2007 in Review


One of the best things about the end of the year is the chance to catch up on things I’ve missed out on during the year. I love the year-end best music lists, all of which are helpfully compiled on largehearted boy. Movie lists are great as well, though many of the Onion’s favorite movies have yet to appear in most theaters. Dahlia Lithwick, the always-excellent legal reporter for Slate also runs down the “Bush administrations Dumbest Legal Arguments of the Year“.

It’s also been an eventful year in the cultural policy world, and in that spirit I’ve compiled the Top Ten Cultural Property events of the past year.

10. The Major theft in Brazil of Picasso’s Portrait of Suzanne Bloch and a work by Brazilian artist Candido Portinari from the greatest South American Art Museum, the Sao Paulo Museum of Art. Much of the subsequent US media coverage of the theft has misleadingly depicted the Sao Paulo Museum of Art as a poor and bumbling institution that couldn’t afford insurance. That’s highly misleading, because even the wealthiest institutions have difficulty insuring their works. It’s expensive to insure a work worth $100 million, and its often more cost-effective to spend that money on security. Of course the security was not up to the task in this case, but one wonders if a major theft of this nature from an American or European museum would be so quick to blame the museum?

9. The still-to-be revealed extent of the forgeries created by Shaun Greenhalgh, who lived in Council Housing in Bolton with his aging parents. His forgeries fooled the British Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, and some of the world’s leading experts on Gauguin. The most surprising aspect may be the breadth of the forged objects which ranged from an ancient Greek kouros to Egyptian to ancient cuneiform to a sculpture by Gauguin. How many more Greenhalgh’s are on display now? We don’t know for sure. It calls to mind Orson Welles’ final masterpiece F for Fake: “It’s pretty but is it art? How is it valued? The value depends on opinion, opinion depends on the expert, a faker … makes fool of the experts – so who’s the expert? Who’s the faker?”

8. The recovery in August of three Picasso works stolen from the artist’s granddaughter in February.

7. Another major story is the state of antiquities–discovered, displayed, stolen– in Iraq.

6. The theft in August in Nice France, in which thieves stole 4 works by Monet, Sisley, and Bruegel. It’s probably not possible to sell these works on the open market, but at least two of these paintings had been stolen in 1999. A theft to order seems the likely explanation.

5. A significant continuing story is the increasing number of WWII-era art claims.

4. In October da Vinci’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder was recovered from a Solicitor’s office in Glasgow, four years after its theft from Drumlanrig Castle. It was a major recovery because it was a da Vinci, but also because it was recovered in a solicitor’s office. I’m looking forward to more details as the criminal trial unfolds in 2008.

3. A major story in the UK is the trouble for arts and museum funding in the face of the London Olympic bid. This funding shortage could destroy much of what makes the UK cultural policy tick, including the Waverley limited export scheme, the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and arts funding generally.

2. A major milestone this year was the legal claims brought by Iran in England to seek to block the sale of antiquities. The first was Iran v. Berend [2007] EWHC 132 (QB) (an unsuccessful attempt to block the sale of a limestone relief from Persepolis). The other major dispute involved chlorite objects from the Jiroft region of Iran. The High Court ruling Iran v. Barakat Galleries Ltd. [2007] EWHC 705 held Iran was not able to establish an ownership interest, however this was overturned by the Court of Appeal in Iran v. Barakat Galleries [2007] EWCA Civ 1374. These decisions received surprisingly little media coverage, but will have long-lasting consequences for years to come as they have extended the standing of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, and provided important precedent for other nations which may seek to prevent the sale of antiquities in London’s bustling antiquities markets.

1. The story I found myself writing the most about this year was the interminable dispute between Italy and the Getty, which finally culminated in an agreement this summer for the return of dozens of important works to Italy. The dispute has a number of related stories, including the ongoing dispute over the Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth, and the Marion True/Robert Hecht criminal trial in Italy. Will it fundamentally change the antiquities trade? Does it signal the end of the universal museum? Will cultural policy matter in nations other than Italy? Perhaps 2008 has the answer to those questions.

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

Iran Wins Barakat Appeal


The judgment in Republic of Iran v. Barakat Galleries [2007] EWCA Civ 1374 has been released today. At the High Court, Gray J decided in favor of the gallery because, first and foremost, the ownership declarations Iran relied on were in his eyes insufficient. The Court of Appeal reached the opposite result by holding that a claim for conversion is tenable so long as the various rights granted to Iran amount to an ownership interest under English law. Pictured here is a chlorite vase on the Barakat Gallery website, of the “intercultural style” similar to the objects now recovered by Iran.

At issue were “eighteen carved jars, bowls and cups made from chlorite. Iran alleges that they date from the period 3000 BC to 2000 BC and originate from recent excavations in the Jiroft region of Iran which were unlicensed and unlawful under the law of Iran.”

Two preliminary issues were raised:

i) Whether under the provisions of Iranian law pleaded in the Amended Particulars of Claim, the claimant can show that it has obtained title to the Objects as a matter of Iranian law and if so by what means, and

ii) If the claimant can show that it has obtained such title under Iranian law, whether this court should recognise and/or enforce that title.

The Court of Appeal answered both in favor of Iran.

In a startling rebuke to Gray J, the Court of Appeal noted that the lower court had concluded the relevant Iranian law was “both penal and public in character” and as a result it “could not be enforced in this country”. As the Court of Appeal noted

This also was a conclusion which the judge described (para 100) as “a regrettable one”, and added (presumably not having been informed that the United Kingdom had ratified the UNESCO Convention) that the answer might be the one given by Lord Denning MR in the Ortiz case, namely an international convention on the subject.

Emphasis added.

Importantly, the Court of Appeal noted that “it is important to bear in mind that it is not the label which foreign law gives to the legal relationship, but its substance, which is relevant. If the rights given by Iranian law are equivalent to ownership in English law, then English law would treat that as ownership for the purposes of the conflict of laws.” At issue was whether Iran’s rights were sufficient to give it a claim for conversion under English law. The distinction from the lower court turns not on the legal significance of a proclamation such as “Iran declares itself the owner of all undiscovered antiquities”; but rather in the individual rights which Iran has given itself in these objects. If the sum of these rights amounts to ownership under English law, then Iran has a viable legal claim. As the Court of appeal noted in para. 80:

We consider that this is an arid issue. Given our conclusion that the finder did not own the antiquities (and the fact, as was common ground, that the owner of the land from which they came had no claim to them), there are only two possibilities. Either they were “bona vacantia” to which Iran had an immediate right of possession and which would become Iran’s property once Iran obtained possession and which could not become the property of anyone else or they belonged to Iran from, at least, the moment that they were found. We consider that the former alternative is artificial. Iran’s personal rights in relation to antiquities found were so extensive and exclusive that Iran was properly to be considered the owner of the properties found.

The question then became, under English law does the Iranian interest in the objects support a claim in conversion, and if so is the claim founded on a penal or public law? The relevant 1979 Legal Bill was not penal with respect to ownership of antiquities, though other segments dealing with criminal penalties for unlawfully excavating or dealing with antiquities may have been. The court, distinguishing between export restrictions and asserting ownership. The former is clearly a public law and unenforceable ablsent another treaty obligation while the latter is justiciable. When a state owns property in the same way as a private citizen “there is no impediment to recovery.” King of Italy v de Medici (1918) 34 TLR 623.

Though the court did recognize difficulty in enforcing Iran’s sovereign authority, the Court of Appeal classified the claim as a “patrimonial claim”. In distinguishing this claim reference was made to US precedent, United States v Schultz, 333 F 3d 393 (2d Cir. 2003) in which the Second Circuit recognized an Egyptian patrimony law even though Egypt had never reduced the objects at issue to possession. Importantly, the Court of Appeal reasoned that even if it was wrong in not characterizing the claim as the enforcement of foreign public law, the claim would still not be barred because there exists no “general principle that this country will not entertain an action whose object is to enforce the public law of another State.” In supporting this principle reference was made to the UNESCO Convention, the UNIDROIT Convention, the Commonwealth Scheme (which has not apparently been fully implemented), as well as the relevant EU directives.

The appeal is a tremendous gain for source nations, and establishes English courts will in fact recognize foreign ownership declarations even when they are not explicit, so long as they grant rights to the source nation similar in nature to ownership requirements under English law. In the initial AP news story Fayez Barakat the owner of the gallery indicated “This means that the Iranian government could claim every Persian item at a British Museum, and that doesn’t make any sense”. He’s right that it doesn’t make any sense, because its patently ridiculous, and indicative of the ridiculous exaggerations which often occur after a ruling like this. The British Museum will not be emptied of its Persian collection because of this decision; rather antiquities dealers are unable to sell new and illegally excavated objects from Iran.

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

Olympics or Arts

A steady string of arts venues have suffered closure in the UK in recent weeks. The Komedia in Brighton has had to shut its doors; the Windsor Arts Centre closed its doors last friday; and earlier this month the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen suddenly shut its doors as well. I should note in the interest of full disclosure that my wife had been in charge of marketing at the Lemon Tree for nearly a year, and its sudden closure came as quite a shock. It was hardly the season’s greetings we were expecting from the Aberdeen City Council. The Lemon Tree closing was particularly disappointing for us, as it was a great venue which did a lot of community and charity work; and in many cases funding was secured which actually made these events profitable.

Sadly the trend seems likely to continue. And what is the root cause? Arts funding is always a battle, especially for real new and creative enterprises. In many cases much of the money the arts council and other organizations had previously given these organizations has been diverted to the Olympic fund. Not only that but corporate and other sponsorships are diverted to the Olympics as well. It’s not only arts funding either.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme, a pioneering community archeology project will likely have its funding cut this year. Will Anderson rightly points out that “to halt the PAS now that it is operating so successfully would be folly. All so they can build another few domes for the Olympics. It is the department of ‘Culture’ Media and SPORT and its proxy the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, that deserve to be scrapped”.

Colin Renfrew had an excellent summary of the scheme’s benefits in an opinion piece in the Guardian earlier this week. He points out that the scheme is “starting to transform our understanding of many aspects of the past”. Seventeen PhDs have used PAS data. I know it featured prominently in my thesis as an excellent and pragmatic way to effectively regulate sites in source nations. In terms of concrete discoveries, a Viking age cemetery was discovered in cumbria, a Roman bowl bearing the names of forts on Hadrian’s wall has been acquired by the British Museum and others. Perhaps most importantly, “the scheme has also taken the initiative in policing the internet for objects that should be reported under the Treasure Act and has promoted a code of practice”.

The situation isn’t any better in Scotland either, where funding for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow will likely begin to increase as well. I don’t doubt that holding the Olympics in London will give a number of benefits to London and the UK. Perhaps if most British citizens were given a choice maybe they would choose Olympic funding over the arts and culture. However, I think those in charge should be upfront about the hidden costs and very real cuts which this Olympic bid will cause.

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

Major Theft in Brazil


Thieves have stolen works by Pablo Picasso and Candido Portinari from the Sao Paulo Museum of Art. The theft was made known early Thursday morning. The stolen Picasso is pictured here, Portrait of Suzanne Bloch, 1904. Early estimates place the monetary value of the stolen works at $100 million USD. However these are major works, the Picasso is from the artist’s blue period. Portinari is a major Brazilian artist. The AP story is here.

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

Nostoi (UPDATE)


The Nostoi (“Returns”) epic is mostly lost, but the bits and pieces which have survived indicate it tells the story of the return home of the Greek heroes after the Trojan War.

It is perhaps apt then that Italian authorities on Monday called the display “Nostoi: Returned Masterpieces” when they unveiled 68 antiquities which have recently been returned to Italy. Soon to join the list is the Euphronios Krater, which is slated for return from the Met in January.

Livia Borghese and Jason Felch have the story in the LA Times. Elisabetta Povoledo has a similar story in the NY Times, including a slide show by the AP and Italian Culture ministry. This image may be my favorite of the bunch, the Griffins attacking the doe. Objects were returned from the Getty, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Princeton, and the Met. Also, some objects from the Royal Athena Galleries in New York were returned as well.

As might be expected, Francesco Rutelli the Italian culture minister and vice prime minister was quick to point out the significance of these returns saying, “The odyssey of these objects, which started with their brutal removal from the bowels of the earth, didn’t end on the shelf of some American museum… With nostalgia, they have returned. These beautiful pieces have reconquered their souls.”

Ultimately, the display shows the results of the Italian campaign which by necessity eschewed international law, and American law and instead went right to the heart of the matter using public pressure and the media along with the high-profile and ongoing trials of Marion True and Robert Hecht. At the press conference, Rutelli claimed that this strategy has “[brought] about radical changes in the trade of looted antiquities”. That may be true in a limited sense I suppose, but only I think when the antiquities are backed by strong political will in source nations. What about the trade in antiquities from South America or Iran and elsewhere? I’m not sure this strategy will impact those objects. I’m not sure either that this new strategy will alter the idea of the Universal Museum, which seems largely at odds with the policy of many source nations. Ideally the Italian accords will continue to allow the US and Italy to work together to continue to share objects but also to prevent the acquisition of illicit antiquities in the future.

UPDATE:

Sarah Delaney has more in yesterday’s Washington Post, with more pontificating by Rutelli including this: “if we dry up the waters of illegal art trafficking it will be much more difficult for tombaroli and others to operate.” He praised as well the “new standards of ethics that American museums have adopted”. First among these is the Getty’s stringent new acquisition policy. Also, museums who cooperate will earn continued loans.

David Gill has more on the official handlist of objects in the display, including where objects came from, and a breakdown of the type and composition of objects. As he points out, “15 pieces were represented by South Italian pottery.”

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

Stewart Gardner Resolution?


Is a resolution eminent in the largest art theft in history? Perhaps, with word this morning that a Boston grand jury is scheduled to hear evidence this week into the 1990 theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, estimated at between $300-500 million. One of the stolen works is the Concert by Vermeer.

Stephen Kurkjian of the Boston Globe has the story, in which he was given details of a subpoena from a former museum employee who worked there at the time.

The former worker said two FBI agents questioned him about his recollection of the theft several days ago and handed him a subpoena to testify before the grand jury in Boston tomorrow.

The agents told him they were gathering facts on the case and were hoping that the grand jury would “shake things up” in the long-stalled investigation, said the former worker, who asked not to be identified.

The agents did say that they were pursuing the possibility that the theft may have been carried out by three individuals – and not two as has long been publicly believed, the former employee said.

On Friday, a spokeswoman for US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan’s office declined to comment on the grand jury, stating that the office never confirms or denies the existence of such a session.

A spokeswoman for the Gardner Museum also declined comment.

The former museum employee read portions of the subpoena to the Globe and said it was signed by Brian T. Kelly, a veteran prosecutor in the US attorney’s office. Kelly has helped spearhead the federal investigation into and the crackdown of James “Whitey” Bulger’s criminal enterprise.

It is often said that a grand jury is both a sword and a shield. It protects the rights of criminal defendants, but also allows prosecutors to use their subpoena power to compel testimony. Whether a resolution will emerge remains to be seen, but right now there are more questions than answers, most notably: where are the paintings?

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