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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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The Getty Trust’s Position on the Statue of a Victorious Youth

This bronze statue, known as “the Statue of a Victorious Youth” was purchased by the Getty in 1977 for close to $4 million. It has been attributed to the Greek sculptor Lysippos, the 4th century BC sculptor for Alexander the Great. However, it may be a work by a later Greek sculptor in the same style. Today, the nearly life-size statue is one of the excellent pieces of the Getty’s Greek and Roman collection. It was found in 1964 by fisherman from Fano, somewhere in the Adriatic Sea.

Last Friday, I received an email from Ron Hartwig, of the Getty, complete with a copy of the memo sent last November to the Italian Government regarding this bronze statue. The memo, prepared by the law firm representing the Getty is a detailed account of the legal and factual history surrounding the statue. As he stated to me, “[The Getty] are committed to reaching an agreement with Italy, but doing so based on a scholarly approach, and mindful of relevant law.” That seems quite a reasonable proposition to me, and paints a much different picture than the one many Italian authorities are portraying. Certainly, the Italian Cultural Ministry is laying strong claims to the bronze in the media. Just last week, Francesco Rutelli said of the bronze,

“the bronze Athlete that was hauled up in a fishing net from the waters of the Adriatic sea and later secretly smuggled out of Italy in total violation of its laws. Paradoxically, museum founder John Paul Getty declared before his death that he did not want to acquire that work without its official certification and clear title. This is not a legal question, but a question of ethics. It is a matter of transparency in relations with the public and correct behavior in the antiquities market.”

There are a lot of problems with the antiquities market, but I’m not sure how they are linked to this statue. I’d like to lay out the Getty’s position on the statue, and then evaluate Italy’s claims. It seems clear to me, based on the memo provided, that Italy has a very weak legal and ethical argument to make for the return of the work. The bronze statue was pulled up by Italian fishermen in 1964. The Getty claims it was 30-40 miles off the coast of Italy. The Italian territorial waters extend only 6 nautical out to sea. Italy claims that the statue was found in Italian territorial waters, which would have vested title to the work in the Italian state. However, it seems there was a prosecution in 1966 of the Italians who had purchased the statue. The men were acquitted, and after an appeal, the Court of Appeals of Rome upheld the acquittal because there was no sufficient evidence introduced at the trial that the statue was found in Italian territorial waters. According to the memo, the capatin of the Ferrucio Ferri, Romeo Pirani, has stated unequivocally that the statue was found over 30 miles offshore. Another fisherman on the boat, Igli Rosato, has said the statue was found 32 nautical miles from the shore. It’s surprising to me that this fact has not been given more attention. An Italian court has essentially ruled that there is not enough evidence to support returning the statue.

After the statue was found, it was probably taken ashore to Italy. When it left Italy, it would have probably violated Italian export restrictions. However, courts of one nation do not generally enforce the export restriction of a foreign state. Though American courts recognize foreign patrimony laws, they most certainly do not recognize foreign export restrictions. Thus, in terms of legal claims for the return of the bronze, Italy has no tenable claim, and would almost certainly fail if they chose to bring suit.

What then of the ethical arguments? Certainly, Italy can argue that the statue was illegally exported, and thus should be returned. However, that claim may have been more persuasive when the Getty was considering purchasing the statue. As it stands now, the statue has been displayed by the Getty since 1978, and has been one of their signature pieces, such that the statue is now often referred to as “the Getty Bronze”. Further, the statue was created in Greece, not Italy. If any nation has a claim to it based on the idea that it is a part of their cultural patrimony, it is Greece. Also, the reason the trade in illicit antiquities is so damaging, is that it often causes the loss of the archaeological context surrounding an object. However, those concerns are not present in this case, as the statue was most assuredly a chance find.

In the end, it seems clear to me that the legal and ethical arguments supporting the removal of the statue to Italy are quite tenuous. The question then becomes, why has Italy argued so stringently for the return of the statue? Perhaps they do feel strongly that this statue belongs in an Italian institution, or perhaps they are using it to leverage the Getty into returning other works. In any case, though the Getty could have certainly been more cautious in many of its purchases in the past, it seems to me, based on the evidence I have seen, they are on solid legal and ethical grounds in choosing to proudly display this bronze statue.

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Diplomats Transporting Illicit Antiquities?

Martin Bailey of the Art Newspaper has an article on an unpublished Dutch report by Jos van Beurden which indicates diplomatic bags are being used to smuggle antiquities. Under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, diplomatic bags should “not be opened or detained”. The article is short of any hard numbers, and it seems the unpublished paper is only based on anecdotal evidence. However, a number of influential writers in the field, including Colin Renfrew, have indicated that diplomatic bags are a big source of the problem.

It seems we are stuck between a rock and a hard place here. On the one hand, without more data on the amount of objects being smuggled, it will be difficult to recommend a change in current practice. However, the anonymity which pervades the antiquities market seems to preclude the gathering of that data. Perhaps it will take a high-profile incident to force a change in current practice.

I am not convinced that these are a huge problem. Shouldn’t diplomats have better things to do than smuggle antiquities. In addition, without more information, this would only seem to add to the speculation.

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Theft of a bust of Rodin’s "The Thinker" (UPDATED)

A number of bronze sculptures, including one of the casts of Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker” has been stolen from a Dutch museum. Though it is not particularly rare (there exist 74 other casts of the work), it may be worth hundreds of thousands of Euros. This is another in a string of recent bronze thefts. Some bronze busts have recently gone missing from the Pere Lachaise cemetery as well. Tragically, the works may be melted down, as bronze can be quite valuable. There is also speculation that the bronze may be used to make counterfeit ancient coins.


Two men have been arrested in connection with the thefts. As I suspected, it appears the thieves were only after the bronze to melt it down. They were apparently quite surprised at the level of media attention. Sadly, it appears that one of the legs was sawed off in preparation for melting it down. On the bright side though, perhaps they can use one of the other thinker busts to reconstitute this one.

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