Cairo van Gogh Theft an Inside Job?

The still-missing “Poppy Flowers”, by Vincent van Gogh

An Egyptian minister said Sunday that an employee working at the Cairo museum likely participated in the theft.  Habib al-Adly told Egypt’s official news agency “There are many circumstances around the theft of the Poppy Flowers that point to the fact that a museum employee participated in the theft or stole it himself . . .  The location and placement inside the museum confirms this”.  This may explain why there was such a strong reaction to the arrest and a crack down on the museum’s own staff and security personnel, or it may be an attempt to find a scapegoat.  Either a museum employee was complicit in the theft, or there was gross negligence which allowed this work to be cut from its frame.  There are still precious few details, and the work remains missing.

 

  1. AFP: Egypt museum employee behind Van Gogh theft: minister, AFP, September 26, 2010, http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5iUQB5fPhmiFCuK-JufZ785Af9icg (last visited Sep 27, 2010).
  2. Hadeel Al-Shalchi, Security problems abound in Egypt’s museums, Associated Press, , http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38884911/ns/technology_and_science-science/ (last visited Aug 28, 2010).

 cross-posted at: http://art-crime.blogspot.com/

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

    Tension Between Museums and Nazi Spoliation Claimants

    It should come as no surprise that there are tensions between museums and claimants over how to respond to claims for works of art stolen or appropriated by the Nazis.  Combine the general reluctance of many museums to allow transparency with the complicated stories of many works looted during World War II, and you have a recipe for ongoing disputes and mistrust.  This should explain why litigation may be a crude solution to many of these disputes, and why other nations—mainly in Europe—have done a better job at resolving these disputes than the United States. 

    Robin Cembalest gives an overview for ARTnews, offering reactions from both sides.  The dispute stems from a basic disagreement of what kinds of wrongdoing should constitute loot.  Is a forced sale, or a sale under duress the same as outright theft?  Wesley Fisher, director of resaearch at the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany argues “It is embarrassing that countries that previously did not have such good records in this field, such as Austria, are doing a very good job . . .  And the United States is not doing as well as it was.”  AAMD president Kaywin Feldman attributes the reluctance of some institutions to return objects to resources, “The real problem is that museums and claimants need help with research”.  I think both of those sides offer some truth, though paying for increased provenance research would surely be less expensive than litigating a claim.  At least part of the difficulty stems from different ideas of what constitute a looted work, and perhaps a commission modeled after the United Kingdom’s Spoliation Advisory Panel would offer a less controversial means of resolving these disputes.

    1. Robin Cembalest, Tensions are rising between the restitution community and U.S. museums over the proper way to handle Holocaust art claims, ARTnews, October, 2010, http://artnews.com/issues/article.asp?art_id=3073 (last visited Sep 27, 2010).
    Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

    Footnotes

    “Maya à la poupée et au cheval de bois”, Pablo Picasso
    Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

    Two Forfeited Works Returned to Brazil

    “Modern Painting with Yellow Interweave”, Roy Lichtenstein

    Art crime does not just include the theft of works of art or the looting of antiquities.  The value and portability of works of art make them a very convenient way to launder money as well.
    I am quoted in a piece for NPR affiliate WNYC discussing the return of two objects to Brazil. 

    This work by Roy Lichtenstein and another work by Joaquin Torres-Garcia were returned to the government of Brazil today during a ceremony in New York (press release).  The works were once owned by the disgraced Brazilian banker Edemar Cid Ferreira who was convicted and sentenced to 21 years in prison in 2006 for financial fraud. 

    A judge in Brazil ordered Ferreira to surrender his unlawfully-gained assets.  In an attempt to conceal some of these assets, these works were shipped to the Netherlands and then to New York where they were sold to unsuspecting buyers. The paperwork accompanying these works valued them at only $200, while they may be worth as much as $12 million. 

    This is an example of the use of civil forfeiture in policing the art and antiquities trade.  The “Portrait of Wally” settlement reached earlier this summer was also reached via forfeiture. Forfeiture allows prosecutors to bring a suit against an object which was part of a crime, and all claimants to the object come forward to challenge the forfeiture.  It is a powerful tool for prosecutors, as the burden of proof is far lower than the typical “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard typically involved in prosecutions.  Historically, federal prosecutors have intervened on behalf of origin nations or claimants when they have potential claims. Yet it has also been a useful tool in policing organized and white collar crimes. 

    1. Marlon Bishop, Lichtenstein and Torres García Paintings On the Way Back to Brazil, WNYC, September 21, 2010, http://culture.wnyc.org/articles/features/2010/sep/21/us-returns-brazilian-art/ (last visited Sep 21, 2010).
    2. Erica Orden, U.S. Returns Valuable Paintings Seized From Ex-Banker to Brazil, wsj.com, September 21, 2010, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704129204575506181973997368.html (last visited Sep 21, 2010).
    Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

    My New Piece on Property and Heritage

    I have posted on SSRN a working draft titled “The Distinctiveness of Property and Heritage“.  I argue we need to be careful to observe and honor the differences between the competing ideas of property and heritage by discussing how the law may be shifting to meet new challenges.  The end result I think will be a renewed appreciation for cultural claims via a body of law which can be called “heritage law”.  As always any comments or criticisms would be most appreciated.  Also, if any readers have any works in progress they would like me to publicize, or if you have a recent piece you would like me to share, please do pass them along.

    Here is the abstract to my work in progress:



    This piece takes up the competing concepts of property and heritage. Recent scholarship views property as a series of connections and obligations – rather than the traditional power to control, transfer or exclude. This new view of property may be safeguarding resources for future generations, but also imposes onerous obligations based on concerns over environmental protection, the protection of cultural resources, group rights, and even rights to digital property. Yet these obligations can also be imposed on subsequent generations, and certain obligations are imposed now based on the actions of past generations.

    This article examines the multigenerational aspects of property via a body of law which should be called heritage law. Heritage law now governs a wide range of activities some of which include: preventing destruction of works of art, preventing the theft of art and antiquities, preventing the illegal excavation of antiquities, preventing the mutilation and destruction of ancient structures and sites, creating a means for preserving sites and monuments, and even righting past wrongs. This piece justifies the new conceptualization in two ways. First, by showing that properly distinguishing property and heritage will allow us to better protect heritage with a richer, fuller understanding of the concept. And second by demonstrating how current definitions lead to imprecise analysis, which may produce troubling legal conclusions.

    A growing body of heritage law has extended the limitations periods for certain cultural disputes. This has shifted the calculus for the long-term control of real, movable, and even digital property. This can be acutely seen with respect to cultural repatriation claims – specifically the claims of claimants to works of art forcibly taken during World War II; or the claims by Peru to certain anthropological objects now in the possession of Yale University which were removed by Hiram Bingham in the early part of the 20th Century.

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

    This Roman Helmet "Just" a Portable Antiquity

    The Crosby Garrett Helmet, a Roman bronze cavalry parade helmet
    The Crosby Garrett Roman Helmet

    This stunning bronze helmet was unearthed in Crosby Garrett in Cumbria in the North of England, not too far from the Lake District.  It was discovered in 33 fragments, face down in the mud on a Roman road.

    The helmet belongs to the finder and the landowner, as this helmet does not qualify under the Treasure Act.  It has been pieced together apparently by Christie’s auction house which will sell the piece at an auction in October.  It might fetch as much as 300,000 GBP.  Though the piece does not qualify as treasure, it likely would be of “Waverley” quality and thus any export would be delayed to allow domestic organizations an opportunity to match any purchase price.  I’ve pointed out some of the benefits of the Portable Antiquities Scheme–the voluntary program which encourages the reporting of objects like this which fall below the treasure threshold. But this case presents a troubling result in many ways, as this object was cleaned for sale by Christie’s.  We do not know anything about the deposits left on the helmet, or how the helmet was abandoned in pieces along an old Roman road.  Roger Bland also points out the unpalatable consequences of this find:  “It is a pity that the object was restored before there was any opportunity to examine it scientifically, as that would have given us more information about how it came to be in the ground . . .  We hope it will be possible for there to be an archaeological examination of the find spot.”

    1. Maev Kennedy, “Roman cavalry helmet found with metal detector may go abroad at auction,” September 13, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2010/sep/13/roman-helmet-metal-detector-cumbria.
    2. Roger Bland, “Exceptional Roman cavalry helmet discovered in Cumbria – News section,” n.d., http://www.finds.org.uk/news/stories/article/id/195.

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

    "nothing less than a theft of the art from Fisk"

     So says Fisk University in response to the Tennessee State Attorney Generals proposal for disposition of the Fisk-Stieglitz Collection.  In a proposal filed Friday in the Chancery Court Attorney General Robert Cooper would have the Tennessee Arts Commission take temporary possession of the collection.  Fisk University is seeking approval in Chancery Court for the approval of a partial sale of the collection to the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville Arkansas for $30 million.  Lee Rosenbaum notes that the Tennessee AG’s proposal would “honor donor Georgia O’Keeffe’s expressed wishes and do justice to a celebrated collection that was under-utilized at Fisk (which, for a time, had placed the Stieglitz Collection in storage at the Frist). But the deal would leave Fisk without its coveted $30-million windfall from Crystal Bridges”. 

    This means the Chancery court will now have to weigh the sale of a partial interest in the collection in Arkansas in a move which might allow Fisk University to avoid closing for good against a plan which would keep the art in Nashville year-round but give very little compensation to the University. 

    Donn Zaretzky, like Fisk University, is not a fan of the AG’s proposed Nashville-first settlement:

    This of course does nothing (or very little) for Fisk, but, as we all know, benefiting Fisk was not part of O’Keeffe’s intent when she gave the Collection to Fisk. She could care less about Fisk! In fact she hated Fisk! What she really cared about was the People of Nashville. If Fisk goes under, hey, stuff happens. Not our problem. Our problem — as Lovers of Art — is to see to it that the donor’s intent is always satisfied. And obviously in this case O’Keeffe would have preferred that the works be shown at the Frist Center than have Fisk share the Collection with the Crystal Bridges Museum. So this is a Good Day For Art: the works will be leaving Fisk, but instead of going to Museum A, they will be going to Museum B, which is much better. Obviously.

    1. Erik Schelzig, Proposal made for art donated by O’Keeffe » Knoxville News Sentinel, http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2010/sep/13/proposal-made-for-art-donated-by-okeeffe/ (last visited Sep 13, 2010).
    Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com