The "Gross Clinic" Will Stay in Philadelphia

Philadelphia Mayor John Street announced yesterday that the $68 million needed to keep the Gross Clinic in the city has been raised. The Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts will share ownership of Thomas Eakins’ 1875 depiction of a surgical procedure. Exactly how much money was raised, and how much the 2 art institutions have had to borrow to match the purchase price remains to be seen. It’s been estimated that about $30 million has been donated in the six weeks since Thomas Jefferson University announced it would sell the work to the new Crystal Bridges Museum, and the National Gallery if the purchase price was not matched locally.

The decision to sell the painting was met by a great deal of local protest, but it seems all the parties involved, with the exception the original purchasers, have come out looking good. The University gets its funds, the work has received a great deal of publicity and should be visited a great deal in the coming months, and Philadelphia has kept one of its prized local works. However, some have pointed out that the fund-raising push may limit the amount donors are willing to give to other good, non-charitable, causes.

At the heart of the decision to sell the work, lies a question which often plagues cultural property. Do very beautiful works have a single home, or can they be enjoyed and appreciated anywhere? That’s a question without an easy answer. Those who donated to this effort felt strongly that this work belongs in Philadelphia. Though it would have been enjoyed and appreciated in Arkansas, Philadelphia would have lost a measure of civic pride. In any event, for the foreseeable future, the Gross Clinic will remain in Philadelphia.

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New Legal Issues in Museum Administration Course

Rachelle Browne, Associate General Counsel for the Smithsonian Institution, has asked if I would post information on the following course, sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution with the
American Law Institute-American Bar Association and the American Association of Museums.

It sounds like an interesting and timely event, and I’m happy to oblige:

The 2007 “Legal Issues in Museum Administration” Course will be held
from March 14, 2007, through March 16, 2007, in Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania, at the Sheraton Philadelphia City Center Hotel. This
annual course is sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution with the
American Law Institute-American Bar Association and the American
Association of Museums. In addition to receiving two and one-half days
of instruction on the legal and ethical issues arising from museum
management from a broad array of legal scholars and private
practitioners, museum counsel, and administrators from the museum and
academic communities, registrants will have an opportunity to visit the
Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
and, as optional trips, the Barnes Foundation and the “King Tutankhamun
and the Golden Age of Pharaohs” exhibit at the Franklin Institute.

A full program description and information on registration and hotels may
be obtained from the online brochure at:

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"The game is over…"

Those are the comments of Italian Culture minister Francesco Rutelli in an interview with NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli yesterday. You can hear the story here. Yesterday, Rutelli conducted a press conference threatening serious consequences for the Getty if they do not return 26 disputed antiquities.

The press conference compared images from the trial of convicted dealer Giacomo Medici with images from the Getty’s own website. Rutelli said, “Either there’s an agreement, with the return of all of the works requested by Italy, or the negotiations will be broken off…We have documented the fact that these works were stolen, clandestinely exported and then acquired by the Getty…We have negotiated with great patience for months. The time has now come. The works that were stolen from Italy must be returned.”

Rutelli certainly seems to be ratcheting up the rhetoric to attempt to force the Getty’s hand. It’s not clear that all the 26 objects Rutelli wants repatriated were actually stolen. Take this 4th century B.C. bronze statue, which is Greek by the way, which was found in international waters in 1966, and acquired by the Getty in 1977. The work is undoubtedly Greek, thus if any source nation should be claiming it, it should be Greece. However, the bronze was allegedly brought onto Italian soil, and then clandestinely taken across the border. Under Italian law, the export of these kinds of antiquities is prohibited. However, the mere fact that an object was illegally exported does not necessarily have any implications under US law. As Justice Story expressed in the admiralty prize case The Apollon, “The laws of no nation can justly extend beyond its own territories, except so far as regards its own citizens.” Justice Story was referring mainly to public laws of other nations. I’m not an expert on Italian law, but neither English nor American courts will enforce another nations’s export restrictions. Thus, though Rutelli may argue that the Bronze should be returned, if the Italians choose to seek a remedy in the American courts, the Italians will be quite unlikely to prevail. The best that Rutelli can hope for, is an increase in public pressure which might somehow force the Getty into returning the bronze.

In terms of the other works, we should not be too quick to connect the fact that these objects may have been stolen or looted with any guilty knowledge on the part of the Getty. There may be suspicious circumstances, and the trial of Marion True, the former curator certainly adds to the possibility, but much of the litigation involving illicit cultural property involves two relative innocents. The original owner or possessor of the object, and the current possessor. Often, there are a number of intervening dealers and middlemen through which an object becomes “laundered” in a way, so that in the end it comes out with a relatively clean title. The ultimate solution, I think, is a serious reform of the way the market conducts itself. I do not know the underlying motivations of True or any of the other curators at the Getty, but the Getty is the wealthiest art institution on the planet. If I’m not mistaken, the trust dictates that it has to spend a certain portion of its millions every year. In my view, the market is so flawed, no matter how good your intentions, if you buy objects you are bound to be acquiring some pieces that were gained illicitly. Perhaps that’s a reason not to purchase any items at all until the market sorts itself out. However, that’s a very difficult step to take when you are acquiring world-class objects from some of the greatest artists of the classical world.

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Burns Mummies For Sale

Yesterday, the Concord Monitor picked up a story from a couple weeks ago by Michael Stroh, of the Baltimore Sun, involving the so-called Burns mummies, and their sale on eBay. The mummies were preserved with salt, mercury lead, sugar and arsenic by Allen Burns, a Scottish anatomist. The cadavers are estimated to be 200 years old.

The study of anatomy was once quite a difficult pursuit, as students were forced to steal bodies, or wait for a prisoner to be executed before they could dissect a cadaver.

In this case, Michigan authorities confiscated a cadaver in October, which had been put on sale on eBay. Ronn Wade, director of the University of Maryland anatomical-sciences division suspects the body may have been part of the Burns collection. The University of Maryland acquired the Burns collection from Granville Patterson, a protege of Burns, in 1820 for $7,800. The collection once amounted to 500 specimens, but today there are closer to 150.

I’m not sure how close a collection of cadavers comes to our paradigmatic conception of cultural property, but they are the subject of serious study, and illustrate the evolution of the scientific study of the human body. One wonders how many other cadavers are offered for sale on eBay.

(Image: Sun photo by Andre F. Chung)

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Work Returned to the Hermitage

The AP is reporting that Jean-Leon Gerome’s Pool in a Harem (1876) has been returned to the Hermitage by the Communist party. Gennady Zyuganov, a Communist party official said a man brought the work into the party headquarters.

The painting was stolen from the Hermitage in 2001, and has been valued at $1 million. It seems the painting may have been severely damaged, and cut into 4 different pieces. It is not clear why exactly the work was handed over to the Communist party. It’s another in a long string of mysterious art thefts. This work has been returned, but catching the thieves seems highly unlikely at this point.

(Image: Jean-Léon Gérôme, “Pool in a Harem,” ca. 1876 ©2003 State Hermitage Museum)

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Mayor Street Drops Historic Status

Philadelphia Mayor John Street has withdrawn the nomination of The Gross Clinic for designation as a historic object. It seems the only way the work can remain in Philadelphia is for the matching process to take over. It’s not clear where the fund raising efforts are at now, but Lee Rosenbaum reports that they are more than halfway there based on her interview with the major gifts officer of the Philadelphia Museum.

The work, recognized as one of the greatest American paintings, has been sold for $68 million to the new Crystal Bridges museum in Bentonville Arkansas (a scale model is pictured here), which will share the work with the National Gallery. Trustees of Thomas Jefferson University voluntarily agreed to delay the sale so Philadelphians could come up with funds to keep the work in Philadelphia.

I am not terribly surprised that Mayor Street has declined to continue the Historic Designation procedure, as it amounts to a municipal export restriction. Many nations have export restrictions which prevent the export of works, but the US is the main exception. With the lone exception of some Native American artifacts covered under NAGPRA, generally, any work of art can be freely exported from the US. This is not the first time Philadelphia has acted to prevent the removal of a work of art. Donn Zaretsky pointed out to me that Philadelphia used the historic designation process to keep The Dream Garden in the city in 1998.

Efforts to prevent or delay the sale provide an interesting new way to think about export restrictions. Export restrictions are a reality for the art and antiquities market, but they are quite controversial. They generally involve underdeveloped source nations (such as Peru, Guatemala, or Nigeria) and wealthy market nations (like Japan, the US, or the UK). At issue in the source nation debate are inherent concerns about the less developed world, cultural appropriation, and the continued exploitation of the underdeveloped world. If Philadelphia had continued to prevent the sale, it would have sharply cut against the prevailing position of the US, which generally frowns on export restrictions.

From an intellectual standpoint, I’m disappointed the historic designation process has been abruptly halted. The Eakins debate strips away those concerns, as Philadelphia is on roughly the same footing as Bentonville. This allows us to focus in on the core issue, which asks, do certain works belong in a certain context? Might context be secondary to the interests of the University, which plans to use the funds to expand its campus. Also, might there be a greater value in allowing more of the public to view the work?

It’s not clear why exactly the mayor chose this moment to halt the process. Perhaps he did not want the process to get dragged through a lengthy court battle, or perhaps he wants the civic fund raising efforts to receive priority. One potential solution which has not been explored is for Philadelphia to buy a share of the work, which would let it display the work periodically. This would allow people to see the work in Philadelphia from time to time, while allowing a greater audience for the work. Some have estimated that as few as 500 people saw the work last year. The main disadvantage would be the risks inherent in transporting valuable works of art, however, the work will already be traveling anyway, between Arkansas and the National Gallery.

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The Monument Men

Today’s New York Times has a piece on a new book financed by retired Texas oilman Robert M. Edsel. The highlight for me are the pictures, published in the new book, which show American GI’s holding up Renaissance masterpieces.
This image shows to soldiers removing a Rembrandt self-portrait from its crate in a salt mine.

The book, called “Rescuing Da Vinci”, tells the story of American and other soldiers, known as the monument men, who recovered works of art looted by the Nazi’s during World War II. Many of these soldiers went on to shape cultural policy in the US after the war. One soldier, Captain James J. Rorimer, went on to become a director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At the end of the war, a staggering number of works were missing. They had been destined for Hitler’s Fuhrer Museum in Linz, Austria, or on their way to Hermann Goering’s private collection. A number of the works are some I’ve seen on my travels in Europe, including the stained glass from the Strasbourg Cathedral, and Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna. I had no idea at the time that they had been taken away by invading German forces. The work sounds fascinating, and will surely increase the growing acclaim for what has become known as the greatest generation.

However, not all allied soldiers were quite so altruistic. Soviet forces hauled off a great deal of looted treasures after the war. Also, one American soldier, Joe Meador, took the Quedlinburg Cathedral treasures from a cave they had been hidden in during the war. The Quedlinburg treasures were a collection of gold, silver and bejeweled reliquaries. Meador had been ordered to guard them, but brought them home to Texas instead. His heirs attempted to sell the works around 1990, and federal prosecutors considered bringing a criminal seizure action, but the Meador family agreed to a settlement with the church, and the objects have now been safely returned.

The work sounds very interesting, but we should remember that not all soldiers were quite so charitable as the so-called monument men. Regardless, if the photos in the NYT are any indication, it should be quite an entertaining read.

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Greek Archbishop asks Pope Benedict for a piece of the Acropolis

I missed this last week, but Greek Archbishop Christodoulos, in his first official visit to the Vatican, asked Pope Benedict XVI to return a piece of the Parthenon currently housed in the Vatican Museums. Benedict was initially confused by the request, perhaps because he was not aware of the piece. The Pope said he would consider the request. The push is part of an ongoing Greek effort to seek the return of the various pieces of the Parthenon. A comment on this blog last week suggested that Greece is trying to work slowly, and regain the smaller pieces first, from sources which might be more inclined to Greece’s requests. The idea makes sense, and is probably the best strategy for Greece to pursue. If they can gather momentum from all of these smaller bits and pieces, perhaps pressure will mount on the British Museum to return their Parthenon sculptures. It’s an interesting strategy, but I’m not sure anything can be done to persuade the British Museum to relinquish the marbles.

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Who is Noah Charney?

Yesterday’s New York Times Magazine discusses Cambridge PhD candidate Noah Charney, who is using art history, psychology, and criminal investigation scholarship to form a composite picture of who art thieves are and why they steal. The article gives a good overview of some of the biggest art thefts in recent history, including the theft in 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, in which $300 million worth of art was stolen.

Apparently, Charney wants to use criminal profiling and forensic psychology to solve art thefts, or even predict which objects are likely to be stolen in the future. He’s also hired a professional fund-raiser to begin a stolen art consultancy in Rome which will use this inter-disciplinary approach to solving art crimes.

It’s certainly an interesting idea, and one that I’m sure will likely take off for him. Stolen art is a topic everyone is interested in. However, one question I have, apart from how exactly a PhD student gets a write-up in the NYT, is whether this even can work. The article is pretty slim on the details for how exactly his research tackles the problem. It certainly sounds interesting, and I’d love to read more about his work. At the end of the day, the driving force behind art theft is the high value of these objects, and the expense of providing adequate security, especially in museums and houses which receive fewer visitors, and cannot afford adequate security. His new consultancy is headquartered in Rome, which currently seems a great place to see how increased enforcement resources can impact the illicit trade. I will be particularly interested to learn more about who buys stolen art.

This increase will certainly impact the illicit trade in cultural property, but to what extent? The illicit trade in cultural property shares many characteristics with the illegal narcotics trade. In fact, many of the same “source” nations for art and antiquities are also narcotics cultivation areas, including both Afghanistan and a number of areas in South America. An increase in police resources in that illicit trade seems to have brought about the opposite of the intended effect.

William Burroughs wrote a particularly poignant work on this subject, Naked Lunch, which satirizes modern society and its many addictions. Burroughs speaks explicitly about drugs, but he is using that trade as a starting point for any kind of addiction. He talks about a pyramid of junk, which can be analogized to any illegal trade I think. As Burroughs says, “The pyramid of junk, one level eating the level below right up to the top or tops as there are many junk pyramids feeding on peoples of the world and all built on the basic principles of monopoly”. In Burrough’s view, the only way to stop a pyramid like this is at the consumer end. For the drug trade, that’s the user, but for the illicit trade in art, it’s the purchaser of a work.

The likely result of these increased interdiction efforts in the cultural property market will be to lead to a greater number of arrests, but will only force the illicit trade further underground. As long as there are individuals who want to buy and possess these objects, the trade will remain robust. Perhaps Charney’s work will reveal more about who the purchasers of stolen art are.

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Italy’s Carabinieri Strike Again

News of yet another Italian victory in the struggle to combat the illicit art and antiquities market. Yesterday, Italian authorities announced that a cultural property trafficking ring has been uncovered. The two-year investigation centered on 35 individuals, and potential charges are likely to include both illegal possession as well as trafficking of archaeological artifacts. The recoveries include a renaissance still-life and marble altar pieces. The announcement evidences the continuing Italian efforts to combat the illicit trade in cultural property. The Italian efforts are garnering some impressive results, but one wonders if these efforts are just the tip of the iceberg, or represent a substantive blow to the illicit trade. Increasing the interdiction resources may be working, but I wonder if there are similarities between the cultural property black market and the illegal drug trade. Will other enterprising traffickers step in? I fear that they will, and the only real substantive change must be effected at the other end of the market, where the purchases take place.

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