We are off for a few weeks for some summer teaching in Istanbul, some art-viewing in Amsterdam, and some other events. There will be lots to share here when I’m back in front of a keyboard, but posting will be light for a few weeks. In the meantime check out my blogging colleagues in the blogroll on the right for updates and commentary.
Attorney Nicholas O’Donnell rightly skewers the FBI’s recent media blitz on the so-called “confirmed sightings” of works stolen from the Gardner Museum:
If my skepticism sounds familiar, it is because there was a similar episode last year, when the FBI claimed “with a high degree of confidence” that it knew who had stolen the paintings. That story, as has often been the case, was released around the anniversary of the theft (though without mentioned that coincidence). Richard DesLauriers, the Special Agent in Charge in Boston, said then: “The FBI believes with a high degree of confidence that in the years after the theft, the art was transported to Connecticut and the Philadelphia region, and some of the art was taken to Philadelphia, where it was offered for sale by those responsible for the theft,”
The FBI theory seems to be this: an informant in a Dorchester garage accused Merlino of being involved, and someone else in the same garage knew Gentile, who had some police paraphernalia in his house. Really? Put that way, it is pretty clear why the FBI has not arrested anyone or offered more information: it cannot prove any of this.
The FBI said a year ago that it knew who was responsible, but clearly does not want to accuse Gentile directly. Instead, it is essentially asking the public to connect the fact that Gentile has some relation to Philadelphia, to the uncorroborated offers for sale in an “I’m just saying” sort of way.
The Gardner heist is a civic tragedy in here in Boston. It struck at one of our most treasured institutions. I can still picture the full-page headline in the Boston Globe the day that it happened (the Art Law Report was just a gleam in the eye of a local high school student then). But these recycled stories are not advancing the ball. If the FBI thinks it has a case against a responsible person, it should move on that information. If it is simply going to make insinuations, it should stop.
Gerald Fitzgerald argues that we need to increase the level of due diligence in the art market:
I propose a levy of 1% or less on the sale or auction of any artwork above a certain value—say, $5,000—earmarked fully for the creation and support of a Center for Provenance Research. Questions of inadequate provenance would be submitted to CPR review prior to further sale. This independent, nonprofit research center would apply acknowledged standards using instant accessibility to an electronic database uniting all relevant sources. A staggering, global collection is housed at the Family Library in Salt Lake City, UT, which is now digitizing genealogical records in more than 45 countries. In March 2014, the Vatican announced that it will begin to digitize 1.5 million pages of its manuscript collection of more than 41 million pages, a project it has outsourced to the Japanese technology group NTT Data. Other fields—medicine, music, and so on—are being accessed instantly, electronically; every major museum has its libraries being digitized.
No one has done so for provenance research. Overseen by a board of directors drawn internationally from museums, auction houses, dealers, and collectors, the CPR could be a recognized standard for due diligence now missing entirely. I estimate that it would take about 10 years to devise, fund, and implement the CPR. The levy ought to begin immediately following market commitment to the project, allowing funds to accrue throughout the planning and development stages. The need for a global CPR is underscored by the major auction houses continuing expansion into emerging markets, such as those of China and India.
I agree that diligence needs to be increased, and this seems like a very good idea to get it started.
A new project announced in Austin a few weeks back uses declassified satellite images has revealed as many as 10,000 new archaeological sites in the Middle East:
[T]he new Corona Atlas of the Middle East, unveiled Thursday at the Society for American Archaeology’s annual meeting, moves spy-satellite science to a new level. Surveying land from Egypt to Iran—and encompassing the Fertile Crescent, the renowned cradle of civilization and location of some of humanity’s earliest cities—the atlas reveals numerous sites that had been lost to history.
“Some of these sites are gigantic, and they were completely unknown,” says atlas-team archaeologist Jesse Casana of the University of Arkansas, who presented the results. “We can see all kinds of things—ancient roads and canals. The images provide a very comprehensive picture.”
The team had started with a list of roughly 4,500 known archaeological sites across the Middle East, says Casana. The spy-satellite images revealed another 10,000 that had previously been unknown.
The largest sites, in Syria and Turkey, are most likely Bronze Age cities, he says, and include ruined walls and citadels. Two of them cover more than 123 acres (50 hectares). (See also: “Drought Led to the Collapse of Civilizations.“)
This sounds like a wonderful use of technology, offering some extremely useful comparisons with respect to climate change, migration patterns, etc. But for the illicit heritage trade, this offers a mixed set of challenges and opportunities. Looters have another tool (if they needed one) to find sites. But it also allows an opportunity for nations to harden these sites. The comparison of Apamea today to the satellite image of the same site in the late 1960’s is troubling:
The level of detail in the newer image is stark, but there don’t appear to be the mass-looting pockmarks. What do you all think, does increased technology assist hardening of these sites, or provide a map for looters?
Mike Boehm of the L.A. Times reports on the current status of the Fano Athlete/Getty Bronze dispute. A division of Italy’s High Court (Corta Suprema di Cassazione) is expected to weigh an appeal of an earlier forfeiture order this week. I’m quoted as the lone dissenting voice arguing the Bronze should be returned to Italy. I think a return is the just thing to do when you consider the violations of Italian patrimony laws which occurred when the Bronze was smuggled ashore, hidden in violation of Italian law, and then allegedly treated very badly before being smuggled to Brazil, then conserved in Europe before the Getty acquisition.
For a full discussion of my understanding of the history of the case and the reasons why I think Italy stands a good chance of having the Bronze returned soon, you can have a look at my forthcoming piece in volume 32 of the Cardozo Arts and Entertainment Law Journal.
Both Stephen Urice and Patty Gerstenblith seem to see the case differently:
“I’m baffled by this,” said Stephen Urice, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law who’s an expert on art law and cultural property law. “Even if you apply our ethical norms today, I don’t see a problem.”
Patty Gerstenblith, a leading advocate of protecting archaeological sites and sending looted art back to nations of origin, said that “Victorious Youth” shouldn’t be considered a looted work and needn’t be returned. Italy never had a legally valid ownership claim, she said, because the statue wasn’t found in Italian waters or on Italian soil, and it wasn’t made or owned by modern Italy’s Roman and Etruscan forebears.
Gerstenblith, a professor at DePaul University in Chicago and director of its Center for Art, Museum and Cultural Heritage Law, said the fishermen who netted the statue did break Italian laws by hiding their find instead of reporting it to authorities. So did the original buyers who shipped “Victorious Youth” out of Italy without a proper export permit.
Although those illegalities raise ethical questions that might make a museum in 2014 steer clear of a purchase, Gerstenblith said, they have no bearing on the fishermen’s right to have owned and sold the bronze statue, or the Getty’s right to keep what it bought.
Cornelius Gurlitt, the 81-year-old German man who gained prominence in the fall because he was revealed to have a massive amount of artwork has passed away after a heart procedure.
The Financial Times reports:
Several claims have been lodged on behalf of the descendants of people whose works were allegedly stolen under the Nazis. Among them are the heirs of David Friedmann, a German Jewish businessman, who have laid claim to the Max Liebermann painting “Two Riders on the Beach”. August Matteis, the US lawyer in the Friedmann case, said Mr Gurlitt “never had a role in the claim” because the painting clearly belonged to Mr Friedmann’s heirs.His death removed the tax investigation as a cause of delay because any tax owed to the authorities could be covered by the sale of Mr Gurlitt’s other works. “There must be no more paralysis for the sake of delay,” said Mr Matteis.
The NYT reports on the reaction by German officials:
Monika Grütters, who oversees cultural affairs for Germany’s federal government, issued a statement on Tuesday lauding Mr. Gurlitt for allowing the investigation of his collection. “As a private person, he set an example in his commitment to moral responsibility in seeking out fair and just solutions,” the statement said. “For this step, he was rightly accorded recognition and respect.” The German authorities have held the trove at an undisclosed location, citing security reasons for the secrecy. In February, an additional 238 works — some of them said to be top-quality paintings — were removed from Mr. Gurlitt’s second home, in Salzburg, Austria, and relocated also to an unnamed location. Mr. Gurlitt was last known to have sold a painting in December 2011, when the “Lion Tamer” by Beckmann fetched 864,000 euros, or $1.17 million, at an auction in Cologne, Germany. The auction house, Lempertz, said it brokered an agreement for some of the money to go to heirs of Alfred Flechtheim, a Jewish art dealer who was forced to leave Germany and died a poor man in London in 1937. Although reporters from around the world camped outside his Munich apartment for weeks after his art collection was revealed, Mr. Gurlitt gave only one interview, to the news weekly Der Spiegel. In that conversation, he revealed little about his life, saying that the only thing he had loved were his pictures.
The question now is what becomes of Gurlitt’s estate, as reported by the Wall Street Journal:
Although that investigation will lapse now that Mr. Gurlitt is dead, fresh hurdles abound, mainly surrounding a simple question: who has inherited Mr. Gurlitt’s estate? Christopher Marinello, a lawyer for the Rosenberg heirs, says the family will continue pursuing the case, but that “we’ll have to wait for the estate process to run its course.” It is unclear, though, whom Mr. Marinello should even contact or who will be handling the estate process.
Given Mr. Gurlitt’s perpetually frail state of health, a German court appointed Munich-based lawyer Christoph Edel as his legal guardian late last year. But Mr. Edel’s position was “voided as soon as Mr. Gurlitt died,” his spokesman, Stephan Holzinger, told The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Holzinger says he doesn’t even know if Mr. Gurlitt has a will and that his own contract will only continue for “the next few days.”
So argues Iason Athanasiadis in a wonderful opinion piece for Al Jazeera. The whole thing is worth your time, but here are two highlights. He begins by noting:
An underreported conflict is ravaging the Middle East. From sub-Saharan Africa to the Levant, an unholy alliance of profiteers, modernizers and fundamentalists is taking advantage of political instability to pillage and wreck the splendid remnants of civilization — artworks and artifacts, but also monuments, sites and buildings. Pounds upon pounds of these precious antiquities pile up in the warehouses of Cairo, Beirut and Istanbul, ready for export to glitzy auction houses. These are the ill-gotten spoils of the wars tearing through the so-called cradle of civilization since at least 2011.
And he concludes by arguing the looting and theft erases the future for the Middle East:
Memory is a notoriously malleable tool, subject to revisionist narratives and manipulation. If our physical heritage is destroyed, we will rely on memory all the more. That’s not necessarily a good thing when the education received by the majority of schoolchildren in the region is skewed toward dominant religious and ethnic narratives.
If those of us who inhabit the region allow the last palpable, visible traces of a multiethnic and multireligious heritage to be eradicated, we will also prevent future generations from developing a rich, nuanced regional and cultural identity. Erasing or selling off the past will make it even harder to reconstitute these deeply traumatized societies once the fighting ends.
The great Arab author Abdelrahman Mounif died in 2004 after witnessing Washington’s demonstration of “shock and awe” over Baghdad. His “Cities of Salt” quintet gloomily chronicled the process by which a culture is deracinated, surrenders to modernity and fades. Unsurprisingly, it was banned in the Gulf Arab states, which in the 40 years since the oil boom have become disturbing examples of populations dislocated from their past and living in an alienated hypermodern present, whether in Dubai, Doha, Riyadh or Kuwait City.