Frescoes to Return to Cyprus from the Menil

A view of the Byzantine Fresco Chapel's dome and apse frescoes. Photo: TxDoT / HC
The Byzantine Frescoes on Display at the Menil

Some cultural repatriation news from my neighborhood. The Menil has announced that it will return the byzantine mosaics  frescoes currently housed in a custom-built chapel here in Montrose in Houston. In 1983 Dominique de Menil was offered frescoes from Cyprus. After a rigorous due diligence inquiry, it was discovered that the mosaics had been looted from Cyprus. And in a groundbreaking move, she worked with the theft victim, the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus to purchase the mosaics, to restore the damage done to them when they were looted. The mosaics have been displayed since 1997, but next year they will return to Cyprus to go on display in a new museum, though they sadly cannot be returned to the original church, for fear it might be disturbed again.

Menil Director Josef Helfenstein announced in a letter:

After more than two decades in Houston, the beloved Byzantine frescoes will go back to Cyprus in 2012. While this moment is bittersweet, the story of these frescoes—from their rescue, to their long-term loan to us, and now to their return—very much reflects the essence of the Menil Collection, its focus on the aesthetic and the spiritual, and our responsible stewardship of works from other nations and cultures

When we consider when this decision took place, in the 1980s during an era in which so many wealthy collectors bought so much looted art, this long-term lease and ‘rescue’ of the frescoes really stands apart and should be commended.

I haven’t read this in any of the reporting on the Menil, but I’ve wondered whether there is other art at the Menil which might have been acquired under suspect circumstances. In the antiquities room in the Menil there are a number of works also purchased during this period which might be suspect—red-figured vases, small pre-historic carvings of deities, cycladic figurines. The kinds of objects that were ubiquitous in the market in the 1970s and 1980s, and which we now know were likely looted. These objects may have been lawfully acquired, but its an indication of just how many objects were looted and sold to collectors at this time, and how far law, policy, and behaviors have changed. So I’ll cheer the return of these mosaics, and their responsible stewardship but I also wonder, should other objects go back?

    The frescoes now in the Byzantine Fresco Chapel were created in the 13th century for this small chapel in Lysi, Cyprus. Photo: Menil Collection / HC
    The Original Location of the Frescoes in Cyprus
  1. Douglas Britt, Houston’s Menil is returning holy artworks to Cyprus – Houston Chronicle Houston Chronicle (2011), http://www.chron.com/life/article/Houston-s-Menil-is-returning-holy-artworks-to-2186452.php#photo-1621133 (last visited Sep 27, 2011).
  2. Bill Davenport, Space-Age Chapel Will Need New Art: Menil’s Byzantine Frescos a Go-Go Going Glasstire (2011), http://glasstire.com/2011/09/24/space-age-chapel-will-need-new-art-menils-byzantine-frescos-a-go-go-going/ (last visited Sep 27, 2011).
  3. Elisabetta Povoledo, Menil Collection Is to Return Frescoes to Cyprus, New York Times (2011), http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/24/arts/design/menil-collection-is-to-return-frescoes-to-cyprus.html?_r=1 (last visited Sep 27, 2011).
  4. Kelly Crow, Houston’s Menil Collection to Return Frescoes to Cyprus The Wall Street Journal (2011), http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111903703604576587072924927678.html (last visited Sep 27, 2011).

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

Footnotes

File:Apamea 02.jpg
The Cardo Maximus in Apamea in Syria

On a two-week trip to Paris, Mr. Lacoursière found himself loitering in the Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre, which were in so many ways the exact opposite of his beat at home where he toured the dirtiest corners of the human psyche. He returned to Montreal, vowing to find a way to incorporate his long-time love of art with his police work. So he enrolled in an art history night course at a local university.

She has a fellowship in the department of art and archaeology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and is head of the department of antiquities in the breakaway territory of Somaliland, in the north-west region of Somalia. She is the only archaeologist working in the region.

It’s a remarkable journey for a girl who fled Mogadishu in 1991, aged 14, as Somalia descended into the chaos of civil war. Driving her forward is the urge to uncover and preserve a cultural heritage that has been systematically looted, both in colonial times and more recently by warlords trading national heritage for guns.

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

11th Circuit Ruling Deals a Big Blow to Odyssey Marine

The explosion of the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes

The 11th Circuit has ruled that the objects brought up from the wreck initially code-named the “Black Swan” should be released immediately to the custody of Spain. In response Odyssey’s stock is dropping rapidly.

In a press release Odyssey has said it will ask the full 11th Circuit to rehear the case en banc with the full complement of Federal Judges rather than the three judge panel which decided this appeal.

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

The Eternal Problem of Funding Pompeii

The task of managing, studying and excavating Pompeii has elicited criticism since the King of Naples hired a Spanish military engineer named Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre in the 18th Century. Given the rains, funding pressures, and the army of tourists, controversy has again flared, this time over the funding of an archaeological survey that may be be wholly unnecessary:

The three-year study, entitled “Pompeii, Fabbrica della Conoscenza” (“Pompeii, the Knowledge Factory”), was carried out using the most advanced technology, according to Carmine Gambardella, dean of the faculty of architecture at the Second University of Naples (Aversa). “After the collapse of the House of Gladiators, we flew over the excavations with the Guardia di Finanza, using an infrared thermal sensor to locate at-risk areas and so redraw a map of the site,” said Gambardella. The ministry-approved survey, therefore, amounts to a costly “repeat performance”. The cultural affairs branch of the Italian Labour Union has reported the matter to the public prosecutors of Torre Annunziata, Naples and Rome, calling for transparency in the awarding of such public contracts.

  1. Edek Osser, Controversy over Pompeii funding | The Art Newspaper (2011), http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Controversy+over+Pompeii+funding/24455 (last visited Sep 20, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Was Jiri Frel a Spy?

Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino undertook a Freedom of Information Act request for the FBI’s file on former Getty Curator Jiri Frel, and posted the FBI file. The FBI was very interested in Frel, sparking rumors over whether Arthur Houghton was tasked with keeping “an eye on” Frel.

A spy?

Espionage allegations aside, the Frel file is a fascinating study of a complicated personality. It hints at Frel’s famously chaotic love life. More importantly, it demonstrates how adept the charismatic polymath, connoisseur and political shape-shifter was at manipulating situations and spinning answers for his own survival. Colleagues at the Getty knew Frel as an Old World snob who constantly complained about America, its broken education system, its obsession with pop culture, its hot dogs and unpalatable mustard. Indeed, years later, when he was caught conducting a massive tax fraud scheme and falsifying provenance for million-dollar fakes at the Getty, Frel left America and never looked back. Yet during his 1971 FBI interview, the reporting agent noted how Frel gushed that “he considers the United States to be in his words ‘a great and good country.

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

Footnotes

The Annunciation to Joachim, Lucas Cranach the Elder, once oned   owned by Baron Herzog Mor Lipot Herzog
  • A Nazi-era suit will proceed: A US District Court Judge for the District of Columbia has denied Hungary’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit to reclaim works once owned by Jewish banker Baron Mor Lipot Herzog (previously discussed here).
  • The Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science has discovered a Nazi-looted painting in a group of loaned paintings.
  • Libyan archaeologists are inspecting heritage sites for signs of damage during the conflict.
    • It is the first time I go there since the war, Kadhafi’s troops were inside and I want to know what happened,” said Fadel Ali Mohammed, Libya’s freshly appointed minister for antiquities.Setting out from the Tripoli hotel that has become his temporary home, the 62-year-old — a doctor in archaeology and Greek philology — begins the drive west to Sabratha, one of Libya’s most treasured archaeological sites.Despite multiple checkpoints armed by young volunteer militiamen, it only takes 90 minutes to get there. But it is an anxious 90 minutes for the man who is now in charge of protecting Libya’s past.
  •  Judith Dobrzynski discovers a work deaccessioned by the Brooklyn Museum in 1967 on temporary display at the Met, and Donn Zaretsky wants to know how this fits with the public trust.
  • What is the difference between viewing St. Cuthbert’s Gospel at Durham Cathedral or in the British Library?
    • The fundamental (and I use the term advisedly) challenge of modern society is how people deal not just with cultural differences, but with worldviews that are incompatible to the extent that they seem life-threatening—and require life-taking. Without over-estimating the impact that preserving historic objects can have, this joint custody agreement is a small contribution to making the world a safer, more civilised place.
  • How do you trust an art dealer?
    • The only way I know is to do your homework and spend time talking with them. Before you go to a show look at the list of participants and then go to their web sites. See what they offer and what sort of reputation they have. Are they considered true experts in the field/fields they deal in? Do other people in the art world look to them for advice? Have they had any serious legal issues? Do they deal in a wide range of items or do they have a focus … I personally find it hard to believe that any one dealer can be a true expert in all periods of art and antiques. Those who have a tighter focus will probably be better versed in the works they sell. If you take a little time doing your due diligence, your show experience will be much more rewarding.
  • What a theft! Now it seems the theft of the Mona Lisa over 100 years ago is being credited with creating modern museums.
  • Do we want someone controlling the fate of $30 billion in art 60 years after his death?
  • A painting by Rubens stolen a decade ago in Belgium has been recovered in Greece.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com