A Hollow Victory for Mexico in the Barbier-Mueller Sale

Lot 137, which did sell,
for 2,001,500 Euro

On Friday and Saturday in Paris Sotheby’s auctioned a number of allegedly Pre-Columbian objects from the Barbier-Mueller collection.

Nord Wennerstrom reports that many of the lots sold for less than the low estimate, and 79 of 151 lots failed to sell. His take: the auction ended as “inauspiciously as it began”. Sotheby’s lists its sale results here.

The auction generated considerable interest last week. In anticipation of the sale Mexican officials protested and noted: “Of the 130 objects advertised as being from Mexico, 51 are archaeological artifacts that are (Mexican) national property, and the rest are handicrafts”. In this case “handicrafts” is a very polite way of pointing out that some of the objects are fakes or forgeries. In this case the sale continued, but the considerable notoriety surrounding the sale certainly diminished the market value of these objects, and in many cases made these objects too toxic perhaps for some buyers.

French diplomats last week did not intervene in the sale noting that none of the objects had appeared on the Interpol database, or the “red list” published by the International Council of Museums.

Sotheby’s Paris on its website stated the collect was started in 1920 by Jose Mueller. His son-in-law Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller broadened the collection. Sotheby’s described Barbier-Mueller as “a great aesthete and man of culture”.

Here’s an extended quote from the overview given by Sotheby’s:

In 1908 and 1909 Josef Mueller acquired major works by Hodler and Cézanne in Paris. While initially focusing on Western masterpieces of universal appeal, he soon became attracted by important works of Pre-Columbian art, his first purchase being an Aztec ‘water goddess’ in Paris in 1920. His son-in-law Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller, a great aesthete and man of culture, brought this high standard of collecting to other fields, such as African Art, Oceanic Art and Cycladic Art. His dedicated focus has resulted in the well-deserved reputation for excellence that the collections have today. Mr. Barbier-Mueller and his wife Monique Barbier-Mueller (Josef Mueller’s daughter), who has pursued modern and contemporary art, have achieved one of the foremost collections of art in private hands, one defined by their sophisticated knowledge and refined eye.

Some of this collection had been in existence since the early part of the 20th century. But not all of it. In a case like this, Mexico and other nations of origin have a limited range of options here. Their best way to attack the sale of these objects is exactly what it did. Make a public protest over the sale, and enlist the power of the press to reduce the market value of these under-provenanced objects. We are unsure now what will happen to the objects which did not sell. Contrast this situation with what might have happened had this auction occurred in the United States.

Increasingly unprovenanced objects are being regulated by Federal prosecutors, at least in New York and St. Louis. We certainly don’t know if a forfeiture would have happened in this case, or indeed if that was even a consideration in the decision to sell these objects in Paris rather than New York. But it is yet another example of the complex web of legal rules and norms which apply to the antiquities trade.

  1. Mark Stevenson, Mexico demands Sotheby’s halt auction of artifacts, The Washington Post, March 23, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/mexico-demands-sothebys-halt-auction-of-artifacts/2013/03/21/e5d18316-9274-11e2-bdea-e32ad90da239_story.html (last visited Mar 25, 2013).
  2. Mike Boehm, Mexico trying to stop antiquities sale at Sotheby’s in Paris, Los Angeles Times, March 22, 2013, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-mexico-wants-to-stop-sothebys-precolumbian-art-auction-20130321,0,5085665.story?track=rss (last visited Mar 25, 2013).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

My Piece on the Cultural Heritage Movement and Environmental Justice

A typical row house in Houston’s 4th Ward, from 1984. Via FPH.

I’ve just received the final proof of an article I’ve written where I try to trace the connections between material culture and the environment: Justice and the Cultural Heritage Movement: Using Environmental Justice to Appraise Art and Antiquities Disputes, 20 Va. J. Soc. Pol’y & L. 43 (2012).

In the piece I look to some of the writing being done on environmental justice and I think about what lessons we can take as cultural heritage advocates. I examine disputes ranging from looting of antiquities sites to the lack of preservation of certain areas here in Houston like Freedmen’s town.

Here’s a short video segment interviewing an advocate for Houston’s Fourth Ward:

It’s a theoretical piece. One which I’ll freely admit is partly aspirational. But one that I’m proud of. As always I’d welcome any feedback. Here’s the abstract:

What does justice require? This paper aims to spark a conversation about the role of justice in art and antiquities disputes by introducing the concept of cultural justice. Borrowing from a principle known as environmental justice, cultural justice allows the application of critical scrutiny to the law and norms that govern cultural heritage. The history of environmental justice—including both its successes and failures—offers important lessons for the cultural heritage movement. Environmental and cultural injustice plagues the same nations and groups: Africa, Central and South America, and indigenous groups are denied the same environmental and cultural benefits. The cultural heritage movement has been subject to the same criticisms as the environmental justice movement, but has not had the benefit of an animating theoretical framework. The law strains to resolve art and antiquities disputes. Examining disputes through the lens of cultural justice allows us to move beyond thinking about art in terms of keeping it in museums (or the art trade) or returning it to its nation of origin. This paper applies Rawls’s theory of justice to cultural heritage and presents a taxonomy of cultural justice, examining in detail its distributive, procedural, corrective, and social aspects. Thinking about cultural justice allows a deeper understanding of the reasons why cultural heritage disputes are so difficult to resolve. By considering cultural justice, we can also begin to define the limits of what law and policy can do to remedy historical and contemporary art taking. These limits have eluded cultural heritage advocates, subjecting the cultural heritage movement to broad criticisms.

As always, I am very happy to post any link or abstract to anyone’s writing in the cultural heritage field, whether it’s a work in progress or has been published. Just drop me a comment below, or email me at derek.fincham ‘at’ gmail.com.

Justice and the Cultural Heritage Movement: Using Environmental Justice to Appraise Art and Antiquities Disputes, 20 Va. J. Soc. Pol’y & L. 43 (2012).

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

Trafficking Culture are Guest-Editing the EJCPR

The folks at Trafficking Culture are guest-Editing an upcoming edition of the EJCPR. Here are the details:

The European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research is a peer-reviewed international criminology journal with a special interest in transnational organized crime. It is run by Editor-in-Chief Ernesto U. Savona (Professor of Criminology, Università Cattolica del S. Cuore- Milan Director of TRANSCRIME (Joint Research Centre on Transnational Crime) and Managing Editor Dr. Stefano Caneppele (stefano.caneppele@unicatt.it).
Each year thematic special issues of the EJCPR are published. These special issues are devoted to innovative topics in the field of criminology and criminal justice, and in 2014 theTrafficking Culture team at the University of Glasgow will be guest editing one with a focus on ‘trafficking cultural objects’. For criminologists, this is something of a niche area of study, and more attention has tended to be paid to other types of transnational criminal trade. The Trafficking Culture research programme has been established to advance the evidence base in this area, as well as to undertake theoretical work and comparative study of the trafficking of cultural objects as contrasted with other types of transnational illicit commodity trade. The guest editors’ aim for this special issue is to gather together a collection of papers which inform this topic. The field of ‘illicit antiquities’ studies has been built around contributions which cross disciplines. Lawyers, archaeologists, art world professionals, anthropologists and criminologists have all played a part in explicating the issues and debating the solutions. We therefore welcome contributions to this special issue from writers in any discipline, although papers should consider the parameters of EJCPR as a criminal policy and research publication.
Original evidence-based research and/or analytical manuscripts are invited on any aspect of crime in relation to the problem of trafficking in cultural objects, and the topic is widely framed for the purposes of this publication to include all aspects of the trade in illicit antiquities, including socio- economic, cultural and criminological contexts, and beyond these core topics, comparable crime policy problems which may offer transferable solutions to these fields of illicit entrepreneurial activity.We would also be pleased to hear from those with expertise in this field who would be prepared to act as peer reviewers for the special issue.
The deadline for first draft submissions is Friday 28 June 2013.
Decisions about the outcome of the submission accompanied with detailed reviews will be sent out to authors by Friday 4 October 2013.
Should the submissions require revisions these should be completed and submitted by Friday 31 January 2014.
It would be helpful if the manuscripts do not exceed 7,000 words including Figures, Tables and References. For information on other aspects of the EJCPR manuscript format please see the Instructions for Authors on the journal’s website above.
Manuscripts should be submitted through an electronic system. In order to complete the review process, authors are asked to submit their articles online at http://www.editorialmanager.com/crim, following the Instructions for Authors.
Please circulate this call to anyone who might be interested. For formal or informal inquiries about any aspect of the process please contact the guest editor Prof Simon Mackenzie.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

The FBI Says it Has Identified Gardner Thieves

Have you seen these works? If so you might be entitled to a $5 million reward…

But the headline makes it seem a recovery is closer at hand than it may be. Every day after St. Patrick’s Day, I’ve come to expect pieces discussing the theft of $500 million worth of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

But today’s stories are a little different. The FBI has used today’s anniversary to “widen the aperature of awareness” of the crime through a press release, webpage, and billboards. They say they know that the art was transported to Connecticut and Philadelphia after the theft. And the FBI even says it knew who the thieves are, though they aren’t releasing that information. What they hope to accomplish is a recovery, and to do that they need a member of the public to come forward with some information. It’s a worthy goal, hopefully the attention will finally secure the return.

Here’s the FBI’s  press release, and here is the special webpage the FBI has created to announce its $5 million reward.

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

Art & Law Symposium in Basel, June 14

I’ve been forwarded on some details of an Art & Law Symposium scheduled on June 14 in Basel. From the website, in German:

Freitag, 14. Juni 2013, 09.15-17.15 Uhr
Juristische Fakultät, Universität Basel, Peter Merian-Weg 8, Basel, Pro Iure Auditorium
In diesem Jahr dürfen Dr. Peter Mosimann und PD Dr. Beat Schönenberger bereits zum vierten Mal ein an kunstrechtlichen Fragen interessiertes Publikum zur Tagung „Kunst & Recht/Art & Law“ einladen. Wie gewohnt findet dieses Seminar am Freitag der Art Basel-Woche in den Räumlichkeiten der Juristischen Fakultät Basel statt.
Die Organisatoren konnten wiederum hochkarätige Experten aus dem In- und Ausland gewinnen, die in ihren Referaten das weit gefächerte Fachgebiet des Kunstrechts widerspiegeln. Nach dem Grusswort des Rektors der Universität Basel (Prof. Antonio Loprieno) wird ein zentrales Anliegen der Kunstsammlung an sich, nämlich das Bewahren, aus einer erbrechtlichen Perspektive beleuchtet werden (Prof. Xavier Oberson). Dabei ist insbe-sondere auch die Kunststiftung als Mittel der Erhaltung einer Sammlung von zentralem Interesse. Zeitgenössische Kunstformen, wie multimediale Werke, stellen heute nicht nur Sammler und Kuratoren, sondern auch Juristen vor neue Herausforderungen. Auch anhand der Beuys-Aktion von 1964 werden urheberrechtliche Fragen im Zusammenhang mit solchen Werken dargestellt (Dr. Gernot Schulze). Anschliessend soll aber auch ein Galerist zur Problematik im Umgang mit aktuellen Kunstformen zu Wort kommen (Stefan von Bartha). Der zweite Teil des Seminars ist zuerst dem Thema der Bewertung und Risikokalkulation bei Hingabe von Kunstwerken als Sicherheit gewidmet, wozu ein renommierter Experte aus New York referieren wird (Stephen D. Brodie). Den Abschluss der diesjährigen Tagung „Kunst & Recht“ wird ein Ausblick auf das Thema „Bildende Kunst & Politik“ machen (Yves Fischer). Die Veranstaltung wird unterstützt durch:

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

Increasing the Use of Forfeiture in Policing Heritage

The NYT’s Tom Mashberg reports that Sharon Cohen Levin and Alexander Wilson (two Assistant U.S. Attorney’s) have traveled to Cambodia to examine the site where the 10th Century Koh Ker statue was likely looted in Cambodia. I have no way of knowing whether a trip like this is unusual or not. It seems to me to be a good idea to get some context for the original looting. For those who don’t know, Assistant U.S. attorneys are the Federal government’s prosecutors. And when these folks take on a case, they do so selectively, and generally only if they are confident in a win. These offices across the country have a very high winning percentage in the cases they take on. So it is not much of a surprise that these AUSA’s have decided to make a trip to Cambodia to examine the site itself:

The NYT image of the feet at the temple
where the Koh Ker statue was likely looted

A Cambodian government spokesman, Ek Tha, said the delegation that visited the temple included Cambodian and foreign archaeologists. A federal judge is scheduled to rule in weeks on whether the government’s case to seize the statue can proceed to trial. In earlier arguments District Judge George B. Daniels has pressed prosecutors on what proof they had that the statue, called the Duryodhana, was taken in the 1970s. Sotheby’s has been trying to sell the statue, valued at as much as $3 million, on behalf of its Belgian owner since 2011. The United States government says the auction house had reason to suspect that the statue had been stolen, and that it is the rightful property of Cambodia, citing laws governing antiquities adopted when the country was a colony of France. Sotheby’s has said the statue was legally purchased in good faith from a reputable London auction house in 1975 by the owner’s husband, now deceased, who had no reason to suspect that such a sale could be bound by laws set by a government that had long passed from power. In a statement the auction house said the trip by the lawyers “will not change critical weaknesses in the government’s case — most importantly, its reliance on hopelessly ambiguous French colonial decrees.”

Those French decrees aren’t all that ambiguous when considered in light of these two feet without the rest of the statue.

I thought the comments of Rick St. Hilaire were interesting, he argued that this trip was a kind of show of force by the AUSA’s. Not sure if that is true or not, or even if these folks even need to be concerned with a  show of force, but it does highlight I think how even remote areas like this temple complex are more closely connected than before, and that makes a forfeiture proceeding like this more likely to proceed.

  1. Tom Mashberg, United States Officials Travel to Cambodia in Statue Case, The New York Times, March 1, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/02/arts/design/united-states-officials-travel-to-cambodia-in-statue-case.html (last visited Mar 4, 2013).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com