Work Stolen from Norweigian Church

This work, Suffer the Little Children Come Unto Me by Lucas Cranach the Elder was stolen from a Lutheran church in Larvik Norway police announced on Sunday. They discovered the theft after responding to an alarm early on Sunday morning. 

It seems one or more thieves climed a ladder, broke a window, and took the work.  The painting on wood panels had hung in the Church since its construction in 1677.

Questions or Comments? Email me at

Discussion on the Need for Social and Cultural Theory

An exciting discussion is taking place this week at the University of Chicago Law School BlogBeyond Economic Analysis of Intellectual Property: The Need For Social and Cultural Theory?” many of the same issues that occur in the intersection between commerce and heritage in the antiquities or art trade also exist when other intellectual property is bought and sold or subjected to legal regulation. The conversation began with a post by Hadhavi Sunder, who makes some excellent arguments that Intellectual Property needs to move beyond its traditional economic justifications.

Over the course of the last century intellectual property has grown exponentially, but its march into all corners of our lives and to the most destitute corners of the world has paradoxically exposed the fragility of its economic foundations while amplifying its social and cultural effects. Today intellectual property laws bear considerably upon central features of human flourishing, from the developing world’s access to food, textbooks, and essential medicines, to the ability of citizens everywhere to democratically participate in political and cultural discourse.

Despite these real world changes, intellectual property scholars insist on explaining this field through the narrow lens of a particular economic vision.Intellectual property is understood solely as a tool to solve an economic “public goods” problem: nonrivalrous and nonexcludable goods such as music and scientific knowledge will be too easy to copy and share—thus wiping out any incentive to create them in the first place—without a monopoly right in the creations for a limited period of time.

These are some heady concepts, and I think these are some excellent ideas. I’ve tried to construct the argument elsewhere that in the context of antiquities we need to value the broader cultural value of antiquities in constructing and formulating heritage policy.

Other posts in the series this week include:

Questions or Comments? Email me at

More on the Dutch Recovery

Is stolen the same as sold?  David Charter for the Times has more details on the recovery of eight works stolen 22 years ago.  He reports that in December a middleman in Dubai tried to sell the works back to the insurance company. 

The detective, Ben Zuidema, [who was hired to investigate the theft two decades ago] said that he was contacted out of the blue by a man wanting to sell the paintings back to the insurers for €5 million (£4.5 million). Included in the offer was €1 million for Mr Zuidema to facilitate the deal.

 The good news is the works were recovered, however many were folded and badly damaged, including this work by Jan Brueghel the Younger. 

The story gets stranger with respect to a still-missing ninth work.  As the private detective Zuidema told Dutch reporters this still missing work may have been destroyed by the gallery owner Robert Noortman who died two years ago.  That is certainly a very serious accusation, and one which Noortman is no longer alive to defend against.  He is quoted by the Dutch news agency Algemeen Nederland Persbureau that “I shared my findings about him with the police in Maastricht, . . .  But in the end it did not lead to the finding of the paintings.”
At the time Noortman claimed that “Stolen is sold”.  True enough for the bottom line, though it is a pretty distasteful sentiment as these works were lost for 22 years, and have emerged very badly damaged.  

(photo credit:  Ruben Schipper/EPA)

Questions or Comments? Email me at

8 Works Recovered 22 Years After the Theft

On Saturday Dutch prosecutors said three people had been arrested in connection with a theft which took place in 1987 from the Noortman gallery in Maastricht.  In the statement Dutch prosecutors said “The suspects were apparently trying to sell the art works to the insurance company that had paid out 2.27 million euros (£2m) after they went missing . . .  The investigation has yet to determine where the paintings have been for more than 20 years,”

 The works were by 17th Century artists David Teniers, Willem van de Velde and Jan Brueghel the Younger, as well as 19th Century painters Eva Gonzales, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro and Paul Desire Trouillebert.

Questions or Comments? Email me at

It Takes a Thief to Install an Alarm

File:Saliera.pngThis is the Cellini Salt Cellar, an elaborate gold and enamel table decoration, measuring only 10 inches in height. It was stolen on May 11, 2003 from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. It was later recovered in January 2006 near Zwettly, Austria. The thief, Robert Mang was an alarm-systems installer with no criminal history. The theft was listed at one time as one of the FBI’s Top Ten Art Crimes.

He claimed to have had a couple of beers before the theft. He climbed into the museum which was covered in scaffolding at the time, and took the work. After hiding it under his bed for a couple of years he attempted to ransom it back. He sent a number of ransom notes to the museum’s insurance company threatening to melt the work down if he wasn’t paid €10-million. Though eventually a photo of him was circulated and he was forced to turn himself in to the authorities

Mang turned himself in to the police, and served two years and nine months in prison. Now it seems he will return to selling and installing alarm systems: (via) “he had distributed advertising leaflets and made appointments to check on the state of installed alarm systems or to install new ones . . . his lawyer Lukas Kollmann said: ‘He wants to be left alone in order to lead a normal life again.’

Photo Credit: Herbert Pfarrhofer/European Pressphoto Agency

Questions or Comments? Email me at

On Paying Art Ransoms

In 1994, two works by JMW Turner in the Tate collection:   
Shade & Darkness – the Evening of the Deluge (Shade & Darkness)File:William Turner - Shade and Darkness - the Evening of the Deluge.JPG

and Light & Colour (Goethe’s theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (Light & Colour), 1843: 

File:William Turner, Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory).JPG

were stolen from the schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt during a loan exhibition. Late last week the Telegraph had an interesting piece on the role of Lord Myners and a £3.1 million pound ransom which was paid to a German lawyer acting as a middleman for the thieves. 

Mr Daley challenged Lord Myners over the ransom money after another Tate director admitted in a television documentary that a fee had been paid.

Lord Myners claimed he had been “given an undertaking” by the executives of the Tate that no ransom had been paid.

Mr Daley said: “Lord Myners told me the money had been paid as part of a sting operation by German police, but Sir Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, had stated quite clearly in court that the German lawyer was in touch with the people who had the paintings and they were prepared to hand them over in return for payment.

The piece seems more focused on Myners’ role in another controversy with the pension fund at the Royal Bank of Scotland.  The interesting point I think is that the High Court, in a closed hearing, made a determination that the trustees of the Tate actually had a legal obligation to pay the ransom.  From the Tate’s own press release in 2005:

Tate applied to the High Court for final authority to enter into the transaction. The hearing was held ‘in camera’ in order not to prejudice ongoing operations. The Trustees of Tate, as the Court acknowledged when authorising the payments by Tate, were under a legal obligation to preserve and recover trust property. Accordingly, subject to the recovery being legal (as the Court ruled it was) and the risks of the operation being proportionate, Tate’s Trustees were under a positive legal obligation to enter this transaction.

Tate made payments to Edgar Liebrucks and was responsible for the expenses of those helping in the investigation. It was acknowledged by the Court, and Tate, that the payments to be made by Tate to Edgar Liebrucks might well be passed on to others, including those holding the paintings. However, once Tate had paid the money to Edgar Liebrucks, it had no control over that money. Tate does not know to whom Mr Liebrucks made payment of the monies he had received from Tate. The relationship between Edgar Liebrucks and his contacts was a matter for the German authorities and regulators to pursue, not Tate.

Though the ransom had the blessing of the high court, it may not have been a sound one for the security of museum collections generally.  Mark Durney at Art Theft Central highlights the piece and speculates on ransoms and art theft generally.  He first summarizes the work of criminologist Simon Mackenzie:

The “flag effect” argues that certain types of properties that have been stolen from in the past stand out as more attractive targets to thieves. In “Criminal and Victim Profiles in Art Theft: Motive, Opportunity and Repeat Victimisation,” in Art Antiquity and Law 2005, Mackenzie cites for an example of the “flag effect” the rash of thefts across Canada inspired by the prospect of a reward after a ransom was paid for the return of six painting stolen from the Toronto Art Gallery in 1959 (10). After the Toronto art theft, “flags” were placed on galleries and museum by virtue of their poor security. 

He goes on:

In the case of the Tate and its Turners, at the time the museum claimed to have kept quiet on the amounts paid for the stolen Turners “in order not to jeopardise the operation.” Also, Lord Myners maintains that the payments were made to informants, and were not ransoms. However, Friday’s article reiterates that the payments, according to the director of the Tate, were made to a German lawyer acting as middleman for the thieves.

Over at Art Knows Tom Flynn argues:

The Tate commented that the most important objective in the Turner negotiations was the recovery of the works of art. What about ethics? The fact that by paying a recovery fee the Tate might have sent out the wrong message to other criminals seems to have been ignored, along with the fact that art theft often involves violence.

Paying ransoms is generally a very bad idea.  It provides a revenue stream for the art thieves, and its one of the only revenue streams if the work is particularly well-known.  Even if an object is sacred, and beautiful and irreplaceable—it is still probably better to risk its destruction or mutilation rather than encourage other thefts. 

Questions or Comments? Email me at

Not Paying for the Bronzes

I’m catching up on all of the reactions to the decision by Cai Mingchao, the general manager of Xiamen Harmony Art International Auction Co. and the winning bidder on the two Chinese bronzes which were recently sold at Christie’s Yves St. Laurent auction in France.  Art Observed does a great job collecting many of the reactions which appeared in the press.

Tom Flynn asks the right question I think, “Are we entering an era of guerilla activism, where sabotage of art auctions becomes another weapon in cultural heritage repatriation disputes?”

I think Christie’s is scrambling along with other major auction houses to make sure something similar cannot or will not happen again.  Mingchao is of course subject to civil penalties under French law, perhaps even criminal as well.  If Christie’s pushes that approach, they may risk a difficult public relations battle, as Mingchao has quickly become a sort of national hero in China.  But it is hard to see how they can just do noting.  If one bidder can disrupt the process in this way, all a nation of origin needs to do is enlist a wealthy or sympathetic bidder to disrupt the process of any future object which might be similarly sensitive. 

I think it is another indication of the increasing role that nations of origin are playing in the heritage marketplace.  I’m not sure how many wealthy bidders would be willing to stake their reputation or future ability to bid on such a move in the future, but this was a cunningly simple, very shrewd strategic move by Mingchao and the Chinese.  They wanted to disrupt the market in these objects which had been looted, and did a brilliant job doing so. 

From AlJazeera English:


Questions or Comments? Email me at