Art Theft in Los Angeles

The AP is reporting that a $200,000 reward has been offered for help in recovering 12 works of art stolen on August 23rd in the San Fernando Valley in California.

Two of the works, Peasants by Marc Chagall and Alicia Alanova by Kees van Dongen are pictured here. The works were insured, though that has potential drawbacks for the owners if the works are ever recovered.

Selling these works on the open market or at an auction house any time soon will be very difficult. As I’ve speculated before, there are four potential reasons why thieves may steal well known works of art.

The first, is that a wealthy collector admires the works, and hired a thief. This is often referred to as the Dr. No situation. This seems the least likely possibility, but the one that strikes a chord with the imagination. Writers and journalists frequently cite 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. This is what the defendants in Glasgow are charged with in the theft of da Vinci’s Madonna with the Yarnwinder.

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, as these valuable stolen works will likely be widely-publicized and photographs will be circulated.

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Court Appearance for Da Vinci Thieves

The five men accused of trying to launder da Vinci’s Madonna with the Yarnwinder have appeared in High Court in Glasgow. From the Telegraph:

The men are accused of contacting a loss adjuster, whom they believed to be acting for the insurers of the painting, and stating that they could return the artwork within 72 hours. It is alleged they said the masterpiece would not be returned unless £2m was deposited in an account at Marshall Solicitors, formerly known as Marshall Gilby Solicitors, and a further £2.25m placed in a Swiss bank account.
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Another Deaccessioning Decision in Duluth

Donn Zaretsky has an interesting overview, with lots of links, to an emerging problem for the National Galleries of Scotland, which may have to find £50 million in the next four months to purchase Titian’s Diana & Actaeon.

It may have to do the same within the next four years for another one.

He concludes by arguing:

[T]o oppose the deal between Fisk University and Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum on “anti-deaccessioning” grounds just means that you would prefer that Fisk suffer whatever consequences follow from its inability to consummate the proposed sale (elimination of various athletic programs, faculty layoffs, etc.) than that the works at issue be relocated (and, in that case, for only half the time, and probably to a venue which would allow even more people to see them).

The difference in Scotland and the UK is the process is somewhat more regulated. If a work is slated for export outside of the UK, important “Waverley” level works are temporarily delayed so funds can be raised. Perhaps a similar idea could work in the United States, though that idea is anathema to the ethos of many American cultural institutions which are often eager to acquire works to build collections.

Another example is the city of Duluth, Minnesota which is considering selling this window featuring Princess Minnehaha, which is installed in the railroad depot in the city. The city is considering selling the window to help make up a $6.5 million budget gap. This window could fetch between $1-3 million at auction.

The window was commissioned by the State of Minnesota and was used in an 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. A Duluth civic group bought the Tiffany window soon after the exhibition. City officials have tried to justify the sale, arguing it doesn’t have a strong Duluth connection, and that the city isn’t a museum. That may be true, but a window which has been in the city for well over a century must have begun to develop a kind of attachment to the city. I wonder what differences there might be between the city of Dulth’s potential decision to sell the window, and the Univeristy of Iowa’s potential decision to sell its Pollock.

I’d recommend to Duluth, that if it is considering selling the window, it give civic groups and interested parties an opportunity to raise funds to keep the window in Duluth (as the Waverley criteria accomplish in the UK), or try to work out a sharing agreement to allow the window to be viewed by its citizens. If so, then it seems like a good idea to allow the city to continue its day-to-day operations in exchange for auctioning off the window.

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Gustav — Levees Holding

Apologies for the light posting in recent days. I was in a hurry to pack up some clothes and head out of New Orleans. I’m safe in Austin Texas, watching and reading the Times-Picayune coverage of the storm. Things appear to be in flux at the moment. There are scattered reports of flooding in the Lower 9th Ward, but it looks like the levees are holding so far.

Driving West on I-10 on Saturday I saw hundreds of buses and ambulances coming in to get folks out of the path of the storm. The silver lining may be that people were able to get out of the area in time.

One issue during Katrina and during this storm is how to protect works of art during these disasters. I noted with great interest the forthcoming ICOM/ICMAH annual conference on “Museums and Disasters” which is scheduled to take place Nov. 12th – 16th 2008 in New Orleans. The scheduled presenters re seeming to take an interesting approach — by looking at how to present disasters as the subject of exhibition, but also how to protect museum collections during disasters. I had never considered before what the art museums in New Orleans (and elsewhere) do with their works of art to protec them during storms and natural disasters.

Hopefully I can shuffle my teaching duties to be able to attend most of these events in a couple of months. I’m also eager to get back to work at Loyola as soon as I can, but I did check out a big box of art law and contract law treatises to get to work on a new article this week.

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