Long-Term Leasing for Antiquities

Donn Zaretsky and Tyler Cowen both linked to a fascinating article last week by two economists who argue that long-term leasing of antiquities are a better alternative to export restrictions. Michael Kremer of Harvard, and Tom Wilkening (I think from MIT), argue that long-term leases would allow source nations to earn much-needed revenue from their antiquities, but would preserve their long-term ownership interests. Here is a link to their working paper.

It is a great idea I think, and one with a great deal of promise. It is a pragmatic solution, and one that has as good a chance as any at pleasing the disparate interest groups that shape cultural policy. A couple potential drawbacks are the risk of transportation, problems insuring against theft, and upsetting those who feel antiquities belong in their source nation. It’s an exciting idea though, and one that merits further study.

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

Italy Agrees to Repatriate a Roman Statue to Libya

In yesterday’s Washington Post, Ariel David has an interesting article on Italy’s decision to repatriate this Roman statue of the goddess Venus. The statue is a copy of a Greek statue which has never been found. It was discovered in 1913 by Italian troops near the ruins of the ancient city of Cyrene on the Libyan coast. It was probably created in the 2nd Century AD. It’s currently housed at the National Roman Museum in Rome.

Libya requested the return of the statue in 1989, however a legal dispute involving a group which considered the statue part of Italy’s heritage has prevented the return for the last 4 years. Last week an Italian Court rejected a plea from the Italia Nostra conservation group, as international agreements “obliged” Italy to return the Greek statue.

Edmondo Zappacosta, counsel for the Libyan government said “This is a granite-like sentence, with solid arguments… On the basis of historical and juridical considerations, it was virtually a foregone conclusion that the Italia Nostra appeal would be rejected.” The statue can now be returned to Tripoli. A date has yet to be set for the return.

The ruling is an interesting one. Many of the news reports indicate that it allows Italy to claim that other nations should return antiquities illicitly taken from Italy. I think a better reading of the decision is that it limits the ability of individuals to challenge the return of cultural heritage. This was a decision about whether the Italia Nostra could block the return. If angry citizens groups were allowed to challenge repatriation decisions, it would be very difficult to effectively repatriate objects, especially if the objects at issue are part of a popular collective heritage, like Greek or Roman civilization.

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

Historic Brestplate Not for Sale

Thanks to Will Anderson and Dave Phoenix for pointing this one out for me. South Australia’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister Jay Weatherill has barred a ceremonial breastplate linked to the Burke and Wills expedition from sale. An earlier post is here, and there are some very good comments by folks who know a great deal more about Aboriginal Heritage than I do.

Minister Weatherill will now undertake an investigation to determine the rightful owners of the breastplate. The sale was banned under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988 (SA). As Weatherill said, “This breastplate is a significant piece of our shared Australian history… It is one of the earliest symbols of reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.”

The object was due to be auctioned today, but it has been declared an object of Aboriginal significance. Had it gone to auction, some estimate it would have sold for up to $200,000 Australian. It is an interesting situation in that the object was a gift to aborigines for helping the expedition, yet is still deemed a piece of aboriginal heritage. It think the Minister made the correct decision here, as the breastplate was an early effort at aboriginal reconciliation.

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

Scotland Yard Halves Art and Antique Squad Funding

Grim news for the London Metropolitan Police Art and Antiques Squad. Saturday’s edition of the Guardian had the following:

The dramatic scaling down of Scotland Yard’s once renowned arts and antique squad has left organised criminals free to plunder the nation’s heritage, according to a leading fine art insurer.

Police have sought private money to finance the squad after its annual budget of some £300,000 was halved earlier this year. But the Guardian has learned that Scotland Yard has failed to secure a penny from insurers or auction houses, after months of discussions.

Britain’s art market is second only to the US and experts claim up to £200m worth of stolen art and antiques are sold in the UK each year. Interpol estimates that art theft is the fourth largest organised crime after drugs, people trafficking and arms.

Annabel Fell-Clark, chief executive of Axa Art UK, which pays out tens of millions of pounds a year to reimburse victims of art theft, condemned the slashing of the unit’s budget. She warned that scaling down the unit was already having an impact on pursuing art thieves who target Britain’s stately homes and museums.

“We have seen that they [the team] are increasingly overstretched and being treated as a very low priority. At the moment we have very good information which we are wanting to pass on, which would bring arrests, if not convictions. But we are not being treated particularly seriously, let’s put it that way.

“We want to see criminal gangs brought to justice, and in some instances lack of interest from the squad has stopped us being able to pursue further recovery. We want and need to work with the police.”

She said Axa was aware the government was seeking funding for the squad but the company had decided it would not consider paying directly for the unit, adding that attempts by the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police to find private sponsors in the art world were shortsighted.

“It would be a conflict of interest for us to get involved,” she said. “We have slightly different agendas. As insurers, we are interested in recovering the pieces however we can, and are not that bothered about finding and prosecuting the perpetrators. We are concerned that this aspect of law enforcement is not taken particularly seriously right now.

“Very often when you are investigating art theft connections are uncovered with organised crime in relation to drugs and arms dealing, so it doesn’t make sense to ignore this aspect of criminal activity.”

The London based “arts squad” was formed in 1969 to pursue and prosecute criminals who operate in the second biggest art market in the world. In the past the unit, which is called in to investigate 120 cases a year, was involved in recovery of art works across the world.

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This is a troubling development. 150,000 is not a very large sum, and a drop in the bucket compared to the amounts of money which changes hands in the UK art and antiquities market. If the United Kingdom is serious about combating the illicit trade in arts and antiquities, it needs to maintain a well-funded art-theft unit. To expect the arts and antiquities unit to solicit funding from those they are supposed to regulate and police also strikes me as ridiculous.

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

Can "My Things" Prevent Art Theft?

A new internet service called MyThings.com has just launched in the US, while it has been running in the UK since last December. It is a clever concept, and as I understand it, it has a number of uses:

  • It allows people to track their belongings
  • People can have some of their belongings valued
  • It can help police track down stolen items
  • It can add items to a portfolio at the point of sale via agreements with retailers
  • People can show off what they own

The website is in the initial stages, but it does seem to market itself to art and antiquities owners. People can choose to display what they own to the whole internet, or keep them private. The concept is clever, but makes me a bit uncomfortable, because it seems much of this information must surely be tracking the buying habits of consumers, and the website does not seem up front about this (at least from my cursory exploration). I wonder what kind of an impact this site or others like it will have on the cultural property trade. It’s biggest impact may be insuring people have photos of their art for insurance valuation, and it may help police track down the objects, but it is still no substitute for a licit and honorable market which is based on solid provenance.

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

Chihuly Glass Thefts in Florida (UPDATE)

Up to 12 red glass reeds designed by Dale Chihuly were stolen from the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Florida. The large hand-blown glass reeds were taken during a severe storm on April 11. Each glass sculpture may be worth over $10,000. This is the second time the reeds have been stolen from the Fairchild, but the reeds were discovered after an anonymous tip.

Regardless of the artistic merit we may place on the glass sculptures, they are very beautiful and colorful objects, and very valuable. Selling them will be the most difficult task for the thieves. It might not be as hard as we might think though. I wonder how unique the reeds really are. I know some of the Chihuly displays are eventually sold to the public, and these kind of red reeds have been displayed all over the world (at least based on a simple google images search they seem to be). I wonder how many of them there may be. Of course the thieves could have wanted them for personal use as well.


The glass sculptures were found in a vacant lot less than a mile away. The Police think they recovered all of them and that they were just thrown away and discarded. This looks less like an art theft and more like art-defacement. Were the vandals commenting on the artistic merit of the glass sculptures? There were replaced by plastic pipes.

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

Church Thefts in Omaha Nebraska

The Omaha World-Herald reports on a number of recent church thefts. Most of these thefts generally occur in South America or Europe. They are not as common in the United States:

Since last May, thieves have taken works from St. Cecilia Cathedral and First Covenant, All Saints Episcopal, Immaculate Conception Catholic, St. Thomas More Catholic and St. Joseph Catholic Churches.

The thefts don’t tie into any particular national or global trend. Most of the works don’t have a large resale market.

So they’re tough to figure out.

John Wilson, head curator of Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum, said art thefts from churches are widespread in South America, Italy and other places abroad.

“But why is it happening in the middle of America, in Omaha? I don’t have a clue,” he said.

It’s not happening in other Midlands museums or churches.

Anna McAlpine, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Museums, said galleries across the country have not been seeing thefts of religious art.

Representatives of the Catholic Archdioceses of St. Louis and St. Paul-Minneapolis and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., say they haven’t heard of thefts of art from their churches.

Omaha may be a surprising spot, but churches aren’t. They are often notorious for having lax security.

“Churches don’t see these artworks as investments,” Wilson said. “They hang the paintings for spiritual purposes, and sometimes they may be a little too trusting.”

The criminals aren’t drawn to the works because of spirituality, said Bob Spiel, a Chicago-based private investigator, security consultant and former art theft and forgery investigator for the New York City branch of the FBI. He has worked dozens of cases similar to those in Omaha. The motivation is always the same.

“It’s always about money,” Spiel said. “Someone is looking to turn the painting around for some quick cash.”

It doesn’t have to be lots of money. The value of the artworks snatched from Omaha churches ranges from about $500 to the $100,000 painting of the Virgin Mary at St. Cecilia Cathedral.

Continue reading.

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