Call for Papers: Art-Law Centre Geneva June 13-14

The Art-Law Centre in Geneva is organizing a conference June 13-14th in Geneva. The full call for papers is here. From the call:


The Art-Law Centre of the University of Geneva is convening all those engaged in research and teaching in the field of Art and Cultural Heritage Law to the First All Art and Cultural Heritage Law Conference. At the Conference, the three themes described below will be examined and discussed. For each theme, a panel of 4 experts has been selected, and other experts will be drawn from this call for papers. The panel’s chair will lead the discussion which will take place before the conference between the panelists and the authors. At the conference, the results of that exchange will be presented and further developed.

Roodt on the limits of art restitution

Repatriated Etruscan objects, part of the Nostoi exhibition
Repatriated Etruscan objects, part of the Nostoi exhibition

Dr. Christa Roodt has written a piece for the International Law Journal of Southern Africa titled “Restitution of art and cultural objects and its limits”. She is a Research Lecturer at the University of Glasgow. Her piece is available from Trafficking Culture.

The abstract:

Art and cultural objects have a complex nature and status. A legal approach cannot escape having to state which objects come within the scope of the definition, but an objective legal definition in abstracto is difficult to provide. Because the flows of licit and illicit objects are so intermixed, both the legitimate and underground art markets are implicated in the trade involving these objects. Global legal diversity further complicates the distinction between the licit and the illicit trade. This article takes stock of restitution and suitable dispute settlement mechanisms against this backdrop. Restitution processes have become more openly policy-oriented, and the meaning of ‘restitution’ now extends to overcoming the legal obstacles in the way of return. Law can provide the framework for negotiation and dispute settlement in many cases, but the ethical dimension is a particularly powerful agent for restitution of Nazi spoliated art and human remains.



Roodt, C. (2013) ‘Restitution of art and cultural objects and its limits’, Comparative and International Law Journal of Southern Africa XLVI, 286-307.

An Appreciation for The Train

Burt Lancaster as French Resistance fighter Labiche in The Train
Burt Lancaster as French Resistance fighter Labiche in The Train

As the George Clooney project Monuments Men, based on the work by Robert Edsel, finally nears its release on February 7th, it may be worth revisiting a 1964 masterpiece.

How many men should die to save a work of art? How much money should be devoted to its protection and preservation? The Train forces us to consider our answer. Set in 1944, in the final days of the war, the conflict has all but been decided, and the question raised by the film is not the simple question of whether a Monet or Braque should be worth the sacrifice of human lives, but a more complicated question. Director John Frankenheimer asks the audience to consider how many men and women should die to keep the works in France at the end of a long and deadly struggle. The film weighs the lives against innocents, against enough money to equip “ten panzer divisions”, and against the lives of French resistors. The result is one of the very best anti-war films.

Continue reading “An Appreciation for The Train”

Explosion at the Islamic Art Museum in Cairo

On Friday in Cairo three explosive devices have killed a reported five people. One of those explosions was close to the Museum of Islamic Art in central Cairo. The facebook page titled ‘Egypt’s Heritage Task Force’ reports:

Unfortunately, the hanging ceiling at the museum collapsed due to the explosion while several of the objects such as those of glass and ceramics have been seriously damaged. The museum dates back to 1870 and as can be seen from the images, its front face has been seriously affected. In Dar el-kutub behind the museum, 8 manuscripts have been destroyed and several others damaged and are currently being transferred to a safe place.

The Islamic Art Museum in Cairo, picture via Egypt's Heritage Task Force
The Islamic Art Museum in Cairo, picture via Egypt’s Heritage Task Force

There may be more risks to museums in the coming days. January 25th marks the three-year anniversary of the Revolution of 2011 which ousted former Prime Minister Hosni Mubarak. It also led to increased looting of remote archaeological sites, and coincided with thefts at the Cairo Museum of Antiquity, along with other incidents of damage, looting and destruction. But there were also examples of Egyptians standing up and shielding their own heritage from destruction.

The Museum of Islamic Art was re-opened in 2010 after an eight-year renovation project.

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Italy protests against selling antiquities to satisfy Symes’s debts

ivory mask
An ivory head of Apollo, looted in 1995 by Pietro Casasanta near the Baths of Claudius, and seized from Robin Symes in 2003 and repatriated to Italy.

Italy is making another great push for information and cooperation in recovering material from Robin Symes. Why is Italy pressuring the Government and not the estate of Symes? Because the objects may be used to satisfy a tax judgment. These illicit antiquities were seized not because they  have illicit histories—though allegedly many of them do. Rather these objects are being held for an eventual sale that may be used to satisfy tax obligations. The disagreement over the objects sets up a conflict between Italy and Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs which is holding the objects. The issue is the tax bill owed by Symes’s firm which is now in liquidation. The Art Newspaper reports that the liquidator attempting to satisfy Symes’s creditors, BDO, may be considering selling the antiquities to Abu Dhabi in order to help that nation build its collection of classical antiquities. And Italy is threatening to sue the liquidating firm.

Robin Symes is an interesting figure. He once held the dubious distinction of being London’s most widely-known antiquities dealer. In a short piece for Culture in Context, Peter Watson describes the fall of Symes (hosted by the folks at Trafficking Culture). It began at a rented villa in Umbria in 1999:

At a dinner . . . hosted by (the late) Mr. Leon Levy, a noted collector of antiquities, and his wife Shelby White, Mr. Symes’s partner, Mr. Christo Michaelides, fell down some steps, hit his head on a radiator, and died in hospital the next day.

Symes and Michaelides had lived together as a couple since the 1970s, but Michaelides’s Greek family considered the men business partners as well, and sought a portion of the antiquities business. This led to a great deal of court scrutiny into Symes and the objects he was buying and selling. Watson reported in 2004:

So far, this case had been a civil case. However, during the course of the (interlocutory) hearings, it had transpired that Mr Symes, who had originally
admitted to storing his assets (mainly antiquities) in five warehouses, in fact had twenty-nine ware-houses spread across London, Switzerland and New York. Becoming sceptical of Mr Symes’s openness in disclosing his assets, the lawyers for the Greek family, Messrs Lane and Partners, began to examine some of Mr Symes’s transactions closely. Mr Symes was followed, and the paperwork for his transactions double-checked. During this scrutiny it emerged that Mr Symes had sold, or said that he had sold, a Granodior-ite Egyptian statue of Apollo to a company in America, Philos Partners, of Cheyenne, Wyoming. When Lane and Partners examined this transaction, it turned out that Philos was a fictitious company, and that the address Mr Symes had said he sent the statue to did not exist. It later transpired that the statue had in fact been sold to Sheikh Al-Tani in the Arabian Gulf.

That is only the first part of the story, which culminated in Michaelides’s family establishing that he had a legal claim to half of Symes’s assets and led Symes to declare bankruuptcy. Of interest to the Italians is the role Symes played in operating between Robert Hecht and Giacomo Medici. The objects which passed through Robin Symes carry a strong suspicion of illegality. This illegality though runs up against the obligations that Symes owes to his creditors and the tax authorities. The Art Newspaper reports that Maurizio Fiorilli has requested information about 700 objects which were seized from Symes, including Greek pottery, marble sculpture, teracotta sculpture, and other objects. Archaeologists are rightfully upset that these tainted objects may be sold on the market.

Christos Tsirogiannis tells the Art Newspaper:

“It’s a scandal for the British government,” . . . . Tsirogiannis says that he requested access to the collection as part of his research for his PhD at the University of Cambridge but that BDO failed to respond to his queries. “It would be good to have official announcements from all the governments concerned about the Symes case, so that everyone can learn the whole truth about the key questions: why are the objects identified by the Italian state not being sent to Italy? Are the other governments concerned claiming any objects too? If so, how many and which are they?”


Will the ultimate sale of this material continue to embarrass the British Government? Or will Italy be able to secure repatriation of some or all of this material. I would not bet against Italy and Maurizio Fiorilli…

  1. Italy threatens to sue UK firm over ancient loot The Art Newspaper,
  2. Watson, Peter. “The fall of Robin Symes.” Culture Without Context newsletter of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre, Issue 15, Autumn 2004.

Sotheby’s Denies Chinese Scroll was Inauthentic

Signed Su Shi, this object sold at auction in September of 2013, it was billed at the sale as a masterpiece created over 1000 years ago
Signed Su Shi, this object sold at auction in September of 2013, it was billed at the sale as a masterpiece created over 1000 years ago

In September Sotheby’s sold this scroll for $8.2 million to a Shanghai businessman, Liu Yiqian. At the time of the sale the work was described as an important work which is over one-thousand years old. Perhaps one of the most important works of calligraphy, which bore seals indicated important historical figures had owned the piece.

Now it seems there are doubts. Researchers based in Shanghai have alleged that the scroll is in fact a 19th century creation. The claims of the researchers are widely reported in the Chinese press. Whether this qualifies it as a fake, a forgery, or a simple reproduction depends I suppose on the intent of the creator. Note I’ve hedged the question a bit in the title calling it ‘inauthentic’. This would have damaging consequences for Sotheby’s plans to step into the Asian art market. Reuters reports that the auction house “has sought to establish itself in China as a trustworthy seller of foreign and contemporary art, while avoiding the scandals that have hit the local auction industry. It held its first full China auction in December.”

Now Sotheby’s is aggressively defending against these allegations. No surprise given the devastating consequences this might have for the auction house just as it attempts to make strides the Asian art market, and move past the embarrassing dispute over the recently-returned looted Koh Ker statue from Cambodia.

David Barboza reports for the NY Times arts blog:

In a 14-page report, published in Chinese, Sotheby’s said it had found no evidence that the work, Gong Fu Tie, by the Song Dynasty poet Su Shi, was a forgery. The piece has long been considered one of the greatest works of calligraphy.

In a statement, Sotheby’s said it “firmly stands by” the piece as a work produced by Su Shi.

“We have published a detailed and comprehensive analysis rebutting each of the issues raised about the authenticity of the work,” the auction house said in a statement. “This report demonstrates that the brushwork of The Gong Fu Tie Calligraphy is inconsistent with that of a late copy or tracing as was alleged and is of such high quality that it could only have been created by a masterly hand using a soft brush.

Furthermore, we have established that both the seals and colophon are genuine, serving as further proof that the piece was created by Su Shi.”

The reports I have seen of Sotheby’s arguments focus on technical aspects of the object. The brushwork and other details. Nothing I have seen yet talks about the history of the object itself. Who owned it? What is the ownership history before the 19th century, if any? Those may of course be difficult or impossible questions to answer given the length of time. And yet those are the best possible arguments. They are ones that auction houses have been often unable to use, because they have too long been hesitant to look at this kind of deep history of objects, training their buyers instead on the aesthetic and other merits of objects as a means to generate value.

Preservation of Heritage last year in Mali

The footlockers used to transport the manuscripts out of Bamako
The footlockers used to transport the manuscripts out of Bamako

Joshua Hammer has done some terrific reporting on the effort to preserve medieval manuscripts in Timbuktu last year:

At the time Haidara also had no idea if the militants knew how many manuscripts were in Timbuktu or how valuable they were. But quietly, determined not to attract attention, he laid contingency plans. With funds that Haidara’s library association already had on hand from foreign donors, he began purchasing footlockers in the markets of Timbuktu and Mopti, and delivered them, two or three at a time, to the city’s 40 libraries. During the day, behind closed doors, Haidara and his assistants packed the manuscripts into the chests. Then, in the dead of night, when the militants slept, mule carts transported the chests to safe houses scattered around the city. Over three months, they bought, distributed and packed nearly 2,500 footlockers.


  1. Joshua Hammer, The Race to Save Mali’s Priceless Artifacts, Smithsonian magazine,

Birkhold on ‘Double-Edged’ Repatriation

The Hopi village of Walpi, on top of the First Mesa on the Hopi Reservation
The Hopi village of Walpi, on top of the First Mesa on the Hopi Reservation

Native American objects make for popular, if controversial, auctions in France. And that trend looks to continue. Last month in Paris the auction house EVE had put up for auction a number of sacred native american objects. The objects had been held by French private collectors. Their history has not been uncovered by the press. Many of the object originated from the Hopi nation, and the Hopi went to French court to seek a return of the objects, but were unsuccessful.

The auction on December 9th proceeded and the objects all were sold. Yet the buyer was the Anenberg foundation. Speaking later, Gregory Annenberg Weingarten, vice president and director of the Anenberg foundation stated of the Hopi objects:

These are not trophies to have on one’s mantel, . . . They are truly sacred works for the Native Americans. They do not belong in auction houses or private collection.

As Matthew Birkhold argues, the Annenberg Foundation essentially purchased the right to decide what happens to the objects:

At the auction, the foundation purchased the ability to make the decision about who should own the cultural artifacts, notably, artifacts the tribes couldn’t — or wouldn’t — buy themselves, even after legal and diplomatic efforts to delay the auction failed. And even though the foundation arguably made the right decision to restore the artifacts to the tribes, it has legitimized the very situation it means to criticize, making the sacred objects seem fair game.

Moreover, the subjects of the tribes’ and the foundation’s censure — the auction house and those participating in the art market — are unlikely to hear the reproach, especially because the auction proved so successful. The auction house likely cares more about the $1.6 million in sales than who bought the contested items or what happens to them.

Maybe it would have been better for the tribes to have lost the objects. The tribes could have made a more meaningful statement by repudiating the sale and doggedly insisting on their legal claims to the items. Such a response would reaffirm the tribes’ sovereignty while rejecting the notion that a price can be put on sacred objects. However, the decision to make such a sacrifice — forgoing their cultural artifacts — has to come from the tribes.

The best bet for indigenous people to secure their cultural property is through the legal system, where taking a principled stand could pay dividends.

A good result was reached in this case for the Hopi. Their sacred objects can return home. And the Annenberg foundation certainly has the funds for this. But the underlying mechanics of auctions and heritage protection and preservation remain unchanged. Other groups without the goodwill of well-funded organizations will not see such a good result.

  1. Annenberg’s Double-Edged Gift to the Hopi, Bloomberg,
  2. Tom Mashberg, Secret Bids Guide Hopi Indians’ Spirits Home, The New York Times, Dec. 16, 2013.