Catching Up

Apologies for the light posting the last couple of weeks. I’ve returned from the US and the AALS hiring conference. It seemed to go well, and I was pleased with the response I got from the handful of interviews I had. I am cautiously optimistic about my chances of further interest from the schools I spoke with, but I’m also glad to be back here so I can concentrate on finishing up my thesis.

Enough about me, there was a lot of exciting news while I was away, including:

  • This Morning’s news that a private investigator has been charged in the theft and recovery of da Vinci’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder. That brings the total to five now.
  • Iran’s Cultural Heritage News Agency reports on last Thursday’s auction of the Achaeminid limestone relief from the city of Persepolis, in present-day Iran. It’s a slanted view of the dispute, which ignores Iran’s difficult legal footing. But the unpleasant outcome is the acquisition by an anonymous buyer for $1.2 million USD.
  • Three paintings worth an estimated $100,000 were stolen from a San Antonio gallery on Sunday.
  • Germany has finally returned 100 objects to Greece, many of which date back 8,000 years. The objects were stolen in 1985, and recovered in a raid last year. They were seemingly forgotten until a German court ruled in August that they should be returned.
  • A number of news outlets have coverage of the antiquities playing cards now issued to US soldiers in the middle east, urging them to take care of the archaeological heritage there.
  • And most importantly, Princeton has reached a repatriation agreement with Italy. The deal is similar to those reached with the Getty, the Met, and the MFA Boston.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Man Charged in Goya Theft

Steven Lee Olson has been charged under the Federal major art theft statute for last year’s theft and recovery of Francisco de Goya’s Children With a Cart. Here’s an excerpt of the AP story:

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — A truck driver who stole an art masterpiece from an unattended transport truck, then claimed he found it in his basement was charged with theft, authorities said.

Steven Lee Olson, 49, was charged with stealing “Children with a Cart,” a 1778 painting by famed Spanish artist Francisco de Goya, federal prosecutors said Wednesday. The painting was insured at a value of about $1 million.

In an initial appearance in federal court in Newark on Wednesday, Olson through his lawyer decided not to immediately contest his detainment. A bail hearing was scheduled for Oct. 31.

The federal public defender representing Olson didn’t immediately return a phone message. A message left at a number listed for Olson also wasn’t immediately returned.

The painting was being trucked to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City from Ohio’s Toledo Museum of Art last November. It was stolen as the transport drivers spent the night at a Pennsylvania motel. They discovered it missing the next morning.

Within days, Olson contacted federal authorities through an attorney to say he found the painting in his basement, said U.S Attorney’s office spokesman Michael Drewniak.

After a lengthy investigation, authorities determined that Olson, a self-employed truck driver, had lifted the piece himself, Drewniak said.

“It was a crime of opportunity that didn’t pay,” FBI agent Sandra Carroll said.

I’m traveling to Washington D.C. today so I don’t have time to post much substantive thought on this, but I am struck by how much more coverage this charge and arrest has received here in the US than the recovery and and subsequent arrests arising from the recovery of da Vinci’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder a few weeks ago in a Glasgow law firm’s offices.

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

Unsuccessful Nazi Spoliation Claim


From the LA Times last week, Suzanne Muchnic reports that a federal judge has dismissed a claim against Norton Simon over this work and another by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

A Los Angeles federal judge has dismissed a case that jeopardized the Norton Simon Museum’s ownership of a nearly 500-year-old pair of paintings of Adam and Eve by German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder.

The action halts dueling lawsuits filed by the museum and Marei von Saher of Connecticut, the heir of a Jewish art dealer who lost the artworks to the Nazis in World War II. The museum filed a motion to dismiss the case, and a hearing was to be held Monday. But Judge John F. Walker granted the motion Thursday afternoon. He did not immediately disclose his reasons for doing so.

The museum’s attorney, Luis Li of Munger, Tolles & Olson in Los Angeles, declined to comment on the ruling. Von Saher’s attorney, Lawrence M. Kaye of the New York firm Herrick, Feinstein, could not be reached for comment.

Cranach’s monumental paintings of life-size nudes in the Garden of Eden have been a highlight of Simon’s collection since 1971, when the Los Angeles industrialist and collector bought them from George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff, an heir of a noble Russian family thought to have lost the paintings to the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. But the Cranachs have a complicated history, at issue in the legal battle.

Von Saher’s Dutch father-in-law, Jacques Goudstikker, bought the paintings in a 1931 auction in Berlin, billed as “Stroganoff Collection Leningrad” and staged to raise funds for Stalin’s impoverished government. “Adam” and “Eve” remained in his gallery in Amsterdam until 1940, when the Nazis took over his business. Goudstikker died in a shipboard accident while fleeing the Germans, but his wife, Desiree, and son, Edward, survived, as did a list of artworks left behind.

After the war, Desiree Goudstikker settled with the Dutch government, regaining part of her husband’s inventory. She did not claim another group of artworks, including the Cranachs, because she would have had to return payment received from the Germans. That settlement made it possible for Stroganoff-Scherbatoff to pursue his claim. The Dutch transferred the paintings to him in 1966.

The matter might have rested there, but as Holocaust restitution escalated, the Dutch reconsidered claims against Nazi loot, and scholars questioned long-accepted accounts of the Cranachs’ Russian history.

There is no doubt that the paintings were sold in the Stroganoff sale, but some researchers think they were among confiscated goods from other collections, included in the auction to give the other items a “noble” provenance and disguise that they actually were being sold by the government.

No evidence that the paintings did or did not belong to the Stroganoffs has been found, but a document has come to light stating that they were in a church and other buildings in Kiev, the capital of what is now Ukraine, a few years before the auction. No one knows how they got there.

Von Saher, the widow of the Goudstikkers’ son, has spent the last nine years trying to retrieve artworks owned by her husband’s parents.

Last year, the Dutch government gave her 202 works that had been housed in Dutch museums, stating that the Goudstikker case had been handled properly in legal terms but that it had been reconsidered on moral grounds.

She learned that the Cranachs were at the Simon museum in 2000, and her attorney contacted the museum the following year.

Throughout the lengthy period of mediation and legal proceedings, Von Saher has contended that the Simon cannot have title to the paintings because they are stolen goods. The museum has argued that it is the rightful owner of the Cranachs, whether they belonged to the Stroganoffs or not, because the family’s heir acquired good title to them under Dutch law, and in any event, California’s three-year statute of limitations to challenge the Simon’s purchase has long since passed.

In its motion to dismiss the case, the Simon argued that a California law extending the statute of limitations for heirs of Holocaust victims is unconstitutional because it wrongfully empowers the state to remedy war injuries, which is a duty of the federal government.

I haven’t had a chance to track down the actual judgment. I’m back in the States at the moment, preparing myself for the AALS hiring conference in Washington D.C. later this week. There appears to be an error in Muchnic’s understanding of the relevant California limitations rules. Though the limit is indeed three years, that period does not begin to start running until the claimant discovers, or by exercising reasonable efforts should have discovered the present owner of the object. Since the work has been on display since 1971, a dismissal of the claim was a likely result.

But in any event, California has extended the time with which claimants can bring these kinds of claims for nazi spoliated artworks until 2010 I believe, though I’d have to check that. I’ve not read anything questioning the constitutionality of that, though it appears to be an interesting question.

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

Upcoming Events in the UK

The Institute of Art and Law is organizing two upcoming events in the UK in November. The first is on forgeries; while the second looks at the role of lex situs in cultural property disputes. This has had a lot of impact in recent months with the Iranian claims at the High Court.

I am pleased to be able to present a bit of my own work at the second conference. I’ll focus on the approach the US has taken to the lex situs rule. I’m excited to present my work, but perhaps more interested in hearing what Norman Palmer and Kevin Chamberlain have to say on the topic, two of the very best cultural heritage lawyers in the UK. Here are the details:

Fakes and Forgeries: International efforts to maintain the integrity of art and antiquities in association with Devonshires Solicitors on 23rd November in
central London.

Subjects to be examined include:
• the liability of auction houses in the sale of fake or forged artworks
• the criminal investigation and prosecution of those responsible for fakes and forged works
• liability in English civil law for fakes and forgeries
• the continued expansion of the criminal market for fakes and forgeries with emphasis on Russian and Aboriginal cases
• liability in French law for fakes and forgeries

Location, Location, Location: the role of the lex situs principle in modern claims for the return of cultural objects in association with Withers LLP on 30th
November in central London.

Recent cases emphasise that the role of private law in determining claims for art and antiquities is vital. This seminar will examine the workings of the ordinary law of title in a cross-border setting and ask whether private title claims are more effective than claims based on international treaties or other legal devices.

Full details of these seminars are available at www.ial.uk.com or tel: 01982 560 666

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

Map Recovered in Sydney

Another example of the international nature of the cultural property trade: the Sydney Morning Herald is reporting in tomorrow’s edition that this 15th century map by Ptolemy has been recovered after its theft in Spain, shipment to the US, sale on ebay, and eventual purchase and shipment to Australia. I’d imagine that seller will be receiving negative feedback on this transaction. There’s no word yet on whether criminal charges will be filed, or who the seller may have been.

The map, known as the Ulm Ptolemy World Map, illustrates what was then known about the world and is described as “perhaps the most famous and highly sought after of 15th-century world maps, and certainly the most decorative”.
Valued at $160,000 [australian], the Ptolemy map was stolen from Spain’s National Library and made its way to the US, where it was bought on the internet by Simon Dewez, owner of the Gowrie Galleries in Bondi Junction.”I had absolutely no idea it was stolen,” Mr Dewez said yesterday. “I thought it was a fantastic buy, a rare opportunity.” The map has been recovered and is with the Australian Federal Police, who sent photographs to the National Library in Madrid. “They’ve confirmed it’s their missing map,” a spokesman said. “The gallery surrendered it willingly.” Spain will apply to Australia to have the map returned. A legal dispute over ownership is not expected. Mr Dewez declined to name the dealer from whom he bought the map but described him as a reputable dealer who had refunded him. Mr Dewez, whose gallery has a 120-page catalogue offering rare maps for sale, bought the map on behalf of a client as a superannuation investment.

The stolen map was one of 12 maps and other documents cut from a 16th-century edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia, based on the original work by Claudius Ptolemy in the second century. Best known as an astronomer, Ptolemy (AD 85-165) compiled Geographia from existing records and by detailing the geographic co-ordinates of 8000 locations. He was the first to visualise a great southern land mass uniting Africa with Asia and enclosing the modern Indian Ocean.

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

Iznik Tiles Returned

From the Art Newspaper, two Iznik tile panels stolen from an imperial Ottoman tomb from the New Mosque in Istanbul were offered for sale at Sotheby’s earlier this year; but are slated for a return to Istanbul sometime this month. Pictured here are other tiles from the new mosque. The stolen tiles had been slated for an April 13th sale, and were described as 16th century originating from Turkey or Syria.

No provenance was given and their estimate was £15,000 to £25,000 ($30,000-$50,000). Soon after the catalogue was published, the auction house was
informed by the Turkish authorities that the panels were among a large number of tiles which are said to have been stolen from the Hunkar Kiosk in the mosque on 20 January 2003. In a statement to the Turkish press, the head of Turkey’s General Directorate of Foundations, Yusuf Beyazit, said that other tiles stolen from the mosque had been discovered near the coast of Istanbul’s Golden Horn. He said that the Sotheby’s panels accounted for the rest of the missing tiles and would be returned to the mosque where closed-circuit cameras were now being installed. Mr Beyazit said that the directorate’s new Anti-Smuggling Bureau had recovered the tiles in close co-operation with Scotland Yard and Interpol.

If the consignor has lost the tiles, she should now have a claim against the intermediate seller. Such suits are relatively rare though. That is seldom the case unfortunately. Importantly, though these tiles were certainly stolen, why no criminal charges? Well, because the Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003 makes it nearly impossible to do so. A defendant must have been aware of an object’s “tainted” status under the offence, which will be impossible to do in nearly every case; especially considering the flawed way the market operates.
In this case, though the art loss register was checked, Turkey had not registered this theft. The reasons for that are unclear. I know there is something like a $100 dollar charge to search the database in some cases, but I’m not sure if there is a charge to include objects in the database. But the market cannot continue to just rely on these limited databases. These objects came from somewhere. Merely stating “Turkey or Syria” as the nation of origin is not sufficient; beautiful tiles like this don’t just go missing. We had a chance to visit a number of Mosques back in April, but not the new mosque. To my untrained eye, these tiles really are stunningly beautiful.
Ultimately, if there is going to be a viable licit art market, buyers and auction houses must do a much better job of determining where objects have come from.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Spain Seizes the Ocean Explorer

An intrepid commenter has alerted me that Spain has in fact seized the Ocean Explorer, the vessel belonging to Odyssey Marine which had been anchored in the British colony of Gibraltar. It’s the latest in an ongoing dispute between the salvage company and Spain over perhaps the largest single underwater recovery in history. The BBC has coverage here.

On Tuesday, patrol boats from Spain’s maritime police intercepted the 76m Odyssey Explorer, owned by underwater salvage firm Odyssey Marine International, three miles off the coast of Gibraltar. It was ordered to the Spanish port of Algeciras for inspection. Spain’s Guardia Civil has been keeping a close eye on the company’s vessel since a Spanish judge ordered that it be detained and searched if it left port in Gibraltar. The company says its recovery vessel has been effectively blockaded since the ruling in June. Spain believes it could provide clues to the identity and location of the wreck that yielded half-a-million colonial era silver and gold coins. It suspects that a Spanish galleon is being secretly plundered – or that the wreck lies in Spanish waters.

This is the predictable result when there is no workable international legal framework governing underwater archaeological sites, combined with the failure of states to delimit their maritime boundaries. As I’ve stated before, whether the waters near Gibraltar are international is still very much an open question.

Perhaps most importantly, Odyssey may have discovered the largest ever quantity of shipwrecked “treasure”, but it seems Spain is going to do everything in their power to prevent the company from profiting off the recovery; in the hopes perhaps of discouraging future salvage operations. Is this merely profit-seeking, or is there archaeological research being conducted? The fact that the wreck has been code-named the “black swan” and has not been revealed to Spain or other nations in the Mediterranean indicates the former.

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