2007 in Review

One of the best things about the end of the year is the chance to catch up on things I’ve missed out on during the year. I love the year-end best music lists, all of which are helpfully compiled on largehearted boy. Movie lists are great as well, though many of the Onion’s favorite movies have yet to appear in most theaters. Dahlia Lithwick, the always-excellent legal reporter for Slate also runs down the “Bush administrations Dumbest Legal Arguments of the Year“.

It’s also been an eventful year in the cultural policy world, and in that spirit I’ve compiled the Top Ten Cultural Property events of the past year.

10. The Major theft in Brazil of Picasso’s Portrait of Suzanne Bloch and a work by Brazilian artist Candido Portinari from the greatest South American Art Museum, the Sao Paulo Museum of Art. Much of the subsequent US media coverage of the theft has misleadingly depicted the Sao Paulo Museum of Art as a poor and bumbling institution that couldn’t afford insurance. That’s highly misleading, because even the wealthiest institutions have difficulty insuring their works. It’s expensive to insure a work worth $100 million, and its often more cost-effective to spend that money on security. Of course the security was not up to the task in this case, but one wonders if a major theft of this nature from an American or European museum would be so quick to blame the museum?

9. The still-to-be revealed extent of the forgeries created by Shaun Greenhalgh, who lived in Council Housing in Bolton with his aging parents. His forgeries fooled the British Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, and some of the world’s leading experts on Gauguin. The most surprising aspect may be the breadth of the forged objects which ranged from an ancient Greek kouros to Egyptian to ancient cuneiform to a sculpture by Gauguin. How many more Greenhalgh’s are on display now? We don’t know for sure. It calls to mind Orson Welles’ final masterpiece F for Fake: “It’s pretty but is it art? How is it valued? The value depends on opinion, opinion depends on the expert, a faker … makes fool of the experts – so who’s the expert? Who’s the faker?”

8. The recovery in August of three Picasso works stolen from the artist’s granddaughter in February.

7. Another major story is the state of antiquities–discovered, displayed, stolen– in Iraq.

6. The theft in August in Nice France, in which thieves stole 4 works by Monet, Sisley, and Bruegel. It’s probably not possible to sell these works on the open market, but at least two of these paintings had been stolen in 1999. A theft to order seems the likely explanation.

5. A significant continuing story is the increasing number of WWII-era art claims.

4. In October da Vinci’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder was recovered from a Solicitor’s office in Glasgow, four years after its theft from Drumlanrig Castle. It was a major recovery because it was a da Vinci, but also because it was recovered in a solicitor’s office. I’m looking forward to more details as the criminal trial unfolds in 2008.

3. A major story in the UK is the trouble for arts and museum funding in the face of the London Olympic bid. This funding shortage could destroy much of what makes the UK cultural policy tick, including the Waverley limited export scheme, the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and arts funding generally.

2. A major milestone this year was the legal claims brought by Iran in England to seek to block the sale of antiquities. The first was Iran v. Berend [2007] EWHC 132 (QB) (an unsuccessful attempt to block the sale of a limestone relief from Persepolis). The other major dispute involved chlorite objects from the Jiroft region of Iran. The High Court ruling Iran v. Barakat Galleries Ltd. [2007] EWHC 705 held Iran was not able to establish an ownership interest, however this was overturned by the Court of Appeal in Iran v. Barakat Galleries [2007] EWCA Civ 1374. These decisions received surprisingly little media coverage, but will have long-lasting consequences for years to come as they have extended the standing of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, and provided important precedent for other nations which may seek to prevent the sale of antiquities in London’s bustling antiquities markets.

1. The story I found myself writing the most about this year was the interminable dispute between Italy and the Getty, which finally culminated in an agreement this summer for the return of dozens of important works to Italy. The dispute has a number of related stories, including the ongoing dispute over the Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth, and the Marion True/Robert Hecht criminal trial in Italy. Will it fundamentally change the antiquities trade? Does it signal the end of the universal museum? Will cultural policy matter in nations other than Italy? Perhaps 2008 has the answer to those questions.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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