AP Reveals U.S. Investigation of Missing Venezuelan Artworks

An image of the Avila mountain by Manuel Cabre.

The AP has a fascinating story on the investigation of missing artworks that may have been taken from the Venezuelan ambassador’s residence in Washington. At present only three works are confirmed missing, but the piece hints that others might be missing as well. The uneasy economic and political situation in Venezuela may make conditions ripe for officials and others to make off with valuable state works. Carlos Vecchio, an exiled Venezuelan politician told the AP:

This is likely just the tip of the iceberg . . . . If this is what they’ve managed to do with some artwork at a single diplomatic mission, you can imagine what they’ve done inside Venezuela.

To borrow a tired phrase, art and the status of culture is so often a canary in the coal mine. The AP story notes that:

A New York-based art dealer said that in 2012 he toured the vaults of the agency’s headquarters in downtown Caracas in the company of its vice president, who proposed unloading sculptures and paintings by well-known Spanish artists Baltasar Lobo and Manuel Valdes in exchange for kickbacks. The collection was commercially attractive but poorly cared for, with canvasses piling up on emergency stairwells and exposed to sunlight, said the dealer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from Venezuelan government officials. He showed The Associated Press photos on his cell phone of some of the works on offer.
Even in better times Venezuela was ripe for some high-stakes museum heists. A painting by the French artist Henri Matisse, “Odalisque in Red Pants,” went missing around two decades ago from the Museum of Contemporary Art and was replaced by a badly-produced fake. The original was discovered in 2012 in a Miami hotel room and returned by the FBI to Venezuela’s government two years later. A Cuban man and a Mexican woman were arrested trying to sell the painting to undercover FBI agents in Miami Beach, but who was behind the theft, and exactly when it even took place, remains a mystery.
Today, the museum, which boasted the largest collection of contemporary art in Latin America when it was founded in the 1970s, is a shadow of its former glory. Galleries are mostly empty, security guards nowhere to be found and the artwork exposed to the tropical heat after the air conditioning units were damaged in the frequent blackouts ravaging the capital.
One of the museum’s highlights, a collection of 147 works by Picasso, is no longer on permanent display, although it did make a brief appearance at a rare show last year titled “Comrade Picasso” that stressed the Spanish artist’s communist activism. For the museum’s once loyal promoters, who were removed by Chávez in a cultural purge 18 years ago, it is a recent photo that went viral on social media of a bucket collecting water from a leaky gallery ceiling that best sums up the current state of neglect.
A few blocks away, at the century-old Museum of Fine Arts, the situation is even more desperate. Only about a third of its 18 galleries are open to the public; the rest have been closed for months for renovations, although there’s no sign any are taking place.

Joshua Goodman, US helping Venezuela’s Guaido track stolen art, AP NEWS (Sept. 19, 2019), https://apnews.com/b19c195aca5445918e48142154dbc77c [https://perma.cc/YB23-3X42].

Gerstenblith on Provenance

John Myatt forged a number of prominent Old Masters, and his conspirator John Drewe invented provenance for many of the works.

Prof. Gerstenblith has a new Piece in the International Journal of Cultural Property titled “Provenances: Real, Fake, and Questionable“. Here’s the abstract:

Provenance, the ownership history of an artifact or work of art, has become one of the primary mechanisms for determining the legal status and authenticity of a cultural object. Professional associations, including museum organizations, have adopted the “1970 standard” as a means to prevent the acquisition of an ancient object from promoting the looting of archaeological sites, which is driven by the economic gains realized through the international market. The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), one of the museum world’s most influential professional organizations, requires its members to list the ancient artworks and artifacts that they have acquired after 2008 that do not conform to the 1970 standard in an online object registry. The study presented here of the AAMD’s Object Registry for New Acquisitions of Archaeological Material and Works of Ancient Art analyzes the extent to which AAMD member museums do not comply with the 1970 standard and, perhaps of greater significance, the weaknesses in the provenance information on which they rely in acquiring such works. I argue that systematic recurrences of inadequate provenance certitude are symptomatic of the larger problem of methodology and standards of evidence in claiming documented provenance. A museum’s acceptance of possibly unverifiable provenance documentation and, therefore, its acquisition of an object that may have been recently looted, in turn, impose a negative externality on society through the loss of information about our past caused by the looting of archaeological sites.


Gerstenblith, P. (2019). Provenances: Real, Fake, and Questionable. International Journal of Cultural Property, 26(3), 285-304. doi:10.1017/S0940739119000171

What Blockchain can (and can’t) do for the antiquities trade

Can Blockchain help ensure the Metropolitan Museum will not acquire more looted material like this Gilded Coffin?

Last March I participated in Cardozo’s Arts and Entertainment Law Journal Spring Symposium on the topic of Digital Art & Blockchain. I learned a lot about this new technology, and wrote a bit about how Blockchain can impact the antiquities trade. Here’s the abstract to my essay:

Blockchain, the technology underpinning Bitcoin and other digital currencies, offers promise to shift the gathering and sharing of information in profound ways. It could help form a new kind of financial system that limits current inefficiencies, or even radically change how parties enter into contract, or monitor supply chains. The technology’s distributed ledger allows users in a network to monitor and access peer-to-peer digital transactions in real time. This digital ledger allows users to maintain this information securely by encrypting and allowing access only to those who have permission, given by cryptographic keys.

For the art market, blockchain offers a tantalizing possibility: a verifiable provenance research platform that would eliminate or minimize the problems with title history, authenticity, and looting, which have long-plagued the art and antiquities market. This essay examines whether blockchain might offer a chance for the antiquities market to remedy its persistent problems. The antiquities market has been beleaguered by the sale of forgeries, allowed stolen material to find a market, been hampered by market inefficiencies, and even been a haven for looted archaeological material. Distributed ledgers and blockchain could alleviate or eliminate these problems, but only if the market and those who shape it want to utilize them. No technology, no matter how ingenious or elegant, can end problems caused by the unprincipled actors in the antiquities trade. Such change has to come about with a culture shift and continued pressure by regulators and cultural heritage advocates.

Assessing the Viability of Blockchain to Impact the Antiquities Trade
Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal, Vol. 37, No. 3, 2019

Rub on State-Enacted Resale Rights

Chuck Close, Self Portrait, 2000, in the Smithsonian Collection. Close unsuccesfully brought a lawsuit to collect royalyy payments under the California Resale Rights Act, but the law was held to be pre-empted by federal law by the Ninth Circuit in 2018.

Guy Rub (Ohio State University, Michael E. Moritz College of Law) has posted an article from a symposium issue of the Kentucky Law Journal on: Experimenting with State-Enacted Resale Rights.

Current federal law does not require sellers of fine art to pay a share of the sale price to the artists, although Congress and federal agencies have been debating the advantages and disadvantages of such a duty, commonly referred to as Artists’ Resale Rights (ARR), since the 1970s. What is often missing from this discourse is the role that state law might play in this ecosystem. This issue, and especially California’s 1976 ARR law, the only state-enacted ARR to date, is the focus of this Article. 

States are often said to be the laboratories of democracy as they can experiment with various legal rules and produce rich comparative empirical data. The Article explores whether states can be the laboratories of ARR as well. It reaches three conclusions: First, there is a vibrant debate concerning the impacts and overall desirability of resale royalties, but that debate is driven by relatively scarce empirical data. Second, if states decide to adopt ARR they can provide some of that missing information. Third, subject to minor restrictions, states are allowed to enact ARR legislation, and the recent Ninth Circuit decisions that held the California ARR act unconstitutional are, for the most part, misguided, as it does not fully recognize the important role that states play in the markets for creative goods.

Rub, Guy A., Experimenting With State-Enacted Resale Rights (June 20, 2019). 109 Kent. L. J. 647 (2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3413846

Manhattan DA has Charged Kapoor and 7 Others

The Manhattan DA alleged that many illicit objects are still missing, including this grey schist Garuda Seizing a Nagini (via).

The office of the Manhattan District Attorney has charged Subhash Kapoor and seven individuals in a antiquities massive smuggling network. The arrest warrants filed yesterday allege Kapoor travelled to India to discuss the looting of objects, he then shipped these objects to London to be cleaned and restored, and finally these objects were given fraudulent histories before being sold through his galleries.

These arrests show the potential use of state and federal cooperation, unfortunately a massive investigation this large takes time. As Chasing Aprhorite pointed out, these arrest warrants come 7 years after federal agents raided Kapoor’s gallery in 2012:

The individuals arrested include two British citizens. Neil Parry Smith, an antiquities restorer was alleged to have prepared looted objects. Also, Richard Salmon is alleged to have helped restored recently looted material in New York. The five other individuals were a part of the alleged looting network in India and are Sanjeeve Asokan, Dean Dayal, Ranjeet Kanwar (aka Shantoo), Aditya Prakash and Vallabh Prakash.

Kapoor is currently jailed in India where he has been awaiting trial under the Indian criminal code for nearly 8 years. But his alleged looting network is vast, including an alleged 2,600 antiquities from Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Thailand. Helen Stoilas at the Art Newspaper compiled many of the images of still-missing objects provided by the Manhattan DA. Those objects are now presumed illicit, dealing a big blow to their future market.

For a terrific account of this looting network, you should seek out the work of S. Vijay Kumar:

Rogers on the Unique Property Status of Native American Remains

Jim Thorpe at the 1912 Summer Olympics (via). In 2010 Thorpe’s children and the Sac and Fox Nation sued the town of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania seeking to repatriate his remains under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Alix Rogers (Stanford Law School fellow, and PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge) has posted an article titled “Owning Geronimo but Not Elmer McCurdy: The Unique Property Status of Native American Remains” on SSRN.

This article unifies two areas of property scholarship that have not historically intersected. In the field of biotechnology and the law, it is generally understood that human remains and many body parts are not objects of legal property. This general rule has a startling exception, which heretofore has gone unnoticed in the literature and relevant case law. The bodily remains of Native Americans were, and I argue, continue to be, objects of legal property.

With the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA) Native American remains are classified as familial and tribal property. The distinction and significance of property status under NAGPRA has been overlooked in the Native American legal scholarship. The perpetuation of property status is surprising given that NAGPRA was passed to address the systematic disrespect for Native American burial grounds and commercialization of Native American remains. Property status is all the more striking and important because some federal circuits have also interpreted NAGPRA to apply to contemporary individuals with Native American ancestry. With the rise of genetic testing technologies, application of this property rule takes on some surprising implications.

At first glance, we might condemn the property status of Native American remains as continued evidence of dehumanization. Property is traditionally associated with rights of alienability, exclusion, commensurability, and commodification. The understanding of property in Native American human remains advocated for in this paper challenges classic property constructs of wealth-maximization and an individually centered right of exclusion. Instead, after re-considering the paradigm of property, I argue that the communal property approach embodied by the Act enables Native Americans to more effectively protect their dead compared to any other American group. NAGPRA, therefore, represents an intriguing pathway for human biological materials regulation reform more broadly.

Rogers, Alix, Owning Geronimo but Not Elmer McCurdy: The Unique Property Status of Native American Remains (June 11, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3402650 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3402650

Pilot Project by the German Lost Art Foundation

Catherine Hickley reports for the Art Newspaper that a new study has shown that serious state-sanctioned seizures of privately-held artworks continued long after the conclusion of World War II, particularly in east Germany. The study examined acquisitions between 1945 and 1989 by four museums: the Viadrina Museum, and museums in Strausberg, Eberswalde, and Neuruppin. The study was conducted by the German Lost Art Foundation, and was intended as a pilot project to guide further research.


One of the most common ways that art confiscated from individuals wound up in East German museum collections was through the clearance of the residences of people who had fled the country, especially in the second half of the 1950s, Sachse says.
At the end of 1961, just a few months after the Berlin Wall was erected, East German Minister for State Security Erich Mielke gave orders for a secret operation to force open and empty unused, privately rented bank vaults, safety deposit boxes and safes at around 4,000 locations across the country and empty them of their contents.
The stealth operation, known as Aktion Licht (Operation Light), amounted to an orchestrated, state-sanctioned mass theft from people who had left the country. The treasures belonged to East Germans who had escaped to the West, but also to Jewish people forced to flee or who were taken to concentration camps during the Third Reich. The Stasi valued its findings at 4.1m deutschmarks (around $10m at the time).
After 1970, the preferred method of theft by the East German authorities was to invent astronomical tax bills and then seize art when the victims could not pay.

Catherine Hickley, Mass theft of art from East German citizens revealed in new report, The Art Newspaper (Jun. 12, 2019), http://theartnewspaper.com/news/mass-theft-of-art-from-east-german-citizens-revealed.

My Article on the Council of Europe’s ‘Blood Antiquities’ Convention

The Arch of the Temple of Bel, near Palmyra in Syria in 2005 (via)

In 2017 the Council of Europe opened the Nicosia or ‘Blood Antiquities’ Convention up for signature. The new initiative is the first of its kind devoted to the criminal and penal aspects of policing cultural property. I wrote a discussion of the Treaty, examining its provisions in detail and thinking about what this initiative may mean for the future of cultural heritage law.

In 2017 the Council of Europe opened for signature the first ever international treaty aimed at policing cultural property. As more attention has been paid to the damage done by the theft, looting, and illicit trafficking of cultural objects, the Council of Europe has met this challenge with an ambitious convention which aims to fill gaps in the current criminal laws. These gaps have too often been exploited by individuals in the illicit antiquities trade. The author had an opportunity to present his analysis of a draft version of the Council of Europe’s Convention at a meeting held in Lucca, Italy in 2017. The meeting of that group of experts revealed a document that had the benefit of grand ambitions and tough talk on the policing of illicit antiquities. Yet there was pessimism expressed by many experts that the Convention would accomplish the goals which it set out to achieve. The essay which follows is an expansion of the remarks given at that meeting. It argues that the cultural property trade badly needs to be properly regulated. This includes not simply seizure and forfeiture of objects, but also the prosecution of persistent bad actors. The Nicosia Convention opens up new possibilities for prosecution at all levels of the illicit trade. Although the Convention is the first of its kind, it has been met with surprisingly little attention in the cultural heritage law academy. This essay introduces the main reforms offered by the Convention and argues that it points the way forward for future policing of the illicit trade in cultural property.


The Blood Antiquities Convention as a Paradigm for Cultural Property Crime ReductionCardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal, Vol. 37, No. 2, 2019

Janet Ulph on Acquiring Fossils

A Seymouria Fossil , from the California Academy of Sciences, via.

Professor Janet Ulph of Leicester Law School has written a handy and concise discussion of how fossils fit into the overall picture of cultural heritage crime.

This article explains why museums should avoid acquiring fossils which lack sufficient provenance and where the circumstances are suspicious. It argues that, regardless of whether one considers fossils to be cultural property or not, the Museums Association’s Code of Ethics should be followed not only in order to maintain public trust in museums but also to ensure compliance with current laws

Ulph, J. 2018. Acquiring fossils: a complex picture. The Geological Curator 10 (10): 657-670.

Babcock on “The Public Trust in Public Art”

Winslow Homer, The Veteran in a New Field, 1865, (source).

Professor Hope Babcock, of Georgetown Law, has published an interesting discussion on public art which carries forward a number of ideas presented by Joseph Sax and the public trust. She looks at the interesting problem of art which is withheld from public enjoyment. In other words should this iconic work of Winslow Homer enter the public patrimony, and thus be prevented from disappearing into a private collection if the Met would ever decide to deaccession it?


Private hoarding of important works of art is a phenomenon that has caused their disappearance from public view. The loss of this art undermines republican values like education, community, and citizenship, and therefore should be resisted. This Article explores various legal tools to prevent this from happening, including doctrines and laws that protect artists’ rights in their work, but which offer the public little relief. Turning to two well-known common-law doctrines—public dedication and public trust—to see whether they might provide a solution, the author favors the latter because it is nimbler and better suited to the public nature of important works of art. But she recognizes that making viable use of the public trust doctrine requires enhancement with incentives, such as those offered by listing the art on a register, the tax code, and external norms of social behavior. The Article is a tribute to Professor Joseph L. Sax’s public trust scholarship, which has inspired so many of us who follow in his footsteps.


Babcock, Hope M., “The Public Trust in Public Art: Property Law’s Case Against Private Hoarding of ‘Public’ Art” 50 Conn. L. Rev. 641 (2018). https://scholarship.law.georgetown.edu/facpub/2139