Will Billboards help Return $300 Million in Stolen Art?


Over the weekend, the Boston Globe picks up a piece by London’s Financial Times, that Eric Ives, head of the FBI’s major theft unit, is considering using billboards to aid its investigation of the works stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. One of the works stolen includes this work, which is Rembrandt’s only seascape. The total value of all of the works has been estimated at $300 million. I’ve written about this theft before, in terms of a new documentary here. The best account of the theft I’ve found is Court TV’s here.

Will Billboard’s work? I’m not sure. They certainly can’t hurt. The idea, I suppose, is for someone to catch a glimpse of these works and after seeing the billboard, alert the authorities. I’m not sure there would be much of a market for these works, as they are so widely known in the art world, that there would certainly be an impossibility of a good faith purchase. The law would not honor the sale because the buyers should know that these works have been stolen.

Fascinating theories abound, involving Boston Mafia and IRA members. Certainly, no one will be able to sell these works on any licit market, and if the thieves are caught, there may be a prosecution under the National Stolen Property Act if the transaction has a federal character (like crossing state lines for example). At this point, nearly 16 years after the theft, there does not seem to be any leads for the FBI Investigation, and a billboard campaign may serve to renew interest in the theft.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Repatriation Fuelling the Art Market

In today’s New York Times, another article on how the art market is booming. One of the reasons has been the recent repatriation of art looted by the Nazis in World War II. I discussed the Klimt’s earlier this week, but there are also works by Kirchner, Vuillard and Picasso.

This remains an interesting issue. When courts and commentators speak of repatriation, it is often done so in terms of how these pieces of art have been taken during the war, and how they should be returned to the heirs of the original owners. An unacknowledged issue though, is how valuable these works are. There value can be so high, that its simply not economically feasible for the current claimants to hold on to them, and they end up auctioning them. Perhaps instead of simply awarding title to the paintings, courts may want to fashion compromises. They could agree to a fractional ownership scheme, allowing a claimant to hold on to the work for a certain part of the year for example. Or they could agree to a one-time payoff. In the United States, replevin actions are the primary mechanism which claimants use to seek the return of works of art. However, ownership disputes spanning 60 years are not always easily solved by awarding title to one party or another. A better solution may be a compromise between the parties.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Record price for Pollock’s No. 5, 1948?


The New York Times reports today that David Geffen may have sold a drip painting by Jackson Pollock for $140 million dollars yesterday. The price has yet to be officially confirmed, but may indicate that the art market is currently booming, which seems in line with the potential for Christie’s to set a record auction next week.

It seems Geffen may be unloading his art collection in a bid to purchase the LA Times. The price would exceed the $135 million Ronald S. Lauder paid for a Klimt last year.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

An Exhibit of Stolen Art in Rome


A new art exhibit in Rome will display 100 works of art that the Italian Art Squad, the Carabinieri Cultural Heritage Protect Unit, have recovered in recent years. The exhibition will take place at the Palazzo Incontro, (Meeting Palace).

It is often said that if we could gather all of the stolen works of art into one museum, it would be the world’s finest collection of art. That claim is of course quite far-fetched and nearly impossible to quantify, but perhaps this exhibition will illustrate how much art is being lost.

The exhibition, titled “Stolen art, the return” includes Young girl with red stockings by Amedeo Modigliane (pictured here) which was stolen from its private owner in the 1990’s, and has never been publicly displayed. Other works include two paintings by Francesco Barbieri, known as il Guercino. Also, an artifact called the “Ivory Face” uses a technique called chryselephantine which combines Ivory and Gold. Its age and provenance are unknown however, illustrating how much context can be lost when illicit excavation takes place.

The exhibition is quite remarkable, and a very shrewd move by the art squad. It is a very tangible expression of how many works are being lost, and how a well-funded and committed police force can limit the illicit trade in these works.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Kingsland Update

Antiques and The Arts Online has a piece about the Kingsland auction. It seems Kingsland may have been a student at Harvard. Also, there were some 400 paintings in his 1-bedroom Manhattan apartment. Sounds suspicious to me. The City of New York and the Stair Gallery should have perhaps known that something was not quite right about the situation.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Record Auction For Christie’s New York?

An auction of Impressionist and other modern works in New York next month may become the most lucrative art auction ever, The Times Online reports. The November 8-9 auction could fetch $490 million. Four Klimts, including Adele Bloch-Bauer II (pictured here) are for sale, as well as a blue-period Picasso. The Times reports that the art market has not been this active since 1990.

The Klimts are from the Altmann collection, which was recovered from Austria last year after an arbitration ruling granted the heirs of Adele Bloch-Bauer the five pieces after a 7-year legal battle. The New York Times gives a background of the dispute in its story about another Bloch-Bauer portrait which fetched a record $135 million. When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Bloch-Bauer fled, leaving all his possessions behind, and for the last 60 years, the works have hung in the Austrian National Gallery.

The legal dispute even reached the US Supreme Court, in Republic of Austria v. Altmann. That decision upheld lower court rulings which involved the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which grants foreign nations immunity from suits in US courts. The Court upheld an exception of FSIA which allows suits when property has been taken in violation of international law.

The Klimts are exceptionally valuable, and certainly Mrs. Altmann has an excellent claim to the works. However, in terms of the general public, do these works belong in Austria, where they were commissioned? Or are they just as worthy of hanging in a museum in the US? The question is moot I suppose, because the works are Mrs. Altmann’s to dispose of as she pleases. But are the works Austrian in character, such that they can only be fully appreciated in Austria? I think not. These are the arguments some antiquities experts make though in support of the return of antiquities to their source nation. I guess I’m not really sure why the argument should be any different between art or antiquities.


Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

More from the Stair Gallery and William M. V. Kingsland

When rare objects turn up stolen, speculation often arises about wealthy collectors who in their opulent boredom have commissioned a theft-by-order. I think an apt label for this kind of collector could be Dr. No. These kinds of stories and attendant speculation are far-fetched, but are they sometimes true? One possible Dr. No figure may be the mysterious Melvin Kohn, also known as William M. V. Kingsland, which I first discussed last week.

The NY Times devoted an article to his death and the auction of his estate last week, but unfortunately the article was labeled local news and was only available via their Select Service. Lucky for us, they made an error in the story, and a corrected version is available free here. Kingsland died this spring, and apparently he was a widely known figure in his East-Side neighborhood. His obituary is here. His estate, including a great deal of art, eventually went to auction, leading to the discovery that at least some of the pieces were stolen. As I said last week, the auction has been halted, and the Stair Gallery is attempting to undo the auction, a process that can’t be very pleasant for anyone involved. The Harvard Crimson reports that one of the portraits could be a John Singleton Copley, or could be a copyist. The Copley may have been stolen from Harvard in 1968; the work is pictured here.

In addition to the NY Times article, there’s been coverage in the Harvard Crimson and the Boston Globe. Some have commented that its rare that the Copley went so cheap at auction, but that this may have been due to the fact that one just doesn’t expect to find one of his undiscovered works at an auction. The New York Sun also has an article that clarifies how the material was sold. The City of New York sold the Kingsland estate to Christie’s and Stair Galleries, who then resold it.

If nothing else, the Kingsland estate’s misadventures make for an interesting story. They also point out continued flaws in the market. Auction houses are selling objects without a provenance, or chain of title. If we buy and sell cars with a chain of title, why cannot dealers and galleries introduce such information? The answer, I guess, is that it may be bad for business; tradition may dictate against such a thing; or they may not know the information. It may also just be a practical extension of the fact that, they have purchased this estate, and need to sell it as quick as practicable, because they are running a business.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com