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.