Very early this morning the artwork at the 5Pointz was whitewashed over at the urging of Jerry and David Walkoff, the landlords of the building. 5 Pointz has become a canvas for Graffiti artists. Last week a federal judge in Brooklyn denied a temporary injunction petition by artists seeking to save the building from demolition.
In an interesting twist, this whitewashing may be considered an act of intentional mutilation and destruction, and may in fact make VARA claims for these artists more likely to succeed—particularly if the intentional destruction of these works can be shown to prejudice the honor and reputation of specific individuals. The whitewashing was certainly done in a direct way to preclude further legal action, but it may have only emboldened opponents and demonstrated some really egregious bad faith on the part of the building owners.
The Chasing Aphrodite blog has the story of a noteworthy new federal forfeiture involving billionaire hedge-fund manager and buyer of antiquities, Michael Steinhardt. At issue is this lovely fresco allegedly looted from Paestum. The name Steinhardt will likely be a familiar one as he was a claimant who lost another federal forfeiture action over the Gold Phiale, which helped set useful precedents for federal prosecutors.
The Federal prosecutor’s complaint alleges the importation of the fresco violated US customs law, §1595a, which prohibits the importation of objects contrary to law. The fresco was part of a FedEx shipment into Newark in 2011 that was detained by Customs and Border Protection. the shipment had a customs declaration form, but again, just like with the Godl Phiale case there appears to been misstatements on the customs form with respect to the country of origin for this object. The form declared the origin to be Macedonia, while the complaint alleges the fragment was taken from a tomb in Paestum.
The provenance for the object claims that the fresco was acquired by Lens Tschanned from a Swis art gallery in 1959, and it had been in his home from then until April of 2011. The fresco had no export permissions.
Customs and Border Protection contacted the Italian Carabinieri, and the Tutela Patrimonio Cultrale was able to identify the object as the pediment of a painted tomb north of Paestum in present-day Salerno. This site is known as the necropolis of Andriuolo. The complaint alleges that the figures on the fresco in question are painted in mirror image to another fresco from tomb 53 suggesting they may have likely been installed on different sides of the same tomb.
Here’s the mirror image fresco from tomb 53, which is not on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Paestum. Federal prosecutors appended both of these images in the complaint:
Chasing Aphrodite gives some background of the company Mat Artcare, based in Switzerland:
Mat Securitas is the same Swiss shipping service that transported the Getty Museum’s looted goddess of Aphrodite from Switzerland to London. (See Chasing Aphrodite p. 148).Their motto is “Safe. Discrete. Reliable.”
Will Steinhardt litigate this dispute as aggressively as he did in the 1990’s with the Gold Phiale forfeiture? The Federal complaint makes an extremely compelling case that this fragment was looted from a tomb in Paestum. It’s connection to macedonia seems ludicrous when compared to the other pediment which was excavated and is on display at the museum there.
Egypt has issued an alert asking for the return of this statue of Tutankhamun’s sister. This and close to 1000 other objects were stolen from the Mallawi City Museum in Egypt in August. The publicity given to this object in particular is a very good idea, as it will likely drive down any possible licit market for this stolen object, and may perhaps compel its current possessors to return it and any other objects. There have been a reported 600 other objects returned, but there are many many other objects still missing. Egypt gave UNESCO a 300 page list in Arabic of objects which were taken.
In a piece describing the looting and the destruction in Egypt generally in the last 3 years, Richard Spencer offers accounts from those on the ground in Egypt during the Mallawi theft:
“We heard what had happened in Cairo and started to see the gangs gather,” said Jaihan Nessim, a curator at Mallawi Museum. It was clearly in a dangerous position, next to the city’s municipal offices and round the corner from the police station.
“Then there were big crowds, and they started firing into the air.”
Eventually the staff closed the museum and left it in the protection of the tourist police, but they were attacked and driven off. Within hours, the museum had been almost totally wrecked, with attempts to defend it beaten away. A ticket seller was among those killed in the unrest.
The looting was continuing when Miss Hanna arrived three days later.
Eventually, the provincial chief of tourist police, Col Abdulsamie Farghali, called members of his own family to stand guard while she and colleagues inspected the damage and took what could be salvaged to safe storage.
She said she asked two teenagers what they were doing. “They said, ‘The government is destroying their people, so we are destroying this because it belongs to the government’,” she said.
Of 1,089 exhibits, only 46 remained, items too heavy to carry off, and some of those were smashed and burned. Wooden sarcophagi simply split open. An Old Kingdom, 23rd Century BC statue of Pharaoh Pepi and his queen had parts of the faces broken off and its pedestal split.
A glimmer of good news from Iraq, where cultural heritage has sustained so much damage. Martin Bailey reports for the Art Newspaper that the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad could reopen as soon as next year. The museum (and other in Iraq) were shuttered during the 1991 Gulf War, and have only intermittently reopened in the subsequent two decades.
The main obstacle given to reopening the Baghdad museum is the lack of a new entrance building, needed to strengthen security and provide facilities, such as a café. Initially it was to be a replica of the Ishtar Gate at Babylon, but this idea was dropped as it was thought to be too gimmicky. Building work has now started on a more conventional entrance building. The tense security situation in Baghdad has also contributed to the decade-long delay. Most of the Baghdad museum’s curatorial and administrative staff of 130 are working on a database of the collection, which Eden said numbers more than 500,000 objects (around half are antiquities and the remainder individual coins). Only 50,000 items have been added to the database after years of work, so at this rate it will take many decades to complete. The labelling of antiquities in the galleries is rudimentary and needs improving.
And there are even plans to convert one of Saddam Hussein’s many palaces to a new museum with antiquities and exhibits describing Sumer, Babylon and Ashur.
The first phase of the building work involving the palace’s exterior and installing security measures was completed a year ago, but the second phase has been delayed because the lengthy process of electing a new governor for Basra province has slowed down the tender process. Qahtan Al Abeed said that the museum’s interior should be completed in a year.
“Allowing the Estate to retain the tablet based on a spoils of war doctrine would be fundamentally unjust.”
So held New York’s highest court in a ruling today ordering the return of this Ancient gold antiquity to Germany. This was the second appeal to resolve the dispute over this small tablet. In an earlier probate proceeding, the estate was allowed to keep the tablet on the grounds that the German museum had waited too long to make its claim. The German claimant was the Vorderasiatisches Museum, a branch of the Pergamon in Berlin.
Here’s the story of the tablet based on the court’s ruling. Its a 3,000-year-old gold tablet which dates to the 13th Century BCE. The tablet was found before the first World War by German archaeologists near the Ishtar temple in Ashur, Iraq. The tablet was in the inventory of a Berlin Museum starting in 1926. The Museum was closed during the second World War, and its collection was put in storage. But in 1945 the tablet was discovered to be missing.
The tablet “resurfaced” in 2003 when its possessor, Riven Flamenbaum, passed away and his daughter and executor of his estate Hannah listed a “coin collection” in the accounting. But her brother Israel objected to the accounting and asserted that what he described as a “gold wafer” was an ancient Assyrian artifact and properly belonged to a German Museum.
The court opinion is silent on how Flamenbaum may have acquired the tablet. The story according to the family was that the elder Flamenbaum, an Auschwitz holocaust survivor, acquired the tablet from a Russian soldier in exchange for cigarettes. Hannah Flamenbau is quoted by the AP with respect to her claim that “The thought was if we’re allowed to retain it, put it on display in one of the museums, whether down here in Battery Park City in Manhattan or even in Israel. Use it as a way to talk about the Holocaust … and my parents’ story”.
The estate argued that it should retain the tablet because of the doctrine of laches, an equitable legal principle that essentially says it would be unjust to let a claimant wait this long to make a claim. However, the New York Court of Appeals held that though there may have been a delay, it was not unreasonable in light of the circumstances, and importantly no injustice would be done to the estate. Especially considering there was an indication that Flamenbaum knew the tablet rightfully belonged to a German museum.
The other claim was that when Russia invaded Germany, Russia acquired artifacts like the tablet from Germany as spoils of war, and thus the German Museum could no longer hold good title. This legal argument conflicts with the steady stream of domestic and international principles of the last 150 years. You cannot invade a nation and strip it of its works of art. And so, this unlikely dispute which arose out of a dispute between siblings who lost their father results in the return of this gold tablet to Germany.
In a longform piece for the New York Times magazine, Ed Caesar has a thoughtful and wonderfully-written discussion of art theft that (amazingly!) offers some new insights into a well-worn subject. Here is a taste, but the whole piece is worth a read:
Still, the concept of art as collateral is tricky. The best chance for a painting to express a monetary value would seem to be from a ransom. But how often do insurers make payouts to criminals? Robert Korzinek, the fine-arts underwriter who insured the Kunsthal claim, says that his organization is not in the business of paying for the return of stolen art. It sometimes pays for “information leading to the return” of a painting, but the sums involved are small and distributed only with the approval of local law enforcement. The underwriter says there is a belief among criminals, however, that large payments are made regularly, and because of this, they often use paintings as part of their “complex trades.”
“All markets work on confidence,” Korzinek says. “If you have a perception that there will be value attached to that object, then you can use it as a commodity. . . . I can sit here and say we don’t pay ransoms, but people don’t believe it.”
One reason for that is a well-known case in the early 2000s when the Tate Gallery in London successfully negotiated for the return of two J. M. W. Turners that were stolen in 1994 while on loan. Having bought back the title to the paintings from the insurers, the Tate delivered a vast sum of money — around £3.5 million, or $5.6 million — to a lawyer named Edgar Liebrucks, who used the money to help secure the paintings for the museum. This payment was for “information leading to the return,” but some in the art world interpreted it as a ransom. (Korzinek calls the Turners situation a “one off.” British and German authorities approved the exchange.)
In an op-ed in the Australian, Lyndel Prott argues that Australia’s Attorney-General George Brandis should repatriate this Bronze idol to India:
Documents revealed in The Australian state the gallery, under director Ron Radford, paid alleged smuggling mastermind Subhash Kapoor $5.1 million for the 900-year-old statue. There have been several other notorious cases of similar bronzes. One arrived in the Norton Simon Museum, California, in 1973. India protested and, following an agreement in 1976 to allow its exhibition in that museum for nine years, it was returned to India.
These events, widely published at the time, should have put any potential purchaser on notice to research diligently the origin of any such item offered. Furthermore, the International Council of Museums has had a strict code of ethics since 1986 concerning acquisitions. A museum professional should not support illicit traffic and should follow national legislation and the principles of the 1970 convention, which require governments, for example, to take the necessary measures to prevent museums from acquiring cultural property originating in another state party and that has been illegally exported.
Australia adopted federal legislation to implement that agreement, the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986, and set up the National Cultural Heritage Committee to supervise its workings. It is an offence to import an object that has been exported illegally — as is the case of the idol in the hands of the NGA. If such an object arrives in Australia, it may be forfeited. A person who imports an object, knowing that the object is a protected object of a foreign country whose export was prohibited by a law of that country, is guilty of an offence.
Let us live up to our international commitments and our own legislation. We await a thorough and rapid review of this case and a decision from the new Attorney-General.