Stolen art found in commercial storage?

Perhaps commercial art storage institutions need to be held to a higher standard. Daniel Grant has a provocative piece in the Gallerist, exploring the possibility that a good deal of stolen art may be found in storage facilities like bank vaults or art storage facilities: The past decade has seen significant growth in the art […]

Read more
Alternative text

‘Art is Therapy’ at the Rijksmuseum

  What should a museum be? Should it be a collection of the world’s masterpieces accumulated in great cities? Should it be a smaller museum devoted to showing the history of a region, town or culture? We think a lot about these big questions around here by responding to questions like ‘Who Owns Antiquity?‘ or […]

Read more
Alternative text

Corporate donors funding preservation in Italy

There has been an upswing in the use of corporate funds to preserve and rehabilitate some of the World’s great cultural heritage sites in Italy. Gaia Piangiani and Jim Yardley report for the New York Times: While private-public partnerships are common in the United States and many other countries, the government has traditionally been responsible […]

Read more
Alternative text

Museum in Mosul at risk

NPR yesterday featured an interview with Christopher Dickey, foreign editor for the Daily Beast, discussing the risks posed to antiquities in Mosul: Well, what’s at risk are some beautiful monumental sculptures, these winged figures, lions and bulls, with the faces of bearded men – Kings, that clearly were idols in the time of the Assyrians. […]

Read more
Alternative text

Federal Agents target objects, not looters

The Salt Lake Tribune follows up on the status of the objects seized during the four-corners antiquities operation. The Federal government seized some 6,000 allegedly-looted antiquities, but has no clear victim or community to return them to in most cases. The Salt Lake Tribune has video of a curator for the Bureau of Land Management supervising the […]

Read more
Alternative text

On chasing the looting/terror connection

There has been a renewed series of reports in recent weeks connecting the looting of antiquities to terrorism. This recent Guardian article quotes an unnamed intelligence official stating that ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has partially funded its activities through looting antiquities from ancient sites, though it surely gained far more by commandeering oilfields. […]

Read more
Alternative text
Vermeer's "The Concert"

Vermeer’s “The Concert”

Perhaps commercial art storage institutions need to be held to a higher standard. Daniel Grant has a provocative piece in the Gallerist, exploring the possibility that a good deal of stolen art may be found in storage facilities like bank vaults or art storage facilities:

The past decade has seen significant growth in the art storage industry, but those recent discoveries of missing artworks raise questions about what is being stored. “I don’t check on what people are storing, that’s not my business,” said Robert Crozier, president of Crozier Fine Art, a storage company with locations in Manhattan, Long Island, Newark, N.J., and Philadelphia. Although he said that his company does not consult lists maintained by the FBI, Interpol or Art Loss Register of missing and stolen objects, Crozier mentioned a few instances over the years when a court order required him to “turn over our records.” However, he added that “we do extensive due diligence on our clients. Somebody can’t walk off the street and open an account to store their property in our warehouses. We have rules and regulations as to what can and cannot be stored, which we rigorously police.”

Crozier’s approach is standard for the industry. “I sort of know, but not really,” said Chris Wise, director of UOVO Fine Art Storage, a storage facility in Queens, when asked about his knowledge of work he safeguards. “A lot of people don’t share with us what they are storing. They send over a box from Europe and tell us to put it with their other boxes. They don’t want us to open their boxes to see what’s there, and I’m not in the provenance-checking business. If we had to check if pieces were stolen or if they were taxed at the right rate, storage would be a lot more expensive for our clients. So, I don’t really know what we have, and I don’t really want to have that knowledge.”

Thomas Ryan, the president of WelPak Corporation, a moving and storage company in Queens, said that “the greatest percentage of objects here are known to us,” but that checking their status is “beyond our requirements.”

Perhaps these storage companies should be prompted to require background searches with stolen art databases before storing works of art.

A blinking neon green sign greets visitors at the Rijksmuseum

A blinking neon green sign greets visitors at the Rijksmuseum

 

What should a museum be? Should it be a collection of the world’s masterpieces accumulated in great cities? Should it be a smaller museum devoted to showing the history of a region, town or culture? We think a lot about these big questions around here by responding to questions like ‘Who Owns Antiquity?‘ or what does property and justice require when resolving art disputes.

But in a new project Alain de Botton and John Armstrong have made the case that art can and should be more. Their argument is simple: art can help people leave more interesting and fulfilled lives. Art History as a discipline has much to offer, but the authors argue it should not be the only way to enjoy and experience works of art. Rather than focusing on art historical periods and dates, we can also think more broadly about how the image resonates with the viewer. That’s a bold claim to be sure, but the attempt is exciting and novel in a way that few art museums are able to achieve consistently. De Botton is known for a string of works including: How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Architecture of Happiness, Religion for Atheists, and the terrific The Art of Travel.

The project takes many forms including a website, apps for your phone, a book which makes the full case, and even a new exhibition at the Rijksmuseum.

The exhibition intervention takes the form of large yellow notes which inform and comment on the works on display. Perhaps most remarkable of all, the Rijksmuseum gave these writers access to intervene in the museum on this scale after a lengthy restoration.

So what exactly did they do? Here is one example which reads:

On the wall behind you, probably behind three rows of people, hangs one of the most famous works of art in the world.IMG_2661

This is bad news. The extreme fame of a work of art is almost always unhelpful because, to touch us, art has to elicit a personal response – and that’s hard when a painting is said to be so distinguished. This paintins is quite out of synch with its status in any case because, above all else, it wants to show us that the ordinary can be very special. The picture says that looking after a simple but beautiful home, cleaning the yard, watching over the children, darning clothes – and doing these thngs faithfully and without despair – is life’s real duty.

This is an anti-heroic picture, a weapon against false images of glamour. It refuses to accept that true glamour depends on amazing feats of courage or on the attainment of status. It argues that doing the modest things that are expected of all of us is enough. The picture asks you to be a little like it is: to take the attitudes it loves and to apply them to your life.

If the Netherlands had a Founding Document, a concentrated repository of its values, it would be this small picture. It is the Dutch contribution to the world’s understanding of happiness – and its message doesn’t just belong in the gallery.

Sickness:

Life is elsewhere.

I have a misplaced longing for glamour.

And here, on the day we visited is the view behind us, jam-packed with visitors eager to see Vermeer’s works:

IMG_2659

And a close-up version of the terrific Vermeer described in the intervention:

Johannes_Vermeer_-_Gezicht_op_huizen_in_Delft,_bekend_als_'Het_straatje'_-_Google_Art_Project

This note resonated with me, and I’m sure many others. How strange that sometimes it is easier to achieve the kind of personal connection to a work of art via technology than fighting cell phones and fellow museum-goers.

Continue Reading…

The Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome

The Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome

There has been an upswing in the use of corporate funds to preserve and rehabilitate some of the World’s great cultural heritage sites in Italy. Gaia Piangiani and Jim Yardley report for the New York Times:

While private-public partnerships are common in the United States and many other countries, the government has traditionally been responsible for maintaining historical sites in Italy, and even today some historians and preservationists worry that the shift could lead to crass commercialization. Critics complain that companies have exploited cultural sites by commandeering them for elaborate dinners or the display of luxury advertisements.

Indignation ran high in Florence after it was discovered that city officials had allowed Morgan Stanley to hold a dinner inside a 14th-century chapel for a rental price of $27,000. Florence’s mayor doubled the rent to $54,000 after the outcry, but some argued that price was not the core issue.

“There are sacred places where one can simply not hold a dinner,” said Salvatore Settis, an expert in cultural heritage law and a former director of the J. Paul Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. “Not even for four million euros” ($5.4 million).

Many preservationists were also outraged that Rome’s mayor allowed the Rolling Stones to rent Circus Maximus for an outdoor concert last month.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has often spoken about the need to enlist private companies to underwrite work at sites like Pompeii, where more than $137 million in European Union funds has already been spent. In May Mr. Franceschini, the culture minister, announced a new tax deduction intended to encourage private-sector donations for the restoration and preservation of museums, archives, libraries and theaters.

To many other nations this kind of corporate assistance seems relatively benign. So long as the sites receive much-needed care, there seems to be little potential harm. The Mausoleum of Augustus, right around the corner from the Ara Pacis in Rome, is badly in need of some attention, and may it with a donation from a Saudi Prince.

Gaia Pianigiani & Jim Yardley, To Some Dismay, Italy Enlists Donors to Repair Monuments, The New York Times, Jul. 15, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/16/arts/design/to-some-dismay-italy-enlists-donors-to-repair-monuments.html.
The Museum in Mosul, in 2011

The Museum in Mosul, in 2011

NPR yesterday featured an interview with Christopher Dickey, foreign editor for the Daily Beast, discussing the risks posed to antiquities in Mosul:

Well, what’s at risk are some beautiful monumental sculptures, these winged figures, lions and bulls, with the faces of bearded men – Kings, that clearly were idols in the time of the Assyrians. But that are now part and parcel of the history of Western civilization and biblical history especially. And then we’ve also got gorgeous gold jewelry which certainly will go onto the black market and all kinds of smaller pieces of sculpture, earthenware, the kinds of things that give you the texture as well as the beauty of life in that period. So it’s a rich museum but all of that collection is now in the hands of ISIS.

After the jump is the full audio interview:

Continue Reading…

These grinding stones had been used by some to line their driveways

These grinding stones had been used by some defendants to line their driveways

The Salt Lake Tribune follows up on the status of the objects seized during the four-corners antiquities operation. The Federal government seized some 6,000 allegedly-looted antiquities, but has no clear victim or community to return them to in most cases.

The Salt Lake Tribune has video of a curator for the Bureau of Land Management supervising the warehouse where these objects are located. She shows the corn grinding stones which were removed from their context and had been used by some of the defendants to line their driveways.

Changing the attitudes in these communities is a crucial step to reducing the looting. And Federal officials are primarily seizing the material, without it seems the benefit of any broader education initiatives or criminal sanctions:

In Blanding and surrounding counties, residents once openly gathered artifacts and such collecting was considered a legitimate family activity. The laws changed in the 1970s, criminalizing the removal of artifacts from tribal and federal land.

But looting persisted, to the dismay of archaeologists and American Indians. Graves were a favorite target because they tend to yield intact objects buried with the dead.

The point of the “Operation Cerberus” investigation was not to jail looters, BLM officials said, but to rein in the illegal antiquities trade.

“You can’t put [an artifact] back, but it is forever out of the black market. This effort was to start unraveling it where it started,” said Smith, an archaeologist who served as BLM’s Canyon Country district manager at the time of the 2009 raids.

Will simply securing objects, without seeking to prosecute and jail individuals be an effective criminal response? It remains to be seen, but indications from the communities themselves seems to suggest that the local communities have not embraced the Federal government’s position.

Brian Maffly, A trove of looted artifacts, five years after BLM raids in Utah, Salt Lake Tribune Jun 29, 2014.

CNN image of the destruction of the Buddha at Bamiyan in 2001

CNN image of the destruction of the Buddha at Bamiyan in 2001

There has been a renewed series of reports in recent weeks connecting the looting of antiquities to terrorism. This recent Guardian article quotes an unnamed intelligence official stating that ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has partially funded its activities through looting antiquities from ancient sites, though it surely gained far more by commandeering oilfields. Also this piece by Heather Pringle for National Geographic does a good job profiling the work of the Trafficking Culture group at the University of Glasgow, but it cannot resist the big headline. The Nat. Geo. piece makes mention of some of the tenuous connections between insurgents, terrorists, and antiquities looters. I’m uncomfortable calling every insurgent a terrorist, and the connections which are made point to antiquities looting as being a very minor, if inconsequential aspect of the activities of these groups. Matthew Bogdanos, the Marine and prosecutor, has also publicly stated that terrorists loot as well though I’m not aware of specifics he can point to.

The root for these connections may be this 2005 Der Spiegel article which again cites an unnamed investigator, this time a member of Germany’s BKA, as claiming that Mohammed Atta may have tried to use looted antiquities to finance the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This report, which contains little concrete information has had a longer shelf-life than it deserves, and has been used by a number of less-rigorous researchers, notably this piece authored by Noah Charney and two others which appears on the FBI website and breathlessly exclaims “[f]undamentalist terrorist groups rely on looted antiquities as a major funding source”. The data simply is not there to make this kind of connection, no matter how many clicks, headlines, or book sales it might generate. And making the connection is unhelpful.

What’s the harm in connecting antiquities looting to the activities of terrorists, ISIS, and other unsavory groups? For one, it diminishes the importance of antiquities looting as an issue. These reporters and some in law enforcement make the claim because many politicians and officials who make decisions about prosecutions and allocation of resources do not make policing antiquities a priority. As many have pointed out, too many law enforcement agencies still treat art theft and looting of sites as a property crime. The efforts to connect antiquities looting to terrorism then is a way to bootstrap this issue on to other crimes which receive more attention. Chasing the looting/terror connection means that some heritage advocates can even attempt to lump collectors and museums into funding terror. This is an unfortunate trend, and one which I think does the heritage community a disservice and lessens the level of intelligent discourse. Imagine a terrorist network is apprehended and we know it received funding by looting sites. If the network is “dismantled” by prosecution or drone strike, the site is still there, still unprotected, and still not a priority.

I suspect many terrorist and insurgent groups probably do engage in antiquities looting to some extent. But they engage in lots of other more lucrative criminal activity too. Just because hijackers may have visited strip clubs, played video games, or taken flying lessons does not make those activities “terrorism”. They are correlations without meaningful connections. Terrorists are the worst kind of criminal, and should be pursued and prosecuted as such. Likewise, archaeological looting is a serious and tragic crime which robs us of our collective cultural heritage. To attempt to make cheap connections between looting and terrorism undermines the cause and seriousness of the theft and looting. There are far more direct links between armed conflict and the looting and destruction of sites, we should perhaps focus our energy there. If we want our politicians and law enforcement agencies to take heritage crime seriously, we need to work harder to make them pay attention with real facts, losses, and data and avoid chasing tenuous links which are dramatic but have little chance of producing sound long-term cultural policy. The links may exist, but those interested in preserving antiquities should dial back linking the looting of sites with terrorism.

 

 

Feet of a looted statue, Koh Ker Cambodia

Feet of a looted statue, Koh Ker Cambodia

Simon Mackenzie and Tess Davis have put together an important new empirical study examining a trafficking network in Cambodia in an article appearing in the British Journal of Criminology. From the abstract:

Qualitative empirical studies of the illicit antiquities trade have tended to focus either on the supply end, through interviews with looters, or on the demand end, through interviews with dealers, museums and collectors. Trafficking of artefacts across borders from source to market has until now been something of an evidential black hole. Here, we present the first empirical study of a statue trafficking network, using oral history interviews conducted during ethnographic criminology fieldwork in Cambodia and Thailand. The data begin to answer many of the pressing but unresolved questions in academic studies of this particular criminal market, such as whether organized crime is involved in antiquities looting and trafficking (yes), whether the traffic in looted artefacts overlaps with the insertion of fakes into the market (yes) and how many stages there are between looting at source and the placing of objects for public sale in internationally respected venues (surprisingly few).

Highly Recommended!

Light Posting

By on May 29, 2014 — Leave a comment
The Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia

We are off for a few weeks for some summer teaching in Istanbul, some art-viewing in Amsterdam, and some other events. There will be lots to share here when I’m back in front of a keyboard, but posting will be light for a few weeks. In the meantime check out my blogging colleagues in the blogroll on the right for updates and commentary.

Attorney Nicholas O’Donnell rightly skewers the FBI’s recent media blitz on the so-called “confirmed sightings” of works stolen from the Gardner Museum:

If my skepticism sounds familiar, it is because there was a similar episode last year, when the FBI claimed “with a  high degree of confidence” that it knew who had stolen the paintings.  That story, as has often been the case, was released around the anniversary of the theft (though without mentioned that coincidence).  Richard DesLauriers, the Special Agent in Charge in Boston, said then: “The FBI believes with a high degree of confidence that in the years after the theft, the art was transported to Connecticut and the Philadelphia region, and some of the art was taken to Philadelphia, where it was offered for sale by those responsible for the theft,”

The FBI theory seems to be this: an informant in a Dorchester garage accused Merlino of being involved, and someone else in the same garage knew Gentile, who had some police paraphernalia in his house.  Really?  Put that way, it is pretty clear why the FBI has not arrested anyone or offered more information: it cannot prove any of this.

The FBI said a year ago that it knew who was responsible, but clearly does not want to accuse Gentile directly.  Instead, it is essentially asking the public to connect the fact that Gentile has some relation to Philadelphia, to the uncorroborated offers for sale in an “I’m just saying” sort of way.

The Gardner heist is a civic tragedy in here in Boston.  It struck at one of our most treasured institutions.  I can still picture the full-page headline in the Boston Globe the day that it happened (the Art Law Report was just a gleam in the eye of a local high school student then).  But these recycled stories are not advancing the ball.  If the FBI thinks it has a case against a responsible person, it should move on that information.  If it is simply going to make insinuations, it should stop.

Nicholas O’Donnell, FBI Claims to Have “Confirmed Sightings” of Stolen Gardner Artwork, But Offers Only Stale Information and Conjecture, Art Law Reort (May 22, 2014), http://www.artlawreport.com/2014/05/22/fbi-claims-to-have-confirmed-sightings-of-stolen-gardner-artwork-but-offers

Vermeer's "The Concert"

Vermeer’s “The Concert”

-only-stale-information-and-conjecture/.

Gerald Fitzgerald argues that we need to increase the level of due diligence in the art market:

I propose a levy of 1% or less on the sale or auction of any artwork above a certain value—say, $5,000—earmarked fully for the creation and support of a Center for Provenance Research. Questions of inadequate provenance would be submitted to CPR review prior to further sale. This independent, nonprofit research center would apply acknowledged standards using instant accessibility to an electronic database uniting all relevant sources. A staggering, global collection is housed at the Family Library in Salt Lake City, UT, which is now digitizing genealogical records in more than 45 countries. In March 2014, the Vatican announced that it will begin to digitize 1.5 million pages of its manuscript collection of more than 41 million pages, a project it has outsourced to the Japanese technology group NTT Data. Other fields—medicine, music, and so on—are being accessed instantly, electronically; every major museum has its libraries being digitized.

No one has done so for provenance research. Overseen by a board of directors drawn internationally from museums, auction houses, dealers, and collectors, the CPR could be a recognized standard for due diligence now missing entirely. I estimate that it would take about 10 years to devise, fund, and implement the CPR. The levy ought to begin immediately following market commitment to the project, allowing funds to accrue throughout the planning and development stages. The need for a global CPR is underscored by the major auction houses continuing expansion into emerging markets, such as those of China and India.

I agree that diligence needs to be increased, and this seems like a very good idea to get it started.

Gerald Fitzgerald, Opinion: Give Us CPR, Art Papers (Jun. 2014), http://www.artpapers.org/feature_articles/feature3_2014_0506.html.