Did UN Troops Violate the 1954 Hague Convention?

I am just catching up on this story, but it strikes me as particularly troubling. 6,000 year-old paintings of animal and human figures have been spray-painted over by UN peacekeepers in the Western Sahara. The UN personnel with the Minurso mission in the Western Saraha signed and dated their work, and in some cases revealed their identities. As the Times reported back in January:

One Croatian peacekeeper scrawled “Petar CroArmy” across a rock face. Extensive traces of pigment from rock painting are visible underneath. Another left behind Cyrillic graffiti, and “Evgeny” from Russia scribbled AUI, the code for the Minurso base at Aguanit. “Mahmoud” from Egypt left his mark at Rekeiz Lemgasem, and “Ibrahim” wrote his name and number over a prehistoric painting of a giraffe. “Issa”, a Kenyan major who signed his name and wrote the date, had just completed a UN course, Ethics in Peacekeeping, documents show.

The Middle East Online reported that Morocco’s director of national heritage has accused the UN forces of graffiti on ancient sites, but also the theft of cave paintings, desecrating graves, and removing engraved paving stones.

Such disregard for important heritage of course implicates the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. To add to the difficulty, the head of the UN mission in Western Sahara (Minurso), seems to have bungled an apology, and served to incite more unrest between the groups he should be monitoring.

I’d really recommend those interested to have a look at what David Nishimura has to say on this, as I picked up the story from him. He notes the parallels with the coverage of the theft of objects from the Iraqi Museum, and the part coalition forces may have played in the looting of the museum in Baghdad. However he notes “the greatest damage in Iraq has been indirect, a consequence of civil disorder, rather than the direct result of military action. The vandalism in the Sahara is particularly shocking due to its deliberateness and the identity of those responsible, along with the complete lack of mitigating circumstances.”

I think that’s exactly right, and this story has received very little media attention in the West, particularly in the United States. There was a lot of legitimate outrage at the actions of the US military on the heels of the looting of the Baghdad Museum, however the actions of these UN forces deserves an equal measure of outrage in my view, and the troops responsible should be subjected to criminal penalties for looting and vandalizing these sites. Sadly, I think this reveals just how ineffective the international legal regime has been in protecting sites during armed conflict.

I know by monitoring the url logs that this site attracts some interest of journalists, notably when some of my ideas may prove useful for a story, which is great. However rather than writing the same story about Marion True for example, why not broaden coverage to encompass the full nature and extent of the antiquities problem?

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

Major Theft in Zurich (UPDATE)


Police in Zurich have announced a major theft from an art museum in Zurich. Works by Paul Cezanne, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, and Vincent van Gogh were taken from the Emil Buehrle art foundation. Details are still sketchy, I’ll update more this afternoon when we learn more. This theft follows of course from the theft last week of two works by Picasso from another museum in Switzerland.

Why would someone steal such widely-known works? As I see it, there are four potential answers to this question.

The first, is that a wealthy collector admires the piece, and hired a thief to take it for him. I’ll call this the Dr. No situation. This seems the least likely possibility, but the one that strikes a chord with the imagination. Writers in this subject frequently cite the Dr. No as being responsible for thefts, and I admit it makes for good Bond villains, but there has been little convincing evidence that this is why people are stealing rare objects.

Second, the thief may not have known that the object was so rare as to make its subsequent sale difficult.

Third, the thief may simply be trying to kidnap the object. They could then insure its safe return for a generous reward.

Finally, perhaps there is a market somewhere for these works. Perhaps it may not be all that difficult to sell these kind of works. This strikes me as the most troubling possibility, but also the least likely, as these works will likely be widely-publicized and photographs will be circulated as more details emerge.

UPDATE:

Swiss police have held a press conference and released more details on yesterday’s massive theft in Zurich. Three men entered the Buhrle foundation 30 minutes before closing yesterday, and while one man forced museum workers to the floor, the two other men collected four paintings:

Cezanne’s Boy in the Red Waistcoat

https://i1.wp.com/www.buehrle.ch/pics/07_0003_x.jpg?w=840

Monet’s Poppy Field at Vetheuil
Zurich art theft:

Degas’ Ludovic Lepic and his Daughters

https://i1.wp.com/www.buehrle.ch/pics/13_0004_x.jpg?w=840

and Van Gogh’s Blooming Chestnut Branches

https://i2.wp.com/www.buehrle.ch/pics/21_0003_x.jpg?w=840

The estimated monetary value of these stolen works is about $164 million USD, which would put it near the top of works stolen in recent decades; I’ll leave to art historians the task of evaluating the cultural value of these works which may be far larger.

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

Repatriation and Universal Museums

Drake Bennett has a good article in yesterday’s Boston Globe titled Finders, keepers. It’s a lengthy overview of the back and forth between museums and nations of origin regarding looted artifacts, and other objects taken during colonial times. It’s worth a read, as it features comments from James Cuno, the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, Ricardo Elia from the archeology department at Boston University, and others.

Cuno gets featured prominently, perhaps because of his strong arguments that many objects should remain in museums in market nations. He also extends the argument of the late Paul Bator, who in his seminal “An Essay on the International Trade in Art” 34 Stanford Law Review 275 (1982), argued that many restrictions on antiquities, including strong export restrictions serve to increase the black market.

Bennett’s piece is a good overview, and a good introduction to some of the core debates in the antiquities trade. By necessity he paints many of these restitution claims with too broad a brush though. He writes

Along with Italy, the governments of Greece, Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, Turkey, China, and Cambodia, among others, have pushed to reclaim prized artifacts from collections around the world. They have tightened their laws governing the export of antiquities or intensified the enforcement of existing laws and international agreements; they have made impassioned public cases on the world stage.

I don’t think these nations of origin have in fact increased their domestic legal schemes; in nearly every case he mentions here these nations have had very strong legal regimes for many decades, some dating to the very beginning of the 20th century. Italy for example has a national patrimony law dating to 1939. In some cases they are working more closely with the US State Department under the Cultural Property Implementation Act. However, the main difference is the prominent Italian claims of late, which were the result of one fantastically successful criminal investigation which implicated an Italian dealer named Giacomo Medici, and by association his buyers Robert Hecht, Marion True, the Getty, MFA Boston, and the Met.

This allowed for the return of these implicated objects; of course the claims for return were bolstered by photographic evidence of many of the Nostoi objects, which clearly indicated they were illegally excavated on a massive scale. This is a far different argument than the one for say the return of the Parthenon Marbles, or other objects acquired during colonial times, or for the return of other objects which may have been acquired legitimately. I think we need to be particularly careful not to lump too many of these restitution arguments together, and indeed to be honest about how and why objects are returned. The salient issues remain: how are nations of origin protecting sites domestically, how do market nations respond to illegal activity, how are museums acquiring new objects, and is the market conducting the needed provenance checks? That is the only way to prevent future illegal activity.

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

Two Picasso Works Stolen in Switzerland


Two works by Pablo Picasso, Verre et pichet (pictured here), and Tete de cheval were stolen from the Seedamm-Kulturzentrum in Pfaeffikon just outside Zurich Switzerland.

The thieves set of a security alarm when they were leaving, and police are speculating that the thieves may have hidden in the museum until after closing, and then broke out with the works.

Both the Telegraph and the BBC are pointing out this morning that works by Picasso are frequently stolen. One of the now-recovered works from Sao Paolo was a Picasso, and police in August recovered works stolen from the artist’s granddaughter’s home in Paris.

He’s a popular artist to steal certainly, but these works will never be sold on the open market, they are too widely known. I think a more interesting issue is security when these works are loaned out to regional museums like this one, which was the problem with works stolen in Nice last August. I think there are a lot of benefits to loaning works, and sharing collections; however there are trade-offs. Often these smaller regional museums have less-sophisticated security systems given their smaller budgets and collections.

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

Stolen Egyptian Antiquities Arrest


Edward Earle Johnson, aka “Dutch” has been arrested in Alabama and charged in Manhattan for wire fraud and selling stolen goods in connection with a 2002 theft from the Ma’adi Museum near Cairo in Egypt. Johnson is an active duty Chief Warrant Officer with the US Army, serving as a helicopter pilot.

In September of 2002 370 “pre-dynastic artifacts” were stolen from the museum, some dating to 3000 BC. Around 80 of those objects have been recovered by US authorities.

ABC News has a good overview of the story, with pictures, and has helpfully posted the unsealed complaint, sworn out by Senior Special Agent James McAndrew of the Homeland Security Department, specifically the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The ICE press release announcing the arrest yesterday is here.

An interesting question to ask here is whether Johnson used military ships or aircraft to somehow smuggle these objects back into the United States. That would be particularly troubling. That’s just speculation on my part at this point, but it seems like a potential way for him to get those object into the US.

It is also important to note I think that this arrest stems from a theft from a museum. These objects were excavated in an archaeological dig in the 1920’s-30’s, and had been in a state collection. One interesting aspect of the case which may come to light later is how McAndrew and the ICE discovered these thefts. Did a scrupulous dealer come forward? Did someone notice these objects for sale? Were these objects cataloged and documented by the Egyptian culture ministry?

It can be extremely difficult to track stolen antiquities generally even where they have been excavated and on display, however the problems grow increasingly acute when we consider looted and illegally excavated objects, which are new to the market.

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

US Criminal Penalties and Antiquities


To a casual observer, the recent searches in California would perhaps indicate that American criminal prosecutions and investigations can have a substantial impact on the illicit trade in antiquities. I certainly think they are a welcome sign, and hope that more of them will be supported by investigators and prosecutors. However, that investigation took five years to materialize, and there is still no indication if there will be any arrests. It certainly seems likely, but even this dramatic show of force and investigative might will not, I think, end or even put a substantial dent in the illicit trade. The current regulatory framework in both nations of origin and in market states puts far too much pressure on customs agents, prosecutors, and investigators.

At least that’s what I argue in my now-available article in the Cardozo Arts and Entertainment Law Journal, WHY U.S. FEDERAL CRIMINAL PENALTIES FOR DEALING IN ILLICIT CULTURAL PROPERTY ARE INEFFECTIVE, AND A PRAGMATIC ALTERNATIVE. 25 Cardozo Arts & Ent. L. J. 597-695 (2007)

The pragmatic alternative is the approach in England and Wales with its Treasure Act, Portable Antiquities Scheme, and limited export restrictions. This legal framework and attendant cultural policy is unique, in that it effectively incentivizes obeying the relevant cultural heritage laws. It adopts a carrot and stick approach, while many nations use too much of the stick. I argue that the criminal penalties can be brought to bear in cases of clear and egregious violations, or where there are a great deal of investigative resources available. Such was the case in the California searches, in which an undercover agent posed as a buyer. However, it took five years of investigations, and it’s still not clear what the result of these investigations are.

The image above is an Egyptian antiquity which Jonathan Tokeley-Parry bought and sold to Frederick Schultz, who later sold it for $1.2 million in 1993. It’s an image of 18th Dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep III (ca. 1403-1354 B.C.). Tokeley dipped the sculpture in clear plastic and painted it to resemble a cheap tourist souvenir. I discuss prosecutions of both men, which took place in England and the US respectively in the article. A lot of articles discuss the Schultz prosecution, but surprisingly no articles have discussed in any real detail the corresponding prosecution of Tokeley-Parry in England, which I think is key to understanding the international nature of the illicit trade, and the kind of complex multinational criminal investigation which is difficult where criminal investigation and prosecution are time-consuming and expensive. Not to mention the substantial pressures of other and often more-pressing matters such as drugs, violent crime, terrorism and the like.

I would be quite eager to hear any comments or reactions to the piece at derek.fincham “@” gmail.com.

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