2011 in Review

It was a turbulent year in cultural policy, marked in many ways by  unrest in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere. But even elsewhere, funding shortfalls, and austerity have put pressure on our cultural institutions, with too many deaccessions and museum closings to mention.

Egypt really was an important nation of origin in a number of ways. First, Zahi Hawass made a number of unfounded allegations with respect to the Central Park Obelisk in New York, in a high-profile call that was to seem terribly trivial only months later. And even before the unrest came news that the United States and the St. Louis Museum of art had each brought suit to assert that the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask was either rightfully possessed, or had been stolen from Egypt. Then of course we saw the demonstrations in Tahrir square and the fears of looting at sites, storehouses and the Cairo museum. And of course just a few days ago, the protests have escalated once again, and L’Institut d’Egypte was burned, and only a few of the manuscripts were salvaged. I’m not sure what solutions the law can offer to problems like this, when states radically shift. The opportunistic will take advantage of the uncertainty to destroy knowledge, steal objects, and attempt to sell whatever can be made portable. The Solution is continued vigilance of the market in these objects, and a renewed sense of urgency for transparency to ensure these precious objects aren’t trafficked and sold abroad.

In the Southwest the long string of sentencing hearings in the wake of the Four Corners Antiquities investigation continued, with partisans making repeated calls for stiffer sentences, despite serious questions about the force displayed by agents during the raids, and 3 suicides, including the death of the informant who would have been a key witness had any of the defendants chosen to go to trial rather than take lesser plea deals.

Yale and Peru finally finalized an agreement to send objects removed from Peru long ago by Hiram Bingham, and were able to conclude what both sides claim is a mutually beneficial deal. The Menil also announced it would return, as agreed, frescoes to Cyprus. Montrose will be without a very fine set of Byzantine Frescoes.

Italy was in the news a great deal as well, assisting in the protection of sites in conflict areas in the Middle East, receiving repatriated objects, most notably la dea di Aidone, even as calls for more returns were made.

The Smithsonian decided to postpone and later cancel an exhibition of objects from a looted underwater site in Indonesia, despite the fact that the site was excavated with an archaeologist present, and the site was published. Odyssey Marine also suffered a colossal setback in its efforts to salvage valuables from underwater archaeology sites.

Oh, and the Mona Lisa was stolen 100 years ago. In my brief forward to Noah Charney’s re-examination of the theft, I argued the World’s Most Famous Painting is almost certainly the Mona Lisa. Few would dispute its claim to the title, though many have personal favorites they would place higher (I certainly do). As such, the painting cannot help but be left open to claims that it may be overrated, perhaps even unworthy of its esteem. Nearly everyone knows when shown an image of the work that it is the Mona Lisa. Why then did this simple portrait of a smiling woman become so ubiquitous. Did its theft in 1911 help it reach these lofty heights? Would the world have come to appreciate its charms all on its own? The story of its theft is the story of an overrated painting that might have been better left stolen. But nevertheless it marks the beginning of the modern era of art theft, one of the first really high profile thefts.

Also, $150 million worth of art may have been thrown away, the thieves of the Musee d’Art Moderne were arrested however.

It’s been a turbulent year, hopefully next year we can just enjoy art, and there will be fewer thefts. Though I expect we might receive some bad news this week as museums and historic building reopen after the holidays.

Bonne Anée! and thanks as always for reading.

Previous entries:

2009 in Review
2008 In Review
2007 in Review

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

The Fire at the L’Institut d’Egypte a "great loss"

One of the frustrations about writing about the protection of art and heritage is the biggest news items are often really grim, and there can often be little room for optimism. On Sunday the Institute D’Egypte caught fire and burned. The Institute was established in 1798 by the French, and held an estimated 200,000 volumes, including rare accounts of Egypt in the 18th Century. I must confess I had no knowledge of the Institute before yesterday, but because I, like many privileged folks in the developed world, have access to Wikipedia, I know it is an important building, and an important repository of information. Yet most Egyptians don’t have that luxury. As Larry Rothfield points out, neither the protesters, nor the military seemed to know this was an important building containing books and manuscripts. Initial accounts describe troops throwing rocks down from the roof at protestors, and the protestors responding with molotov cocktails. It is not clear who started the exchange, but the result is clear. An important repository of knowledge has been destroyed.

The background for the destruction, which may or may not have been intentional, are rising tensions once again in Cairo near Tahrir Squar. The best current accounts of the destruction and attempts to rescue some of the volumes is the Ancient World Bloggers Group. And so there is at least some room for optimism. Many of the protesters were seen carrying books to a nearby church to attempt to salvage some of them. Also, William Kipycki, Tield Director of the Library of Congress–Cairo, Egypt at the U.S. Embassy photographed the stamps used at the Institute so antiquarian book buyers and sellers will be on the lookout.

Employees at the U.S. Embassy and the American University in Cairo have been reported as offering assistance to do what can be done to minimize continued destruction.

From the AP:

Zein Abdel-Hady, who runs the country’s main library, is leading the effort to try and save what’s left of the charred manuscripts. “This is equal to the burning of Galileo’s books,” Abdel-Hady said, referring to the Italian scientist whose work proposing that the earth revolved around the sun was believed to have been burned in protest in the 17th century. Below Abdel-Hady’s office, dozens of people sifted through the mounds of debris brought to the library. A man in a surgical coat carried a pile of burned paper with his arms carefully spread, as if cradling a baby. The rescuers used newspapers to cover some partially burned books. Bulky machines vacuum-packed delicate paper. At least 16 truckloads with around 50,000 manuscripts, some damaged beyond repair, have been moved from the sidewalks outside the U.S. Embassy and the American University in Cairo, both near the burned institute, to the main library, Abdel-Hady said. He told The Associated Press that there is no way of knowing what has been lost for good at this stage, but the material was worth tens of millions of dollars — and in many ways simply priceless.

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

A New Museum Position: Curator of Provenance

A Medallion looted during WWII

Geoff Edgers had a terrific piece over the weekend profiling Victoria Reed, curator of provenance at the MFA Boston. Her position was created in 2010, and is unique in the museum community. She is according to the piece the only curator of provenance at an American museum, a post which can put her in an uneasy position, recommending that the museum should not acquire objects with insufficient history.

Enter Victoria Reed, the MFA’s curator of provenance. Her job, which is almost as rare in the museum world as is the medallion, is to research works with questionable histories both in the collection and on the MFA’s shopping list. As a result, Reed’s other job is to break curators’ hearts. Through months of research, Reed traced the medallion to a museum in Gotha, Germany, that she knew had been looted during the Nazi era. With that information, the MFA’s jewelry curator, Yvonne Markowitz, put the brakes on its purchase. And in September, the Art Loss Register announced that S.J. Phillips Ltd., the dealer who had offered the medallion, would be returning it to the Castle Friedenstein museum.

This can’t be an easy position to be in, but as more scrutiny attaches to museums, their collection, and their acquisitions, this kind of position will likely become more and more common. The market and dealers have not been adequately accomplishing this painstaking but necessary task, but perhaps they should be.

Paying for a position like this can be difficult given the funding climate for many museums. The piece notes that the position was funded by an MFA Boston donor, Monica S. Sadler, who stipulated that her position should not be cut from the museum’s budget. So other benefactors to museums out there, if you are concerned with the practice at your local museum, give a gift with similar stipulations. Easier said than done of course, but all parties involved should be praised for undertaking an important piece of reform which really could continue to substantially change the importance of provenance research. The piece deals primarily with works of art and paintings, but a position like this which examines antiquities could have even more far-reaching consequences for repatriation and acquisition.

  1. Geoff Edgers, A detective’s work at the MFA, The Boston Globe, December 11, 2011, http://bostonglobe.com/arts/2011/12/11/detective-work-mfa/6iaei4YOQOj83s9u3YfDXO/story.html?s_campaign=sm_fb (last visited Dec 13, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Madison on "Knowledge Curation"

Michael Madison (Univ. of Pittsburgh School of Law) has posted his recent article titled “Knowledge Curation“, published in the Notre Dame Law Review, on SSRN:

This Article addresses conservation, preservation, and stewardship of knowledge, and laws and institutions in the cultural environment that support those things. Legal and policy questions concerning creativity and innovation usually focus on producing new knowledge and offering access to it. Equivalent attention rarely is paid to questions of old knowledge. To what extent should the law, and particularly intellectual property law, focus on the durability of information and knowledge? To what extent does the law do so already, and to what effect? This article begins to explore those questions. Along the way, the article takes up distinctions among different types of creativity and knowledge, from scholarship and research to commercial entertainment and so-called “User Generated Content”; distinctions among objects, works of authorship, and legal rights accompanying both; distinctions among creations built to last (sometimes called “sustained” works), creations built for speed (including “ephemeral” works), and creations barely built at all (works closely tied to the authorial “self”); and distinctions between analog and digital contexts.

Prof. Madison has a number of interesting things to say about culture, creativity and technology. He I think pays too little attention to the rule role cultural heritage laws play in the stewardship of knowledge and heritage, but he acknowledges the piece asks more questions than it answers. In examining how we decide what to save and “curate” from our past, it perhaps offers yet another implicit reason for increased attention to heritage awareness and protection, highly recommended.

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

Another Black Mark on the Art Trade

As the NYT describes this, “a painting no longer attributed to Mark Motherwell”

It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that federal agents are investigating recent sales of modern works by artists like Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock, but it does. In a very good piece of reporting by Patricia Cohen we learn that the Knoedler Gallery in New York has abruptly decided to close after 165 years, perhaps to avoid a suit by Pierre Lagrange. Lagrange purchased a work purported to be by Jackson Pollock, for $17 million in 2007, yet forensic study of the painting reveals that two paints in the canvas had not been produced at the time Pollock was painting. Oops as Rick Perry would say.

The suspect works of art were supplied by Glafira Rosales, who claimed to have direct access to artists like Rothko, Pollock, Motherwell and others. The story of these works is a sadly familiar one, they were “bought by an unnamed collector in the 1950s from the artists”, then when this collector died their were passed on to a “close family friend” who lived in Mexico and Switzerland, who insisted of course on anonymity. One is hard pressed to fell much sympathy for the dealers and galleries who still rely on these ridiculous provenances. They pollute our collective cultural heritage and defraud future generations. The same stories emerge from nazi-era restitution disputes, recently-emerged antiquities, and forged artworks. When these vast sums of money and important pieces of our heritage are at stake, some sectors of the art market continue to put expedience and short-term gain first. And sadly its a lack of meaningful scrutiny and regulation of these transactions. Thirty years ago Paul Bator argued the art trade is shrouded in secrecy, and sadly not much has changed.

Felix Salmon also looks to the role storytelling plays in all this:

The point here is that the art market, like the stock market, runs on a combination of trust and storytelling ability. The most expensive artists are nearly always those who can be credibly placed into central slot in the history of art; one of the main reasons that Abstract Expressionists in general are so expensive is because they have spent decades as the very heart of MoMA’s collection, which presented them as the pinnacle of 20th Century art, the artists standing on the shoulders of people like Picasso. When gallerists sell paintings, they tell stories not only about the work, but also about the story behind the work, conjuring up romantic notions of dealings between Robert Motherwell and Mexican sugar magnates, brokered by “man named Alfonso Ossorio”. So long as the institution selling the work is trustworthy, potential buyers tend to take such stories at face value — and, of course, they have a vested financial interest in those stories being true, the minute they actually buy the piece.

  1. Patricia Cohen, Federal Inquiry Into Possible Forging of Modernist Art, The New York Times, December 2, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/03/arts/design/federal-inquiry-into-possible-forging-of-modernist-art.html (last visited Dec 6, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com


Defendants allege the FBI induced them to steal this Monet and four other works in 2007
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com