Return of the Hoosier Battle Flag


The Indianapolis Star has an article by Vic Ryckaert describing the theft and return of this Indiana battle flag from the 25th Indiana Volunteer Regiment. The flag disappeared from the Indiana World War Memorial around 1985. The flag was discovered by a member of the FBI’s Art Crime Team. It had been hanging in a bank lobby in Fremont, Ind., since 2000. The flag, valued at $60,000 was taken into battle in the Civil War at battles such as Shiloh, Vicksburg and Atlanta. The indications are that this flag was used for a veteran’s day ceremony, and never returned. This kind of low-grade theft, which results from inefficient institutional procedures probably accounts for the lion’s share of theft in the conventional sense of the word. Add the flag to the list of 850 items which have been recovered by the Art Crime Team since its inception in 2004. There are 12 full time agents working on the squad, stationed at various field offices throughout the country. Though the market will never be truly legitimate until there is widespread provenance checks for cultural property, this is a notable first step. It shows that an increase in resources can have a significant impact on the illicit trade.

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

Marischal Museum Returns Maori Remains

The University of Aberdeen’s Marischal Museum has decided to return 9 toi moko, or preserved, tattooed heads. According to the press release, “the University follows a standard procedure when responding to a request for repatriation… [it] involves an expert panel who will consider various issues, for example the history, the status of the people making the request and the importance of the item”. The toi moko will now return to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, where they will be cared for under the “protocols established by their Maori elders”. Human remains are a difficult issue, but it appears that the University has gone about this repatriation in the right way. Sometimes the remains have been embalmed in toxic chemicals such as arsenic, or formaldehyde; thus making it difficult to simply bury them. Often times specialist are required. In addition, though this certainly does not appear to be the case here, when native groups seek the return of remains or other objects, it sometimes highlights the dichotomy between the way their ancestors lived and their lives today. Also, institutions need to be careful which tribe they are returning remains or objects to. Often, there may be multiple tribes with a claim. For those interested in this area, Michael Brown’s Who Owns Native Culture is an excellent place to start.

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

Can anybody own a masterpiece?


It may be possible according to a special article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram by associate professor Alan Saxe at the University of Texas, Arlington. Like most things, you just have to invest before the works get too popular. It’s a quirky little story. Apparently, this frugal young professor started buying great works by Chagall, Matisse, Norman Rockwell, Henry Moore, and others in 1965. He entered into a monthly credit plan, and he started buying these works before their value started to skyrocket into the millions. This Chagall work,“I and the village” is on display at MoMA in New York. It was not part of the works purchased by Saxe, but can you imagine a work of this quality hanging in what Saxe calls a “tiny domicile leased for $99 a month completely furnished — one bedroom, bathroom, mini-kitchen and “living” merged together.” Saxe says that as his collection grew, he started to grow uneasy about the possibility of theft or damage. He eventually donated them to art museums.

That is the nature of art I suppose. One day it’s just a painting, and as time passes it becomes worth millions. Only in rare circumstances do paintings become masterpieces immediately. There is a period of scholarship and connoisseurship which starts to raise the profile of works of fine art; Art is, of course, subjective. I’m not an expert in art history by any means. But what makes a work a masterpiece? Nations of the world have cobbled together massive and cumbersome regulatory devices to protect and regulate them. Perhaps that is because by default, these works are going to go up in value. Picasso, Chagall, and Da Vinci aren’t painting any more. But might instead we focus our resources on creating new art, and fostering appreciation of more living artists. I get frustrated from time to time when I read about cultural policy, because it assumes in many cases that beauty is a finite resource. I’m not convinced of that. Though it would undoubtedly be a travesty, if all the world’s paintings were lost we would still find a way to create beautiful images wouldn’t we? New masterpieces would take their place. There is a value in allowing a humble academic or a “ordinary” person to own works of art. Art isn’t just for the super-rich in my view.

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

Correction: "Where the Snow the Pastures Sheets"

The media have been mistaken as to the painting stolen from Bourton-on-the-Water in Gloucestershire. Last week, I wrote about the theft of a Joseph Farquharson from a private residence. I posted an image of the painting, but I posted the wrong painting because The Herald incorrectly stated the name of the painting. I received a kind email from Grizelda Graham, daughter of the 89 year-old theft victim. She wrote , “We don’t know why the media have entitled our stolen painting ‘sunlight and shade’ – the title on the back of my painting is ‘where snow the pastures sheets.’ It is very beautiful, and we are keen to publicise its theft widely in the hope that someone will spot it and return it to us.” This is the image of the stolen painting she gave me.

Hopefully the media will correct their mistake soon, and continue to publish the theft. I suggested she contact the Art Loss Register in her attempts to get the painting back.

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

Buy a brushstroke, "save" a Turner


This watercolor by JMW Turner, “Blue Rigi” was sold at a Christie’s auction in June, 2006 for £5.8 million. Here is an article from the Guardian, discussing the sale at auction, which set a record for the highest price ever paid for a British watercolor. The buyer’s identity is, of course, a complete mystery. The work has been deemed of Waverley quality, and thus export of the work has been temporarily delayed to allow British institutions to raise enough funds to keep the work. The arts minister, David Lammy placed a temporary restriction on the work until July 22, but that delay has been extended until March 20. That may not be the final date though, dates have been extended in the past to allow for money to be raised. The arts minister should be very wary of extending the date too long though, as the private purchaser may decide to challenge the legality of the whole scheme as a violation of human rights. The law authorizing the ban was actually an emergency provision passed in 1939 on the eve of the Second World War, and was later adapted to allow UK institutions a chance to raise funds to buy the work. One consequence of this rather haphazard system is the reliance upon the ability of the interested parties to raise enough funds. That becomes increasingly difficult as the price for art increases. Also, if the seller of the work chooses, she can simply decide not to sell the work.

The only example I’m aware of the Waverley Criteria temporary export prohibition being challenged was in 1994 when the Getty tried to challenge repeated extensions to the ban on the export of the Three Graces which is currently jointly owned by the Tate and the National Gallery of Scotland.

This also draws strong parallels to the recent successful efforts to prevent the Gross Clinic from leaving Philadelphia. At least that work was publicly displayed. This Turner is privately owned, and not displayed to the public. How has the cultural heritage of the UK been damaged if a seldom-shown work is sold to a different individual in another country? I think that “saving” this work is a bit of a misnomer, especially considering two slightly different Rigi’s exist, one displayed in Australia, and another in the US National Gallery. If nothing else, the campaign to purchase this work is really ingenious. One wonders why it took so long, but in the last few days the Art Fund has just initiated a really creative fund-raising project. One can choose to “buy a brushstroke” for as little as five pounds, and the website gradually shows how much of the work has been “saved”. I suppose the market will decide. If you think the cultural patrimony of the UK will be forever tarnished by allowing the work to be owned by a mysterious foreign individual, you can donate to the effort. So far, £25,214 has been raised. Hopefully the seller will not choose to keep the painting if the funds are raised.

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

3 Year Italian Investigation Yields Marble Reliefs


From the Daily Mail, it seems Italian police have recovered 12 marble reliefs depicting Roman gladiators. USA Today picks up an AP story as well, available here. The panels were discovered buried in a garden near Fiano Romano. The reliefs, made of Carrara marble, are thought to date to the 1st century BC. The images are stunning, as David Nishimura rightly points out. Officials say the pieces will be studied, restored, and then displayed at the Villa Giulia in Rome.

The Prosecutor, Paolo Ferri, says individuals have been charged, but their names have not been released. One thing I would like to know is, what archaeological context was destroyed in the process of removing this from the decorated tomb? How will the raiders be punished? I wonder as well, why the investigation took three years. That’s a very long time; I imagine they were waiting to catch the raiders trying to sell the pieces to a dealer or international buyer.

(Image by Plinio Lepri, AP)

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

High Court in London Denies Iranian Ownership Claim


A frustratingly sketchy Reuters article indicates that Iran has lost in its attempt to reclaim a carved limestone relief, like this one, from the ancient city of Persepolis. Unfortunately, its an example of shoddy legal reporting. It only gives us the result. It provides none of the legal arguments. An earlier story from The Telegraph gives a good background. The dispute was between Denyse Berend, who purchased the relief in New York in 1974, and Iran. It seems Iran was arguing that the relief was removed sometime after the city was first excavated in 1932 by Ernst Herzfeld. If I had to guess, I would say the High Court ruled in favor of Berend because too much time has passed since she bought the object. More than likely, Iran has let the Statute of Limitations run. Frequently, the issue of whether a claimant has brought a timely action is outcome determinative. When I can get my hands on the opinion, I’ll write more. It could be a significant decision, as it might give us a better idea of the law in England and Wales regarding foreign patrimony laws.

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