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 F├╝hrermuseum 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?