More on the Security Breakdown in Cairo

The stolen work, “Poppy Flowers”

 A week ago today the 1887 work Poppy Flowers, by Vincent van Gogh was stolen from a Cairo museum.  Hadeel Al-Shalchi has a very good piece reporting on the security (or lack of it) at the  Mahmoud Khalil museum in a piece for the AP which you can read on MSNBC

I’m quoted at the end of the piece, noting that the best way to protect works of art is not necessarily with an elaborate electronic security system.  Those alarms and sensors certainly play an important role, but for a nation like Egypt, an active, engaged security guard who isn’t dozing off as these guards perhaps were, would seemingly have been a successful deterrent for the thieves.  They apparently walked in and cut the work from the frame during hours the museum was open.  And I want to make clear that when I was quoted in the piece saying “It’s not an exciting job, but you need to take it seriously”, I mean that security staff at museums are professionals, and should be given that status.  In Cairo, these guards were certainly not expected or required to maintain an adequate standard, and the theft and damage of this artwork is the unfortunate result.  But hopefully Egypt will learn from this crime, and enact some sound security procedures to ensure more works of art are not stolen in the future. 

When Ms. Al-Shalchi called me to discuss the theft, she told me she had learned that many of the guards may have been praying—this is still Ramadan—while the theft was taking place, that they may have been dozing off, and that the museum was not heavily visited on the day of the theft.  But perhaps most troubling of all were the breakdowns in technology at the museum.  As the piece states, there were no working alarms, only seven of the 43 cameras were in operating condition, and video from the cameras is recorded only when a guard “senses” an incident may be taking place.  As Ton Cremers, founder of the Museum Security Network says, this is not a good state of affairs for the protection of such valuable artworks: “The value of the van Gogh is $40 (million) to $50 million . . .  A complete security system of that museum would be $50,000, and to keep it running would cost $3,000 a year. … Need I say more?”

Also of interest will be the arguments against repatriation of other classes of objects—such as the bust of Nefertiti—on the grounds that Egypt is not going to be able to adequately care for the object when it is returned.  yet Art theft occurs in every nation, and bad security is bad security whether the museum is in Egypt, Europe, or North America.  Thieves will exploit obvious gaps in security.  As Mark Durney, current moderator of the Museum Security Network, asked this week “Why are some national collections not as well protected as others? Who, in addition to the thief, is responsible for the theft?”  I think that is the right set of questions to ask, yet they need to be asked whenever a museum is unprepared for a theft, whether that museum is in Egypt, or France—where the security system at the Modern Museum may have not been in working order earlier this summer when five works were stolen

  1. Hadeel Al-Shalchi, Security problems abound in Egypt’s museums, Associated Press, (last visited Aug 28, 2010).

(cross-posted at

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    The Dixie Brewery, 1979
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    Using Google to Police Sites in Jordan (and elsewhere perhaps)

    An Image of the MEGA database in action

    Randy Kennedy has a fascinating piece in the NY Times detailing the Middle Eastern Geodatabase for Antiquities (MEGA), which uses google earth satellite images to catalog and crowdsource sites and the conditions which may be threatening them.  the Getty Conservation Institute with financial support from the World Monuments Fund has been building the system over the last for years.  Kennedy reports the project will “allow archaeologists and conservators there, for the first time, to gain access to decades’ worth of records about Jordan’s sites and to monitor the condition of those sites much more easily”. 

    Lest the website be used by looters to find sites, the information is currently restricted to a select group of individuals.  This project was originally designed to be implemented in Iraq, however “the chaos and violence in Iraq ultimately prevented the Getty from being able to work with officials there to create what was originally planned to be a local database program, not one that utilized the Web.”  There are plans to implement the system in Iraq soon, and if this program works well in Jordan, and the middle east, this program could be implemented just about anywhere else in the world. 

    1. Randy Kennedy, Getty Institute Project in Jordan Helps Track Antiquities, The New York Times, August 24, 2010, (last visited Aug 26, 2010).
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    Fanizzo on Property Management and the Antiquities Act

    Via the Land Use Prof Blog I see that Kelly Y. Fanizzo (Temple) has posted Politics, Persuasion, and Enforcement: Property Management Under the Antiquities Act.  Here is her abstract:

    Recognizing the tremendous loss to the nation that results from unchecked collecting and vandalism, Congress passed the Antiquities Act in 1906 to preserve threatened historic and scientific structures, ruins, and objects and protect against the loss of valuable scientific data. Granting considerable authority to the President, the Antiquities Act provides for the designation of national monuments through the withdrawal of public land. Over the past decades, numerous monument designations have raised questions about the limits of the President’s role in federal land management. But practical questions looming just beyond the President’s ability to designate a national monument only recently surfaced in a challenge to the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) grazing policies in the Sonoran Desert National Monument. This case before the Arizona District Court focused on the BLM’s management of the national monument, and not the process of its designation. This challenge sparked a discussion on how the protective intent of a monument proclamation can be best achieved. It asked what is the President’s authority to manage a national monument and when can a third party sue to force an executive agency to comply with the monument proclamation’s terms. This paper argues that consistent judicial review of an agency’s management of a monument can help national monument designations maintain their protective purpose. In the context of the Antiquities Act and more broadly, using this challenge as a case study allows us to consider what teeth are left in this law, now on the books for over a hundred years, to protect significant historic and scientific resources.

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    Fifth Circuit Rules for Current Owner in Nazi-era Claim

    The 5th Circuit has held that Claudia Seger-Thomschitz is not entitled to regain the work Portrait of Youth by Oskar Kokoschka.  Sarah Blodgett Dunbar v. Claudia Seger-Thomschitz, No. 09-30717 (5th Cir. 2010).  The claimant, Seger-Thomschitz argued the work was confiscated in a forced sale from the Reichel family in 1939.  Sarah Blodgett Dunbar, a current resident of New Orleans, inherited the work in 1973 from her mother, who had purchased it in 1946 from a man named “Kallir” whom Seger-Thomschitz argued was a Nazi collaborator. 

    The suit was instigated by Dunbar after she received a letter from Seger-Thomschitz seeking the return of the work of art.  Dunbar defended the action under Louisiana’s limitations rules, arguing the claims were barred by prescription.  Louisiana Civil Code article 3491 gives title to a current possessor to “one who has possessed a movable as owner for ten years acquires ownership by prescription.”  Seger-Thomschitz argued that “Louisiana law should not be applied at all” and that the Terezin Declaration, a non-binding document promulgated at the Prague Holocaust Assets Conference in 2009 preempts state law.  The court was not convinced:

    Appellant has not met the burden of establishing extraordinary circumstances to justify consideration of a new legal theory for the first time . . .  Appellant offered no compelling reason why she failed to present this theory to the district court nor does it appear that a miscarriage of justice will result from our failure to address it. We are unpersuaded that this novel theory should be explored for the first time on appeal.

    Ms.  Seger-Thomschitz was also unsuccessful in her bid to seek the return of another Kokoschka work from the MFA Boston in June of last year. 

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    Forgery Ring Discovered in Italy

    The BBC and ANSA are reporting that a forged art ring has been discovered by authorities after an 18 month investigation.  The investigation was conducted by monitoring payment transfers and consulting art historians.  Works recovered include forgeries of works by Matisse and Magritte.  There are more than 500 counterfeit works, which may have cost buyers close to 9 million euros. 

    1. Italy seizes counterfeit artwork, BBC, August 25, 2010, (last visited Aug 25, 2010).
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    Theft of a Van Gogh in Cairo

    “The Poppy Flowers” by Vincent Van Gogh

    “[Y]ou’ve got two prime examples of people being indifferent to the need to protect their paintings”.

    So says Charles Hill in an interview with BBC Radio 4 on the theft of this work from the Khalil Museum in Cairo on Saturday, which bears similarities to the theft in Paris earlier this summer.  The thieves cut the work from the frame.  Though some early reports indicated that the work had been recovered, that now appears to be inaccurate.  Two Italians have been detained at the airport, they were among the ten people who apparently visited the museum on Saturday.  It seems only 7 out of 43 security cameras were functioning. 

    The same work was stolen in 1978, and was apparently recovered in Kuwait soon after. 

    1. Galleries warned after art thefts, BBC, August 23, 2010, (last visited Aug 23, 2010).
    2. Stolen Van Gogh painting still missing, the Guardian (2010), (last visited Aug 23, 2010).
    3. Alaa Shahine, Van Gogh $55 Million `Poppy Flowers’ Theft in Cairo Blamed on Lax Security, Bloomberg, , (last visited Aug 23, 2010).
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    No Real Decision yet in In re Fisk University

    A decisions of sorts has been reached in the case remanded to Davidson County Chancery Court in Tennessee in which Fisk University sought permission to sell an interest in the Stieglitz Collection to the Crystal Bridges Museum.  Lee Rosenbaum has done some terrific reporting on this decision here and here, and posted the decision online (embedded below).  The end result? The court is open to the sale, but also wants to hear more about whether there is an option to keep the art in Nashville. 

    Fisk/Crystal Bridges Decision

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    A work depicting the martyrdom of St. Lawrence, recently attributed to Caravaggio
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    Urice and Adler on the "Executive Branch’s Extralegal Cultural Property Policy"

    Stephen K. Urice (Associate Professor at the University of Miami School of Law) and Andrew Adler (Law Clerk for the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and adjunct Professor at the University of Miami School of Law) have posted a recent paper on the Executive Branch’s Cultural Property Policy on SSRN, Unveiling the Executive Branch’s Extralegal Cultural Property PolicyHere is the abstract:

    In this Article we reveal that the executive branch of the United States has consistently – and astonishingly – exceeded constraining legal authority with respect to the movement of cultural property into the United States. To illustrate this assertion, we identify three distinct categories of extralegal cultural property practices. First, we describe how the Department of Justice, misapplying the National Stolen Property Act, has obtained the return of cultural objects to their countries of origin by filing legally-deficient civil forfeiture complaints. Second, we describe how the Justice Department has pursued this same objective by proceeding under a legally-erroneous interpretation of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. Third, we describe how the Department of State has repeatedly undermined the statutory structure and mandatory criteria of the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, resulting in significant import restrictions on cultural property. All of these practices exceed constraining legal authority and lead to a similar result. Accordingly, we describe this pattern of practices as forming an extralegal cultural property policy. We express no opinion about the wisdom of this policy. Rather, our purposes in unveiling this policy are to promote a rigorous and transparent review of the executive’s practices and to restore the rule of law. In our conclusion we speculate as to why the executive has undertaken these practices and, among other observations, suggest with some sympathy that the current legal framework is outdated.

    Many readers will likely find the arguments these authors make troubling.  I’d encourage you to give the piece a read on its own merits.  Though these authors are critical of the policies of the Executive branch, this does not mean that they endorse the looting of sites or the black market—rather they are pointing out flaws in how the Executive branch and the Cultural Property Advisory Committee has attempted to restrict the trade in illicit antiquities.  Very interesting and worthy of serious attention.

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