Thousands of Antiquities Looted from Libyan Bank Vault

Thousands of antiquities are reported to have been stolen from a Benghazi bank vault in Libya. The objects are small, portable and very valuable. The collection has not been displayed for many years and has not been sufficiently documented. Chances for recovery would therefore be very remote.

The thieves targeted a collection known as the Treasure of Benghazi.

It included more than 10,000 pieces, with coins dating back to Greek, Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic times, but also other treasures such as small statues and jewellery.

Most had been discovered during the Italian occupation of Libya and were taken out of the country.

They were then returned to Libya in 1961 after the country’s independence.

The collection has been kept in the vault of the Commercial Bank of Benghazi ever since, waiting for the opening of a museum that was never built.

The coins were never photographed or documented and seemed to have been forgotten, according to Dr Saleh Algab, the chairman of the Tripoli Museum.

Although not the only collection of ancient coins in Libya, Mr Algab said they were a hugely valuable representation of the mosaic of Libyan history – an important reminder for Libya’s sometimes fractious, at times antagonistic, regions and ethnic groups that they all belong in one Libya, he said.

BBC News – Looted Libyan treasure ‘in Egypt’:

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Footnotes

The Statue of Liberty turns 125 today, pictured here under construction in Frederick Auguste Bartholdi’s Paris workshop. 

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

Art Cops: Overworked and Under-resourced

Over the weekend in the Baltimore Sun Tricia Bishop reports on the current state of heritage policing in the United States:

America is the largest consumer of artwork in the world, with a 40 percent share of the $200 billion global industry. It’s also the scene of nearly half of the illegal art trade estimated to be worth another $7 billion worldwide. 

Yet other countries pay far more attention to art fraud. Italy has several hundred detectives on its Carabinieri Art Squad, and Greece, France, Germany and Belgium all have national units working the detail. 

In contrast, the FBI’s Art Crime Team, co-founded by a Baltimore native whose father ran an antiques shop on Howard Street, is made up of one archaeologist and 13 agents, who work the beat on the side. And the Los Angeles Police Department’s Art Theft Detail consists of just one investigator, a man who is delaying retirement because he’s afraid the division will die if he leaves without a trained successor.

The piece looks at three of the main groups tasked with art crimes in the United States: The Art Crime Team, the Archival Recovery Team, and Don Hrycyk at the LAPD. As I said in the piece, these folks have an essential job, and given the fact these crimes are still relegated to the status of non-violent property crimes in many cases, they don’t rise to the level of illegal narcotics or terrorism or other priorities law enforcement must tackle. But there is a fundamental difference between property and historical objects and art, and more attention should be paid to them. America as a country might be thinking too much about owning and buying these objects, and not enough about acting as stewards.

  1. Tricia Bishop, Art investigators: Saving the country’s cultural heritage, one recovered work at a time, Baltimore Sun, October 23, 2011, http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-history-thieves-20111007,0,443863,full.story (last visited Oct 26, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

My Piece on Property and Heritage

When writers discuss stolen art, repatriation or looting one of the threshold problems is how to classify these objects: either as property or as heritage. It seems to me both concepts are distinct, and in a piece which is now available from the Penn. State Law Review, I’ve argued both should be separated. Here’s the abstract:

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.

You can download the whole article here. I’d be most interested to hear any comments at derek.fincham “at” gmail.com

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

A postscript to "Chasing Aphrodite"

la dea di Morgantina

Ralph Frammolino, one of the co-author’s of “Chasing Aphrodite” has a cover story in the November issue of Smithsonian Magazine. It recounts his unsuccessful attempt to interview Renzo Canavesi, a man identified as the previous owner of the statue formerly known as the “Getty Goddess” but now called “la dea di Morgantina”. He wasn’t willing to talk, but we are reminded again of the great reporting done on the statue and the Getty:

While Jason [Felch, his coauthor,] was reporting in Sicily, I went to Switzerland to interview Renzo Canavesi, who used to run a tobacco shop and cambia, or money-changing house, near Chiasso, just north of the Italian border. For decades the border region had been known for money-laundering and smuggling, mostly in cigarettes but also drugs, guns, diamonds, passports, credit cards—and art. It was there in March 1986 that the goddess statue first surfaced in the market, when Canavesi sold it for $400,000 to the London dealer who would offer it to the Getty. 

The transaction had generated a receipt, a hand-printed note on Canavesi’s cambia stationery—the statue’s only shred of provenance. “I am the sole owner of this statue,” it read, “which has belonged to my family since 1939.” After the London dealer turned the receipt over to authorities in 1992, an Italian art squad investigator said he thought Canavesi’s statement was dubious: 1939 was the year Italy passed its patrimony law, making all artifacts discovered from then on property of the state. After a second lengthy investigation in Italy, Canavesi was convicted in absentia in 2001 of trafficking in looted art. But the conviction was overturned because the statute of limitations had expired.

It’s a good summary of a very fine book. And as I’m reading the story again, I’m reminded of Marion True and the Getty and the cover up and the duplicitous nature of her public comments in favor of protection, all while she was acquiring objects. There must be, I’m sure, a story like this for the repatriations from the other museums. But that reporting has not been done yet.

  1. Ralph Frammolino, The Goddess Goes Home, Smithsonian, Nov. 2011, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/The-Goddess-Goes-Home.html?c=y&story=fullstory (last visited Oct 21, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

$150 Million worth of art in the trash?

Stolen to order?
Nature Mort au Chandelier, Fernand Léger, 1922

Last week it was reported that three individuals were arrested in connection with the theft of five works from the Musée d’art Moderne in Paris. The thefts took place in 2010 and there were reports that the museums alarms had been malfunctioning for months. Well the thieves may have had a very easy time stealing the art. There are reports that the five stolen works were destroyed, and that one of the works was stolen to order:

Detectives said that while they remained sceptical about his account, they could not “totally rule out” this catastrophic scenario. The destruction of such landmark masterpieces would be a major blow to international art heritage. The first to be arrested was a Serb known only as Vrejan T, 43, nicknamed “Spiderman” and who was detained days after last year’s heist over a separate art theft from a chic Paris apartment. Under questioning, the suspect reportedly recounted how he loosened screws in a window at the Art Deco Palais de Tokyo housing the museum, returned a few nights later to remove the frame and sliced through a padlock on an iron grille. He had initially gone there only to steal a Léger work to order, he said, but once inside, was “surprised” when the burglary alarm failed to sound. Being a “veritable art lover,” the Serb told police he then wandered around for another hour, eluding 30 closed circuit cameras to cherry pick four other masterpieces. “He found the Modigliani the most beautiful of all,” a judicial source told the JDD. Vrejan T reportedly told investigators he had stolen the Léger for Jean-Michel C, 56, an antiques dealer with a shop called Antiquités Bastille. He was arrested in May for selling other stolen art works.

As a wise Museum Security Director once said: ‘shit happens’. Lets hope this is the statement of a desperate defendant, and the paintings are still safe. This underscores the point that tracking down art thieves is a delicate proposition. They have a very big piece of collateral, in this case five important works of art. If you prosecute the thief too harshly, you run the risk of destroying what you were after. Of course the best way to prevent this destruction would have been better basic attention to security.

  1. Henry Samuel, £100m masterpieces stolen from French museum “crushed by rubbish truck,” The Telegraph, October 9, 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/8816634/100m-masterpieces-stolen-from-French-museum-crushed-by-rubbish-truck.html (last visited Oct 10, 2011). 
The other stolen works:
La Pastorale, Henri Matisse, 1906
L’Olivier pres de l’Estaque, Georges Braque, 1906
The Pigeon with Peas, Pablo Picasso, 1911-12
La femme a l’eventail, Amadeo Modigliani

   

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

Symposium on litigation and cultural property in Geneva

On November 11 at the University of Geneva the Art-Law Centre will organize a symposium titled “Litigation in cultural property: judicial and alternative means of international dispute resolution“. The event boasts a prestigious array of speakers, I’m sorry I’ll be teaching here in Houston. Here are the details:
Program 11.11.11(web)

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