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