Setting the Price Point for Stolen Art

Noah Charney was interviewed by Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace yesterday.  Charney argues that the majority of art theft after World War II can be traced to organized crime syndicates, and that the media actually helps set the price point for the black market transfer of high profile works of art.

The interview appears after the jump.

The Marketplace Interview:

On the missing panel from the Ghent Altarpiece:

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China Wants its Rabbit and Rat Back

China looks to be redoubling its efforts to repatriate the bronzes from the Summer Palace, enlisting Jackie Chan, erecting a statue of Victor Hugo who decried the looting in 1860, and circulating a petition.

From AFP:

China has renewed a call for the return of relics looted from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing 150 years ago — an act seen as a cause of national humiliation at the hands of Western armies.

The Yuanmingyuan, a summer resort garden for the emperors of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), was pillaged by a joint British and French military expedition during the second Opium War on October 18-19, 1860.

Cultural officials have urged private collectors in China to forgo profits from the antiquities trade and return the looted relics, the China Daily reported Tuesday.

The Yuanmingyuan park authority has also called on museums to return such items, and for a boycott on auctions featuring relics, the Global Times added. . . .

“At least 1.5 million relics from the Yuanmingyuan have either been looted or otherwise lost over the years,” the China Daily quoted Chen Mingjie, head of the Yuanmingyuan park administration, as saying.

Xinhua news agency, citing the UN cultural body UNESCO, said some 1.64 million Chinese relics are housed in more than 200 museums in 47 countries, some of which are believed to have been looted from the Yuanmingyuan.

In recent years, cultural relic experts from China have sought to categorise and bring back looted Chinese antiquities, but their efforts have been waylaid by legal and historical obstacles, the China Daily said.

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From Medici to Deutsche Bank

Why do banks buy so much art?  To earn prestige apparently. Yet that prestige may come at a cost as banks do not want to be seen spending extravagantly in the wake of the mortgage crisis and bailouts.

Few banks collect art to make money. A liquidation auction of art from collapsed investment bank Lehman Brothers in London on Sept. 29, for example, raised $2.6 million. Not bad, but it won’t make a dent in the $613 billion in liabilities the bank had run up when it folded.

Art confers respectability and respect, according to Joan Jeffri, director of the arts-administration program at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and banks need those more than ever. From the mighty Medici banking dynasty in Renaissance Florence to the giants of the 19th century, like John Pierpont Morgan, art has been used to project status and power.

You could argue that the banks have done a better job of acquiring art than they have of acquiring financial assets. What’s more valuable: a Richard Diebenkorn painting or a toxic collateralized debt obligation? “The people responsible for managing these corporate collections have professionalized,” Jeffri says. “Whereas it was once the wife of the CEO or some personal friend managing the CEO’s interest in art, now banks have art departments and on-staff curators.”

  1. Eben Harrell & Frances Perraudin, Cultural Assets: Banks Stock Up on Art, TIME,,9171,2024218,00.html?artId=2024218?contType=article?chn=bizTech (last visited Oct 25, 2010).
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SAFE Award Reception

SAFE (Saving Antiquities for Everyone) will be honoring four individuals in New York this week.  From their announcement:

On October 29, 2010, SAFE|Saving Antiquities for Everyone will be honoring four distinguished individuals who use their law enforcement and legal expertise to passionately combat the illicit antiquities trade and fight to protect cultural heritage:

  • James E. McAndrew – a special agent with the Department of Homeland Security 

  • Robert Goldman – a well-known attorney and art crime expert. 

  • David Hall – U.S Attorney and Special Prosecutor for the FBI Art Crime Team.  

  • Robert Wittman – Founder of the FBI’s Art Crime Team and New York Times Best Selling Author of Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures.

    There will be a panel and reception.  Come Hear exciting Tales of their arrests and seizures, Prosecutions and Recoveries in the Panel Dialog “A Fight for the Future”

    This exciting evening will take place in NYC at the

    Gerald W. Lynch Theater

    John Jay College of Criminal Justice

    899 Tenth Ave

    New York, New York

    6:30-9:30 pm 

    Robert Wittman will be singing his book Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures

    Cost: $20 for students, $35 for SAFE members (DHS, DOJ and FBI), and $45 for nonmembers

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    Another Federal Circuit Rules Against Claudia Seger-Thomschitz

    “Two Nudes (Lovers)”, Oskar Kokoschka

    The First Circuit Federal Court of Appeals in Boston has held that the MFA Boston is entitled to retain ownership of this work. The work was the subject of a sale in 1938 to a dealer in Paris.  The MFA Boston purchased this work in 1972, attorneys for the claimant contacted the Museum in 2007 about securing the return of the work, and the Museum brought suit in January of 2008 to seek a declaratory judgment of the work, precluding any claim by Ms. Seger-Thomschitz.

    The history of the work is complicated.  It depicts the artist and Alma Mahler, the wife of Gustav Mahler. The claimant argued the painting was sold under duress by Oskar Reichel a physician and gallery owner in Austria. The work had been consigned on several occasions to an art dealer, Otto Kallir. Kallir later left Vienna, eventually coming to New York, and he brought this and some other works of art with him. He sent money to Reichel’s sons at this point. In 1939, the work was sent to Paris; in 1945 it was sold to a New York dealer for $1,500; Sarah Blodgett purchased the work in the 1940s; she gave the work to the MFA Boston in 1972. Claudia Seger-Thomschitz, though apparently not a blood relative of Reichel, had nonetheless been designated as the sole beneficiary of his estate and was described as his “select-niece”.

    The claimant learned in 2003 that she might have a claim to the work, and though she is a nurse with no professional expertise in nazi-era suits, the court imposed a burden on her to seek the return of the work.  The Court made clear it was not judging the legality of the museum’s acquisition of the work in 1973, pointing out that

    Precisely because they do not address the merits of a claim, statutes of limitations do not vindicate the conduct of parties who successfully invoke them. Although we make no judgment about the legality of the MFA’s acquisition of the Painting in 1973, we note the MFA’s own disclosure that, when confronted with Seger-Thomschitz’s claim, it initiated a provenance investigation for the Painting that it had not done before. The timing of that investigation may have been legally inconsequential in this case. However, for works of art with unmistakable roots in the Holocaust era, museums would now be well-advised to follow the guidelines of the American Association of Museums: “[M]useums should take all reasonable steps to resolve the Nazi-era provenance status of objects before acquiring them for their collections — whether by purchase, gift, bequest, or exchange.” American Association of Museums, Guidelines Concerning the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects During the Nazi Era (Nov. 1999)

    The decision comes just as the Jewish Claims Conference has launched a database with 20,000 objects from the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), the Nazi’s art-looting task force.  For more on the database, see Catherine Sezgin’s excellent discussion here. Perhaps that database will urge more museums and private owners with objects once owned by Nazi-era victims, which was surely one of the primary motivations for the  initiative. Because court actions are difficult options for claimants. In August the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals held Ms. Seger-Thomschitz did not have a timely claim to another Kokoschka work against Sarah Blodgett Dunbar who had inherited the work in 1973 because too much time had elapsed and Dunbar had acquired title to the work via prescription.

    1. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, v. Seger-Thomschitz,— F.3d —-, 2010 WL 4010121 (1st Cir., 2010).
    2. Dunbar v. Seger-Thomschitz, 615 F.3d 574 (5th Cir., 2010).  
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    Marion True Interview

    The Chimera d’arezzo, on loan at the Getty from the Museo archeologico di Firenze 

    Hugh Eakin has an interview with Marion True in the online version of the New Yorker. She seems relieved her trial is over, but also a little angry that she was the sacrificial curator:

    There is the remarkable fact that without ever reaching a verdict, the trial had an enormous effect on American museums.
    My greatest sadness is that the Italians were able to intimidate the entire American art world, and especially museums, without having to produce any evidence at all. Why didn’t museums band together and say, “How are we going to deal with this?” They ran off instead to make their own deals—deals which may not exactly be very good in the long run. Why did we hand over all this stuff without asking for more documents? The trial was a gigantic threat that everyone reacted to. The message was, “You could be next.”

    Another irony is that precisely some of the changes in museum standards you were calling for in the nineteen-nineties have now come to pass. There is much more talk now of using major loans from archaeological countries in lieu of purchases—something that you had been advocating for many years.
    That’s right. But I haven’t seen a genuine opening about loans. There are plenty of things that could be done in loans, possibilities for collaborations. Italy has lent the Chiamera of Arezzo to the Getty, a kind of trophy piece. In truth, there are hundreds of objects sitting in the basements of Italian museums, at Pompeii, everywhere, that need to be conserved. Why not lend them to American museums for conservation work, and so they can be seen?

    Has the Getty made any effort to reconcile with you?
    No. And I have nothing but the greatest contempt for them in the world. They acted like I ran the place. Above me I had a chief curator who was deputy director, a director, an in-house counsel, a president, a board of trustees to whom the president reported, and a chairman of the board. What about the lawyers who drafted the acquisition policy, who were supposed to be vetting all documents? They were perfectly happy to assure all that [the alleged acquisition of illegal art] was my work. Never once have [former Getty director] John Walsh or [his successor] Deborah Gribbon stepped forward to say one word about their responsibility.

    Read more

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    Interview with Noah Charney on WNYC:

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