Peter Nahum has an excellent editorial in the Art Newspaper titled “How I was duped by the Bolton forgers”
Peter Nahum has an excellent editorial in the Art Newspaper titled “How I was duped by the Bolton forgers“. Nahum, the director of the Leicester Galleries in London details the fraud in 1990
[S]he wished to sell a painting by the Scottish Colourist, Samuel John Peploe, which she had inherited from her grandfather who had owned an art gallery. This was confirmed by a label on the reverse: “The Metcalfe Gallery, 45 Dundas Street, Edinburgh”. She arranged for her husband to bring the painting to the gallery after 6pm and stated that she wanted cash… In the middle of that night I woke up and realised it was almost certainly a fake.
In fact he wasn’t duped, as he cancelled the check quickly and reported the incident to the police. It seems the Greenhalgh’s had built quite a reputation for passing forged art, but it wasn’t until 2006 that the Greenhalgh’s were finally raided. The troubling aspect of this case is the fact that these individuals were suspected art forgers, yet the state of the market is such that legitimate works cannot be distinguished from forgeries sold by known art forgers. The clear indication is that there needs to be a radical shift in the way the art market guarantees authenticity and title. Either a centralized database, or some kind of title insuring mechanism is sorely needed to prevent this kind of fraud.
One wonders how often dealers suspect the dubious nature of a work, but because a forgery may be of such a high quality, they reason that members of the public would not suspect. Nahum’s statement on this is quite telling I think:
The point about the Greenhalgh case … is that what seems to be a rock solid provenance can distract the expert’s eye from careful assessment. Every cloud has a silver lining; although I have sometimes lost money tracking down fakers and reporting them, I have gained another arrow in my street-smart quiver. Never trust a provenance until it can be verified. Trust your eye and instinct, your personal researches and any reliable expert on the subject you can consult.
At a minimum, the relevant law enforcement personnel should have circulated the names of the Greenhalgh’s among the dealing community to prevent further fraud. The understaffed Art and Antiques Unit was slow in responding as well it would seem. Another difficulty is the ambiguity which the term “provenance” encompasses. If courts in the UK had a wider sampling of cases with which to grapple, perhaps a firm conception of the term would emerge, however these cases occur relatively infrequently. As such, we are relying on industry practice to define the boundaries of “good provenance” and that has produced a deeply unsatisfying system.
Jamie Grace, a friend and researcher at the University of Derby emailed me with some very interesting thoughts on this situation:
The sale of a forgery (and the resale of stolen art in general) would cause difficulties for DACS the agency that attempts to administer the Artist’s Resale Rights Regulation 2006. I support your call for an authenticity database – from my perspective, it could be linked to another mandatory database detailing sales, making the administration of the 2006 Regulations for the benefit of contemporary artists a lot easier.As for the Art & Antiques Unit, restrictions on a researcher’s ‘right to know’ under the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000 means that for ‘operational reasons’ the Unit cannot divulge many details about recovered or stolen works or art (or antiques etc.) – so a curious or suspicious art market professional cannot even go straight to the Unit to check provenance. Allowances are hard to make for the reasons of understaffing when the legal framework itself defeats the aims of sensible dealers.
Jamie knows far more about DACS than I do. From what I understand it is essentially a scheme which takes a small portion of the sale of works of art and distributes it among contemporary artists. I hope to hear more from him on that in the coming months here.
I’ll confess I was unaware of the implications of the Data Protection Act and the Freedom of Information Act, but they only seem to be undercutting the work of the Unit in this case.
On December 19th, Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister, stated “I find it utterly unacceptable that the Lewis Chessment are scattered around Britain in a bizarre parody of the Barnett formula. And you can be assured that I will continue campaigning for a united set of Lewis Chessmen in an independent Scotland.”
The Barnett formula is a means by which the United Kingdom allocates its expenditures. This statement is sure to gain support among those Scots who feel England has been harassing and plundering Scotland for centuries. However I find the claim for the removal of all the chessmen to Scotland half-hearted. If one were to be unkind it could be called intellectually laze, intended to strengthen the notion of an independent and historically separate Scotland. It’s the kind of irresponsible and base nationalistic claim that does a disservice to legitimate repatriation claims.
The Lewis chessmen are a medieval collection of 93 pieces forming four or five complete sets. They were most likely carved in Norway in the 12th century, and then were likely taken by a merchant on their way to nobles in Ireland perhaps. However the pieces were lost, and were rediscovered sometime shortly before 1831 on a sand bank near the Bay of Uig on the West coast of the Isle of Lewis. The island at the time was ruled by Norway. The precise details of the discovery are unknown, but they were exhibited by Roderick Ririe at a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1831. Soon after 10 pieces were purchased by Kirkpatrick Sharpe and this collection eventually was donated to the Royal Museum in Edinburgh in 1888, now the National Museum of Scotland. The remaining pieces were purchased in 1831 for the British Museum in London.
The pieces are fantastic, and reproductions of the set are quite popular. They are carved from walrus ivory and whale teeth, and many of the human figures are quite expressive. In fact, the representations have a lot to teach about medieval weapons and dress.
Ian Jack in an excellent article in the Guardian examines the possible claims Scotland might have to all of the chessmen, and rightly comes to the conclusion that
It would be easy to accuse Salmond of nothing more than opportunism, adding to his reputation for that streak. In fact, he has been sporadically campaigning for the return of the Lewis Chessmen for 10 years. My explanation is that his demand comes out of a previous era of nationalism that was quite blind to Scotland’s history as England’s imperial partner – needed to be blind to it, because in terms of wealth it was Scotland’s golden age and inconvenient to anti-English grievance. I had thought that the grievance mode was passing. But not yet, not yet.
Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum contacted Scotland’s culture minister, to ask if the statement was serious: “Because if it is, we need to understand the principles that lie behind it.” No response has apparently been sent to this query. What kinds of events can trigger a return? In the case of the string of the recent repatriations from American institutions to Italy, they came in response to solid evidence, including photographs that the returned objects had been looted, in violation of Italian law. In other cases, if an object is an ethnographic object important to ongoing religious or community practices for example, an excellent case can be made for a return; such is the case with vigango from Africa. However Salmond is unable to provide this kind argument for a return. His motivating animus seems to be that a unified set would make a great deal of money for the National Museum of Scotland or the Isle of Lewis. In fact in 1995 a complete exhibition of the chessmen was held on the Isle, and it attracted record crowds.
Salmond has been making this claim since at least 1996. In a Sunday Times piece by Alastair Robertson from 1 Dec. 1996 Salmond argued “just as the Elgin marbles should be restored to Greece … so should ancient artefacts come home to Scotland. There is no justification for them to remain in England.” Now this policy has some troubling consequences for Scotland’s museums. Its collections are packed with objects taken home by Scots during the colonial era, and many of these objects were hardly taken in a properly bargained for exchange. These institutions would surely have to quickly dispose of much of their collection. In fact, the chessmen were legally acquired, and there is absolutely nothing to suggest they were wrongfully acquired. If we were to return these objects to their homeland where they were created, they would not return to the Outer Hebrides, but rather to Norway.
Given the fact that Great Britain has such an ancient and fascinating history, it is perhaps unsurprising that various communities have called for the return of various objects. Inhabitants of St. Ninian’s Isle have begun to call for the return of medieval treasure, currently housed at the National Museum of Scotland. Many of these arguments would appear surprising to visitors to others from larger and more disparate nations. Scotland is after all not much larger than South Carolina.
When objects are allocated to regional museums, it makes the risk of theft and other difficulties more pressing. A handful of regional institutions are more difficult to safeguard than larger centralized locations of course. More importantly though, these objects should have a substantial curatorial or cultural imperative which dictates a return. If Salmond is able to construct or to offer such a narrative, perhaps he will move beyond base political rhetoric. If he’s looking for an example, perhaps he should take a look at the St. Louis Museum of Art’s exhibition of George Caleb Bingham’s The Sunday Election, which Tyler Green praises today.
The BBC reported over the weekend that five paintings have been recovered by a a pensioner in his Dunbartonshire flat (just outside Glasgow). Three are the work of Robert Gemmell Hutchison, the Pink Pinafore, Feeding the Seagulls, and Cottarita. Also recovered was this work, Candlelight by Sir James Guthrie, along with Luss Road. A slideshow of all the works is here.
The works were found by an elderly man in his loft. At present, authorities are still attempting to understand how these works came to arrive there, after they had been stolen in 2002. There still aren’t many details, and I’ll update if and when more details emerge.
The works are estimated to be worth £246,000. Of course that doesn’t measure the artistic or cultural value of the works which have been stolen. In fact cultural value was the main reason the Norweigian Supreme Court gave for increasing the sentences of two thieves who took Edvard Munch’s The Scream and the Madonna as they are of “irreplaceable national cultural value.” It’s this cultural value which gives art theft a prominent place in the news, and arouses such interest. However I think measuring it, especially for courts, can often be difficult, especially for lawmakers who aren’t trained in art history. Increasing punishment for well-renowned masterpieces such as Munch’s works, this cultural value may be pretty easy to measure; however these works recovered in Glasgow may be harder to measure culturally, and our only gauge is the price they may garner at auction.
Pictured here is the Euphronios krater, one of the finest known antiquities. Created in 515 BC, it is the only known complete example of a work painted by Euphronios. The krater was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a then-record $1 million from Robert Hecht. Suspicion was aroused as soon as the work was purchased about the provenance of the piece, where it was discovered, had it been in an existing collection etc. The most likely explanation now indicates the krater was purchased from Giacomo Medici, an Italian who was convicted of selling illicit antiquities on 2004. A 2004 article on artnet by the Met director at the time, Thomas Hoving, details his account of the acquisition of the krater. The krater was almost certainly illegally excavated. As a result we know nothing of its archaeological context.
As a result these questions, Italy and the Met agreed to arrange the return of the krater in exchange for other long term loans. Sunday will be the final day to see the krater at the Met before it is returned to Italy’s “Nostoi” exhibition championing the recent repatriation efforts.
In exchange, the Met will be receiving a terracotta cup depicting gods on Mt. Olympus signed by Euxitheos, a jug shaped like a woman’s head, and another krater made in southern Italy. I’ll leave to the art historians and others the question of whether this is a fair bargain, and how much the Met’s antiquities collection has been diminished.
Does this exchange remedy the earlier illegal excavation? The answer is no, it seems to me. It does not punish the illegal excavators. We still do not know anything about the krater’s context. More than anything, this seems to indicate that the Met and other institutions will think long and hard before making another similarly dubious acquisition in the future. That I think is the real relevance, and its one I think has not been discussed amid the retirement of Philippe de Montebello and the stories about these returns. The salient question remains, are there ways to ensure antiquities are licit? The answer it seems to me is still no. Sites are still vulnerable, and the antiquities trade does not promote the careful scientific study of sites. Amid all of this controversy after returns by the Met, the MFA Boston, the Getty, and the University of Virginia, a fundamental conundrum remains. Should the antiquities trade exist in some form? The discussion should, I think, focus now on the next Euprhonios Krater. Is it being protected? Are there new acquisition policies which are sufficient? Will more institutions abroad adopt the standards of the Getty or the Indianapolis Museum of Art? Are source nations effectively regulating their sites? Are they promoting compliance with these regulations?
The AP is reporting that the two works stolen last month in Brazil have been recovered in Sao Paulo. The recovered works, Portrait of Suzanne Bloch, 1904 by Pablo Picasso and O Lavrador de Cafe, 1939 by Candido Portinari were recovered in a home on the outskirts of Sao Paulo on Tuesday. The works were stolen last month, by thieves using only crowbar and a car jack. Given that, are the assualt rifles, pistols, and bullet-proof jackets worn by guards at yesterday’s press conference necessary?
Julio Neves, the president of the Sao Paulo Museum of Art said the works are “in absolutely perfect condition”, and “[t]he museum is upgrading and improving its security system to prevent this kind of thing from happening again.” There is no word on how the works were recovered, as police are still investigation as “other suspects remain at large and providing details could jeopardize the ongoing investigation.” Given the comments of the city’s chief police inspector Mauricio Lemos Freire, it seems like they are investigating this as a theft-to-order, and are still going after the buyer who ordered the theft.
If you find yourself involved in a Nazi restitution dispute, be sure to develop your statute of limitations defense in responding to a motion for summary judgment. That’s the lesson I take from Vineberg v. Bissonnette, 2007 WL 4571154 D.R.I., 2007 (Dec. 27, 2007). Federal District Court Judge Mary Lisi ordered Maria-Louise Bissonnette to return the work to the estate of Max Stern. The dispute involved this work, Girl from the Sabiner Mountains, by Franz-Xaver Winterhalter.
The court gave the background of the case as follows (emphasis added):
Dr. Stern was of Jewish descent and, under the Nuremberg laws, was subject to official persecution by the German government. In 1935, the Reich Chamber for the Fine Arts (“Reich Chamber”), an organization of the Nazi government, sent letters to Dr. Stern demanding that he liquidate his inventory and gallery. On or about September 13, 1937, Dr. Stern received a final order to sell his inventory immediately through a dealer approved by the Reich Chamber. Dr. Stern consigned most of his inventory and private collection, constituting hundreds of works, to the Lempertz Auction House (“LAH”), in Cologne, Germany. On or about November 13, 1937, LAH auctioned the items consigned to it by Dr. Stern, including the property that is the subject of the dispute in this matter, a nineteenth century painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter entitled “Madchen aus den Sabiner Bergen” (“Girl from the Sabiner Mountains”) (“the Painting”). The items consigned to LAH by Dr. Stern were sold at well below market value. Dr. Stern fled Germany for Paris in December 1937. Upon discovering that Dr. Stern left Germany, the German government issued an order freezing his assets. Dr. Stern never received the proceeds of the LAH sale. Dr. Stern eventually left Paris to join his sister in London prior to the outbreak of World War II. Dr. Stern later emigrated to Canada and became a preeminent art collector and dealer there.
In most of these disputes, the question of whether an action is timely is outcome-determinative. That’s probably not surprising given the events giving rise to a cause of action occurred seventy years ago. It seems clear that Stern took great pains to attempt to locate his lost works, and as such the limitations defense may have been difficult. But even so, the defendant seems to have missed their best argument by failing to raise an adequate statute of limitations defense. As such, the action was timely, and both parties had agreed to most of the relevant facts. As the painting was sold “well below market value” and Stern never received the proceeds, the defendant now has to relinquish the painting, even though she appears blameless.