Some troubling news in London reveals that Scotland Yard may see an uncertain future for its Art and Antiques Unit. The offices who had been assigned to the unit have been reallocated to investigating the Grenfell Tower tragedy. This is a shame, as the unit is one of the world’s longest-running art crime policing units, with some terrific prosecutions of note, including the Jonathan Tokeley-Parry conviction (which set the stage for the Fred Schultz conviction in the United States), the discovery of the myriad art frauds committed by the Bolton Forgers, and many other notable initiatives.
Martin Bailey reported for the Art Newspaper that:
Vernon Rapley, who led the Art and Antiques Unit from 2001 until 2010, told The Art Newspaper that he is “worried that the closure of the unit is now being considered”. He added: “I am very concerned that the Metropolitan Police is unable to give assurances on when the three detectives who have been temporarily reassigned will be returned to the unit.”
The three officers are detective constables Philip Clare, Sophie Hayes and Ray Swan. There is currently no detective sergeant responsible for the unit, following the departure of Claire Hutcheon last March.
James Pickford in the Financial Times also noted the importance of the unit to the United Kingdom’s licit art trade:
Dick Ellis, founder and former head of the art squad, said: “To close — if it is to be closed — a small but very specialised unit at Scotland Yard, which is there among other things to assist other countries, is madness.” He added the squad had been closed once before, in 1984, for budgetary reasons, but reopened again in 1989 following pressure from other international forces and the art market. One issue at the centre of concerns about the possible closure of the Met art unit is the fight to prevent looted or stolen antiquities from the Middle East being used to fund terrorism. The unit works with overseas forces to identify illicit trafficking of cultural goods, and can take action when UK-based dealers and auctioneers relay their suspicions about objects of questionable provenance. It also maintains the London stolen arts database, which stores information and images of 54,000 items of stolen property. The UK had a 21 per cent share of the $56bn global art market by value in 2016, second only to the US with 40 per cent, according to research by Arts Economics, a consultancy. One art market professional who had dealt regularly with the Met art unit over the past decade described its detectives as “dedicated and knowledgeable”. “If that unit is lost it would be a great concern for the art market,” they said.
Ben Quinn’s piece in the Guardian sheds light on an interesting forthcoming conference which hopes to “establish a permanent display” of Benin material in Nigeria. The Benin bronzes are in many museums in the West, and viewing them gives me to very different reactions. On the one hand, they are terrific to look at, with wonderful detail. But on the other, many of these objects were seized by the British Empire during an 1897 Punitive Campaign. That campaign was as bad as it sounds. To give a brief overview, a British official and his advisors were sent to uncover whether there was ritual human sacrifice taking place in the Kingdom of Benin. When the official and his advisors were killed by the King of Benin, the British responded by destroying the city, and looting as many as 900 of the Benin bronzes to compensate for the costs of the exhibition. Many of these objects were purchased by museums.
Nigeria has requested the return of much of this material, but the museums and collectors who currently possess them have often refused to enter into a dialogue. These negotiations for the return of material can be difficult and contentious, but they do not have to be. Here is hoping the meeting, which will take place in the Netherlands’ National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden will lead to a productive dialogue in the same way that Yale’s return of material to Peru or the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act operates.
Quinn’s story highlights the ethical case driving the dialogue, but also some of the challenges:
“I think that among this generation of curators there is an eagerness to find ways towards reconciliation,” said Dr Michael Barrett, senior curator at Stockholm’s Världskulturmuseet. “We are one of the smaller participants in this and it is very early but we are eager to continue with discussions.”
Among the issues still to be resolved are insurance costs and security arrangements. European curators and their west African counterparts are also keen to establish a legal framework that would guarantee the artefacts immunity from seizure in Nigeria.
John Picton, a professor at Soas University of London (formerly the School of Oriental and African Studies) and a former curator of the National Museum in Lagos, said: “The moral case is indisputable. Those antiquities were lifted from Benin City and you can argue that they ought to go back. On the other hand, the rival story is that it is part of world art history and you do not want to take away African antiquity from somewhere like the museums in Paris or London, because that leaves Africa without its proper record of antiquity.”
Yesterday Tom Mashberg reported in the NY Times that the Met would be returning this Greek krater to Italy. The Met has returned many objects to Italy in recent years, because they have been looted from tombs and archaeological sites before being smuggled abroad.
The interesting aspect of the story here appears to be the very slow response on the part of the Met to questions presented by Tsirogiannis. Tsirogiannis told the NY Times that the evidence: “[S]uggested that the item was disinterred from a grave site in southern Italy by looters,” before it passed on to Medici.
Medici was an antiquities dealer, convicted of trafficking in illicit cultural objects, and many objects which passed through his gallery/collection/storehouse have been deemed illicit. Reached by Mashberg for the story, Medici said:
[H]e had no recollection of having handled the vase in question. “Absolutely not,” he said. He said he had been released from house arrest last year after serving half of an eight-year sentence that was shortened by time off for good behavior and a two-year amnesty provision granted to all Italian prisoners.
“I am a free man,” Mr. Medici said. “I went on trial, it lasted years, I was convicted for some of the objects” that Italian prosecutors believed had been looted, “and now I have nothing more to do with the justice system. The story is finished.”