Antiquities Stolen From Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

An Assyrian bas-relief stolen in October

Two antiquites have been stolen from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts last October. The theft is just now being publicized. Surveillance video which may show the thief released by AXA Insurance has been embedded below. One objects is a Persian bas-relief, the other is a stone head from the Roman Empire. A $10,000 reward has been offered for anyone with information on the man caught in this security video. It reminds us that video, without more, is of very limited usefulness if the thief leaves the museum with the object. It is worth noting that this is not the first theft from the Montreal MFA, a number of works were stolen in 1972 in a crime which is still unsolved.

 

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

Art and Antiquities Crime Up 30% in Greece

“We have now come back, hiring just security personnel to man museums and archaeological sites. Well, doesn’t that prove our genuine conviction to safeguarding our cultural heritage?” 


So says Lina Mendoni, secretary general of the Greek Culture Ministry in response to questions that the Greeks aren’t paying enough to safeguard its sites. 


As protests continue to unfold in Greece, one report looks back at the theft of art from the Greek National Gallery in Athens. Anthee Carassava, reporting from Athens for the L.A. Times can’t help but to add a few glamorizing details to the theft. One of the thieves is a “virtuoso lock picker”. The thieves manipulated the security system and eluded the one guard on duty and stole works by Picasso (pictured here), Mondrian, and a sketch by Guglielmo Caccia. I’m always skeptical of reporting in one nation’s papers pointing fingers at the ineptness of another nation’s efforts to protect its heritage. This problem plagues loads of international reporting in places like Italy and also Greece. And even if we take the United States or United Kingdom, theft and looting takes place, and there aren’t enough security guards to police remote sites and small institutions, which results in the theft of objects. Market safeguards are unreliable, and the law enforcement framework all over the world is still developing. So when funding pressures and unrest take hold, there can be dire consequences for cultural security.

The theme of the report here ties the theft in this case to the wider theme of Greek austerity, and unrest.

Greece’s economic crisis has left the Culture Ministry desperately short of cash, resulting in a near-shutdown of scores of museums, dwindling archaeological work in various parts of the country and, in some cases, severe cutbacks in security. At the National Gallery, the curator acknowledged that although the safety of its collection “is not in peril,” budget cuts have scaled back security personnel by about 50% since 2010, leaving the country’s biggest storehouse of fine art with just 19 of the 37 guards it employed before the fiscal crisis.

. . .

Greece has never been a generous investor in culture. Even in the 1990s heyday of spendthrift policies, Athens allocated just 0.7% of the national budget for the promotion and preservation of Greece’s cultural inheritance. Now nearly bankrupt, the state has halved that figure to 0.35%, allotting 42% of that — about $173 million — to the operation and security of museums, monuments, monasteries and archaeological sites, according to the 2012 budget. Government officials are emphatic, however, that the financial crisis is not taking a toll on the safety of Greece’s fine art and antiquities.

. . .

About 1,900 government-paid guards protect more than 15,000 museums, monuments and archaeological sites across the country. Of these, 1,350 are full-time staff members; the rest are either contract employees hired during the peak tourist season or civil servants relocated from state corporations that the government shut down last year in a bid to slash public spending. “What am I supposed to do with a 63-year-old mechanic or bus driver who is clueless about antiquity and is just interested in clocking time until retirement?” asked Giorgos Dimakakos, the head guard at the Acropolis, Greece’s landmark monument. In recent months, Culture Ministry guards have heightened demands for permanent employment and an exemption from further austerity cuts, saying the government’s Band-Aid solutions to personnel shortages pose grave security and liability risks. With poverty levels rising and more than 100,000 businesses shuttered or close to bankruptcy, art and antiquities thefts are up by at least 30% in the last year, said Kouzilos of the special police unit. It’s hardly a surprise, then, to see a dramatic increase in small-time hoods and first-time crooks trying to join the ranks of seasoned art thieves.

I’d be interested in hearing how this security compares with even the ‘model’ in the rest of Europe or North America. I also wonder if it might be time to prepare a ‘red list’ of objects from Greece that the art market should report and flag.

  1. Anthee Carassava, Art heist robs Greece of a sense of security – latimes.com, L.A. Times, February 11, 2012, http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-greece-antiquities-20120212,0,3742515.story (last visited Feb 15, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Congratulations to Simon Mackenzie and Neil Brodie

Simon Mackenzie and Neil Brodie have been awarded a substantial grant to study the illicit trade in antiquities. This is very good news for those of us who follow this issue. Brodie and Mackenzie have both produced terrific research in this area, using empirical data to track the looting of sites and its connections to major art markets in New York, London, Paris, and Hong Kong. They have taken the study of antiquities looting from impressionistic accounts to a solid empirical foundation for future policy changes in the law and the art trade generally.

From an announcement on the Guardian’s web page:

“It’s extremely widespread,” said criminologist Dr Simon Mackenzie, who will lead the project. “There are architectural sites and museums that are being looted all over the world, including Britain and the USA, but obviously more so in the developing world. Previous safe areas have become accessible and the material is saleable. Nowhere is safe.” 
. . .
Neil Brodie, accepting an ARCA award in 2011
The market, says Neil Brodie, is driven by availability, and the size of an artefact is not a problem “It goes through phases. Greek pots have always been popular but there are not a lot of new Greek pots coming on the market so people might start marketing Iranian pottery. There is more actually coming out of Iran. Some of the pieces are huge; Cambodian sculptures, for example. “The people who sell this material they are actively wanting to create markets. If it becomes possible, for instance, to dig up rock art in the deep Sahara, they will be promoting that; they will actively create a market for it. There is a synergy between the accessibility and the availability of the material, and the marketability by the dealers. The internet has made that a lot easier.”
Congratulations to them both, best of luck with their important work.

  1. Kristy Scott, Glasgow team gets £1m grant to study illegal trade in antiquities, the Guardian, February 13, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/scotland-blog/2012/feb/13/glasgow-team-gets-1m-grant-to-study-illegal-trade-in-antiquities (last visited Feb 13, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

More Context on the Menil Frescoes

The Frescoes at the Menil in Montrose

The return of the Byzantine Frescoes to Cyprus presents an opportunity to consider what will happen to the physical space which was specially created to house them at the Menil in Houston. But it also offers an opportunity to look back at the acquisition process for the frescoes. Lisa Gray reports that at the time of the acquisition, Dominique de Menil understood they were dealing with ‘Thugs’:

An example of the chopped up mosaics before restoration

De Menil and her associates had flown to Munich, expecting to see two Byzantine frescoes of unusual excellence. Their contact, Turkish businessman Aydin Dikmen, led the little party to a ratty neighborhood at the edge of Munich, then up a flight of stairs to an apartment that had no electricity. In a room lit only by two candles, de Menil was shown two pieces of plaster (John the Baptist, plus part of an angel) propped against a wall. Other bits were packed in a crate. De Menil was horrified. “The pieces were too much chopped up to derive any impression of beauty,” she later told Texas Monthly reporter Helen Thorpe. “It was like a miserable human being that has to be brought to the hospital.” Through translators, Dikmen told her that the frescoes had been discovered under rubble at a construction site in Turkey. The de Menil party doubted the story. But de Menil agreed to pay Dikmen earnest money in exchange for the right to buy them in the future. At that point, she did something unusual for the wild-and-woolly 1980s antiquity market: She began earnestly trying to track down the frescoes’ rightful owner. Eventually, after many letters exchanged by lawyers and embassies, it became clear that the frescoes had been stolen from a tiny church near the town of Lysi, on the island of Cyprus. In 1974, after Turkey invaded northern Cyprus, looters systematically robbed the area’s churches and monuments of anything they could carry off. In the little church at Lysi, where the frescoes were painted into the walls’ plaster, they’d glued cloth to the walls’ surfaces, then used a chain saw and chisel to hack away Christ, Mary and the angels, yielding 38 cloth-fronted pieces.

It is a fascinating story of one of the rare examples of a collector working with the original owner to solve a theft, restore the mosaics, display them, and return them to Cyprus. But in this case, the thieves were rewarded. The mosaics were stripped from their church, sold on the international market in Munich. So it is a good result, and the Menil and the Byzantine Church of Cyprus should be rewarded, and yet this was a success for the thieves as well.

The Chapel in Lysi, Cyprus where the mosaics were stolen
  1. Lisa Gray, Afterlife for a chapel, Houston Chronicle, February 5, 2012, http://www.chron.com/life/gray/article/Gray-Afterlife-for-a-chapel-2968817.php#src=fb (last visited Feb 6, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Objects from the Mercedes Wreck to be Returned to Spain

Images from an Odyssey Marine Press Release of the Coins

The costs of recovering objects from underwater sites is very high. As Andrew Lambert, a maritime historian says, “If you want to stand in a cold shower tearing up £50 notes, go shipwreck hunting . . . Most shipwrecks are rotting away, or carrying dull things—all the romance has been taken out of it.” Those working for Odyssey Marine may feel the same way this week.

The company has had its motion denied; the motion asked to stay last year’s decision in the 11th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals in Atlanta this week.

This means the thousands of silver and gold coins the company spirited up from the ocean floor in the North Atlantic, and flown to Florida—will now finally reach Spain. The company may decide to appeal the case to the United States Supreme Court, which would be an expensive and risky undertaking. So for now at least, Spain has prevailed. As the embedded video below reports, the coins may finally reach their ultimate destination—Spain—over 200 years after they first began their journey. The coins were minted in Peru and were sent around South America, before their vessel wrecked in the North Atlantic. The Spanish culture minister states in the video embedded below the jump that Spain is willing to return some of the coins to South America, which is the origin of many of those objects.

Odyssey Marine will not be going away any time soon however. Odyssey has it seems carefully timed an announcement that it reached an agreement with the UK Ministry of Defence and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that will provide for, as Odyssey’s press release puts it “financing, archaeological survey and excavation, conservation and exhibit of HMS Victory (1744) and artifacts from the shipwreck site”.

HMS Victory in Portsmouth Harbour, 1828

So that site may provide objects, and Odyssey will receive “80% of the fair value” of most of the objects it may recover for the site. I’m not a marine archaeologist of course, and don’t know how well this agreement will preserve the archaeology of the site. On the one hand the wreck has been underwater for nearly two centuries, and the policy international legal instruments have taken is that that is the best place for them until they can be recovered. But on the other hand I’ve spoken to Odyssey employees that sites like this in the Atlantic are at risk due to commercial fishing, and other activities which disturb the site. And they have the pictures of scallop trawlers dragging through underwater sites. Yet is the answer to that destruction that we get these objects up quickly? Or should we mark these sites as marine preserves where commercial fishing cannot take place?

In the short term Odyssey has another wreck to attract investors, and buoy its stock price. This ‘stock treasure’, as one analyst argues, is the real treasure Odyssey is pursuing:

If the net recovery of Odyssey Marine is consistently negative, what exactly is its treasure? Like Mel Fisher, these folks want to chase the dream of finding the big score, with the romance of searching the unknown, and the possibility of becoming really famous (at least among wreck divers) and of getting on TV a few times to smile for Mom. Unlike Mel Fisher, these guys ahve figured out how not to get ruined doing it: Every time they run out of money, they ask you to refill their coffers. And that’s the real treasure of Odyssey Marine — they are chasing a romantic dream and being paid a nice salary to do so at the expense of investors who are unfamiliar with the outlandishly poor outlook for salvage operations.

Or as the New York Times breathlessly proclaims, this deal may be the ‘world’s richest shipwreck trove’. Perhaps, but not in the ways we might expect.

Background on Odyssey Marine here.

  1. Al Goodman, U.S. court backs Spain over $500M sea treasure, CNN, February 2, 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/02/01/world/europe/spain-u-s–treasure-dispute/index.html (last visited Feb 3, 2012).
  2. Brooke Bowman, Shipwreck hunters stumble across mysterious find – CNN.com, CNN, January 30, 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/01/28/world/europe/swedish-shipwreck-hunters/index.html (last visited Feb 3, 2012).
  3. William J. Broad, Deal to Salvage Britain’s Victory May Yield Richest Trove, The New York Times, February 1, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/02/science/wreck-of-british-ship-victory-may-yield-richest-trove.html (last visited Feb 3, 2012).

 

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

An Update on the Institute of Art and Law

The Institute of Art and Law sent along an announcement about an upcoming Study Forum and three new books:

We are holding a Study Forum on Saturday 3rd March in London.  It will start at 10.30 am and finish around 4.30 pm, and speakers will include Kevin Chamberlain, Richard Harwood, Charles Hill, Alexander Herman and Freda Matassa.  Further details can be found atwww.ial.uk.com/study030312 and reservations can be made either by email to Ruth Bowen (ruth.bowen@ial.uk.com) or online atwww.ial.uk.com/studyforumreserve.php.  The cost of the session is £144 (£120 plus VAT) with a 50% reduction for IAL members and past IAL students, and it will carry four hours’ Law Society CPD points.

In 2011 we published three new books – these can all be ordered online using the links below, or to be invoiced please email us

Taking it Personally: the Individual Liability of Museum Personnel, a collection of essays edited by Ruth Redmond-Cooper and Norman Palmer

Neglected Witnesses: The Fate of Jewish Ceremonial Objects During the Second World War and After
edited by Julie-Marthe Cohen with Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek

Cultural Heritage Conventions and Other Instruments: A Compendium with Commentaries by Patrick O’Keefe and Lyndel Prott.

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