Update on Yale’s Cultural Heritage Lawsuits

 The Yale Daily News updates two disputes involving Yale University.  The first is a dispute involving the Night Cafe by Vincent Van Gogh:

 Pierre Konowaloff, the descendant of a Russian aristocrat who once owned the painting, claims it is rightfully his because the Soviet government expropriated it from his family in 1918.
The Soviet government seized “The Night Café” from Konowaloff’s great-grandfather Ivan Morozov as part of the government’s mass nationalization of private property in the early 20th century. Konowaloff claims this constitutes a theft, delegitimizing any subsequent sale or purchase. Therefore, Konowaloff claims, Stephen Clark 1903, who bequeathed the painting to Yale in 1960, never actually owned it.
Clark was a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the early 1930s, he acquired the painting from the Knoedler Gallery in New York City, which had purchased it from the Matthiesen Gallery in Berlin, Germany; it was the Matthiesen Gallery that originally bought the painting from the Soviets.
Yale first responded to Konowaloff’s claims of ownership in May 2009, filing a lawsuit to assert the University’s ownership. Konowaloff responded with a counterclaim in March 2009, requesting the return of the painting and over $75,000 in damages.
Yale’s Oct. 5 motion argues that “it is well-established that a foreign nation’s taking of its own national’s property within its own borders does not violate international law,” and that the Soviet government’s original acquisition — and also Yale’s subsequent acquisition — of the painting was legal.
The motion also argues that Konowaloff’s claim came too late, since the statute of limitations for a dispute of ownership of this nature would have expired in the 1960s, three years after Yale publicized its acquisition of the painting.

The second is a dispute involving objects removed by Hiram Bingham from Machu Picchu:

 

In the case of the Inca artifacts, Yale is arguing it first gained control of the items when they arrived in New Haven in the 1920s, describing them in several Yale publications as part of the museum’s permanent collection.
“Decade after decade, Peru was content to let Yale hold itself out to the world as the owner of the objects,” the Oct. 16 motion reads. “[Peru] disregarded the reasonable time limits imposed by law for bringing its claims.”

  1. Nora Caplan-Bricker, Yale moves to drop museum suits, Yale Daily News, October 27, 2009.
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The Met Returns Object to Egypt

Curious story involving the Met and Egypt. It seems the museum will return a fragment of a red granite shrine purchased from an antiquities collector in New York last October “so that it could be returned.” It seems the Met purchased the object specifically to return it to Egypt. Curious to say the least, why couldn’t ICE agents or the NYPD have gotten involved? Perhaps because it was a prominent unnamed collector? There are more questions than answers at this point.

Here’s a part of the AP story:

The piece arrives in Egypt Thursday, the statement said. Egle Zygas, senior press officer for the Met, confirmed the museum’s decision.
SCA head Zahi Hawass hailed the Met’s move as a “great deed,” singling it out as the first time a museum has bought an item for the sole purpose of repatriating it.
The fragment belongs to the naos honoring the 12th Dynasty King Amenemhat I, who ruled 4,000 years ago, which is now in the Ptah temple of Karnak in Luxor.
It’s the latest coup for Hawass, Egypt’s assertive and media-savvy archaeologist, who has been on an international lobbying campaign to reclaim what he says are stolen Egyptian artifacts from the world’s most prestigious museums.
He says so far he has recovered 5,000 artifacts since becoming antiquities head in 2002.

  1. Joseph Freeman, The Met returns Egyptian artifact, The Associated Press Oct. 27, 2009.
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Banks as Art Museums?

Interesting piece from the New York Times on banks and their art collections:

Deutsche Bank is believed to own the largest corporate collection in the world, with some 60,000 pieces of contemporary art. UBS owns 40,000 pieces, and JPMorgan Chase 30,000. Combined, that approaches the Museum of Modern Art’s trove. Banks have various explanations for their hoarding instincts: lots of walls to cover, clients to impress, corporate identities to build. Or perhaps just some past director was a devoted patron.
If banks were temples of culture rather than lucre, the collections would be easy to justify. As a financial asset, however, much of the art is of dubious value. Some 400 works owned by Lehman Brothers, including ones by Roy Lichtenstein, are expected to fetch only about $1 million at a coming auction. And it’s hard to believe Andy Warhol or Damien Hirst ever helped get an initial public offering off the ground.
At least some banks take care of their treasures. JPMorgan, whose collection was started a half-century ago by David Rockefeller at Chase Manhattan, has a well-regarded curator. But many banks don’t even know what’s boxed up in the basement, having inherited artwork in takeovers.
Some do make an effort to share their artistic wealth. Monte dei Paschi di Siena of Italy invites the public to see some of its impressive collection, which stretches back to the Renaissance. The Swiss bank UBS lets the Tate Museum of Britain select from its collection. But these efforts don’t often come to much. The Tate currently has only three of UBS’s pieces on display.

The authors tie these large collections to the financial bailout.  I’m more interested in comparing these banks to art museums.   It make When banks purchase massive amounts of art, it becomes harder for museums to compete with the economic clout of banks.  Though the piece is critical of this ownership of works of art, I suspect one main reason these works of art are held is to wait until their value escalates and banks can trade them for tax exemptions.

  1. Jeffrey Goldfarb & Lauren Silva Laughlin, Banks Hoard Troves of Art, The New York Times, October 26, 2009.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

"It’s about emotion, not airtight logic and consistent policy."

So argues Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times in describing the recent calls for repatriation of works of art.  He takes as examples the recent repatriation claims made by Egypt against Germany and France.  He makes two points that I’d like to draw out of the article.

First, he claims that globalization has intensified “cultural differences” between nations.  This allows nationalism to “exploit culture”.  He may be correct in some cases, but he fails to note that the frescoes returned by the Louvre had been purchased recently, with little history.  Given what we know about the antiquities trade, this means they were likely illegally exported or looted. 

Second, he argues these claims are often based on emotion.  That is certainly true in some cases, because after all works of art are often designed to convey emotion.  One example of this would be Scotland’s desire for the return of the Lewis Chessmen.  But not all of these claims are without merit.  Moreover, why is it that only claimant nations are “emotional”.  Are not museums and other groups “emotional” when they make arguments that works of art should stay where they are currently situated?  Kimmelman makes the argument that justice has shifted.  But I think that is a good thing.  We are closer to better justice for all nations, not merely the wealthier market nations via International treaties like the 1970 UNESCO Convention, and important decisions like the Schultz and Barakat decisions in the United States and the United Kingdom.   

Michael Kimmelman, When Ancient Artifacts Become Political Pawns, The New York Times, October 24, 2009.

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

Sotheby’s Refuses to Disclose Executive Bonuses

Sotheby’s auction house is refusing to disclose to government regulators how much its executives receive in bonuses.  They defend the refusal by noting that if Christie’s (which as a private corporation does not have to disclose the same information) were to learn the bonuses, they could lure away these executives.  Any follower of the art trade will hardly be surprised by the hesitancy to disclose this information, but Jeremy Telman at the Contracts Prof blog outlines pokes three holes in Sotheby’s argument:

1. Sotheby’s and Christie’s are undoubtedly at the top of the heap in the art dealing industry.  Based on my circle of acquaintances, which includes many unemployed or underemployed artists, art curators and art experts, it seems likely to me that Sotheby’s and Christie’s benefit from being in a buyer’s market when it comes to hiring executives.  If both companies under-compensated their executives, where would those executives go?  And if they left, so what?  Couldn’t Sotheby’s and Christie’s easily find highly competent replacements who would work on paint fumes just for the honor of getting those great auction houses on their resumes?
2. But even if I’m wrong about that, if Christie’s were really interested in luring executives away from Sotheby’s, couldn’t they just ask the executives about what sort of compensation package it would take to motivate them to move?  Is there a number one rule of Sotheby’s Club that you don’t talk about Sotheby’s Club?
3. In any case, didn’t Sotheby’s waive its right to whine about the hassles of disclosure when it went public?

Daniel Wakin, Sotheby’s Keeps Its Executive Bonus Plan Under Wraps – ArtsBeat Blog – NYTimes.com.

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

China to Research Foreign Museum Archives for Chinese Artifacts

https://i2.wp.com/rtoddking.com/images/chinasum2004/04092110.jpg?resize=400%2C300

  China seems to be taking a new approach to repatriation, creating research teams which will inspect the holdings of museums to “document” the archives.  This has led to speculation that China may use its growing economic clout to demand the return of objects.  

Peter Foster reports for the Telegraph:

The sacking of the Old Summer Palace – or ‘Yuanmingyuan’ – as punishment for the torture and execution of 18 emissaries sent by western powers to Beijing, remains an emotive subject in China, where it is still viewed as one of the nation’s great humiliations.
The decision to try and document the millions of items now scattered round the world comes as China takes an increasing interest in retrieving artefacts that were removed from China during the colonial period and in the early 20th century.
“We don’t really know how many relics have been plundered since the catalogue of the treasures stored in the garden was burned during the catastrophe,” the palace’s current director Chen Mingjie told the state-run China Daily newspaper.
“But based on our rough calculations, about 1.5 million relics are housed in more than 2,000 museums in 47 countries.” China’s sensitivity towards such ‘looted’ treasures was demonstrated in March when a Chinese collector sabotaged the auctioning of two bronze heads taken from the Old Summer Palace, bidding £13.9m for each, but later refusing to pay.

Peter Foster, China to study British Museum for looted artefacts, Telegraph.co.uk, October 19, 2009.

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

Poggioli on the New Acropolis Museum

The Parthenon Gallery in the new Acropolis Museum

“Everyone understands what is missing”.

So says Naya Charmalia, a member of the New Acropolis Museum exhibition team, in a piece today for All Things Considered by Sylvia Poggioli:

Acropolis Museum director Dimitrios Pandermalis says his aim is to reunify the entire composition close to its original setting.
“We have from the same figure, half of the body in Athens, half of the body in London. We have a body in London and a head in Athens. We have horses in London, and the tails of the horses are in Athens. It is a moral problem in art of divided monuments,” he says.
British Museum officials concede that it could loan some of the sculptures, as long as Greece recognizes its ownership of the artifacts. It’s a proposal Pandermalis rejects.
“They don’t belong to the British, they don’t belong to us. They belong to history. They are not pieces of trade,” he says.
The campaign for the return of the sculptures is part of the international debate over ownership of cultural property.
For Greeks, the return of the Parthenon Marbles is an issue of national and cultural pride.
Maro Kakridi-Ferrari, professor in the philosophy department of Athens University, says the Parthenon — and what it symbolizes — were traumatized by the sculptures’ removal.
“They are the material proof of what democracy has built in Athens of the Classical period,” she says. “They are identified with the glory of ancient Greece, and they are part of the national identity.”

Poggioli Sylvia, Greece Unveils Museum Meant For ‘Stolen’ Sculptures, NPR.

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