Christie’s Halts two Russian lots

Christie’s International has removed two lots from their Nov. 29th auction of Russian books and manuscripts. John Varoli has an account at Bloomberg, and Reuters has a story as well. In total, 41 Russian army documents were removed, most once belonging to Marshall Georgi Zhukov. It seems “a cultural watchdog agency said they were stolen.” Varoli speculates that:

Prices for Russian art, books, manuscripts and historical memorabilia have risen rapidly since 2000, and this has been accompanied by an increase in thefts from Russian museums and archives. In August 2006, the Hermitage disclosed that 226 Russian works of art had been stolen by staff over the previous decade.

Will any charges ensue? Someone made up a provenance for these objects somewhere between their theft in Moscow and consignment to Christie’s. I’d imagine it wasn’t the final consignor though, these letters probably passed through a few hands first, and were “laundered”. Perhaps not enough to justify their sale, but probably enough to preclude criminal charges or an investigation.

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Recovering a priceless object or punishing the thief?

That’s a fundamental question which plagues criminal penalties for the theft of cultural property, and it often plays out in the decision-making of individual law enforcement officers, judges and prosecutors. The latest example is the laudable recovery and return today of two500-year-old maps stolen from Spain’s National library earlier this year; one of which is this map which shows the recently discovered new world. Paul Hamilos has an overview from Madrid in today’s Guardian. I commented on the recovery of one of these maps back in October, after it was sold on eBay. The FBI press release from Nov. 8 is here.

The thief, Cesar Gomez Rivero is a 60-yar-old Spanish citizen of Uruguayen descent who is a resident of Argentina. He sent his lawyer to negotiate an immunity deal with a judge in Buenos Aires in exchange for handing over 8 of the 19 stolen maps. The judge rejected the deal and was able to keep the maps. Apparently he used a Stanley knife to cut pages from the collections at the national library. Eleven maps have been recovered in total, in the UK, Australia, Argentina, and the US.

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Protecting Native American Objects and Sites

Indian Country Today has a couple of very interesting articles by American Cultural heritage lawyers. The first, an article by Gabriel Galanda and Debora Juarez covers threats to sacred places “off-reservation”. Here’s an excerpt:

Sacred lands are indeed under attack. Developers are willing to pillage such lands whenever profitable. By way of example, as the Times piece explained, an energy development company threatens to build a $4 billion oil refinery atop lands believed to be the final resting place for Quechan ancestors. And, if state governments are not likewise seeking to excavate Indian burial grounds or sacred lands for highways, sewer systems or other public works projects, state decision-makers are attempting to make it easier for private developers to do so.

In March, the Idaho Legislature unanimously passed a law that will allow state officials to automatically unearth tribal ancestors from their finally resting places when discovered on private lands. An Idaho state spokesman cited digging up ancestral remains as a great solution because it would be done ”at no cost to the landowner and with no delay to the project.” Currently, the Washington state Legislature is studying ”the legal processes to permit the removal of human remains from property” so development can also proceed on ceded lands in Washington without cost or delay.

Tribal governments and citizens must stand prepared for battle in this new kind of Indian war. This is the first of a two-part series designed to equip tribes with the legal weaponry that they need to defend their sacred places.

In the second article, Sharon Haensly talks about prospective steps that Indian tribes can take to protect sites from development and destruction. Some steps which tribes should take include:

  • Declare, in tribal law, the tribe’s property and other legal rights in off-reservation sacred sites and in the access routes to them.
  • Avoid the legally ambiguous term ”cultural resources,” and use the term ”cultural property” whenever possible.
  • Create a tribal register of sacred sites, designate specific sites on tribal registers, and decide when and how to share this information with other governments and developers.
  • Organize and maintain an ever-growing database of written information that supports the tribe’s cultural connection to sacred sites.
  • Describe in tribal law the preferred methods for conducting off-reservation inventories and handling accidental discoveries of cultural property.
  • Ensure that tribal constitutions extend tribal jurisdiction, including tribal court jurisdiction, over off-reservation cultural properties.

Those all appear to be excellent strategies especially as the tension between development and preservation will always exist, especially in the American West. In the United States protection of Native American sites and artifacts often depends upon where an object is located, whether its private land, State-owned land, or Federal land. Protection seems to work reasonably well overall, but it’s a confusing patchwork approach, and subject to some really unfortunate abrogations as may take place in Idaho. In such a legal environment, tribes need to be proactive and prepare for disputes before they occur.

This is a topic which is receiving more scholarly attention of late. An excellent article in the most recent issue of the Journal of Art, Antiquity and Law by Carolyn Shelbourn compares the protection of archaeological resources in the United States and England, Protecting Archaeological Resources in the United States: Some Lessons for Law and Practice in England, 12 Art, Ant. & L. 258 (2007).

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Antiquities Dealer Returns Italian Antiquities

Antiquities dealer Jerome Eisenberg has apparently agreed to return eight antiquities to Italy. Ariel David has an overview for the AP, complete with photos of all the objects.

According to Ariel, Eisenberg, who runs galleries in New York and London, said he bought most of the antiquities at auctions in the British capital in the 1980s, and decided to return them after Italian authorities recently turned up evidence that they were looted.” According to Giovanni Nistri, who leads the art squad of the Carabinieri “This is a dealer who since 1999 has returned of his own initiative other artifacts that came into his possession”.

What is the significance of the return? It appears to be one of the only examples of a dealer voluntarily relinquishing allegedly illicitly-excavated antiquities. It seems the Italians had some kind of iron-clad proof that these objects had been wrongfully removed in some way.

David Gill at Looting Matters argues this agreement to return objects is significant because “It is now clear that the Code of Ethics and the due diligence processes conducted by members of the IADAA are not rigorous enough.” I think he’s exactly right about the lack of effectiveness of Codes of Ethics, but this agreement has little to do with them. These objects were acquired at auctions, sometime in the 1980’s. The acquisition of these objects in the 1980’s doesn’t strike me as an accurate indicator of the current state of the antiquities trade, though it’s badly flawed to be sure.

The more relevant point I think is how effectively the Italian Culture Ministry uses the press in painting a picture of a vast Italian repatriation campaign. An agreement seems to have been concluded months ago. Why is the story appearing now? It seems to be a calculated move. Seldom does a week go by that there is not news of an arrest, agreement for repatriation or the like. Italy and cultural property is in just about every news cycle. Believe it or not, public pressure like this is the single best tool a source nation has to secure the return of objects. This fact speaks volumes about the fatally flawed body of law which attempts to regulate the illicit antiquities trade. Italy is not using the law to seek these objects because it cannot; instead it is exerting tremendous public pressure on museums and individuals.

(AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

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Arrests in Lowry Thefts

The BBC reported yesterday that four people have been arrested in connection with the theft of five LS Lowry paintings. It seems the recent Crimewatch appeal may have helped lead to the arrests. The theft was particularly disturbing, as 4 men robbed the family, tied up Ivan Aird, and threatened his wife and young daughter before stealing five artworks. The most valuable work taken was this painting, the Viaduct, worth perhaps £700,000.

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UCL and Incantation Bowls

I’m just catching up on this story, but I wanted to highlight an excellent article by Michael Balter in Science Magazine ($) on the decision by the University College London to suppress a committee report on the investigation into the provenance of a number of Incantation bowls, like this one. David Gill over at looting matters has more on this story as well.

The article and the report it describes both raise troublesome questions over whether researchers and Universities should conduct research using objects of questionable provenance. If they do, they risk lending credibility and provenance to objects which may have been illicitly excavated.

To give a bit of background, “During the 5th to 8th centuries C.E., many people living in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) buried pottery bowls under the thresholds of their houses to ward off evil demons. The bowls were inscribed with biblical passages and other incantations in Aramaic, an ancient Semitic language.”

Martin Schøyen owns the bowls and had temporarily donated them to UCL for study. Though the report has not been made public, Balter reveals the report “concludes that the bowls most likely left Iraq illegally sometime after August 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait.” Balter indicates the report is careful not to assign any wrongdoing to Schøyen, but does criticize UCL for agreeing to store these bowls without dutifully examining how they were acquired. The investigation concludes Schøyen has solid legal title to the objects, as he has possessed them for the 6-year limitations period under the law of England and Wales, his ethical title to them is far less certain. In the antiquities trade there remains a substantial gap between the state of the law and good ethical practice.

I find it troubling that UCL refuses to release the committee report, though their reticence is perhaps understandable. They are likely wary that the committee report may lead more criticism or potential claims. The reality remains that public laws for the protection of antiquities are not working. The best option a source nation has is often to pursue private claims or a public relations campaign. Both of those are expensive and time-consuming undertakings.

Colin Renfrew, a member of that inquiry, says in the Science article that, “It is shameful that a university should set up an independent inquiry and then connive with the collector whose antiquities are under scrutiny to suppress the report through the vehicle of an out-of-court settlement.”

What UCL should certainly do is make public efforts it will be taking to avoid lending credibility to other collections of potentially illicit antiquities. Because if they had erected such a safeguard prospectively, this dispute could have been avoided.

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Good Faith Acquisition of Antiquities?

Lee Rosenbaum at CultureGrrl has more on the Italy/Princeton agreement. At the right is a “Apulian red figure loutrophos from South Italy, ca. 335-325 B.C.” This object will remain at Princeton but Italy will gain title.

Importantly, Rosenbaum tells us Princeton’s spokesperson, Cass Cliatt maintains the University had acquired the objects in good faith. Also, further details will not be forthcoming because of a “confidentiality agreement” between the two parties. Also, Princeton is “anticipating posting our acquisition policies, but they are still in the revision stage and will be made available at the appropriate time.” Rosenbaum rightly expresses some skepticism at this reticence.

It seems to me that Princeton will not be the last museum to deal with Italian claims, as Rutelli has indicated it will pursue similar arrangements with the Cleveland Museum of Art, the New Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, and the Miho Museum in Japan. These restitutions are a welcome sign, but they will mean very little in the long run if these institutions do not erect appropriate safeguards. At present we are relying on institutions to police themselves. I’m beginning to reach the admittedly pessimistic conclusion that a good-faith acquisition of antiquities may not be possible given the way the market currently operates.

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