if there is a real life Thomas Crown out there? Hill says the world of art crime isn't as glamorous as the movies suggest. He says,
There’s no Doctor No, there’s no Mr. Big. It’s great fun to think about a painting going to some guy’s subterranean cavern. I’ve only met one fellow who could remotely fit that bill, and he was a collector of antiquities and lives outside Switzerland.
I wish I had a name -- I'd love to learn more about him!

Exhibit at the Crime and Punishment Museum

From February 12 to April 26, 2010, the Crime and Punishment Museum has an exhibit exploring art crimes on display. The Museum has partnered with Association for Research into Crimes against Art, a non-profit research group, to create this exhibit. The show explores looting, stolen art, and forgery.

If anyone gets to the show, let us know how it is! [Crime and Punishment Museum]

De Montebello's Current Post

In 2006, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture given by then director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello. His lecture traced the history of collecting antiquities, the development of cultural property laws, and recent disputes involving cultural heritage. It was evident that de Montebello viewed cultural heritage laws as increasingly stringent and unhealthy for the encyclopedic museum, which has a mission to collect and exhibit.

After 31 years as the Met director, Mr. de Montebello has taken on a new role: an educator at NYU's Institute of Fine Arts. He now teaches courses on the history and culture of museums and has created one course that I think is particularly exciting. He tells the NYT this week:

And this spring I’m actually teaching a colloquium, which is like a seminar with about a dozen students and another dozen auditors about issues to do with cultural property in which I figure I am an unwitting expert. And I’ve invited a number of people to teach with me so that the students get not only one point of view.

And I’ve told them from the start if you violently disagree with me and you do it in a very well-researched and well-written paper, you’ll get an A. I’m not here to tell my collecting views versus archaeologists’.

De Montebello explains that he feels the press offers a strongly "anticollecting" point of view that is in favor of source countries and archaeologists and against museums. His course is aimed at offering both perspectives on collecting. [NYT]

I know I would have signed up for that class!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Theft at T.R.'s Sagamore Hill

I don't think it is a stretch to say that Teddy Roosevelt was one of the coolest guys ever -- if you don't believe me, check out this entry on Mental Floss or ask my sister Kate. It doesn't come as a surprise that a neat guy like T.R. would have a very neat home. Last spring, I had the opportunity to visit Sagamore Hill, his residence in Oyster Bay, Long Island and now a National Historic Site. I was particularly struck by the Trophy Room, where visitors have an opportunity to view some of Roosevelt's most prized possessions, including animal trophies and skins. Some of T.R.'s trophies are also exhibited in bedrooms and parlor spaces as well.

On March 9, the AP reported that an object was stolen from Sagamore Hill on February 22: a 15-inch walrus tusk that is one of a pair displayed on the fireplace mantel in a second-floor bedroom. The National Park Service and police are investigating and the item has been place on the FBI's stolen art list.

I love the headline that has accompanied this story: "Thief Sneaks Softly, Carries a Big Walrus Tusk out of Teddy Roosevelt's New York Home."

Sunday, March 7, 2010

DNA to be Examined in Gardner Heist

If you have ever visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, you will notice something strange. Empty frames hang on the walls, a constant reminder of what is believed to be the biggest art heist in history.

On March 18, 1990, two men disguised as security guards entered the Gardner Museum and stole 13 works of art from the walls. The works included paintings by Manet, Rembrant, Degas, and Vermeer. As stipulated by Gardner's will, the galleries remain unchanged.

On March 4 of this year, the FBI reported that evidence is being resubmitted to DNA testing in hopes that the now 20 year-old crime will be solved. Although the FBI has not released information about what evidence will be analyzed, experts believe that it will include the duct tape that the thieves used to bind the Gardner Museum security guards. [AP]

An empty frame at the Gardner

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Suicide in Artifacts Case

There has been a bizarre development in an already bizarre case surrounding looted Native American artifacts. The AP reported yesterday that Ted Gardiner, a 52 year-old former grocery store CEO and artifacts dealer, has committed suicide. Gardiner was working as an informant for two years in a government investigation into illegally excavated and traded Native American artifacts. Last June, the authorities announced that 26 people from Utah, Colorado and New Mexico were charged in the case.

Gardiner's self-inflicted death marks the third suicide associated with this case. Two defendants took their own lives following their arrests. The AP reports that Gardiner was involved in a divorce and was experiencing money and alcohol problems. In addition, he was reportedly upset by the two earlier suicides and battling with the FBI with "over his compensation and his demand for security from threats he perceived" because of his role in the sting. [AP]

Monuments Men Biographies: You Can Help!

About 345 men and women from thirteen countries served in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (“MFAA”) section under the auspices of the Civil Affairs and Military Government Sections of the Allied Armies during World War II. These individuals worked tirelessly to protect and locate our cultural treasures during the war and, in the conflict's final year, returned more than 5 million cultural objects that were taken by the Nazis. Some remained in Europe for six years after the war, seeing to the restitution of cultural property.

The Monuments Men Foundation is working toward building upon the knowledge that has been collected about the Monuments Men and Women. I was interested to come across the Foundation's page that invites the public to contribute any information about the individuals whose stories the researchers have not yet collected. I hope that we do someday have biographies for each of them and I greatly admire the Foundation's efforts.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

US Returns Cultural Objects to Iraq

On Thursday, February 25, CNN reported that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement returned cultural items that included gold earrings from the 8th-7th century BCE, a Roman coin from 248-250 CE, and, interestingly, an AK-47 with Saddam Hussein's image. CNN reports that the objects are the most recent of more than 1,000 items returned to Iraq [CNN].

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Interpol's Most Wanted

Interested in seeing what made Interpol's December 2009 poster of "The Most Wanted Works of Art?"

Click on the image for clarification.

Antiquities Loaned to Met as Part of 2006 Agreement

We have seen over the years that there is a common element in agreements between states and museums concerning disputed antiquities: the return of the object in exchange for long-term loans of comparable value to the museum. The NYT reports that antiquities have arrived at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that were part of the museum's 2006 agreement with Italy. A Greek drinking cup and an ancient Roman dining set among the loans now on display at the Met.

The Met recently returned a 3rd century BCE set of silver pieces to Italy, as agreed to in 2006. However, Italy will loan the Met these pieces in four years, when the museum may again display them. [NYT]

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Victorious Youth

The stage is being set for a very public dispute between the Italian government and the John P. Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The New York Times reported on Thursday that an Italian court issued an order for the seizure of the Victorious Youth, a Greek bronze purchased by the Getty in 1977 for $4 million.

Victorious Youth (300 BCE-100 BCE) is one of the few life-size Greek bronzes surviving and is considered one of the most significant works in the Getty's collection. The Italian government claims that the statue was discovered by Italian fisherman off the Adriatic coast of Fano, Italy in 1964 and that it was exported illegally.

The Getty has maintained that the statue was purchased in good faith and that it will appeal the decision. The Museum released the following statement yesterday:
The Getty is disappointed in the ruling issued February 11 by Judge Mussoni in Pesaro, Italy, involving the Statue of a Victorious Youth, often referred to as the Getty Bronze. The court’s order is flawed both procedurally and substantively.

It should be noted that the same court in Pesaro dismissed an earlier case in 2007 in which the same prosecutor claimed the Statue of a Victorious Youth belonged to Italy. In that case, the judge held that the statute of limitations had long since expired, that there was no one to prosecute under Italian law, and that the Getty was to be considered a good faith owner.

In fact, no Italian court has ever found any person guilty of any criminal activity in connection with the export or sale of the statue. To the contrary, Italy’s highest court, the Court of Cassation, held more than four decades ago that the possession by the original owners ‘did not constitute a crime.’

The Getty will appeal the Pesaro court’s order to the Court of Cassation in Rome and will vigorously defend its legal ownership of the statue. [Getty]

The Victorious Youth dispute is not a new one. In July 2006, an agreement between the Getty and Italy for the return of objects from the Getty's collection was stalled by the Italian claim to the bronze. Getty director Michael Brand said at the time, “I started these negotiations with a genuine spirit of compromise, but I will not recommend … the transfer of a publicly held work of art in response to a claim that is not supported by facts or international law" [Brand, 2007]. 40 works were ultimately returned to Italy in 2007 in exchange for long-term loans of other artifacts [NYT], but negotiations regarding the Victorious Youth were not resolved.

The New York Times reports that the bronze is believed to have sunk with a ship that was carrying it to Italy after the Romans conquered Greece. The Getty believes that the ship sank in the first century BCE or CE, when Roman collecting of Greek art was at its height.

The Italian government's attorney has argued, "''The piece is Italian and the Getty should return it.'' He indicated that the Italian trial examined whether the Getty used due diligence in investigating the provenance of the piece when it was purchased in 1977. If the U.S. Justice Department does not recognize the Italian court order to seize the bronze, the Italian government plans to bring the case to an American court.

Like the case of the Euphronios krater, the work in question is not Italian but Greek. The issue at hand is that both works are said to have been found on Italian territory. Under a 1939 Italian law, all antiquities found in Italy are the property of the state. It is therefore illegal to export any archaeological artifact from the country without government permission. But is the Italian case strong? What proof does the government have that the discovery was made in what are Italian waters? Is Victorious Youth really Italian as the government attorney argues? [NYT]

We'll watch what the U.S. Justice Department's response is and follow the Getty's appeal.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Guggenheim Reaches Agreement with Malevich Heir

On February 8, 2010, The New York Times reported that the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation reached an agreement with the heirs of Russian artist Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935). The Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice has acknowledged the heirs' ownership of an untitled work by Malevich, the originator of Russian Suprematism.

The painting (c. 1916) is one of 70 works by Malevich that were exhibited in Berlin in 1927. During the exhibition, Malevich had to return to Russia and entrusted the paintings to friends. Malevich died in 1935, however, and matters were further complicated by Hitler's rise to power. Malevich's work was considered degenerate and banned by the Nazis. The paintings and drawings found their way into museum and private collections, which has led to efforts among Malevich heirs to reclaim ownership of these works.

The Guggenheim Foundation has described the details of the agreement as confidential but described it as "an amicable settlement," a sentiment echoed by the Malevich heirs. [NYT]

The Amber Room

In 1716, Russia's Peter the Great received a gift from the King of Prussia: the jewel-encrusted Amber Room. The Amber Room was intended to be a symbol of an alliance between Russia and Prussia and, as an 11 foot square hall of six tons of amber and gemstones, it was an impressive present; today, it would be valued at $142 million. The Amber Room was designed by German Baroque artist Andreas Schlüter and Danish craftsman Gottfried Wolfram and was installed in the Catherine Palace of Pushkin.

The Amber Room is a sad example of the devastation caused by Nazi looting during World War II. On June 22, 1941, Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa and sent three million German soldiers into Russia. Air raids and ground assault put the lives of the Russian people in harm's way and were an enormous threat to Russia's greatest art treasures.

While the Hermitage Museum evacuated its most valuable works to the Urals, officials at the Catherine Palace attempted to safeguard the Amber Room by hiding the precious materials behind a thin wallpaper. This measure was to no avail. German troops discovered the room, disassembled it, packed it into 27 crates, and shipped it Germany, where was reinstalled in a museum on the Baltic Coast in Kaliningrad (then Königsberg).

The story does not end there, however. After being on exhibit for two years in Germany and with the end of the war approaching, the museum director, Alfred Rohde, was advised to dismantle the Amber Room and crate it once again. A year later in 1944, the town was bombed by allied forces and the museum left in ruins. The Amber Room crates were never found.

In an article on, writer Jess Blumberg explains that the most basic theory that historians have put forth is that the crates were destroyed in the 1944 bombing. Others believe that the crates will be discovered on the bottom of the Baltic Sea, while some speculate that the amber is still in present-day Kaliningrad. There is even a faction that suspects that Stalin had created a second (and therefore fake) Amber Room and that this was the room that the Nazis in fact stole. In 1997, German detectives received a tip that a man was selling an alleged panel piece from the Amber Room. The lead, however, was a dead end. The seller was the son of a German soldier and had no information about how his father obtained the panel.

Blumberg notes that there is even more intrigue to this story, citing an "Amber Room Curse." She writes,
Many people connected to the room have met untimely ends. Take Rohde and his wife, for example, who died of typhus while the KGB was investigating the room. Or General Gusev, a Russian intelligence officer who died in a car crash after he talked to a journalist about the Amber Room. Or, most disturbing of all, Amber Room hunter and former German soldier Georg Stein, who in 1987 was murdered in a Bavarian forest.
In 2003, a 25-year long project to create a replica of the Amber Room was completed. The $11 million reconstruction can be seen today in St. Petersburg. []

The Amber Room in 1940

Reconstruction of the Amber Room, completed in 2003

Thursday, February 4, 2010

German Court Nixes Return of Collection

On Friday, January 29, 2010, a German court denied an American man's request for the restitution of a collection of 4,300 posters that were taken from his father by the Nazis in 1938. The posters have been in the German Historical Museum's collection since 1990. The court acknowledged that Peter Sachs, son of art collector (and dentist to Einstein!) Hans Sachs, is the owner of the posters, but that the Museum was not required to return the collection.

This decision overturns a ruling made last year by a lower court in Germany, which granted the restitution of one poster in the German Historical Museum's collection to Peter Sachs.

The court has not submitted an explanation of its decision at this time. However, it is speculated that a compensation paymen
t given to Hans Sachs in 1961 by the West German government has contributed to the decision. The 1961 compensation was 225,000 German marks (then worth $50,000). The 4,300 posters which survive an original collection of 12,500 posters are now valued at $6.3 million. It includes works by Toulouse-Lautrec, Jules Cheret, and Lucian Bernhard.

Peter Sachs has argued that the original compensation was made when it appeared that the collection had been destroyed in World War II. However, his father learned that part of it survived, but was in the communist East Germany. Hans Sachs attempted to obtain the collection from the East German Museum, where it was housed from WWII to 1990.

My hunch is that we have not heard the last of this case. We'll stay tuned to see what next steps will be taken by Peter Sachs and his attorney. [The Washington Post]

Ideas about the Causes of the Illicit Trade in Cultural Property

The highly publicized Italian investigation into Giacomo Medici1 highlighted issues surrounding the trade in cultural property in our interconnected world and has called attention to the pervasiveness of art theft and smuggling.

So what encourages this illicit trade in cultural property? Since World War II, there has been an increase in interest in antiquities and primitive art and artifacts among collectors, fueling the demand and creating a black market in looted cultural property.2 This demand in art-market states promotes the theft and illegal export of cultural property from the countries of origin.3 Clandestine looting is further encouraged by the fact that, in art source states, there tends to be a shortage of funds available for the proper protection of archeological sites from looters. If services are provided, they are often poorly organized and, even, corrupt.4

Art critic Robert Hughes observes, “‘Art is no longer priceless, it is ‘priceful.’ We overvalue art and then we’re surprised when the chalices are stolen.’”5 Suppressing the illicit movement of cultural property is difficult because of the large amount of money to be made in this market. Indeed, the purchase of the Euphronios krater did much to encourage the illicit trade in cultural property and the formation of a complex underground network for looted antiquities. The tombaroli, or tomb-robbers, in Italy “went crazy” when they learned that the Met had paid $1 million for the krater, the most ever paid for an antiquity at the time. It intensified their efforts to uncover more loot that would secure such a sensational price.6

Overall, there are large economic incentives for dealing in illicit antiquities as opposed to other smuggling crimes. For example, in the United States and abroad, the profits in antiquities smuggling are larger and the penalties much less severe than dealing in comparably priced amounts of narcotics.7 So-called “subsistence looting” is commonplace in many impoverished areas of art source countries; in China, for example, a single archaeological find can generate as much money as a year’s farming income.8 A Peruvian professional tomb-robber, a buaquero, said, “‘Around here, there is no other kind of work. I used to work at the dairy factory, but it closed. There is no work but looting.’”9 The economic incentives of looting prove to be seductive to many individuals in these countries of origin.

We know that Hitler had motivations outside the economic realm -- he wanted to create a museum that would showcase his power. The simple "ownership" of cultural property can be an incentive to collectors as well. In the past, "wars were fought in which art was not only the compensation but the cause itself;" in 1648, Queen Christina of Switzerland ordered an invasion of Prague in order to seize the emperor's extensive art collection and library.10

Any other thoughts as to what encourages looting and the illicit trade? Leave your ideas here!

1. See January 27, 2010 post.
2. Bator, Paul. The international trade of art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.
3. Cunning, Andrea. "The Safeguarding of Cultural Property in Times of War and Peace." Tulsa Journal of Comparative and International Law 11, no. 211 (2003): 211-238.
4. Bator.
5. John E. Conklin. Art crime. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1994. 14.
6. Watson, Paul and Todeschini, Cecilia. The Medici conspiracy. New York: PublicAffairs, 2006. 333.
7. Borodkin, Lisa. "The Economics of Antiquities Looting and a Proposed Legal Alternative (in note)." Columbia Law Review 95, no. 2 (1995): 377-417.
8. Chang, D.N. "Stealing Beauty: Stopping the Madness of Illicit Art Trafficking." Houston Journal of International Law 28, no.3 (2006): 829-869.
9. Atwood, Roger. Stealing history: Tomb raiders, smugglers, and the looting of the ancient world. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004. 32.
10. Birov, Victoria. (1997-1998). "Prize or Plunder?: The Pillage of Works of Art and the International Law of War." New York University Journal of International Law and Politics 30, no. 201 (1997-1998): 201-249.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The "Elgin" Marbles

When selecting a header to great my blog visitors, I chose an image that reflects one of the most widely known cultural property debates: the case of the "Elgin" Marbles.

The name "Elgin Mables" is a popular term given to the ancient marbles of the Parthenon (late 5th century) that were removed between 1801 and 1805 by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottomon Empire. At the time, Athens was part of the Ottoman Empire and Lord Elgin is said to have received permission by the ruling government to remove the marbles and take them back to London. There, they were purchased by the British government in 1816.

However, a hot debate rages between the Greeks and the English about the rightful ownership of the marbles. In 1983, the Greek government submitted its first official request for repatriation; this request and the many that followed were denied by the British government.1 The Greek government sees the marbles as an essential part of the country's cultural patrimony. The Greeks argue that they should be presented in their historical environment and believe that the pieces were obtained unlawfully. The British government considers the acquisition to have been lawful and necessary at the time, to prevent further damage to the pieces from natural forces. In addition, the British feel that the marbles are part of the collective cultural heritage of mankind.2

Today, the Elgin Marbles can be seen at the British Musuem in London, but will that always be the case? One of the arguments made by the British is that the marbles are accessible to the public and safe in their current location, because of the British Museum's visitation and level of security. But in June 2009, the New Acropolis Museum opened its doors in Athens and now welcomes 10,000 visitors a day. On the top floor of the NAM is the Parthenon Gallery, which overlooks the ancient temple itself. Visitors can view both original marbles from the Parthenon and casts of the marbles in the British Museum. Museum president Dimitrios Pandermalis maintains, "The new museum explains the problem to the public. It's a new base for the discussion...We do not demand the return of every antiquity to the country of origin. For this one monument that is so important for the cultural history of the world, we have to find the solution to reunify all the original fragments. When you have the head of a statue and the body is 4,000 kilometers away, it's a problem."(Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2010).

What do you think? Where do the "Elgin" marbles belong? Will the successful opening of the New Acropolis Musuem and public opinion, which largely falls with the Greeks, lead to the return of the marbles someday?

1. Merryman, J.H. 1985. Thinking about the Elgin Marbles. Michigan Law Review 83(8): 1880-1923.

2. The British Museum Statement on the Elgin Marbles

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Bust in Cyprus

Authorities in Cyprus raided an antiquities smuggling ring last weekend, recovering dozens of artifacts valued at $15.5 million. Ten Cypriots and five other suspects were arrested by police for illegally possessing and trading in antiquities. This is believed to be the largest case of antiquities theft in Cyprus's history [NYT].

The Iraqi Jewish Archive

On January 17, the AP reported on the state of a Jewish archive found in Iraq and taken to the United States for preservation. In May of 2003, U.S. troops looking for weapons of mass destruction received a tip to investigate the basement of secret police building building. The troops discovered that the basement was flooded and that there were no WMDs on location. However, there was a finding to be made. The troops came upon books, photographs, and papers floating in the water, which, upon inspection, revealed themselves to be Jewish archival materials. Upon the approval of the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, the archive was sent to the United States in 2003 and is now at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland. The original agreement was that the U.S. would return the archive to Iraq after two years but, although NARA has said that Iraq can have the materials back, more preservation work (and funding to do so) is needed.

The situation is complicated by the history of Jews in Iraq. As the AP article explains, the Jewish community once thrived in Iraq, despite periods of persecution. However, persecution of Jews intensified when Iraq sided with Germany during World War II and upon the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. The 1950s saw a mass exodus of Iraqi Jews as a result of continued oppression; most current estimates put the Jewish population in Iraq at a staggeringly low figure of less than ten. The Jewish archive is believed to have been confiscated from Jewish families by the Iraqi secret police. Consequently, some Jewish authorities argue that the archive no longer belongs in Iraq.

However, the director of the Iraq National Library and Archives says that the materials should be returned to Iraq because they are part of Iraqi cultural history, much of which was lost during the 2003 invasion. The AP reports that Iraqi officials plan to travel to the U.S. next month to assess the archive and to plan for its return. A 2003 description of the archive, plan for preservation, and estimated cost of preservation can be found here: Iraqi Jewish Archive.

Iraqi Jewish Archive upon Discovery

Saturday, January 30, 2010

UNESCO Calls for Ban of Trade in Haitian Artifacts

In the wake of war and natural disasters, cultural sites and museums become less secure and, thus, more vulnerable to pillaging. We witnessed rampant looting in both Afghanistan and Iraq, for example. Cultural heritage is dispersed, through an underground network, over state borders and on the internet.

In the aftermath of the earthquake's devastation in Haiti, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has issued a statement calling for a ban in the trade and transfer of Haitian artifacts. This request was submitted to the UN Security Council by Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General, on Wednesday. UNESCO has asked Interpol and the World Customs Organization to monitor this illicit trade. Two sites at risk of pillaging by treasure hunters are the Presidential Palace and Cathedral of Port-au-Prince, both of which collapsed during the earthquake.

In her statement, Bokova maintains that Haiti's cultural heritage "is an invaluable source of identity and pride for the people on the island and will be essential to the success of their natural reconstruction. "Loot!" will track the international community's reaction to Bokova's call, along with any developments regarding the trade of Haitian artifacts. [UNESCO Statement]

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Rape of Europa

If you have ever traveled to Paris and visited the Louvre, you have stood more than a couple of feet from the Mona Lisa and viewed it through bullet-proof glass. But Frédérique Hébrard, daughter of a Louvre curator, got a little closer, as recounted in the documentary The Rape of Europa (2006). Hébrard's father was entrusted with the Mona Lisa when the Louvre was evacuated during World War II. The painting, along with thousands of other works in the Louvre's collection, was sent to a chateau in the south of France, to safeguard it from a Paris invasion and potential destruction or theft. In the documentary, Hébrard recalls opening the wooden case housing the Mona Lisa and gazing at her mysteriously smiling back.

In The Rape of Europa, a documentary based on Lynn H. Nicholas's book by the same title, we learn that, in addition to being mass-murderers who inflicted horror onto innocents, the Nazis were systematic plunderers of art. We all learn in grade school that Adolf Hitler was rejected from art school before gaining political power and establishing the Third Reich. But what many of us may have not learned is that art continued to be an obsession for Hitler throughout his life. The Rape of Europa describes how the dictator purged Europe of art that he hated and viewed as degenerate (modernist art, in particular) and stole art that he coveted. The Nazis' theft and destruction is still felt today, with lost art that has yet to be found and stolen art that is now the subject of disputes.

Hitler had a desire to make Linz, Austria a cultural mecca, with a museum of his design as the focal point. Even before his invasion of Poland in 1939, he had created a "hit list" of artworks that he wanted for his museum, including pieces in the Louvre. The documentary highlights heroes who saved Europe's cultural patrimony, including "Monuments Men" and Rose Valland, who will be the focus of their own post. In addition, Loot! will periodically highlight works of art stolen by the Nazis that were recovered, are still missing, or are disputed.

The Rape of Europa tells a truly riveting story that not even Hollywood's greatest screenwriter could imagine. Check out the trailer, head to the nearest video store (or to Netflix), and return to Loot! for more posts about Nazi plundering.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Met and the Euphronios Krater: The Origin of this Blog

In November of 1972, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City announced the purchase of the Euphronios krater (515 BCE) for one million dollars, an acquisition that was soon dubbed the “Hot Pot” because of the intense public scrutiny that surrounded it. Evidence quickly emerged that suggested the krater had been looted from a site north of Rome in 1971, illegally smuggled out of Italy, and sold to the Met by Robert E. Hecht, an American art dealer notorious for his involvement in antiquity smuggling scandals. Still, the krater remained in the museum’s collection for over thirty years until an Italian Carbinieri “Art Squad” investigation led to a warehouse in Geneva belonging to antiquities trader Giacomo Medici. Medici’s massive collection of looted objects and telling documents and photos linked him to the sale of the krater to Hecht and gave insight into a highly organized international antiquities smuggling network.1

On February 21, 2006, the Metropolitan Museum of Art signed an accord with the Italian Ministry of Culture, agreeing to the return of the Euphronios krater, a sixteen piece set of silver, and four archeological objects that were used in the trial against Medici in exchange for long-term Italian loans of equivalent importance and beauty. The krater remained on exhibit at the Met until January of 2008.

It was the case of the Euphronios krater that first brought my attention to the illicit trade in cultural property. At Lehigh University, I completed my senior honors thesis on the international response to this issue. This issue is a historic problem and one that continues because of globalization and the burgeoning market for cultural property.

The goal of this blog is to highlight historic and contemporary cases of smuggling and looting and to examine the international community's response to this issue. I will post emerging news stories and track publications and resources that contribute to our understanding of the illicit trade in cultural property.

1. Watson, Peter and Todeschini, Cecilia. 2006. The Medici Conspiracy. New York: PublicAffairs.