More Art Thefts in California

Coming soon after the theft of the Warhol works in Brentwood, and the armed robbery in Belgium, there has been another major theft in California. In Pebble Beach 13 works by Rembrandt (pictured here), Van Gogh, Jackson Pollock and others were stolen.  These new works may  be worth as much as $27 million.  The works were stolen from Angelo Benjamin Amadio; who has since offered a $1-million reward for the return of the objects.

Why all these thefts?  Is it a product of the economic downturn?  Or are thieves hoping to gain some of these lucrative rewards?

Big art theft reported in Pebble Beach [Monterey County Herald, Sep. 28, 2009]

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

Turkey Plagued by Illicit Antiquities Trade

An interesting piece this Sunday on the problem of looting of sites in Turkey and the smuggling of objects from war-torn nations like Afghanistan and Iraq through Turkey:

According to the “Cultural and Natural Assets Smuggling Report” prepared by the Culture and Tourism Ministry based on figures provided by the Anti-smuggling and Organized Crime Bureau (KOM) of the police department, Turkey sees higher statistics related to the smuggling of historical artifacts every year.  In 2003 security authorities seized 3,255 historical artifacts that smugglers were attempting to take abroad. With a steady rise over years, this figure rose to 17,936 in 2007. And another new high came in 2008, when authorities seized 42,073 historical artifacts and detained 4,077 suspects in 1,576 operations.  Coins are the favorite of smugglers as they are relatively easy to take abroad without detection. The number of coins seized by security authorities rose from 20,461 in 2007 to 55,613 in 2008. . . .


The report also maintains that conflicts and wars tend to create a suitable atmosphere for the smuggling of historical artifacts, as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the ongoing wars allow smugglers to operate freely. The majority of historical artifacts smuggled out of these countries are sent to Western countries via Turkey. This route of smuggling implies that these historical artifacts are purchased by collectors in rich Western countries. The US, the UK, Switzerland and Japan are the favorite destinations for these items.  The report cites lack of sufficient security measures against theft in museums as the major reason for the high number of smuggling cases. Tourism is the most widely used venue for smuggling historical artifacts.Furthermore, Turkey lacks a sufficient and clear inventory of historical artifacts in the country, and Turkey does not have statistics about existing historical artifacts and about already smuggled items.

Ercan Yavuz, Turkey a magnet for smugglers of historical artifact [Today’s Zaman, Sep.  27, 2009]

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The Symes Auction

Robin Symes, the antiquities dealer with a checkered past will have remnants of his art collection sold at auction at Bonham’s in Bath.  The sale is being organized by liquidators of Symes’ estate.  Symes was a successful dealer in antiquities, but also played a role in the trade in illicit antiquities.  He was featured prominently in the network of dealers which sold works handled by Giacomo Medici, and the Getty.  The catalog describes the sale as the “Robin Symes Collection”.  It includes the following “the items are being sold by the liquidators who make no warranty as to title, but have been given no reason to believe good title cannot be passed.”  Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the history of these items.  As Francesco Rutelli told the participants at the ARCA Conference in Italy this summer:  just because one can buy these items, doesn’t mean one should buy these items. 

Colin Gleadell, Art Sales:  the last remains of a scandal [The Telegraph, Sep. 28, 2009]

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

Massive Recovery of Anglo-Saxon Gold Announced

Cheek piece and sword fitting

Below is some video of the massive discovery of Anglo-Saxon gold discovered by a detectorist this summer.

Two things to note from the piece: First is that these objects were very near the surface, and may have been at risk from pesticides/agricultural damage. Second, the finder here notified the proper authorities, and an archaeological excavation was made possible. There is a terrific website devoted to the objects, with a number of images and links to news reports. It is hard I think for even the most ardent critics of the Portable Antiquities Scheme to find much fault with the result in this case. The objects have a history, archaeological excavation was undertaken, and the public can study and enjoy these terrific objects.

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

Armed Theft of a Magritte

Earlier today armed robbers stole this work, Olympia by Rene Magritte from an appointment-only museum just outside of Brussels today.  The men rang the bell, asked if visiting hours had started, and then put a gun to the attendant and rounded up the visitors, and stole the work.

No word yet on if they were wearing bowler hats.  Magritte painted the work with the man in the hat and an apple in front of his face, the Son of Man — an image which was prominently used in the Thomas Crown Affair.  It seems unlikely thieves would risk punishment to re-enact a film, so why was the painting taken?  There are a few oft-cited possibilities:

The first, is that a collector admires the piece, and hired a thief to take it for him. We can 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 no convincing evidence that thsi is why people are stealing rare objects. Another similar possibility which seems far more likely is that an unscrupulous dealer may have a similar piece for sale, and if he can establish some excitement around these kinds of pieces, the price for his similar work may go up. 

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, or negotiate its return.

Finally, perhaps the market is doing such a poor job of regulating what is and is not legitimate, that it may not be all that difficult to sell this piece after all. This strikes me as the most troubling possibility, but also not very likely.

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

Lost Work Discovered

Ludovico Mazzolino lost masterpiece:  Lost Renaissance masterpiece discovered after 60 yearsThis work, Madonna and Child with St. Joseph, by Ludovico Mazzolino has been rediscovered after being left in storage for nearly 60 years.  A photograph of the work was sent to an auctioneer, who identified it as the work of Mazzolino.  It seems this work is genuine, and has a solid history.  Guy Schwinge, an auctioneer at Duke’s of Dorchester said:

“With the help of the National Gallery we have been able to identify that it was last sold at public auction three years before Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo.

The seller is a pensioner from Cheltenham, who put the work into storage in 1950.  He received it from his great grandmother who bought it in Italy in 1862, and it had been sold at auction in London in 1812 for only £20.  




Lost Renaissance Work Discovered [BBC News, Sep. 21, 2009].  

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Viking Silver Discovered by Metal Detectorists on Display in York

Vale of York Hoard vessel. Picture by the British Museum

This hoard of viking silver — buried in the 10th century — was discovered by Metal detector David Whelan and his son Andrew in a field in 2007.  Included in the find were 617 coins and 67 other objects.  The treasure was valued at over £1m.  They went on public display in York last week.  Andrew Morrison, curator of archaeology at the York Museums Trust tells the BBC what we know about the silver and the role it played in the Anglo-Scandinavian economy:

“We can certainly say it’s an Anglo-Scandinavian hoard because of the contents,” Mr Morrison insists. Among the coins are dirhams from Muslim states as far away as central Asia and Afghanistan.  “What they’re showing you is trading links. That tends to be very much more the Viking side of life than the Anglo-Saxon side of life,” says Mr Morrison. The Scandinavian seagoing peoples travelled and traded far and wide   The presence of “hack silver” – items such as jewellery cut into pieces for their silver value – is also “what you expect from an Anglo-Scandinavian economy,” he adds. The Anglo-Saxons tended to use coins rather than bullion.  The hoard will be on show in York from 17 September until 1 November.  It will return to the British Museum while the Yorkshire Museum closes for refurbishment until August 2010. It will then return to York for “a period of time” – by which time the whole hoard, including all 617 coins, should be ready to go on display.  For Mr Morrison this co-operation between regional and national museums is “the way forward – you get the best of everything: the local input into ways of doing things, with the national expertise”.  The hoard, for him, has a personal feel – it gives clues about whoever it was who hid it. The single gold arm ring among the mass of silver items could well have been of great sentimental value to its owner, he believes. Possibly it was a reward for services given by a superior ruler.  In sum, he says: “This is the lifetime’s treasure of a reasonably wealthy individual.”  It also helps us to remember what a wealthy and prestigious place Northumbria, centred on York, was, he observes – sometimes in the richness of archaeological finds in the city and its surroundings “we forget how it is a place with the seeds of power and glory.”

Silver-gilt vessel from the Vale of York Hoard. Inset: before cleaning. Photo: British Museum.

  In an ideal world of course all these objects would be professionally excavated.  Yet these objects tell us a great deal about the culture which produced them, they can be enjoyed by scholars and the public in York and at the British Museum.  Contrast this with the Sevso Treasure, which is locked away at Bonham’s auction house.  Three nations of origin, each with national ownership declarations and no similar rewards for finders, fought over those works, and the result was the trust created by the Marquess of Northampton was able to retain possession.  Whatever criticisms can be lodged with the Treasure Act and the Portable Antiquities Scheme, they reward compliance.  They work.  We still know very little about the Sevso Treasure, who discovered, and where.  The current state of law and policy produces a perfect black market.  The PAS offers a good alternative.  What is the utility of a legal regime which cannot be enforced? 

I’ve argued that the PAS has a lot of merit, and should be considered as a potential policy model for other nations. Rick Witschonke, reported on a conference earlier this month at the British Museum on the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and his thoughts are here

Trevor Timpson, The ‘wonderful, wonderful’ hoard & Getting the most out of treasure [BBC Sep. 17, 2009]. 

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