Da Vinci Recovered

After four years this work has been recovered. Madonna of the Yarnwinder, a masterpiece by Leonardo Da Vinci was stolen four years ago from Drumlanrig Castle. It was a daring theft, and was listed on the FBI’s top 10 Art Crimes. The BBC has the details of today’s recovery here.

Three men were arrested today in Glasgow, apparently after they attempted to sell the work. This was a major theft, and a great recovery. I’ll have a lot more to say on this tomorrow. If everything goes as planned I should have an interview on the Good Morning Scotland program tomorrow morning, and I’ll post a link here when one becomes available.

In the meantime congratulations should go to the law enforcement services who recovered the work, led by the “Dumfries and Galloway Police and involved the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency (SCDEA), Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) and Strathclyde Police.” Odds are that a work like this only has a 20% chance of recovery within 30 years.

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

Measuring the Size of the Illicit Antiquities Trade

There is more and more good empirical work being done to measure the size of the illicit trade in antiquities. The latest is a super paper by Raymond Fishman and Shang-Jin Wei, both of Columbia University (some users may need to pay to download if they don’t have an .edu or .gov ip).

They came up with a great idea to measure illicit antiquities entering the United States. They capitalize on the odd way the trade works. An object may be illegally exported from a source nation, but be imported and sold in a perfectly legal manner in the United States. The historic justification for this is the idea that nations will not enforce the public laws of another nation. However this policy has disastrous consequences for the antiquities trade. By focusing on this paperwork gap, they can estimate the nations with the biggest loss of antiquities. The biggest reporting gaps are in Syria, Iran, Egypt, Greece, Vietnam and Russia. As one would expect Canada, New Zealand, Britain and Hong Kong have low reporting gaps. Both Canada and Britain of course have limited export restrictions.

Here’s the abstract:

We empirically analyze the illicit trade in cultural property and antiques, taking advantage of different reporting incentives between source and destination countries. We thus generate a measure of illicit trafficking in these goods based on the difference between imports recorded in United States’ customs data and the (purportedly identical) trade as recorded by customs authorities in exporting countries. We find that this reporting gap is highly correlated with the corruption level of the exporting country as measured by commonly used survey-based indicies, and that this correlation is stronger for artifact-rich countries. As a placebo test, we do not observe any such pattern for U.S. imports of toys from these same exporters. We report similar results for four other Western country markets. Our analysis provides a useful framework for studying trade in illicit goods. Further, our results provide empirical confirmation that survey-based corruption indicies are informative, as they are correlated with an objective measure of illicit activity.

(Hat tip: Jay Hancock)

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

Donny George Youkhanna on Iraqi Heritage

Mike Boehm of the LA Times has an interesting summary of the talk given by the former director of the Baghdad museum, Donny George Youkhanna, at the Bowers Museum on Sunday. It’s a troubling account. Here’s an excerpt:

“To have the museum hurt in this way, it bleeds my heart,” George said in a quiet, even voice during the opening moments of his talk and slide presentation Sunday at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art. Among the images worth a thousand sad words were before-and-after photographs of statuary that had been pulverized or beheaded. And there were numerous “before” photos with no “after” standing in for some of the 7,500 or objects still missing from the museum — most of them small items such as coins and cylindrical seals used to press imprints into clay tablets.

The huge projections on the auditorium’s screen during George’s 75-minute talk included views of an almost perfectly round hole left by American tank gunners above the entry arch of the Iraq Museum’s children’s wing. George said the gunners had returned the fire of Iraqis who had taken up positions on the museum’s rooftop during the U.S. ground assault to capture Baghdad in April 2003. An image from last January showed the same building, hole-free, but with one wall now marred by huge bloodstains — part of the spatter-pattern from a car bombing in the street below.

George, a stocky, graying man who speaks English fluently, is a war refugee who has landed at Stony Brook University in New York, where he is a visiting professor of anthropology. He told of how, in short order during 2006, he was stripped of his authority and forced to resign because “this institution should not be led by a Christian, it should be led by a Shiite Muslim.” Simply living in Iraq soon became untenable. His 17-year-old son received a death threat — an envelope containing a bullet and a message that accused the youth of “cursing Islam, teasing Muslim girls” and having a father who was helping the Americans.

George said that during the American ground assault on Baghdad, he and a colleague who had been baby-sitting the Iraq Museum were forced to leave for three days. When they returned, its interior looked “as if it had been hit by a hurricane.”

Initial media reports said the museum had been utterly ransacked, with 170,000 objects stolen or destroyed, but the truth was closer to 15,000. Many priceless collections, including the fabled Treasures of Nimrud, a horde of exquisitely wrought gold and jewelry, had long been secured in Iraq’s Central Bank. Still, an investigation-and-recovery task force led by Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos found that looters who knew what they were looking for — and probably gained entry with help from somebody with inside knowledge — had made off with 40 prime objects on display in the galleries and more than 10,500 items that had been secreted in a basement storeroom.

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

Rare Book Thefts in Italy

Marta Falconi has an interesting AP story, Book Thief Investigation in Italy. An Italian man disguised himself as a priest and stole “dozens of 300-year-old books, drawings and watercolors from top libraries and public archives in Rome”. Italian authorities have recovered items worth close to $1 million.

The suspect, in his mid-40s, used ink remover to delete identification numbers and library stamps from the items, said Gen. Giovanni Nistri, who heads Italy’s police art squad.

When marks were engraved in the paper, he used an iron to smooth them out. He dripped coffee on pages to make them look moldy.

“He showed great competence and even ingeniousness,” Nistri said. “In some cases, he dressed as a priest and even locked himself in a bathroom for one day, besides altering the items to make their identification harder,” Nistri said.

Some items were sold in Italy and abroad, particularly in France, Nistri said. Nistri did not reveal what led police to the man.

The investigation is now aimed at tracing other trafficking channels, police said.

“Even in the libraries, there’s a gigantic cultural heritage that we risk losing for the pleasure of some,” Nistri told a news conference Monday.

The suspect, whom authorities would not identify, has been convicted of similar thefts in Turin and is believed to have stolen papers in Modena, Turin and Florence in recent months, Nistri said.

The suspect, who is cooperating with officers, has not been arrested, but police did not rule out an arrest in the future. Officers said there was no immediate risk he would try to flee the country.

An undersecretary in the Culture Ministry, Danielle Gattegno Mazzonis, said the ministry was planning to increase staff and set up alarm systems to monitor libraries and public archives because the trafficking is increasing.

“There are collectors and amateurs of specific epochs that would spend a fortune to have; for example, the original edition of a newspaper which came out the day Garibaldi was born,” Mazzonis said.

Police said that as of the end of August, 73,000 stolen books and archive documents were recovered across Italy.

That final number is staggering. How many items are still missing? These items are the most difficult to protect, as they are not especially rare or rise to the level of ultra-valuable items. This makes them much easier to sell.

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