"You can be a good businessman and a good scientist "

So says Odyssey Marine’s Gregg Stemm in an interview with Spiegel Online International

Here is an excerpt:

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Would you call yourself a treasure hunter?
Stemm: No, that sounds as if we just picked up treasures from the ocean and did not care about anything else. That is not what we do.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You alway stress the scientific part of what you do rather than the quest for profit. Yet you are CEO of a publicly traded company and have to think about your investors.
Stemm: It is a fusion of business and science. Some people might be cynical about it, but I see no difference to medicine, chemistry and other sciences. They all earn money, yet nobody would doubt that they do valuable scientific work. You can be a good businessman and a good scientist at the same time.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Still, marine archaeologists regard your trade with suspicion. They say commercial salvage companies destroy wrecks and disturb the dead.
Stemm: They do not have any evidence. During our work in the English Channel, we investigated 25 shipwreck sites. We took only very few artifacts and delivered them to the British government. We do not talk about marine archaeology, we practice it. Excavating a wreck like the HMS Victory costs $30 million. No government is willing to spend that kind of money — even less so in a recession.

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

Interview on the California Raids After One Year

You can hear my thoughts on the California antiquities investigation in a piece by Adolfo Guzman-Lopez for NPR affiliate KPCC in Southern California which aired this morning, and again this evening.   He tracks the impact of the massive federal investigation and very public searches and seizures which took place last January, and the ripples the raids have created in the museum world, despite little apparent progress in any prosecutions.

You can listen to the audio here

As I said in the piece, I think there are a number of ways institutions can still fulfill their mission, without violating the laws of nations of origin or Federal and State law here in the US.  Despite the very tragic death of Roxanna Brown, the investigations have changed the ways antiquities are transferred, most notably with the revised acquisition policies promulgated by the AAMD. 

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

Rare Book Theft

Sandra Laville has the story in today’s Guardian of a number of rare book thieves, including David Slade, who is due to be sentenced today:

Today at Aylesbury crown court, another member of this band of thieves faces a custodial sentence after admitting the theft of £232,880-worth of extremely rare books from one of the most powerful financiers in the world, Sir Evelyn de Rothschild. It is a case that has until now received no publicity. Like Jacques, 59-year-old David Slade is a well-educated and highly knowledgeable loner, but also the former president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association in the UK, and a dealer who has sold internationally since he was 17. 
Slade was hired by Rothschild to catalogue the family book collection. As he did his work, visiting Rothschild’s home, Ascott house in Buckinghamshire, two or three times a week, Slade discreetly removed the odd book, each of which was an extremely valuable and beautifully crafted production by one of the private presses that operated in the late 19th and early 20th century.
He took them to an auction house where his reputation was unquestioned and sold them for significant sums. It was during a routine audit that Rothschild noticed the books, 68 in all, had gone missing. Slade’s guilty plea went unnoticed, but the ABA has now decided to speak out.
Alan Shelley, current president, said the only way to eradicate the trafficking of rare books was to work closely with libraries, auctioneers and dealers. 
The British Library has led the way by admitting when it is the victim of theft. But while major international libraries alert each other to details of stolen books or descriptions of thieves, these do not always reach the antiquarian book trade and not all libraries are honest about falling victim to theft. 
“We all need to be a bit more grown up,” said Jolyon Hudson, from Pickering and Chatto antiquarian bookseller. “[Libraries] are the curators of the nation’s knowledge, and when they lose it they are somewhat embarrassed to admit that.”

This again echoes the same difficulties that plague the art trade and the antiquities trade.  There is insufficient scrutiny of the chain of title when these objects are transferred, bought and sold.  Relying on a seller’s reputation does not provide a meaningful check on the process.  

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

HMS Victory Found

Odyssey Marine has announced today in a news conference in London the apparent discovery of the HMS Victory, which sank in the English Channel in 1744.  The wreck was discovered in May 2008.  The company has recovered two of the vessel’s one-hundred brass cannons, pictured here. The wreck is rumored to contain more than a billion dollars in gold

 Note that Odyssey won’t have the rights to this gold, unlike the “Black Swan” wreck, this vessel was clearly a British navy man-of-war, and as such any salvage will be property of the crown.  Odyssey is now negotiating with the UK Government.  A far different relationships than with the Spanish, who have been strongly critical of the company, including bringing suit in federal court in Tampa Florida over the “Black Swan“. 

From the Guardian:

The Ministry of Defence has given the company permission to go back down to the wreck to try to find the treasure.

The British Government will legally own any gold that is recovered, but Greg Stemm, chief executive officer of Odyssey Marine Exploration, said he was in negotiations and would expect to be rewarded for the find.

Mr Stemm said: “The money is not as important as the cultural and historical significance of the discovery. It is a monumental event, not only for Odyssey but for the world.

“It is probably the most significant shipwreck find to date. HMS Victory was the mightiest vessel of the 18th century and the eclectic mix of guns we found on the site will prove essential in further refining our understanding of naval weaponry used during the era.”

Stemm certainly appears to be playing up the heritage and cultural significance angle.  Again the question worth asking is, will Odyssey be undertaking serious archaeological study?  Will the Government insist upon such an examination?  It’s worth noting as well that Odyssey is traded on Nasdaq.  Might its stock increase today?  Should we be treating the discovery of underwater heritage in this way?

Loss of HMS ‘Victory’, 4 October 1744, by Peter Monamy. 

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

Nearly 38,000 French Works Missing

In a French report last week it was learned that the French have lost or mislaid a staggering number of works.  From Adam Sage for the Times:

The tale of what may well be art’s greatest mystery was published in France this week amid claims of greed, negligence and dishonesty at the heart of the State. 
Take, for example, the tapestry by Joan Miró that has gone missing from the French Embassy in Washington. Or the drawing by the 20th-century French painter Raoul Dufy, which vanished from a museum in Marseilles; or the oil painting by the Slovene artist Zoran Music, lost by the French Finance Ministry. 
Where they have gone, nobody knows – or, at least, nobody is saying. They have just “slipped on to picture rails inaccessible to the public”, in the discreet but damning words of Jean-Pierre Bady, a civil servant who has recounted in arid bureaucratic language the ten-year hunt to find thousands of artworks that have disappeared.
In all, 306,993 paintings, sculptures, antiques, porcelain and other works are supposed to adorn ministries, embassies, local government offices and official residences, including the Elysée Palace, he said.In fact, Mr Bady discovered that 37,658 French state artworks were missing, of which 3,444 are known to have been destroyed and 145 reported stolen – with the rest simply mislaid.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com