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