Dinosaur fossils as illicit heritage

Eric Prokopi with a Tyrannosaurus skeleton
Eric Prokopi with a Tyrannosaurus skeleton

The Telegraph has a good extended look at Eric Prokopi and the trade in illegal fossils:

The law regarding ownership of fossils differs from country to country. In the UK, they are normally treated as “minerals” and, thus, ownership of fossils lies with the person who owns the mineral rights to the land on which the fossil is found. In America, ever since a Sioux rancher won the right to sell fossils found on his land and went on to auction a skeleton of a T. rex, in 1997, for a staggering $8.4million, fossil-hunting has become an expensive activity. Ranchers now sell the rights to any fossils that may be found on their land to the highest bidder.

As, a result, people have started looking farther afield, to countries where the law is not so rigorously applied. Mongolia prohibits the personal ownership of items of cultural significance, such as dinosaur remains, and is also a signatory to a UN convention prohibiting the “illicit import and export of cultural property”. However, an area like the Gobi desert, with its vast, remote landscape, is not only difficult to police but also includes an expanse of sandstone – known as the Nemegt Formation – which is one of the top two dinosaur sites in the world, in terms of diversity of specimens. It has proved irresistible to black-market dealers.

Hannaford, Alex. “The Trade in Stolen Dinosaur FossilsTelegraph.co.uk, October 30, 2013.

Roundtable on Heritage & Museums, University of Warwick November 6th

Heritage & Museums: Values, Ethics and Communities

Clive Gray and Charlotte Woodhead of the University of Warwick cordially invite you to the first of two roundtable discussions, the first being on the topic of Values and Communities. These sessions aim to bring together academics and practitioners from the museums and heritage sector to identify and discuss some of the core questions faced in practice.

This free event on Wednesday 6th November comprises a series of brief presentations (in the form of an introduction to the theme followed by a response) on the broad topics of: ‘Types of value’; ‘Whose value?’ and ‘Assigning value’. This will be followed by the opportunity to discuss the implication of these for the development of more specific research networks with a view to identifying key issues of concern to develop into innovative research initiatives. Full details can be found on the project website (details of which are set out below).

Speakers include: Lisanne Gibson (University of Leicester); Andrew Newman (ICCHS, Newcastle University); Anna Goulding (ICCHS, Newcastle University); Tatiana Flessas (London School of Economics); Edwina Mileham (The Wallace Collection); Stacey Bains (Herbert Museum, Coventry); Vikki McCall (Stirling University); Tess Radcliffe (Wolverhampton Museums and Galleries); Serena Iervolino (University of Warwick) and Sarah Shalgosky (The Mead Gallery).

The roundtable discussion will take place at the University of Warwick on Wednesday 6th November 2013 at 10am-4.30pm. If you would like to attend this event (there is no charge to attend and there is even a complementary lunch!) please complete our online form to reserve a place so that we can make appropriate catering arrangements.

To establish a platform for the discussion at the event (and also to inform future collaborative research networks and projects) we have created a short questionnaire. This should only take about 5-10 minutes to complete. All contributions to this will be gratefully received whether or not you are able to attend this event! All responses to this will remain anonymous.


Detroit and the difficult deaccession question

One of the Detroit Industry murals by Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Arts
One of the Detroit Industry murals by Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Arts

The city of Detroit has declared itself bankrupt. It also has a world class collection of art at the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA). The first to consult about what should happen to Detroit’s art must surely be Detroiters themselves. Yet one remarkable arts blogger referred to the potential sale of art as a “rape of its collection”. This kind of angry criticism reveals much more about the sorry state of certain arts commentary than it does the difficult decisions confronting Detroit. Because the same critics who pile on the city leaders in Detroit are often the same who angrily criticize efforts by nations of origin like Italy for attempting to repatriate works of art that have left the country. You cannot have it both ways. There must be some organizing logic other than: “I want it here”.

Continue reading “Detroit and the difficult deaccession question”

Calling the Kunsthal Museum’s security into question

An interesting bit of news from one of the six Romanian art thieves on trial for thefts from the Kunsthal museum. Those thefts saw works by Gauguin, Monet, Picasso stolen. At the time security experts pointed to flaws in the security of the building, despite its beauty.

The rear of the Kunsthal museum, where the thieves entered in 2012
The rear of the Kunsthal museum, where the thieves entered in 2012

Criticizing the security, Ton Cremers noted that securing valuable artworks in the Kunsthal was a ‘nightmare’:

As a gallery it is a gem. But it is an awful building to have to protect. If you hold your face up to the window at the back you have a good view of the paintings, which makes it all too easy for thieves to plot taking them from the walls…

Now it seems that one of the defendants, Radu Dogaru, is going to use the flaws in the security of the works to defend himself. The defendant and his lawyer is quoted by AFP:

“I could not imagine that a museum would exhibit such valuable works with so little security”, Dogaru told the court on Tuesday.
“We can clearly speak of negligence with serious consequences”, defence lawyer Catalin Dancu told journalists.
“If we do not receive answers about who is guilty” for the failure of the security system at the museum, “we are considering hiring Dutch lawyers to start a legal case in The Netherlands or in Romania.”
The lawyer explained that, if found guilty of negligence, the Kunsthal “would have to share the burden of compensation” with his client, who faces millions in claims from insurers.

Egypt’s Antiquities Minister on Looting in Egypt

Egypt’s Minister of State for Antiquities, Mohamed Ibrahim in a Washington Post Op-Ed:

Egyptians need the people and the government of the United States to support our efforts to combat the systematic and organized looting of our museums and archaeological sites. Imagine a world in which the stories of King Tut, Cleopatra, Ramesses and others were absent from the collective consciousness. And with much of our history still waiting to be discovered under the sand, the potential losses are staggering. Antiquities theft is one of the world’s top crimes — after the trafficking of weapons, narcotics and people — but it is seldom addressed.

Egyptian antiquities are flooding international markets. Recent auctions at Christie’s in London and New York included several items from Egypt. Fortunately, when contacted,Christie’s in London withdrew a number of items that had been stolen from the tomb of King Amenhotep III, discovered in 2000 in Luxor. Among the items was a steatite bust of an official dating from 1793 to 1976 B.C.

Although arrests were made in this case, and two auction houses in Jerusalem canceled the sale of 126 antiquities after being contacted by Egyptian officials, the tide unfortunately flows in the other direction. After being contacted by the Egyptian foreign ministry, other auction houses have been unwilling to cooperate with requests to delay or cancel sales of items that experts assess have been stolen. Among those who make their money selling antiquities, cooperation with the Egyptian government has been mixed at best.

Looting is a centuries-old business and a crime that Egyptians will no doubt be fighting for years, especially during difficult economic times. Our country is willing to take a strong stand. No one can forget the stark images of Egyptians — men and women, Muslims and Christians, young and old — creating a human shield to protect the Egyptian Museum in Cairo during the 2011 revolution. Still, thieves succeeded in stealing several items from its collection. Despite our government’s best efforts to retrieve those artifacts, more than 50 items, including some from the famous King Tut tomb, remain missing.



Ibrahim, Mohamed. “Egypt’s Stolen HeritageThe Washington Post, October 18, 2013.

Dispute over Klimt’s “Beethoven Frieze”

The “Beethoven Frieze” (1902), by Gustav Klimt
The “Beethoven Frieze” (1902), by Gustav Klimt

An interesting dispute is unfolding involving this terrific Klimt. It involves a sale of the work which was given at far below the market price in exchange for the export of other works of art. From the NYT:

The gold-painted frieze was owned by the Lederer family, wealthy Austrian Jews who were important patrons of Klimt’s. When the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938, the family escaped to Switzerland, but its extensive art collection was seized and its once formidable industrial empire bankrupted. Many of the family’s valuable works, including 18 Klimts, were destroyed in the final days of the war.

The mammoth frieze survived and was formally returned to Erich Lederer, the family heir, after the war. But there was a hitch. The Austrian government would grant him export licenses for his other artworks only if he sold the “Beethoven Frieze” to the state at a cut-rate price, Mr. Lederer’s heirs say.

In a 1972 letter to Bruno Kreisky, then the Austrian chancellor, Mr. Lederer complained about what he considered government extortion, writing that officials were “trying to force me to my knees” and thinking “why won’t he finally die, this LEDERER!”

Mr. Lederer finally agreed to sell the frieze to the government in 1973 for $750,000: half of its estimated worth at the time, according to an evaluation by Christie’s. Since 1986, it has been on view at the turn-of-the-century Secession gallery, where it was first shown at a 1902 exhibition named after Klimt’s breakthrough art movement.

Georg Graf, a law professor and restitution expert at the University of Salzburg, who is supporting the family’s claim, said, “While the Austrian Republic did formally return the artwork after the war, it ultimately forced Erich Lederer to sell it back in old age by upholding the export ban.”

Cohen, Patricia. “Heirs Press Austria to Return Looted Klimt Frieze.The New York Times, October 15, 2013.

Federal and local cooperation in the Kapoor investigation

I heard Manhattan prosecutor Matthew Bogdanos present at a conference a few years ago. His discussion focused on his work in Iraq after the U.S-led invasion. But the main thing I remember was his stated intention to prosecute one dealer of looted antiquities. Just one. He may be getting closer to that goal.

The NY Times reports that the sister of Subhash Kapoor, a woman named Sushma Sareen, has been arrested and charged with hiding four bronze statues of hindu deities. They are valued at close to $15 million.  Kapoor has been described as a dealer in looted and stolen art on a level which would far eclipse even Giacomo Medici or Robert Hecht. Upwards of 200 objects have been traced from Kapoor to prominent museums including the Norton Simon, the MFA in Boston, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and others. He has been described by Federal Customs Enforcement Special Agent James T. Hayes as “one of the most prolific commodities smugglers in the world”. Kapoor is facing looting charges in India; but now it seems his family has become the target of federal and local prosecutors in New York.

Tom Mashberg reports:

The criminal complaint filed in Manhattan says Ms. Sareen took charge of her brother’s business operations after he was arrested and traveled to India to arrange for wire transfers and contact the smuggling network.

Ms. Sareen, 60, who is charged with four counts of criminal possession of stolen property, was released on $10,000 bail. Her lawyer, Scott E. Leemon of Manhattan, said that his client denied the charges.

In three raids after the initial seizures at the Art of the Past gallery, federal authorities confiscated more than $90 million in Indian antiquities from storage units in Manhattan linked to Mr. Kapoor. Simultaneously, they asked American museums to examine their collections for items they might have obtained from Mr. Kapoor. While some said they had drawings and terra cotta items donated by him, none have reported owning an ancient statue.

  1. Tom Mashberg, New Arrest in Inquiry on Art Looting, The New York Times, October 11, 2013.

Art Theft Ring Uncovered in Albania

More than 1,000 works of art have been seized by authorities in Albania after the discovery of an art-trafficking operation. Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama was quoted by the BBC:

Welcoming the police operation, Mr Rama said the artwork had “risked joining the long list of works that have crossed the country’s borders”.

He said it was one of the largest operations against art trafficking, but that it marked just the beginning of a campaign in which he appealed to Albanians to “redress this lamentable plight of our heritage”.

Experts say that Albania’s Orthodox churches have been plundered of much of their art work since the fall of communism, and that the trafficking of stolen art is widespread.

“[Albanian society] has forgotten that this might be our temporary house, but it remains the perennial abode of generations to come and we owe it to them to pass on the country we inherited from our ancestors,” the prime minister said.

“Albanian Police Seize Stolen Art.” BBC, October 9, 2013, sec. Europe. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-24468977.