Natural disasters pose many risks to works of art, but one of the saddest is the damage done to works of art at cultural organizations that may go unnoticed. In Houston’s Third Ward, the Blue Triangle YWCA has served black women and girls for decades. The building includes a gym, kitchen, meeting rooms, and an indoor pool. Unfortunately the building itself has needed repairs for many years. In 2016 the Houston Chronicle reported that the organization was raising funds to repair the roof. But the torrential rainfall of Hurricane Harvey in August of 2017 finally caused serious damage to an important mural.
That mural created by John Biggers, “Contribution of Negro Women to American Life and Education”. The mural, completed in 1953, was commissioned by a local Pastor and was one of Biggers most important early murals. Biggers was an important figure in Houston’s arts community. He was recruited to what was then known as the Texas State University (now Texas Southern) for Negroes in 1949 as the first director of its Art department. Ileana Najarro reported for the Houston Chronicle that:
The mural, which served as Biggers’ doctoral dissertation and features images of abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and poet Phillis Wheatley, was an opportunity to recognize these women’s work.
“He told me that he wanted to give [it] as a tribute to the Negro women,” Bryant said.
To Robert Proctor, co-director and chief painting conservator for Whitten & Proctor Fine Art Conservation in Houston, the mural exemplifies Biggers’ “compositional ability to work across large space.”
Proctor, who has restored other Biggers’ paintings, noted that the artist’s unique brushstrokes and his attention to work surfaces make them some of the most difficult pieces of art to restore.
Unfortunately the leak in the roof has imperiled the mural, damaging the mural itself and causing black mold to set in.
The work has been treated to prevent further mold, but further work cannot be undertaken until the roof of the building is repaired. The Houston Endowment has offered an initial $258,000 to repair the roof, but more funds are needed.
The Museum of the Bible, a private museum located in Washington D.C., has announced that some of its most heralded objects are likely forgeries. Five fragments, purported to be a part of the Dead Sea Scrolls, are actually fakes. In a statement the Museum of the Bible announced that the fragments “show characteristics inconsistent with ancient origin and therefore will no longer be displayed at the museum.”
The Museum of the Bible has generated controversy since it opened. In 2017 for example the Museum paid $3 million and returned thousands of objects illegally removed from Iraq. The Museum is the passion project of Steve Green, a billionaire and founder of the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores.
Michael Press in a post for Hyperallergic does an excellent job pointing out the real cost of these forgeries. He references the work of Candida Moss and Joel Baden for a 2017 book Bible Nation, which reports the Green family uses a 3:1 tax deduction to purchase price ration. Meaning that for every dollar used to buy these objects, the tax write-off is triple the amount. We the american taxpayer are paying for the Green family to acquire this material, much of it either looted or fake.
Considering how the story has been told to date, it is a PR coup. More than that: based on the Greens’ 3:1 model for purchase and donation, and exorbitant purchase prices for the post-2002 Dead Sea Scroll fragments (tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars each), they have likely made millions of dollars in profit just from their “altruistic”donation of these 16 fragments. Given that this profit consists of public funds (in the form of tax breaks), the real losers, in this case, are us.
Sadly, that’s exactly right. We are paying for looting and forgery. Other museums certainly have acquired forged material in the past, but the Museum of the Bible in acquiring so much material so aggressively is bound to acquire looted and forged material.
In 1985 this work of art by Willem de Kooning was stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of art. The thieves entered the museum when it opened, the day after Thanksgiving. One of the thieves, a woman, distracted the museum security guard, while a man went upstairs and cut the canvas from the frame. The work has now been returned, and the story of the theft and recovery is pretty remarkable. The reporting indicates that the work very likely was stolen as a prize for a couple’s private collection, hidden in plain sight behind their bedroom door.
The painting was recently discovered in the estate of Rita Alter after her death. Rita and her husband Jerry may have been the thieves. The Arizona Republic reports:
Jerry and Rita Alter spent Thanksgiving Day 1985 with family in Tucson.
A newly discovered photo from the gathering shows them smiling side by side at the dinner table, plates of pumpkin pie in front of them.
Jerry was a retired music teacher and Rita a speech pathologist; a couple of New Yorkers in their 50s who had moved to rural New Mexico.
A day after the photo was taken, a valuable painting by the artist Willem de Kooning was taken from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson. Officials believed the thieves — a man and a woman — distracted a guard, cut the painting from the frame, rolled it up and carried it out of the museum under a coat.
The thieves and the painting disappeared without a trace.
Composite sketches, in hindsight, resemble the faces in the Thanksgiving photo, down to their position side by side.
Here’s a terrific local news documentary on the theft, which hints that there may have been other thefts:
If you haven’t yet read the profile of Christos Tsirogiannis by Vernon Silver, you should. Silver wrote a terrific account of the Euphronios Krater called The Lost Chalice, so this extended profile into how Tsirogiannis uses his database, and how auction houses and prosecutors use this information is fascinating. I really recommend you give it a read, but here is a taste:
When he finished clicking through the last of Christie’s 109 lots, Tsirogiannis was ready to dive into his archive. It’s meticulously organized so he can fetch images from one of three major dealers, including Medici, and from galleries and smaller dealers whose photos help him reconstruct who owned what and when. Within each of these libraries, he has folders for about 10 object types, amphorae in one, kylix drinking cups in another. Those in turn are categorized by shape and color. Figurines are sorted by animal type—horses are with horses, boars with boars.
To vet the catalog, he’d made a list of about 15 suspect lots. Then, one at a time, he looked for matches. The laptop screen was filled 14 across with thumbnails from the Medici folder, and Tsirogiannis’s eyes darted left to right as he scrolled through in an intricate game of Memory, where players turn over two cards at a time looking for a pair.
He’d barely begun when he needed to run to a lunch meeting. He would continue the search that evening; we could meet the next day, he said. As we prepared to leave, he deleted the downloaded portion of the archive. Tsirogiannis’s curiosity proved overwhelming. As soon as I left, he logged back in. “These are things that always have priority for me,” he told me later. What he found made him late for his appointment. By midnight, he’d alerted law enforcement on two continents.
So says Paul Reed, an archaeologist with Archaeology Southwest in a story by Jennifer Oldham for Reveal and Salon, which describes the massive error by Bureau of Land Management officials who posted a 77-page report which included the locations heritage sites in Utah. All in all 900 sites were described, including cliff dwellings, religious sites, rock art, and other archaeological sites.
The Bureau of Land Management posted a 77-page report online that included unique identifiers for priceless artifacts as it prepared to auction the most archaeologically rich lands ever offered for industrial use. The report exposed ruins spanning 13,000 years of Native American history to vandalism and looting, and experts say the BLM violated federal regulations that prohibit publicly sharing information about antiquities.
The document appeared on a BLM web page before the March oil and gas lease of 51,482 acres in a remote desert region of southeastern Utah. The BLM removed it and then reposted it with entire pages of detailed site descriptions blacked out. The report appeared online the last weekend in February and remained there for at least a few days – long enough for a state agency in Utah to download it and realize it violated the state’s privacy restrictions.
Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa was quoted in the story expressing his surprise at the report, which “went to a level . . . that was very unusual in terms of listing site numbers and descriptions by parcel that I haven’t seen before.” So how did this information get published? Oldham’s story notes that the BLM field offices are understaffed, and have been instructed by the Trump administration to undo the “regulatory burdens” impacting the energy industry. The report was only online for a few days, but likely made it easier for determined looters to target and clandestinely remove material from a staggering number of archaeological sites.
Police in Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Italy have announced arrests in a four year investigation named Operation Demetra. The name for the investigation has a bit of history, which it may be worth remembering. Demeter, the ancient Greek Earth goddess was likely depicted in the notorious Getty goddess. The Getty mistakenly referred to her as Aphrodite.
As many of you likely know, the story of this and other illicit acquisitions by the Getty, and the tax fraud perpetrated to pay for much of this is described in the terrific book, Chasing Aphrodite. In a nutshell: The statue was first smuggled from Morgantina. Looters broke her into pieces, and it was acquired by the Getty in 1988 for $18 million. While at the Getty, it was described as the finest classical piece of sculpture in North America, perhaps even outside of the Mediterranean and Europe. She was brazenly referred to for a while as the Getty Goddess, before ultimately being returned to the small archaeological museum at Aidone after evidence of the statue’s theft and connection to organized crime groups in Sicily helped build a case for return. Aidone and this part of Sicily are covered in wheat fields, the choice of using Demeter for a codename, goddess of the Earth and the wheat harvest was certainly intentional.
These objects were likely looted from archaeological sites in Sicily, and the investigation recovered an astounding 25,000 objects including coins, statues, and pottery fragments.
One of the individuals arrested was Thomas William Veres in London, a man of Hungarian origin antiques dealer who has long been involved in trafficking illicit material from Sicily to other parts of Europe and abroad. Police told reporters that:
The London art merchant Thomas William Veres commanded a transnational criminal holding that was able to traffic considerable quantities of Sicilian archaeological artifacts . . .
He was prominently featured in a case of another Sicilian antiquity, the Gold Phiale case. In 1991 Veres helped transport an ancient Greek Phiale (plate) to Switzerland where it was sold to Michael Steinhardt for $1.2 million. Veres was referred to by Federal prosecutors as a Swiss art dealer. Veres and another art dealer, Robert Haber, revealed how little faith they had in the licitness of the gold plate when in the purchase agreement with Steinhardt thy agreed that:
If the object is confiscated or impounded by customs agents or a claim is made by any country or governmental agency whatsoever, full compensation will be made immediately to the purchaser.
Steinhardt’s customs agent failed to accurately disclose the purchase price and the location of the plate, which ended up setting an important precedent for customs forfeitures and the use of civil forfeiture by Federal prosecutors in the United States for securing the return of illicit material.
It likely came as no surprise then to many who follow the antiquities trade that the name William Veres appeared in the news reports of arrests stemming from Operation Demetra. That investigation reveals a massive looting, smuggling, and counterfeit operation involving the movement of authentic and inauthentic material across borders, where histories were fabricated, and sales routinely took place.
“sequestrare l’Atleta di Lisippo ovunque si trovi”
Translation: Seize the Athlete of Lysippos, wherever it is found.
A court in Pesaro on June 8 has for the third time ordered the seizure of the Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth, currently in the possession of the Getty Foundation. The Getty Foundation purchased the Bronze in 1977 for approximately $4 million dollars. The Getty has maintained that the Bronze was found in international waters in the Adriatic Sea. Italy though has long sought the return of the Bronze on the grounds that the fishermen who pulled the Bronze up in their nets were required under Italian law to report the discovery, that the Bronze became subject to Italian heritage law when it was brought ashore, and that it was abused and smuggled before ultimately being acquired by the Getty.
The difficulty of course will be can an Italian court successfully seek the assistance of an American court to enforce this forfeiture order. I have argued that yes, it could. Italy via its Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty with the United States could trigger a transnational forfeiture that if successful would be a powerful tool on the part of nations of origin.
The Getty though may decide to appeal this decision, and I’ll defer to Italian attorneys the question of whether those appeals have merit. To be sure though, Italian officials are continuing to aggressively use their own courts to seek the return of this rare Bronze.
Michael Steinhardt has been involved in over 1,000 antiquities transactions, and he is not eager to discuss the details of any of them. That’s my key takeaway from a recent Magistrate Judge’s order which may throw a good deal of daylight on many of those 1,000 transactions through pre-trial discovery. The suit involves the Republic of Turkey, represented by Herrick, Feinstein LLP, in the ongoing lawsuit between the Republic of Turkey, Christies, and Steinhardt involving the Guennol Stargazer. That could have big implications for future potential repatriation suits involving material which passed through Steinhardt and dealers he was associated with. If he has been involved in 1,000 antiquities transactions, we could be looking at a large amount of new information coming to light. It may also lead to more actions by the Manhattan District Attorney‘s office like the one earlier this year.
First, a few observations about Mr. Steinhardt. He is a billionaire. He was one of the first hedge fund managers. He has generously funded many cultural exchanges, including the Jewish Birthright movement which pays for Jews to return to Israel. He also has a gallery named after him at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and serves on Christie’s advisory board. He has also been subject to many repatriation and forfeiture lawsuits, two notable ones including an ancient Greek gold Phiale from Sicily, and an Etruscan tomb fragment.
His dispute with Turkey involves a small sculpture which dates to the third millennium BCE, and was sold for a reported $14.5 million at Christie’s Auction House in New York on April 28, 2017. Soon after the Republic of Turkey brought suit against the auction house and the consignor, Michael Steinhardt.
At the time the ministry of Culture of Turkey published a full-page letter in the New York Times demanding repatriation of objects which have been illegally removed from that country.
Turkey brought suit in advance of the contemplated sale on April 27, 2017. Turkey sought to block any potential sale, and was denied that request. However District Judge Nathan did agree to an accession by Christie’s which would delay for 60 days the receipt of any funds by the winning bidder, and to retain possession of the object. Soon after Turkey amended its complaint on May 26, 2017 re-asserting claims that the Figure had been removed from Turkey at some point prior to 1966 in violation of Turkey’s National Patrimony Law. In the complaint, the lead attorney Lawrence Kaye argued that Turkey has had since as far back as 1906 national ownership of all undiscovered antiquities in Turkey. The only known published provenance for the Figure from Christies was the following:
Alastair Bradley and Edith Martin, New York, acquired 1966 or prior; thence by descent. with the Merrin Gallery, New York, acquired from the above, 1993. Acquired by the current owner from the above, 16 August 1993.
That current owner was Michael Steinhardt. Which brings us to the recent ruling by Magistrate Judge Aaron. The parties at this point, Christie’s and Steinhardt on one side; and Turkey on the other, are presently engaged in the pretrial discovery process. This involves Turkey asking for as much information as possible about how Steinhardt acquired his antiquities. What was his diligence before every acquisition? What if any concerns were raised? Steinhardt is justifiably reticent to hand over all of that information. As Magistrate Judge Aaron summarizes in his decision, Turkey “argues that Steinhardt’s ‘habits and practices’ with respect to antiquities transactions even after his 1993 acquisition of the Idol are relevant.” But the ultimate discovery was limited to “Steinhardt’s antiquities transactions up to and including December 31, 2006”, which was limited in two important ways. First, any transactions by Steinhardt in Anatolian antiquities; and also any antiquities transactions by Steinhardt which involved John J. Klejman. Klejman was according to Thomas Hoving, one of his favorite “dealer-smugglers“. Klejman had also handled the series of objects known as the Lydian Hoard, which was sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1966, and which was returned to Turkey in 1993.
The pre-trial discovery process in America can be a long carefully argued process with each party arguing about how much or little information should be conveyed to the other parties in a lawsuit. Though Mr. Steinhardt has demonstrated a willingness to aggressively litigate to defend his possession or in this case sale proceeds of antiquities, he has not always been successful. At the very least this recent ruling highlights just how much information may be discoverable, how many transactions he was engaged in, and raises an important point moving forward. If this material is not transmitted back to nations of origin, or if a nation of origin cannot be ascertained, what Museum would want this collection of objects with incomplete histories? Wouldn’t we have a much more interesting story to tell about the Guennol Stargazer if we know which tomb it came from? David Gill has speculated that the Guennol Stargazer may have been found with a similar Stargazer which has been acquired by Shelby White.
Sam Hardy, The antiquity of the Guennol Stargazer – legal, looted, fake?, conflict antiquities (Mar. 0, 2018), https://conflictantiquities.wordpress.com/2018/03/09/turkey-guennol-stargazer-legal-looted-fake/.
Artists have brought suit in Pittsburgh and Memphis over the destruction of public murals. Both suits involve the use of blighted buildings and spaces which have come under development. As these areas character changes, or as attitudes about the public art shift, City officials and landowners have removed, distorted, or even destroyed public murals.
In Memphis, as part of a 135 mural installation organized by Paint Memphis, seven murals drew the attention of Memphis City officials, and were painted over near the end of January in 2018 as part of a “miscommunication”.
Memphis City Council officials say they have received complaints about some of the murals, and want to allow residents to vet the murals before they are erected in public spaces.
A similar dispute involving mural artist Kyle Holbrook has taken place in Pittsburgh. Holbrook alleges that property owners, the city of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, and others have destroyed eight of his murals on walls and buildings.
Both suits use the federal moral rights law, the Visual Artists Rights Act as a basis for remedying destruction of murals and even attempting to enjoin further destruction.
In 2013 the Houston Arts Alliance (HAA) commissioned artist Konstantin Dimopoulos to create an installation called “Painted Trees” in Houston. The installation used a series of crepe myrtles embedded in one of Houston’s traffic cloverleafs at Waugh and Memorial. Dimopoulos has undertaken similar blue tree projects internationally, hoping to raise awareness for deforestation and draw attention to trees we might otherwise ignore. Here’s a short video of the artist describing the art advocacy project:
Well the artist has been surprised to discover that the work has been reprised/plagiarized/re-celebrated/repeated. Many like me had likely assumed that the artist was repeating the project. Not so, this project was an initiative of the Houston Parks and Recreation department. They painted the same grove of trees, and another grouping, blue and green.
Here’s my own photo of one of the groups I took a few weeks ago:
The art project was a popular surprise to most five years ago. Though It always struck me as odd that the artist and City invited selfie hunters to an area without sidewalks, where you had to dodge unfriendly cars to get a close look.
According to the City, the new project was meant to draw attention to wildflower and prairie plantings that have been done in the area. The city plants wildflowers in the area most years, and this summer red phlox should bloom amid the green and blue trunks when the crepe myrtles are also blooming. A great thing to look at, and an improvement certainly over a sad strip of roadside mown grass. But has the city of Houston managed to violate the moral rights of Dimopoulos? Or will most of the attraction be owed to the work of mother nature? Texas arts blog Glasstire noted that Dimopoulos’ wife noted in a facebook comment that:
It’s Adele Dimopoulos here, Kon’s wife and business manager. We most certainly do know about the blue trees being copied by city Parks and we are in the process of addressing this through various channels.
We are aware that there is a much bigger issue of copyright and IP for all artists at stake here. So sit tight and let’s see what shakes down.
The artist claims to own rights in the special paint formula that he developed, which is temporary, harmless to the trees, and bright blue. In response Abel Gonzales, the parks department’s deputy director of greenspace management is quoted in the Houston Chronicle this morning that: “We thought we did our homework”, noting he cleared the paint project with parks department planners. And the formula was a new creation of a city employee, combining lime wash and pigment. The artist Dimopolous is quoted in this morning’s Houston Chronicle, and is not a fan:
“It looks horrible, and it really has no relevance anymore here”.
It seems mainly what Dimopoulos wants is an apology from the city, perhaps even removal of the pigment. ON the one hand I can certainly appreciate his position, but if his art was intended to bring attention to deforestation, the amount of water and harm to the trees perhaps shows he wasn’t all that interested in the environmental aspects of his projects. He really wanted individual attention as an artist. Nothing wrong with that of course, but when you have a relatively straightforward idea, that many other artists have likely had, perhaps you should be a little magnanimous when others attempt to carry forward your vision. Am I wrong, is the artist wrong? Let me know in the comments.