Why Repatriations Really Happen

With all the talk about the new AAMD guidelines, James Cuno’s arguments, and the like, it may be worth remembering why antiquities get sent back to their country of origin: simple evidence of a crime committed.

The wave of antiquities which were sent back to Italy in the last few years are the direct result of a massively successful criminal investigation which had solid photographic evidence that some of these masterworks (such as the Euphronios Krater) were looted and smuggled. It’s an open question whether individuals at the acquiring museums could have been subject to criminal penalties, however

Lee Rosenbaum appears to have completely missed the point in her attempt to arrange a “ceasefire in the antiquities wars“. She argues the AAMD needs to decide “[w]hat should its member museums do about all those objects they already own that wouldn’t have entered their collections had the new standard been applied at the time of their acquisition?” She advocates a 1983 cutoff, the year Congress passed the Cultural Property Implementation Act which implemented the 1970 UNESCO Convention in the US. This seems to me like a bad idea. Commenters and museums seem concerned with cataloging their collection and worrying about what objects they currently have which might end up being shipped back (or might be subject to a public dispute). Perhaps cataloging these objects might make the institutions or others feel better about what might be at risk, when the real problem was the complete ignorance of the law and good practice at the time these objects were acquired.

Picking a date is not helpful, nor does Rosenbaum offer any reason why Congressional action in 1983 is a watershed moment for museum directors and curators. When she says “It’s only a matter of time before other source nations follow Italy’s lead” she ignores the fact that Italy has been so successful because they had the evidence. Without the proof not other nation will be able to achieve Italy’s success. There are countless other examples of this, the Sevso Treasure being the most prominent.

David Gill seems to understand this, and he shares my skepticism of this 1983 date. He points out that the returns to Italy represent only 1% of the objects in the Geneva Polaroids.

Picking an arbitrary date will not end the controversy, nor will it protect any more antiquities currently at risk. We need a cooperative coordinated approach which rests on a transparent market and loan procedure which works in conjunction with law enforcement and customs officials of many nations.

In Part II, she makes a few seemingly simple suggestions for future repatriations. One in particular is a collossally bad idea: that when objects are returned museums should give a “[d]etailed disclosure of why the museum has relinquish[ed] the objects”. (David Gill thinks this is a good idea as well).

This will never happen, and probably shouldn’t in most cases, because museum directors would potentially be admitting criminal wrongdoing and might open themselves up to criminal prosecution or investigations by State Attorneys General. I could perhaps see an argument for a detailed disclosure when an object which has been in a collection for 50 years or more, but for the short term acquisitions, museum directors would be making a collossal mistake. Would Marion True have been better served about telling Italy how and why objects acquired under her watch were returned to Italy?

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

Cuno and Conforti on KCRW

James Cuno and AAMD President Michael Conforti appeared on KCRW‘s The Politics of Culture a couple of weeks ago to discuss the new guidelines and their views. It’s a short discussion, and not much of it is new but I found it interesting nonetheless. It serves as a good overview of Cuno’s book, and an overview of the new guidelines. Thanks to Kwame Opoku for passing this along.

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

Andrew Wyeth Recovered (LATE UPDATE)


Artdaily is reporting on the recovery of A Bridge, Race Gate by Andrew Wyeth. The work was stolen from a Houston home, along with 22 other works in 2000. The painting was then registered on the ALR database.

The painting was registered on the ALR’s database of lost and stolen artworks and nearly a decade later, the painting emerged at Simpson’s Gallery in the very city from which it was stolen. When a suspicious would-be consignor arrived at his auction house looking to unload the Wyeth, Ray Simpson recognized the quality of the work and the celebrity of its artist. He agreed to take the picture in for an evaluation and suggested that its seller return in a few hours. Mr. Simpson, trusting his instincts and first impressions, then called the New York office of the ALR to request a search of the suspect picture, at which time it was matched by art historian, Erin Culbreth.

The story goes on to say “After significant research and assistance from Nationwide Insurance Company, the ALR was able to determine the owner of the painting and broker a deal for its return. In the end, it was the instinct of Ray Simpson that set the wheels of the recovery in motion.” I’d like to know a lot more about these details, because what generally happens in these cases is the original owner and victim of the theft has probably received an insurance settlement, which usually gives the insurance company title to the work. As such, that’s why the work will be sold at a Christie’s auction in Dec. 2008. The ALR may have been very helpful in this case to the insurance company, and the gallery owner should be commended, however this is still not a happy ending for the original owner, they don’t usually get their insured painting back.

UPDATE:

I’ve been informed that the original owner actually had an opportunity to purchase the work at a substantial discount, but decided against it because she did not need the money. The point I was attempting to make is it is often very difficult for a thief or subsequent possessors to sell a work by such a well-known artist after it has been stolen, which makes it a real shame because often times fully compensating the original owner is difficult if not impossible. That’s not the case here though as the owner had an opportunity to purchase the work and could have then auctioned the work and made a substantial profit perhaps.

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

Now Jordan Sends Antiquities to Iraq


Syria sent 40 objects stolen from the National Museum back to Iraq last month, and now Jordan will return 2,466 objects, including gold coins and jewelry back to Iraq, the AFP is reporting.

That’s a staggering number of objects, most of which were seemingly seized by Jordanian customs officials. One wonders how many objects slipped through these checkpoints and will soon be sold as “intercultural” style objects?

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

The New AAMD Guidelines

While I was on my blogging holiday in recent weeks, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) set a new ethics policy for how art museums should collect antiquities. The AAMD issued a policy which stated essentially that in most cases a museum should not acquire an object unless evidence exists that the object was outside its “country of probable modern discovery bofeore 1970, or was legally exported from its probably country of modern discovery after 1970.”

Much of this is old news to many of you, but I found Randy Kennedy’s NYT article to be a very good summary of the new guidelines, with reactions from Prof. Patty Gerstenblith. I also saw that Mark Feldman, a negotiator of the original 1970 Convention had a very interesting Letter to the Editor, in which he welcomed the new measures, but cautioned that they “may not solve the problem”.

The debate has shifted now to encompass the date of 1970 as a cutoff, though these ethical guidelines are not hard and fast rules. They are guidelines, and art museums can derogate from them freely, though they do so at their own peril. They of course run grave public relations and financial risks when they do so, but this was already the case in recent years, as evidenced by the oft-mentioned repatriations to Italy from the MFA Boston, the Met, the Getty, Princeton, and elsewhere.

Souren Melikian has a follow-up article for the International Herald Tribune, and ties these new guidelines to the shifting antiquities market, though I don’t think this shift has much to do with the new guidelines.

At Christie’s, a sale of antiquities held on June 4 opened with sundry sculptures and other works of art from Ancient Egypt collected by the Swiss Egyptologist Gustave Jéquier, who died in 1946. Extraordinary prices were achieved for the greatest rarities from a collection that did not raise provenance questions.

The auction was only into its second lot when a limestone carving of a coiled snake, 19 centimeters, or 7½ inches, across, shot up to $338,500. This was more than 15 times the high estimate. Executed in the late 3rd to mid-2nd millennium B.C., the sculpture carries a royal dedication inscription to the god Osiris that enhanced its importance, and the Jéquier provenance guaranteed that any institution could acquire it without fear of being faced one day with a restitution lawsuit.

The phenomenon repeated itself as a fragmentary bas-relief carved in the second half of the 14th century B.C. came up. Christie’s thought that the limestone slab, which only preserves the upper part of two character’s heads, might sell for $15,000 to $20,000 plus the 25 percent sale charge. It ended up at $182,000…

A day later at Sotheby’s, bidders were even more willing to pay enormous prices for desirable antiquities that could irrefutably be proved to have reached the West well before 1970.

An elongated alabaster vessel from 6th century B.C. Etruria, reportedly dug up at Vulci, was unusual rather than breathtakingly beautiful with its four female masks carved on the base and the bust of a goggle-eyed woman ghoulishly smiling at the top. But it had been illustrated in 1963 in the magazine Antike Kunst. The alabastron, as containers of this type are called, nimbly climbed to $40,625, more than triple the estimate

I think it is certainly right that reliable provenance information which can establish a solid ethical basis for acquisition will certainly drive up the price of objects. This was already the case though, before the new guidelines, as the sale of objects from the Albright-Knox museum already has shown.

However, it is worth noting that some of this provenance evidence can be manufactured aor forged, and has often been done in the past. Continued scrutiny of the antiquities trade is needed, despite these new ethical guidelines. I’m not sure much has really changed. There is still no definitive account of which objects had been discovered or unearthed before 1970.

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

Looting in Southern Illinois

Len Wells of the Evansville Courier Press had an interesting article Sunday on the looting of Native American burial grounds in Southern Illinois.

“We noticed a trail going out through a wheat field and followed it,” said John Schwegman of Metropolis, Ill., who works with the Kincaid Mounds Support Organization. “We found they had dug a hole about 6 feet long, 4 feet deep and 3 to 4 feet wide.”

Schwegman said the same site had been looted last summer. The hole was filled in then, but it was targeted again this spring.

“We believe there are at least two, and maybe more looters working, since they were working two holes at the same time,” Schwegman said. “They’re pretty bold, since they parked their vehicles in our own parking lot.”

Investigators said the looters have dug three holes in the Pope County ground and a fourth one a short distance away in Massac County. Pieces of broken flint and stones were discovered near the holes after looters abandoned the sites. The first holes were discovered about six weeks ago.

The Kincaid Mounds Historic Site consists of 105 acres in the heart of the Kincaid Mounds Archaeological Site. Portions of the site extend to private property north and east of the site. The state property has been designated a National Historic Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Portions of the site had been excavated, but not the area targeted by the looters. The $2,000 reward is a good incentive, but the odds appear slim that these objects will be found or the culprits caught. This kind of theft carries criminal penalties under the National Stolen Property Act, as well as the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. However these criminal measures will likely not assist in bringing these looters to justice, and the huge land area makes patrolling this and other Native American sites – which would allow officials to catch the looter in the act – difficult and impracticable.

Can we consider eliminating the market in these objects? Yes, but for many objects found on private land in the United States, not associated with burial grounds or religious practices, it is legal for individuals to excavate. I’m not aware of how many native American objects are purportedly found on private land, I’d expect most objects come from National Historic Places, or Federal or State parks which have been set aside, and are protected de jure, but this may not always result in de facto protection.

There is a tendency perhaps to get too focused on looting which just occurs in Italy or the Mediterranean. The reality is it takes place everywhere, and the current legal and policy measures aimed at stopping it are having some effect, but much more can and should be done. Perhaps more scrutiny of the Portable Antiquities Scheme in England and Wales could help alleviate some of these problems…

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

Picasso Thefts in Sao Paulo


ABC News has some more on the thefts last week of Picasso’s Minotaur, Drinker and Women (1933), pictured here, and The Painter and the Model (1963). Also taken were works by two Brazilian artists, Women at the Window (1926) by Emiliano Augusto Cavalanti de Albuquerque Melo, and Couple (1919) by Lasar Segall. All four works were stolen from the Pinacoteca Museum by 3 men who paid their entrance fee, took the elevator to the second floor, drew their weapons and forced the guards to tell them where the four works were located.

Marcelo Araujo told the Folha De Sao Paulo newspaper that the security was appropriate, “In cases of armed robbery we can’t run the risk of resisting, because there could be unforeseeable consequences for the employees and for the public.” That is probably correct, and there is an inherent tension between keeping galleries an open space for the public versus protecting against armed robbery. Such robberies seem to be taking place with regularity in Sao Paulo though, which may make displaying art to the public more difficult there.

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