Context for the Hobby Lobby antiquities forfeiture

An image of one of the cuneiform tablets which accompanied the government’s forfeiture complaint.

Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn have announced  a civil forfeiture proceeding against 5,500 objects from Iraq. The current possessors of the objects have also quickly announced they will not contest the forfeiture, and have agreed to pay a $3 million fine.   The objects were imported by Hobby Lobby and its president, Steve Green, to create the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C.

The Museum of the Bible, set to open in November near the National Mall in Washington D.C., has been rapidly acquiring antiquities from the Middle east for the last several years. History shows this kind of rapid acquisition with generous financial backing will inevitably lead to buying objects which may be looted, illegally exported, stolen, or orphaned. The questions surrounding the quick acquisition of all these objects has generated speculation for many years that these objects would cause legal difficulties for the museum.

The government’s civil forfeiture complaint tells a fascinating story of how Green traveled to the United Arab Emirates in July of 2010 and agreed to purchase 5,548 objects, including “500 cuneiform bricks, 3,000 clay bullae, 35 clay envelope seals, 13 extra-large cuneiform tablets, and 500 stone cylinder seals”. These objects were then then shipped via Federal Express to Oklahoma City to various different addresses of Hobby Lobby and its subsidiaries. The complaint notes an important reality of customs—not every shipment raises suspicion. Only some of the shipments of this material were seized by customs agents. Five shipments which traveled through Memphis, Tennessee were seized between January 3-5 of 2011. Other shipments successfully reached their destination in Oklahoma City.

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New Issue of the International Journal of Cultural Property

The new issue of the International Journal of Cultural Property is available now, with contributions discussing deaccession, the status of fauna as cultural property, the role Sotheby’s has played in the collection of Maya antiquities, the fascinating case of the Buddhist Mummy, and other contributions. Here is the table of contents with abstracts:

Mann, D. (2017). To Have and To Hold … Or Not? Deaccessioning Policies, Practices, and the Question of the Public’s Interest. International Journal of Cultural Property,24(2), 113-159. doi:10.1017/S0940739117000091

Shockwaves echoed through the media and the arts community when the Delaware Art Museum chose to deaccession pieces from its collection and when the public learned that the Detroit Institute of Arts might be forced to do the same. Further concern arose when financial troubles compelled the Corcoran Gallery of Art to merge with the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University. An examination of the climate and legal battles surrounding these events shows how these institutions chose to cope with the financial adversity that put their collections at risk and illustrates the precarious position of works in a museum’s collection when that museum experiences financial distress. This article explores the ethical, judicial, and legislative frameworks currently governing deaccessioning and ultimately advocates for new legislative solutions to guide the deaccession process in order to provide the opportunity to maintain these works in the public sphere.

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Some thoughts on the New Council of Europe Antiquities Convention

Archeological treasures at the Terme di Diocleziano museum in Rome, Italy, from a recent press event highlighting seized illicit antiquities. Photograph: Claudio Peri/EPA

I have a few initial thoughts on the Council of Europe’s proposed antiquities convention at the Georgetown Journal of International Law online. Here’s just the introduction:

On Friday, May 19, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe will meet to open a new treaty for signatures on a new Convention on Offences relating to Cultural Property. Given that the Council of Europe now has 47 member states, including both Russia and Turkey, the impact of this new Convention could be immense. This is particularly true given that the member states of the Council of Europe include art-acquiring states, transit states, and states with ancient monuments.  The Convention may even allow any non-Council state to sign on to the Convention. The work of this draft Convention could catapult the member states of the Council of Europe to the head of the pack in embracing the complementary international conventions aimed at stemming the illicit trade in cultural property.

The full post is here.

A rare moral rights vindication in Detroit

The Visual Artists Rights Act, or VARA, has since 1990 granted artists moral rights to their works of art. At least in the United States. Other nations have granted these moral rights to their artists for far longer. These are non-economic rights which prevent mutilation or destruction of works of art, and VARA lasts for the lifetime of the artist. Unfortunately much of the language of VARA is cumbersome and has relied on judicial massaging to reach a workable framework. And even despite this massaging, the concept of moral rights have not been favorably received in most courts. So it is noteworthy when an artist is able to successfully invoke the protections of VARA.

Such appears to be the case with respect to this work, “The Illuminated Mural” which was created on the side of this building on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit in 2009. At the time, Craig had received an agreement from the owner of the building that the mural would remain there for at least 10 years. When the building was sold to a new owner, the mural was jeopardized by plans to potentially redevelop the building. So in January of 2016, Craig filed a lawsuit asking for an injunction to preserve the mural.

This week, the current owner of the building has reached an agreement with Craig that will allow the mural to remain on the side of the building.

As she told Crain’s after the settlement:

“I’m really happy we got a break-through with ‘The Illuminated Mural’ where we are able to protect the work and maintain the original contract, which was the goal,” Craig said Friday afternoon. “It’s respect for the artwork that’s there and the future of the community, and the developer as well. We reached a middle ground there that I am happy with.”

How long and what the terms of the agreement may be are not public. But this large mural has earned a reprieve.

 

  1. Kirk Pinho, Colorful 9-story mural to stay on Milwaukee Junction building under court settlement, Crain’s Detroit Business (Mar. 13, 2017), http://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20170413/NEWS/170419900/colorful-9-story-mural-to-stay-on-milwaukee-junction-building-under [https://perma.cc/5R73-EPR5].

An art dealer’s prosecution casts a long shadow

In a criminal complaint filed in New York State Court last December, charges were brought against a New York Gallery owner, Nancy Wiener for dealing in stolen property. When examining a complaint, special care should be taken that they are by nature one-sided accounts that are only allegations, in this case the allegations are made by Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos.

In the New York Times yesterday, Ralph Blumenthal and Tom Mashberg reveal the identity of two anonymous alleged co-conspirators from the complaint:

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Forged antiquities and art history

An 8 foot tall forged terracotta statue, alleged to have been Etruscan. Displayed at the Met for decades. Notice it cannot bear its own weight.

I cannot speak to broader trends among art curators but I think it is a mistake to blame broad trends in the field of art history for the existence of forgeries. They have always been present, and likely always will be in some form. Failing to conduct a rigorous study of the history of an object should have course be criticized, but that kind of unfortunate mistake should be contrasted when an object which might have a good history free of the potential of looting. This happens for antiquities, works of art, and many other objects. Some forgeries are made maliciously to fool, other works of art which are inauthentic appear absent any wrongdoing of the creator.

In fact the shaming of institutions which takes place when a forgery or fake surfaces has a number of unfortunate consequences.

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Greek pot set for return thanks to photo archive

“Attic Red-Figure Nolan Amphora, ” a dual-handled vessel dating from 470 B.C.E.

Tom Mashberg reported last week for the New York Times that this red figure amphora will be sent to Italy because of a connection with Gianfranco Becchina.

The match was made thanks to the work of researcher Christos Tsirogiannis, who linked the object with some of the thousands of photographs he has been given access to by Italian authorities. The object was voluntarily relinquished by the gallery, the Royal-Athena Galleries, which have a showroom in Manhattan.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., in a press release stated: Continue reading “Greek pot set for return thanks to photo archive”