Online Symposium on the Benin Bronzes Friday Apr. 9

I was forwarded a message that the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies and the Institute of African Studies, both at Columbia University, will hold an online live event on Friday called: The Benin Bronzes: Towards the Resolution of a Long-Standing Dispute?.

Here is the link for registration and the slate of presenters.

University of Aberdeen will repatriate a Benin bronze to Nigeria

The University of Aberdeen has joined other forward-thinking institutions such as the Humboldt Forum museum in Berlin and announced that it will return a Benin bronze to the Nigerian government. In a statement the University announced the return because of its “extremely immoral” acquisition, and called on other Museums in the United Kingdom to conduct their own inquiry and follow their lead. I could not be more proud of my former University and I hope this move will continue to push other institutions holding on to their colonial treasures to pursue justice for these objects and the creator cultures which desire their return.

Benin’s cultural patrimony was looted by British forces in 1897 during a violent dispute in which a British delegation was attacked, and then a large Punitive Expedition was assembled and exiled the leader of benin Oba Ovonramwen. The British destroyed Benin City and took back to Britain bronze sculptures, brass plaques, and sculptures created with the lost wax process. The Kingdom of Benin as I understand had been a capable and vibrant trading partner with Europe for hundreds of years, but in the 19th Century drive to colonize Africa, the culture and independence of the Kingdom of Benin was an inconvenience for the British empire and so was eradicated and impoverished.

This return continues a rich history of repatriation by the University. Neil Curtis, who head’s Aberdeen University’s museums and special collections said in a statement:

The University of Aberdeen has previously agreed to repatriate sacred items and ancestral remains to Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and has a procedure that considers requests in consultation with claimants. An ongoing review of the collections identified the Head of an Oba as having been acquired in a way that we now consider to have been extremely immoral, so we took a proactive approach to identify the appropriate people to discuss what to do.

The University museum has a small but lovely collection, and its location, the former Marischal College in central Aberdeen is being renovated, so there were not large numbers of visitors that will be disappointed in not being able to see this object on display. But that should not diminish the just result here. This head will be returned and viewed in context at a new cultural complex in Benin City which will be designed by David Adjaye.

University to Return Benin Bronze | News | The University of Aberdeen, https://www.abdn.ac.uk/news/14790/ (last visited Mar. 26, 2021);

University of Aberdeen to Return Pillaged Benin Bronze to Nigeria, the Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/25/university-of-aberdeen-to-return-pillaged-benin-bronze-to-nigeria [https://perma.cc/R4GD-QNQX] (last visited Mar. 26, 2021);

Catherine Hickley, University of Aberdeen to Return Benin Bronze Looted by British Troops to Nigeria, The Art Newspaper, http://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/university-of-aberdeen-to-return-benin-bronze-looted-by-british-troops-to-nigeria (last visited Mar. 26, 2021);

Alex Greenberger & Alex Greenberger, Scottish University Becomes First to Repatriate Benin Bronze to Nigeria, ARTnews.com (Mar. 25, 2021), https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/university-of-aberdeen-returns-benin-bronze-1234587803/;

University of Aberdeen to Repatriate “looted” Nigerian Bronze Sculpture, BBC News (Mar. 25, 2021), https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-north-east-orkney-shetland-56513346 [https://perma.cc/M9NE-SXQ9].

Art Museum intruders escaped by boat last night in Houston

Screen shot from Carol Reed's 'The Third Man'

A couple of art museum intruders did their best Third Man impression in Houston last night. Two people allegedly broke into the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, a satellite museum run by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The individuals set off a security alarm at the Bayou Bend and were chased by a security guard. They then apparently hopped on a boat on Buffalo Bayou and evaded law enforcement long enough to scurry into a large storm drain and were able to escape.

The episode calls to mind the theft in 2000 when gunmen took works of art by Rembrandt and Renoir and then escaped the waterfront National Museum of Sweden by boat. There was also speculation in 2020 that thefts from the University of Oxford’s Christ Church Picture gallery were done by thieves who came and went by boat on either the River Cherwell or the River Thames near Oxford.

These unsuccessful Bayou bandits were not able to take anything of value according to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, but were able to lose a perfectly good boat in their escape attempt.

Here’s the local ABC13 affiliate report this morning:

A Pair of Thieves Broke Into a Houston Art Museum, Then Escaped by Boat, Texas Monthly, https://www.texasmonthly.com/being-texan/a-pair-of-thieves-broke-into-a-houston-art-museum-then-escaped-by-boat/ (last visited Mar. 17, 2021);

A. B. C. News, $30 Million Art Heist at Stockholm Museum, ABC News, https://abcnews.go.com/International/story?id=81873&page=1 (last visited Mar. 17, 2021);

Van Dyck Painting Thieves “May Have Escaped in Boat,” BBC News (Mar. 17, 2020), https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-51926353.

At least they left most of the art alone

Congress Holds Joint Session To Ratify 2020 Presidential Election
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

On Tuesday a terrorist mob of hate-filled buffoons and strong men managed in a low brow, comical, yet utterly frightening way to break into the Capitol building of the United States. The seat of the U.S. Congress was knocked out of commission for hours on Tuesday. Amid the threats to members of Congress, their staff, security, press and others, the lawlessness was a scary opportunity for looters to make off with art and artifacts. So far it seems the major works of art in the building did not suffer any serious harm.

Sarah Bahr reported for the New York Times that the most serious damage appeared to be contained to:

A 19th-century marble bust of former President Zachary Taylor was flecked with what appeared to be blood. A picture frame was left lying on the floor, the image gone.

The photos and videos, some of them taken inside by the rioters themselves, were startling. One man crammed a framed photo of the Dalai Lama into his backpack, while another smoked marijuana in a room with maps of Oregon on the wall. A man in a leather jacket ripped up a scroll with Chinese characters.

Barbara A. Wolanin, a former curator for the Architect of the Capitol noted that while the major works of art appear to be mostly unharmed, the mob of terrorists “had no respect for any of these things . . . That’s what’s really scary.”

Offices were ransacked. Windows were smashed. And a small memorial to the late John Lewis was desecrated. Much of the loss and damage will now be up to the reported hundreds of Federal attorneys and investigators to determine in the coming weeks. For now American democracy remains the laughing stock of the world.

Sarah Bahr, Curators Scour Capitol for Damage to the Building or Its Art, The New York Times (Jan. 7, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/07/arts/design/us-capitol-art-damage.html.

Jack Brewster, John Lewis Tribute ‘Destroyed’ During Pro-Trump Mob Takeover Of Capitol, Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackbrewster/2021/01/06/signs-podiums-tv-equipment-trump-supporters-loot-and-destroy-during-capitol-hill-takeover/?sh=1060bcea1d7c (last visited Jan. 8, 2021).

Gareth Harris & Anny Shaw, Storming of US Capitol: Art World Condemns Police Hypocrisy in pro-Trump Riot, http://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/washington-capitol-trump-artists-react (last visited Jan. 8, 2021).

Manhattan Antiquities Dealers Arrested in Fraud Scheme

Two antiquities dealers have been arrested today in connection with what prosecutors allege was an antiquities fraud scheme from 2015-2020. The dealers were announced in an unsealed Indictment in Manhattan federal court today: Erdal Dere of Fortuna Fine Arts Ltd., and his alleged “associate and co-conspirator” Faisal Khan. The defendants are alleged to have defrauded buyers and brokers in the antiquities trade through the use of false provenance. The false histories allegedly fraudulently used the identities of deceased individuals. Fortuna is described in the indictment as a Manhattan-based gallery which sells “antiquities and numismatics”. The indictment here seems to be targeting the false information provided by the defendants to buyers and brokers, which included names of deceased collectors and fabricated documents. The indictment alleges the material originated from Asia and was given false history with fabricated documents.

The criminal offences alleged to have been violated include Wire Fraud under 18 U.S.C. §1343, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and identity theft under 18 U.S.C. 1028A.

In a press release today announcing the arrests, statements from the U.S. Attorney and FBI Assistant Director attempt to tie this investigation into broader efforts to regulate the art and antiquities trade. Audrey Strauss, the Acting United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York said:

The integrity of the legitimate market in antiquities rests on the accuracy of the provenance provided by antiquities dealers, which prevents the sale of stolen and looted antiquities that lack any legitimate provenance.  As alleged, Erdal Dere and Faisal Khan compromised that integrity, and defrauded buyers and brokers of the antiquities they sold, by fabricating the provenance of those antiquities, and concealing their true history.  Now, thanks to the FBI’s Art Crime Team, Dere and Khan are in custody and facing prosecution for their alleged crimes.

Also, FBI Assistant Director William F. Sweeney Jr. tied the investigation into safeguarding the objects themselves: 

Antiquities and art allow us to see a piece of history from a world that existed hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of years ago. As alleged, the men who trafficked in fake documents and used dead people’s names to bolster their lies had no care for the precious items they sold and no regard for the people they defrauded. 

The press release has asked for assistance from the public at  NYArtCrime@fbi.gov .

The alleged actions certainly link up with much of the conduct that researchers and criminologists have shown to run through the trade in art and antiquities. The use of identity theft and wire fraud charges are noteworthy and likely particularly useful. The fraud charge seems to me to be a particularly useful avenue as it gets at the core wrong of so much of what dodgy dealers engage in, as I have argued elsewhere. Remember that these arrests and the information contained in the complaint are only allegations, and it will be up to the prosecutors to meet their burden if they are to convict these men.

The Press Release:

Antiquities Dealers Arrested For Fraud Scheme, Department of Justice, https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdny/pr/antiquities-dealers-arrested-fraud-scheme?fbclid=IwAR0LW7hWmCMALAqGZmboVCxntLbtJhgYJPWfWK1ERr9WoXPZZVEZsqSr4PY [https://perma.cc/K98C-S3JV] (last visited Sep. 22, 2020).

And some extra-credit reading:

Derek Fincham, Towards a Rigorous Standard for the Good Faith Acquisition of Antiquities, 37 Syracuse J. Int’l L. & Com. 145 (2009).

Konstantinos-Orfeas Sotiriou, The F Words: Frauds, Forgeries, and Fakes in Antiquities Smuggling and the Role of Organized Crime, 25 International Journal of Cultural Property 223 (Cambridge University Press 2018).

Donna Yates, Museums, Collectors, and Value Manipulation: Tax Fraud through Donation of Antiquities, Journal of Financial Crime (Emerald Group Publishing Limited 2015).

What will happen to art made for the Black Lives Matter movement?

A BLM Mural painted on what I think are plywood panels at the Station Museum in Houston’s 3rd Ward.

Art works with and through social movements. It informs; works to inspire; and just generally supports collective action. In our current digitally connected age it is easier than ever now to document and share the proliferation of art meant to protest, encourage, and criticize the current state of institutional racism in the United States and elsewhere. I snapped a picture with my phone on a walk earlier this week in front of the Station Museum. We are in a way fortunate that so much of this art can be preserved, perhaps in only a limited way, by cell phone cameras and drones. But the physical objects may be left without a good means of preservation. What will happen to all these sanctioned and unsanctioned murals on plywood and buildings?

In July volunteers painted a Black Lives Matter mural on the street outside the site of the original Burns BBQ (Photo by: Godofredo A. Vásquez, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer)

Alex Brady has written a thoughtful piece for Salon thinking about some of these questions. In Oakland, California, a handful of organizations like Oakland’s Black Cultural Zone and others are working to preserve some of these panels by storing the mural panels when they have been taken down:

Alongside other Black-led organizations and Black artists, BCZ is working with Oakland Endeavors, Oakland Art Murmur, and the Oakland Museum to de-install panels and store them in facilities throughout the city. And while many museums throughout the country are making efforts to highlight African-American history, the Oakland Museum and other ally organizations are taking their orders from BCZ when it comes to the influx of plywood murals and other street art in the city.

“We wanted to set it up such that we [BCZ] could create the infrastructure because the institutions typically have the infrastructure,” [Randolph] Belle said.

The BCZ is neither curating nor collecting but is currently storing 20 de-installed panels and anticipating more. The group has an online form for businesses, developers, and landlords to identify murals and artwork, and to notify BCZ when the panels get taken down so that the group can track the work, safely store it, and contact the artist(s) about desired next steps.

Oakland Endeavors, one of the organizations working with BCZ (Endeavors also worked with Wolfe-Goldsmith on Oakland’s downtown Black Lives Matter street mural) is standing by to store more, along with the other partner organizations.

Eventually, BCZ anticipates cataloguing and storing hundreds of panels.

Of course because artists and those who view it are a diverse group, some do not even want the art preserved or preserved in an institutionalized way. That of course means much of this art will be lost or destroyed.

Another interesting angle to consider is that much of this art is reproducing many of the same ideas, themes, and images. They seem to me to be working to use the tragic deaths and murders of people of color to advance collective action and effect a more just and equitable society. That seems to be the real overarching goal, and preservation of the artwork does seem to be a secondary consideration. But the art speaks to the moment, and it would be a shame if we are not left with the physical reminders of this social movement. As more and more cities are making the long-delayed and sensible decision to remove the racist symbols of the confederacy, these murals have taken their place in many cities. There are BLM murals and symbols of hope and solidarity all over my city, Houston, as the last few handful of confederate monuments are slowly being removed.

One remedy for artists who create these murals with permission, and if they achieve the nebulous status of “recognized stature” as the Visual Artists Rights Act requires may be entitled to certain rights of integrity and attribution should the murals be threatened with intentional destruction or mutilation. Those remedies are taking on increasing importance as arts lawyers and street artists slowly litigate life into the idea that artists are entitled to certain important rights that follow the significant works of art they create.

Supreme Court to Hear Case involving Nazi-era sale of the Guelph Treasure

The United States Supreme Court has granted certiorari and will weigh in on a Nazi-era dispute over artworks, involving the sale of a collection of medieval artworks known as the Guelph Treasure. The collection is described as something out of a film: gold, silver, and jeweled liturgical objects from the Church of St. Blaine in Brunswick, Germany. Many of the objects were crafted in what is today present-day Germany, but other objects came from the Italian peninsula or the Byzantine empire.

Here’s a quick background on the dispute. The Welfenschatz, or Guelph trove is currently in the possession of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and has been claimed by successors of art dealers who were fleeing the holocaust. These objects were originally housed in the cathedral in Braunschweig, owned by the House of Guelph. During the First World War, the House of Guelph lost reign over Braunschweig and in the 1920s the pieces were sold to a consortium of Frankfurt art dealers, including 82 items in 1929. Later in 1935 the Prussian state, led by Hermann Goering, bought the remaining pieces of the treasure in what the claimants allege was a “genocidal taking”. In 2014, a German government commission found that the transaction was not a forced sale.

The claimants then brought suit in the United States. The current possessors, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation have defended that action on the grounds that as a Foreign Government, they are immune from suit in the United States under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Claimants have argued that the actions of the Prussian government fall under one of the exceptions to that law, that the actions of the Prussians was a violation of International law, namely genocide. The Supreme Court has agreed to consider two issues:

  1. Whether suits concerning property taken as part of the Holocaust are within the expropriation exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). This is the legal treasure which gives the claimants a jurisdictional foothold to sue a foreign government in the United States, something that ordinarily is not allowed under American law.
  2. Whether a foreign state may assert a comity defense that is outside the FSIA’s “comprehensive set of legal standards governing claims of immunity in every civil action against a foreign state.” In essence the appellants are attempting to use the idea that Courts should refrain from entering into the realm of foreign policy in a broader way. At least that is how I understand that issue.

Nicholas O’Donnell, an attorney for the claimants stated:

[W]e are grateful for the opportunity to address the Supreme Court on these important questions about holding Germany accountable for its Nazi-looted art. A 1935 transfer from German Jews to notorious art looter and war criminal Hermann Goering is the quintessential crime against international law, regardless of Germany’s Holocaust distortion in defending this case. Germany seeks to eliminate recourse for Nazi-looted art and the Court will have the chance to answer this question of critical importance for Holocaust victims.

Being on the side of the possessors and having to defend that possession by justifying the acquisition by such an evil historical figure as Hermann Goering cannot be an easy legal argument. The Court will likely hear the case in the Fall, likely via telephone if the never-ending pandemic continues to outwit the hapless policy makers here in the United States. The case could impact the future of Nazi-era claims, and claims for wrongdoing more generally during similar periods of atrocity. The Court will also hear a case involving Hungarian nationals who lost property during World War II.

Stewart Ain, Supreme Court to Hear Guelph Treasure Case, Jewish Week New York (Jul. 2, 2020), https://jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/supreme-court-to-hear-guelph-treasure-case/.

Christopher F. Schuetze, U.S. Supreme Court to Rule on Medieval Treasure Bought by Nazis, The New York Times, Jul. 10, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/10/world/europe/guelph-treasure-germany-us.html.

Supreme Court agrees to hear Nazi art case, AP NEWS (Jul. 2, 2020), https://apnews.com/3fe60cf650bee8997d7f091fe2e8d84e.

Children’s Book Recommendation: ‘Isabella: Artist Extraordinaire’

Isabella: Artist Extraordinaire by Jennifer Fosberry, illustrated by Mike Litwin

Now for something completely different. Maintaining physical distancing and staying home presents particular challenges to those of us with toddlers. And if you are like me you likely are really, really missing the experience of seeing art in museums and galleries. Luckily, I have a remedy. There’s a terrific book that manages to combine art and staying home in a rare children’s book which is fun to read and a hit with our little one. Best of all, I receive profound joy whenever we get to the page with Edvard Munch’s The Scream, and our toddler recreates it himself. The book offers a sweet girl heroine, art that you likely know about, and a nice introduction to some major works. It has been a hit with our little book lover, and his parents.

Below you can find a useful link to the book at Bookshop, an online bookstore which supports local, independent bookstores.

Facebook will remove posts selling cultural objects

Facebook announced today that it will remove any content that is an attempt to buy, sell, or trade in “historical artifacts”. That decision is a welcome change, and the product of a terrific advocacy campaign by the Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research (ATHAR) Project. in a press release, Greg Mandel, public policy manager at Facebook stated “To keep these artifacts and our users safe, we’ve been working to expand our rules, and starting today we now prohibit the exchange, sale or purchase of all historical artifacts on Facebook and Instagram”.

Some of the posts were truly shocking. Katie Paul, co-director of ATHAR was quoted in the NYT: “They literally will post pictures from auction catalogs and say, ‘See, this is how much this stuff can sell for, so go for it guys.’” And that kind of buyer-directed looting was reported by the BBC in 2019:

This welcome reform will help to prevent Facebook’s algorithms and micro-advertising campaigns from being used to sell illicit cultural objects, but likely will not end it entirely. As Prof. Amr al-Azm, from Shawnee State University in Ohio, adequate enforcement efforts will also be needed because simply “[r]elying on user reports and Artificial Intelligence is simply not enough”. Though more work may need to be done, this is a welcome development, and big congratulations should be directed at everyone at the ATHAR project and who called for this reform.

Tom Mashberg, Facebook, Citing Looting Concerns, Bans Historical Artifact Sales, The New York Times, Jun. 23, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/23/arts/design/facebook-looting-artifacts-ban.html.

Carlie Porterfield, Facebook Bans Artifacts Trade After Uptick In Posts Of Looted Objects, Forbes (Jun. 23, 2020), https://www.forbes.com/sites/carlieporterfield/2020/06/23/facebook-bans-artifacts-trade-after-uptick-in-posts-of-looted-objects/.

Steve Swann, Facebook Bans “loot-to-Order” Antiquities Trade, Jun. 23, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-53140615.

Tracking the history looted from a warzone, BBC News (May 2, 2019), https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-middle-east-47671566/syrian-looting-tracking-the-history-taken-from-a-warzone.

Orenstein on ‘risking criminal liability in cultural property transactions’

La dea di Aidone (formerly the Getty Goddess) perhaps an instance of conscious avoidance when the Getty Foundation acquired her in the 1980s?

Karin Orenstein, an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York has published a new short essay for the North Carolina Journal of International Law titled “Risking Criminal Liability in Cultural Property Transactions”. In the Piece she references the purchases of questionable material by prominent wealthy collectors Michael Steinhardt and Steve Green. From the abstract:

This Comment explores when buyers of cultural property cross the line from taking business risks to engaging in criminal conduct. The Comment applies the National Stolen Property Act (NSPA) and the conscious avoidance doctrine to potential red flags in hypothetical cultural property transactions. When buyers are presented with red flags about a piece’s provenance and choose not to investigate, they cannot rely on deliberate ignorance as a defense to a charge that they knowingly transacted in or possessed stolen cultural property.

Orenstein, Karin, Risking Criminal Liability in Cultural Property Transactions (2020). North Carolina Journal of International Law, Vol. 45, 527, 2020. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3583457