Rutelli, Repatriation and Cultural Policy

Lee Rosenbaum has some very interesting things to say over at Culturegrrl on the press conference Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli had yesterday at the Italian Cultural Institute in New York.

First, as Lee says,

Robert Stiriti (second from left, above), attaché at the American Embassy in Rome for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), told me that criminal charges “are pending” in Italy (but have not yet been filed) against an American private collector who owned several objects (including the marble sarcophagus of a child) recovered by ICE on Oct. 20 from his New York residence.

Also, Rutelli announced there may be a forthcoming agreement between Italy and Princeton concerning some objects, which would likely involve some loans from Italy.

The two cornerstones of recent Italian repatriation efforts have been the threat of prosecution along with cultural loans if objects are returned. It’s a strategy that has worked quite well. The engine behind these efforts is the political goodwill engendered in Italy when objects are returned. That seems to make Italy unique, perhaps in all the world, where cultural policy matters.

It brings to mind a time when perhaps cultural policy mattered in America.

There’s been a lot of discussion about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Pentagon of late. I always enjoy stories of the Works Project Administration making art and building places like Red Rocks and The Supreme Court Building during the great depression. Steve Vogel has been making the rounds on npr and the daily show for his new book The Pentagon: The Untold Story. They broke ground on the building 3 months before Pearl Harbor (on September 11, 1941). The initial site was supposed to be opposite the Lincoln Memorial. But President Roosevelt was pressured by the fine arts commission to move the building site. They didn’t want to disturb the vista between Lee’s Mansion and the Lincoln memorial. The President who led America through the great depression and WWII stopped to consider the view for future generations. I couldn’t imagine the current executive taking such considerations; I think that tells volumes about how cultural policy has changed dramatically.

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

FBI Recovers Buck’s Manuscript

The Philadelphia office of the FBI has announced it has recovered a 400-page manuscript stolen around 1966 from the author’s farm. The Good Earth manuscript by Pearl Buck won the Pulitzer prize, and was the driving force behind the author’s Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s not clear whether the FBI’s Art Crime Team was involved in this recovery, as they are based in Philadelphia, or whether it was agents from the Philadelphia office who made the recovery. There is no precise value for the manuscript, but it is surely priceless for literary scholars.

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

Vigango from Kenya


Robin Pogrebin has an interesting article in today’s New York Times on a decision to return 9 wooden grave objects to Kenya. A ceremony at the UN yesterday marked the decision. They had been purchased by Lewis and Jay allen and were on display in their Park Avenue apartment. Their daughter decided to return them to Kenya after learning of their significance to Kenyans. It took her four months to arrange for their return. That seems to be an underconsidered problem with many source nations: they need to make it easy for individuals to repatriate artifacts to ensure they aren’t subject to criminal liability and that there are places to hold the objects.

It seems the statues are used to decorate graves, and often become part of ongoing ceremonies, discussions and celebrations. It would be as if someone took the headstone from your grandmother’s grave and displayed it in their living room. The clear implication is that all vigango are stolen in one form or another. They are valued by collectors in the US, Europe and Japan because they are beautiful works of african art, but they may not know they were meant as grave decoration. This strongly indicates all exported vigango were stolen.

But some US museums have them in their collection, and are loathe to return them. The ethical and legal grounds for their return is very strong, the only thing missing from a repatriation would seem to be an initiative by the African source nations.

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

Repatriation and Macchu Picchu


There was an outstanding piece in yesterday’s New York Times magazine by Arthur Lubow on the fate of objects excavated by Hiram Bingham from Macchu Picchu. He found the ancient city in 1911 and excavated the site in 1912 and 1914. The objects he excavated are currently held by Yale University. There is also an excellent slide show of pictures taken during the original excavation. The piece does a great job of highlighting how difficult it can be to generate consensus in cultural policy.

At issue are the artifacts Bingham took back to Yale, which Peru argued were only to be on temporary loan. The excavated artifacts at New Haven are:

a bit of a letdown. Mostly, the pieces are bones, in varying stages of decomposition, or pots, many of them in fragments. Unsurpassed as stonemasons, engineers and architects, the Incas thought more prosaically when it came to ceramics. Leaving aside unfair comparisons to the jaw-dropping Machu Picchu site itself, the pottery of the Inca, even when intact, lacks the drama and artistry of the ceramics of earlier civilizations of Peru like the Moche and Nazca.

However, many Peruvians want the objects returned, in a dispute which echoes the claims made by the Greeks for the return of the Parthenon Marbles. However in this case I think Yale has a much stronger ethical claim.

Hilda Vidal makes the argument for the return of the collection:

“My opinion reflects the opinion of most Peruvians,” Hilda Vidal, a curator at the National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and History of Peru in Lima, told me. “In general, anything that is patrimony of the cultures of the world, whether in museums in Asia or Europe or the United States, came to be there during the times when our governments were weak and the laws were weak, or during the Roman conquest or our conquest by the Spanish. Now that the world is more civilized, these countries should reflect on this issue. It saddens us Peruvians to go to museums abroad and see a Paracas textile. I am hopeful that in the future all the cultural patrimony of the world will return to its country of origin.”

Part of that makes a good and sound argument to be sure, but you aren’t going to get far in a repatriation dispute by arguing the museums in Paris, New York, London, etc. should be emptied. Likewise, I have a difficult time lumping Bingham in with the Spanish conquerors who stripped temples and melted down gold to return to Spain. That doesn’t mean Bingham is a revered figure in Peru by any means. Rumors (which have been discredited) suspect Bingham of smuggling out gold during the excavation. Also, some accuse Bingham of not even discovering the ancient complex, which had always been known to local farmers.

Lubow correctly points out though that these antiquities and remnants of ancient cultures are used as objects of political power today. And they also have value for lots of other interest groups. As he said, “Historic relics have pragmatic value: politically, for purposes of national pride and partisan advantage; economically, for display to tourists, museumgoers, magazine readers and TV-program watchers; scientifically, as research material for scholars pursuing academic careers; and, most nakedly, as merchandise for dealers in antiquities.”

That’s exactly right, and all these interest groups make it difficult to forge cultural policy. The strict national patrimony laws of Peru even make it difficult for reasonable compromise with Yale. Yale has generously offered:

The university showed me two letters sent to Peruvian officials in which Yale offered to send back “the museum-quality (that is, whole) objects excavated by Bingham at Machu Picchu” for display in a “state-of-the-art museum exclusively dedicated to Machu Picchu” that would be opened in Cuzco in collaboration with Yale on the centennial anniversary of Bingham’s 1911 discovery of the site. To help raise money for the museum, Yale would resurrect its touring exhibition, which — including dioramas and ceramics — would end up permanently in Cuzco. This represents a significant concession over Yale’s past proposal to divide possession of the approximately 300 display-worthy objects. The research collection, however, would continue to reside in New Haven. “The museum-quality pieces are the ones that people will want to see,” Shailor, the deputy provost, told me. “I don’t think they will want to see the end of a little finger or five dog bones, but these are extraordinarily valuable from a research perspective.” When I spoke with him in early May, Levin said that Yale is prepared to concede Peruvian title to the entire collection, but only after the ultimate physical allocation of the objects has been negotiated. In other words, Peru’s pride will be assuaged if Yale’s research needs can be met. Whether Peru will consent to those terms — indeed, whether the GarcÃa government is at liberty to do so, legally or politically — is uncertain;

The offer strikes me as a fair compromise which would be a win for both sides, especially considering the current state of the museum near the Aguas Calientes train station:

I found evidence of none of those amenities. The doors were open to the air, which was moist from the nearby river, and the sole official was a caretaker who sold tickets and then exited the building. On display in the attractive (if unguarded) museum are the finds that Peruvian archaeologists have made at Machu Picchu in the years since Bingham’s excavations.

And that gets to the heart of repatriation disputes. Like it or not Yale has a great deal of funds at its disposal and is capable of performing good scientific study, while in Peru, the artifacts could be at risk of theft and are not climate controlled. It seems Yale’s offer to fund a museum in Peru would be an excellent opportunity for Peruvians. Yet it seems many of the strident cultural nationalists have a hard time with even this compromise.

Hat tip to Donn Zaretsky at the art law blog for pointing out the article.

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

A Magritte is Recovered


Magritte’s Les Reflets du Temps has been recovered. The work had been stolen from storage in 2006. The work may be worth up to £350,000. The work was discovered by a member of the public who checked it against the London Stolen Art Database. This is welcome news, and perhaps will give pause before planned cuts the the Art and Antiques unit take place.

Det Supt Vernon Rapley, head of the unit, said: “For anyone considering buying art, antiquities or cultural property the database is an invaluable resource to help buyers check that they aren’t being sold stolen items.

“I am really pleased that the database has enabled this Magritte to be found so that the victim can have it returned to them.”

Exactly right, but the website explicitly states that it should not be used for due diligence purposes. The problem with databases, is there are too many, and they are divided regionally. Ideally there would be one overarching database any prospective buyer could check.

There is no word either on who stole the work. Unfortunately that is often the case when stolen art like this is recovered. The thieves are long gone, and the authorities main priority (and perhaps rightly so) is the recovery of the work. This also makes it appear as if there are little or no penalties to be had for stealing works though.

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

Forthcoming Article on Federal Criminal Penalties for Dealing in Illicit Cultural Property


I have posted my new manuscript on SSRN: Why Federal Criminal Penalties for Dealing in Illicit Cultural Property are Ineffective, and a Pragmatic Alternative. It will be published in the Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal this fall. Pictured at right is Egon Schiele’s Portrait of Wally which has been locked away in storage for 8 years due to a protracted forfeiture dispute. Here is the abstract:

There have been many articles on this subject in recent years, and I add to the discourse in two important ways. First, I attempt to unpack the values at work in US federal criminal penalties for buying and selling illicit cultural property. The illicit trade in cultural property may be the third largest behind narcotics and weapons. I look at the various stakeholders which formulate cultural property policy and look at why their fundamental differences of opinion are producing an ineffective regulatory framework. A number of recent articles have dealt with this subject, however the discussion about what the law should be doing has prevented a discussion of the practical effect of the status quo. I hope my analysis will further the debate by showing that the current criminal penalties are not producing satisfactory results. Second, I show how a pragmatic approach to cultural property has worked well in the United Kingdom and how such an approach could be adopted in the US. This would give real effect to the federal criminal regulation of cultural property. The art and antiquities market lacks transparency at present. Until this trade begins to effectively distinguish between licit and illicit cultural objects, the theft, looting and destruction of historical sites will surely continue. I hope my discussion of the UK experience can bring attention to the illicit trade in cultural property and the criminal response in the US.

I would be delighted to hear any comments or reactions to the piece.

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

55 Card Pick-up (UPDATE)


The Pentagon will be sending 40,000 decks of cards to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is an attempt to raise awareness about the heritage of the two nations. Some may remember that there was another earlier deck of cards which showed the most wanted senior government officials.

Each card in the new deck shows a historic site or small antiquity. The goal is to show American troops that they should not pick up and take home artifacts. One would hope that such an education program had already been underway, but the troubling accounts at Babylon I talked about earlier reveal that is probably not the case.

A few of my favorite cards:

The seven of clubs shows the Ctesiphon Arch and says “This site has survived 17 centuries. Will it and others survive you?”

The five of clubs says “Drive around, not over, archaeological sites”.

The two of hearts shows ruins at Samarra and says “Ninety-nine per cent of mankind’s history can be understood through archaeology.”

Exactly right. Of course the US Military could have shown more concrete regard for these sites by better protecting and avoiding them during the invasion, or by abiding by the tenets of the 1954 Hague Convention. But if these cards raise awareness and stop a few GI’s from driving over millenia-old ruins they will have done their job. I would also expect them to be a major collectors item in the near future, and I’d like to have a deck myself.

UPDATE:

Mark Rose of the Archaeological Institute of America kindly informs me that the AIA have some pages documenting the destruction in both Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which are excellent. They also have a troop lecture program for troops headed to Iraq and Afghanistan, which you can read about here. That strikes me as an excellent idea, regardless of your stance on cultural property internationalism or the invasion of Iraq.

One can while away a lot of good time on wikipedia just learning about places like Ctesiphon, and it really is a pity many of these places have been damaged and looted in recent decades, by both Iraqis and invading forces during the periods of conflict.

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