Auction Houses and the Sale of Heritage

“You have to know the dirty tricks, there are dirty tricks”.

So says Claude Pariset an antiques dealer from Champagne, discussing the art trade in the New York Times yesterday. 

A number of recent stories of this ilk continue to show why the auction house system of the sale of art and antiquities, with its anonymous sellers and buyers has had devastating consequences on our heritage.  As I’ve argued, these auction houses play an important role in the market, know exactly what they are doing, and yet the anonymity continues to shield their practices, and allow for the sale of looted and stolen pieces of heritage. 

First, an update on the wrongdoing at the Hôtel Drouot auction house in Paris.  Late last year French authorities had uncovered stolen artworks, and an art-trafficking network.  Now there are further reports of corruption, including faking bids, collusion to keep prices down, and theft as well. 

This comes as Bonham’s auction house tries to find some antiquities to sell in its auction today.  It has withdrawn a marble statue which was included amongst the notorious Medici polaroids. It has also withdrawn some Roman funerary sculptures that bore signs that they had recently been illegally excavated, pictured above.  An Anglo-Saxon stone was also removed from auction.

After concerned authorities and archaeologists contacted Bonham’s, these objects have all been withdrawn from auction.  But that does not mean they won’t be sold again privately, and does not mean that we know who the sellers were. 

  1. Scott Sayare, Chatter of Swindles and Scams at Auction House, The New York Times, April 26, 2010.
  2. Dalya Alberge, Roman sculptures withdrawn from auction amid fears they are stolen, The Guardian, April 27, 2010.
  3. Mike Pitts, Save our Anglo-Saxon stone!, The Guardian, April 24, 2010.
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Student Comment on Recovering WWII-Era Art from Russia

Michael Cosgrove has a student comment on remedies for the return of art from Russia:  Still Seeing Red: Legal Remedies for Post-Communist Russia’s Continued Refusal to Relinquish Art Stolen During World War II, 12 Gonzaga Journal of International Law (2009).  From his introduction:

            When the Red Army entered Germany at the end of World War II, it seized 2.3 million objects including paintings, sculptures, and other works of art. At the time of this writing in 2009, the bulk of those objects are still in Russia. In addition to hundreds of thousands of pieces that belonged to German citizens and German museums the Russians hold paintings that the Nazis had stolen from all over Europe. Many of the works in question have been kept in locked rooms in the basements of museums since the end of the war. Although there were some encouraging signs that the art might be returned, or at least allowed to be displayed, with the end of the communist government, it does not appear that Russia is considering a large scale return of the art at this time. To the contrary, the Russian government has long held that the art is restitution for the destruction and theft of Russian art by the Nazis, and passed a law in 1998 that declares that the art is state property. This article explores the international legal remedy for procuring that art from the Russian government. “[U]ntil every one of those paintings, prints, sculptures, tapestries, and artifacts is returned, it will be impossible for us to walk through most of the world’s museums and galleries without wondering if we are staring into the haunted face of the spoils of war.” At the outset, a conclusion: favorable verdicts are obtainable, but the successful conclusion of litigation will only be the beginning of the exceedingly difficult task of enforcing a verdict against an obstinate and neo-nationalistic Russian government.

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Footnotes 4.23.2010

  • Works found in a Parisian vault 40 years after WWII, including this Andre Derain, are going to be sold in a Sotheby’s auction after being tied up for 30 years in court.
  • An odd lawsuit over a breach of confidentiality has ensued between a Miami art collector and a New York art dealer.
  • Artists are rallying support for Brandeis’ Rose Museum by hosting a benefit to raise money for legal costs.
  • Stephen Spielberg should never have had to give up his “stolen” Normal Rockwell.
  • The video from the CUNY panel discussion on cultural heritage from April 7, 2010 has been posted.
  • Mark Durney argues terrorism and the illicit drug trade are linked to the $6 billion a year art theft industry.  Art theft is perhaps the 3rd highest grossing criminal trade over the last 40 years.
  • Zahi Hawass, the Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, has done a tremendous job of elevating the profile of Egyptian antiquities. However, he continues to attack museums for not returning artifacts to Egypt.
  • An attorney in the Four Corners antiquities case wants evidence thrown out because the deceased FBI informant Ted Gardiner can’t be questioned about the evidence.
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Five Defendants Cleared in Leonardo Extortion Trial

The five defendants who were tried for attempting to extort £4.25m from the owner of this painting, Madonna of the Yarnwinder, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci have been cleared in Edinburgh.  Three defendants were found not guilty, while the other two received not proven verdicts.  Not proven is a Scots law verdict, essentially just as good as not guilty, but allows a jury to acknowledge they thought a defendant committed wrongdoing, though not enough to prove the offence.

My initial response: I think this was a terrible verdict, though I didn’t get the benefit of hearing the whole trial.  Based on published reports, these defendants made it easier for an art thief to profit off a theft, and are just as culpable as the men who stole the work. 

From the Guardian:

The jury at the high court in Edinburgh decided today that the prosecution had failed to prove that the three solicitors and two private detectives were guilty of a complex conspiracy targeting the Duke of Buccleuch, one of the country’s most senior peers. The five were accused of threatening to destroy Madonna of the Yarnwinder, a Da Vinci painting that was insured for £15m but unofficially valued at £30m to £50m – unless the duke paid them £4.25m for its return.
The jury said the charges against Marshall Ronald, 53, a solicitor from Skelmersdale, Lancashire, and Robert Graham, 57, a private detective from Ormskirk, Lancashire, were not proven – the Scottish verdict that stops short of declaring someone not guilty. After deliberating for two days the jury also decided that Graham’s partner, John Doyle, 61, also from Ormskirk, and two senior commercial lawyers from Scotland, Calum Jones, 45, from Kilmacolm, Renfrewshire, and David Boyce, 63, from Airdrie, Lanarkshire, were not guilty of the charges.
Doyle, Graham and Ronald were jubilant. They insisted they had been honestly trying to broker the return of the 500-year-old painting – one of only two Da Vinci paintings in private hands – in return for what they believed was a fair reward. They accused two undercover police officers who posed as the duke’s agents of deliberately conning them into believing their offer had been accepted.
The prosecution alleged that all five men were guilty of an elaborate extortion attempt: they had repeatedly refused to alert the police that they knew how to recover the stolen painting, and had threatened that “volatile” individuals would destroy the Da Vinci unless their ransom demands were met.
After leaving court, Doyle and Graham insisted that they were still entitled to a reward. Doyle said: “What we did was to bring back a culturally significant masterpiece, which is something neither the police nor the insurers could do. We brought it back and we have been through two and a half years of hell since.”

Background on the recovery of the work here.  

  1. Severin Carrell, Five cleared of trying to extort £4.25m from duke for return of stolen Leonardo painting, The Guardian, April 21, 2010.
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UNESCO Conventions for Non-Lawyers

Professors Lyndel V. Prott & Patrick O’Keefe will be organizing a one-week course on international heritage law at the University of Queensland in July.  Here are the details:

As a cultural professional, would you like detailed information on UNESCO’s heritage Conventions in an easily accessible way?

There will be a one-week intensive professional development course on the international legal standards and practices for heritage protection at the University of Queensland from 13-17 July 2010.  It will deal, among other things, with the
·        Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict 1954 and its Protocols 1954 and 1999
·        UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970 and the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects 1995
·        UNESCO Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage 1972
·        UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage 2001
·        UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage 2003
·        UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions 2005
It will include information on how UNESCO Conventions are drafted, on the negotiations for particular instruments and on their implications for those administering them as well as on UNESCO Recommendations and Declarations, other relevant international law on heritage protection as well as Codes, Charters and Declarations.
Earlier courses at the Australian National University in Canberra and the University of Queensland in Brisbane have included anthropologists, archaeologists, an economist, journalists, a conservation expert, public servants working in the heritage area, a textile expert and other creative artists as well as museums staff.   The course is designed to be accessible across a wide range of professional skills and the interchange and different perspectives of the students is one of its strengths.  Students have come from Australia, China, Japan, Mongolia, Thailand, United States and Viet Nam.
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Footnotes 4.16.07 VT

My research assistant, Jenny Higgins, who does a super job putting these links pages together would like to add this first note.  She’s a Virginia Tech Alum:

  • The image at right is a photograph taken of the Drillfield at the heart of Virginia Tech’s campus. Today, April 16th, is the 3 year anniversary of the deadliest school shooting in history. This image was organized several months after the shooting as the university’s way to thank the world for their support after the shooting. Like any other tragedy, it is important for everyone to remember the lives lost, but more importantly, it is necessary to appreciate life. Click here for a video of Virginia Tech professor and poet Nikki Giovanni giving a speech at the convocation one day after the shooting.

On to other mundane art-related news:

  • Steven Speilberg’s art dealer was exonerated from the lawsuit pertaining to the stolen Norman Rockwell. The highlight of the case was that the man who claimed title to it knew all along it had been stolen.  Don’t miss Tom Flynn’s excellent commentary on the implications for the art trade. 
  • The Guardian might be going overboard, but could the looted Native American artifacts in the Four Corners region possibly have cursed everyone involved?
  • A federal appeals court upheld the 7 year prison sentencing of a retired Massachusetts attorney for possessing looted artwork.
  • Techniques and secrets of the forged artwork business will be revealed in the National Gallery’s upcoming exhibition.
  • Fisk University seeks a trial date in an attempt to sell artwork from its Stieglitz collection.
  • Keeping most of its Oceanic art, the De Young Museum will sell some pieces from the collection to help settles a legal dispute.
  • Recovering Nazi stolen art is like playing resitution roulette for Jewish heirs.
  • An Israeli known for his illegal sale of antiquities was extradited to the U.S. and appeared in a Manhattan federal court.
  • Switzerland signed an agreement with Egypt to return artifacts.
  • Have things really changed with the passage of time regarding blatant destruction of cultural heritage and property by tourists?
  • Check out a report from the CUNY Center for the Humanities Symposium on April 7th, 2010.
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Italian Seizures, the Bronze Athelete, and the Getty

The Getty has decided to appeal the February decision in which an Italian court ordered the seizure of this statue, Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth.  An Italian appeals court judged ordered the work returned to Italy.  This was a new legal approach as nations as far as I’m aware have not attempted to bring forfeiture proceedings domestically, with an expectation that a foreign government or court would uphold the order.  Perhaps the Italian courts could seize other assets the Getty has in Italy in lieu of recovery, but my initial conclusions are shared by Patty Gerstenblith in Martha Lufkin’s excellent summary of the current disposition of the dispute.  Gerstenblith notes two problems.  First, illegal export does not give Italy a tenable claim in U.S. courts.  It may in conjunction with a law like the Cultural Property Implementation Act and bilateral agreements, but those were all enacted after the bronze was brought to California.  Second, an awful lot of time has elapsed, and it is likely that an American court will take a dim view of the length of time Italy has taken before this action.  Indeed, charges were brought in Italy against the fisherman who brought the bronze up in their nets in the 1960’s, but the defendants were acquitted. 

There is an extralegal dimension to the appeal as well, in that Italy continues to put pressure on the Getty, and its means of acquisition of the statue. 

We may question the Getty’s acquisition of the bronze, question where it currently belongs, and even debate the merits of restitution of these objects.  However, there is no evidence that this bronze was “looted” in the same way the Euphronios Krater was for example.  All reports I’m aware of indicate the fishermen fortuitously brought this up in the Adriatic, in international waters, in 1964.  They may have later passed it on to others who smuggled it out of the country, but this is not a looted object.

For noteworthy previous posts on the bronze, see here.

  1. Martha Lufkin, Greek bronze will stay in the Getty Villa, The Art Newspaper, April 14, 2010.
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Vermeer Recovered . . . On the Simpsons

Miracle of harmony and light indeed.  The FBI and U.S. Attorney’s office are are offering unconditional immunity to anyone who helps locate any of the 13 stolen works of art from the Gardner heist. Anyone with information regarding the Gardner Museum theft should contact the Boston FBI office at 1-617-742-5533.

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Public Comment on the U.S.-Italy Memorandum of Understanding

The State Department Cultural Heritage Center has announced it wants public comments on the potential renewal of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the United States and Italy.  

There will be a meeting of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee on Thursday, May 6, 2010, from 9 a.m. to approximately 5 p.m., and on Friday, May 7, 2010, from 9:00 a.m. to approximately 3 p.m., at the Department of State, Annex 5, 2200 C Street, NW., Washington, DC. During its meeting the Committee will review a proposal to extend the“Memorandum of Understanding Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Republic of Italy Concerning the Imposition of Import Restrictions on Categories of Archaeological Material Representing the Pre-Classical, Classical and Imperial Roman Periods of Italy” signed in Washington, DC on January19, 2001 and amended and extended in 2006 through an exchange of diplomatic notes.

 There is also an opportunity to write a letter and express your opinion on the MOU, the deadline is April 22, 2010.  The Archaeological Institute of America has information on the letter-writing process here.  Note that you should either fax (202-632-6300) or email ( your letter due to security delays with traditional mail. 

This is one of the ways in which the United States has chosen to implement the 1970 UNESCO Convention.  The MOU does a number of things.  It restricts the import of certain classes of undocumented objects from Italy.  But if those objects carry the appropriate documentation, importation is allowed.  It also calls for long-term loans of Italian objects, and collaboration between the United States and Italy. 

Those interested in the MOU and the practical impact it has or has not had should look to the recent edited volume, Criminology and Archaeology (Simon Mackenzie and Penny Green, 2009). I review the volume in the Spring issue of the Journal of Art Crime. Of particular interest is Gordon Lobay’s contribution, which looks empirically at how the U.S.-Italy MOU has made an impact on the antiquities market—at least the observable licit market.  I encourage interested readers to check out the volume, as his conclusion has been that the volume of objects sold, and their prices have increased over time.  The most profound impact has been that auction houses have begun to “pay more attention to provenance.”  Though typically this is not the findspot or complete history but rather reference to an earlier sale of an object. 

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