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]

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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]

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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.

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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.

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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]. 

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Odyssey Marine Salvage Award

One nation’s underwater looters are another nation’s excavators-for-hire.  Dow Jones Newswires is reporting that Odyssey Marine will receive a $160,000 award for recovering artifacts for the U.K. from the English Channel:

Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. (OMEX) will receive a salvage award of $160,000 in a settlement with the U.K. government for artifacts recovered so far from a gunship wreck in the English Channel.The company – which uses advanced technology to comb the ocean’s depths for silver, gold and historical artifacts – also has filed a motion to vacate its admiralty arrest on the wreck in U.S. federal court. An admiralty arrest is a legal proceeding by which Odyssey seeks court recognition of its right to salvage a ship.Shares recently were up 14% at $2.33 in recent premarket trading. Still, that’s far below its all-time high of $8.32 a share in May 2007, shortly after a separate major discovery in the Atlantic Ocean, which led to a legal dispute with Spain. Shares lost two-thirds of their value in one day in June after Odyssey was recommended to return an estimated $500 million in sunken cargo. The case is still pending.The U.K. salvage award represents about 80% of the value of two cannon recovered from Admiral Balchin’s HMS Victory, a British Navy 100 gun ship lost in 1744 and submitted to the U.K. Receiver of Wreck. The company plans to contribute $75,000 of the award to support the National Museum of the Royal Navy.The company also will be involved in talks to determine approaches that should be adopted towards the wreck. Odyssey has booked losses in every year except one since it went public in 1997, but has loyal investors confident in its long-term prospects. The company generates revenue by selling artifacts and coins, from a partnership with the Discovery Channel and from leasing fees for traveling museum exhibits.  The HMS Victory is one of Odyssey’s significant finds and sank in a storm with 41 bronze cannons and other artifacts aboard.Odyssey in April had admiralty arrest on about a dozen sites.

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Redds Sentenced to Probation

Jeanne and Jericca Redd (pictured here with their attorney) have been sentenced in the federal artifact-looting investigation. They are the first to be sentenced, there are at least 26 other potential criminal defendants. U.S. District Court Judge Waddous sentenced Jeanne Redd to 36 months’s probation and a $2,000 fine, and her daughter Jericca to 24 months’ probatoin and a $300 fine. Federal prosecutors had recommended 18 months in prison for Jeanne. Jeanne pleaded guilty to seven felonies, two counts of violating the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, two counts of theft, and three counts of theft of tribal property. Each one of those counts carried a potential fine of $250,000 and 10 years in prison. The younger Redd admitted to three felonies for digging up a seed jar, a vase, and a vessel on the Navajo reservation. Over 800 objects, including human remains were seized from the Redds.

However Judge Waddous said “This is a community where this kind of conduct . . . has been justified for a number of years . . . This is a woman who has spent her life as a member of her community . . . I want to express my thanks, . . . I know this has been a terrible experience for all of you.”
Judge Waddons is referring to the suicide of James Redd earlier this summer, and that seems to have had a substantial impact on the sentencing. It is also a general rule in sentencing that when a defendant pleads guilty, a prosecutor will recommend a much lesser sentence, but in this case the sentence fell far short of the sentence recommended by the prosecutors.

George Hardeen, a spokeseman for Navajo Nation president Joe Shirley Jr. said “The Navajo people are compassionate toward others who have had a tragic loss as the Redd family have . . . At the same time, Navajos have a deep respect for burials and ruins and teach that these are not to be disturbed. Obviously, Navajos want them left alone and not looted for their artifacts.”

In an interview on NPR this morning Mark Michel of the Archeological Conservancy said “The sentence is disappointing . . . And I’m afraid it sends a message that this is not serious criminal activity.”

U.S. Attorney Richard McKelvie saw it another way, “I can’t imagine anybody willfully subjecting themselves to anything the Redds have gone through . . . You can’t ignore the consequences that these people have suffered as a result of the investigation and prosecution of this case.”

These sentences are certainly on the light side, but even if the judge had thrown the “book” at the Redds and all the other defendants, would that have a sustained impact on the preservation of the archaeological record in the Southwest? It may, or it may produce a backlash. Criminal penalties are an important component, but criminal penalties in isolation will not solve the problem. There are very different ways of valuing these sites and objects, and increased awareness of how important and valuable the archaeological record is are critical components of this process.

Howard Berkes, Mother, Daughter Get Probation In Artifacts Theft [NPR, Sep. 16, 2009].
Patty Henetz, Redds dodge prison in artifact sentencing [The Salt Lake Tribune, Sep. 17, 2009].

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Nine Double Eagle Coins

Roy Langbord discovered in 2003 that his family had 9 of these rare double eagle coins locked away in a safe-deposit box:

The famous “double eagles” from that year were never officially released by the government. Only a few had ever made their way out of federal vaults, and only one had ever been sold publicly, in 2002. The price: $7.6 million.  And there were nine more of them in the safe-deposit box.  But after the Langbord family took the coins to the United States Mint to be authenticated in 2004, they got a rude surprise. The Mint said the coins were genuine and kept them.  The government claims that they are government property stolen from the Mint, most likely in the 1930s, by Mr. Langbord’s grandfather, Israel Switt, a Philadelphia jewelry dealer.  The Langbords went to court and recently won an important ruling. A United States District Court judge has given the government until the end of the month either to give back the coins or go back to court to prove that they were in fact stolen by Mr. Switt, a daunting task after three-quarters of a century.  Nearly a half-million 1933 double eagles were minted before President Franklin D. Roosevelt, shifting the nation away from the gold standard, issued an executive order that made owning large amounts of gold bullion and coins illegal. Two of the coins went to the Smithsonian Institution, and almost all the rest were melted down. 

 The Federal government believes the coins were stolen, and it seems unlikely these coins ever found their way to the marketplace legitimately, but the government will have to prove these coins were stolen, 75 years after they were ordered to be melted down. 

 John Schwartz, Rare Coins:  Family Treasure or Ill-Gotten Goods? [New York Times, Sep. 15, 2009]. 

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