A new documentary is receiving limited release, detailing an infamous art heist. Stolen, details the largest art heist in modern history, which took place at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston, the day after St. Patrick’s day, 1990. 13 works were stolen, including this work by vermeer called The Concert. Apparently the film follows a couple of storylines. One details the work of an investigator, Harold Smith, tasked with finding the missing works. The other, examines the artistic value of these stolen paintings. What exactly the thieves have done with the works remains a mystery, as they are too widely known to be sold on the open market. The film should be fascinating, unfortunately its not being widely released, and seems to only screened in art galleries across the US.
allAfrica.com reports today that over 14,000 objects of religious or artistic worth have been stolen from South Africa within the past 4 years. Next week will mark the beginning of an awareness campaign to highlight six of the most-wanted art works, similar to the FBI’s list. Ideally, law enforcement will know how to spot these high-profile objects, and check a database compiled by service and customs officials in South Africa. Once again, this is a noble attempt to curb the problems, and it appears much of the art on the list is South African, but more effort needs to be made to consolidate these databases for them to be truly effective. Whether the impetus for that consolidation is the market, NGO’s, or UNESCO remains to be seen however. As it stands now, technology is not being effectively utilized.
Last Thursday night, a burglar stole an antique clock valued at £65,000 from Temple Newsam House in Leeds the Yorkshire Post reports. The antique clock, which is 2 feet high dates from the early 19th century. Police are positing that the raid may have been targeted as the thief only took one item. The piece is very elaborate, and widely known, according to the article. Thus rendering its potential market quite slim.
The question then becomes, why would the item be stolen if its difficult to sell. As I see it, there are four potential answers to this question.
The first, is that a wealthy collector admires the piece, and hired a thief to take it for him. I’ll call this the Dr. No situation. This seems the least likely possibility, but the one that strikes a chord with the imagination. Writers in this subject frequently cite the Dr. No as being responsible for thefts, and I admit it makes for good Bond villains, but there has been no convincing evidence that thsi is why people are stealing rare objects. Another similar possibility which seems far more likely is that an unscrupulous dealer may have a similar piece for sale, and if he can establish some excitement around these kinds of pieces, the price for his clock may go up. This is just wild speculation, and assigns a quite sinister tak to arts and antiquities dealers, a habit far too many writers in this field are fond of doing.
Second, the thief may not have known that the object was so rare as to make its subsequent sale difficult.
Third, the thief may simply be trying to kidnap the object. They could then insure its safe return for a generous reward, probably negotiated through a solicitor. Let’s assume now that those in charge of the Temple Newsom House are interested in generating more visitors, and a buzz around the clock. Perhaps they even staged the theft, and its sudden reappearance could become quite a windfall for the house, especially if it is struggling financially. This, of course, is wild speculation, and no evidence exists that this kind of activity takes place.
Finally, perhaps the market is doing such a poor job of regulating what is and is not legitimate, that it may not be all that difficult to sell this piece after all. This strikes me as the most troubling possibility.
Nothing much new on the news front this morning, so I thought I’d point out an interesting piece from Pitchfork’s interview of David Byrne. The interview is from July, and coincided with the re-release of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, an album he created with Brian Eno, which basically took the music of different cultures and looped and mixed it together to create a new sound. The idea was to create an imaginary culture called Afropea, a made-up culture based on the real world.
The fantastic part of the interview for me was reading Byrne’s observations on how cultures can come together and create something new, that may be even better. He talks about how unfortunate circumstances (like slavery) can displace people and cultures can come together in places like New Orleans. As he says in the interview:
And those are places where the European culture and indigenous culture and African culture all met and lived together, and some new kind of culture and especially music came out of that, that had this incredible richness and strength that then just, boom, exploded and went all over the globe. The most common music that you hear anywhere in the world now basically has its roots in that union that happened in the last century, or in the century before that.
He’s talking about music here, but the same idea has been seen time and again in the visual arts as well. European impressionists were profoundly influenced by the Japanese watercolors in the 19th century.
I think that’s a beautiful idea; that we can take these terrible circumstances and out of it comes art, or some kind of human expression. What people create can come together to help people deal with their lot in life, or express themselves, and make something that people want to look at, or read, or listen to. I think this echoes the sentiments of Anthony Appiah’s recent work on Cosmopolitanism, in which he didn’t argue that the former colonial powers return works to the nations they were taken from (England and the Elgin Marbles is the most recognized example of this). Appiah argues that rather than forcing the British Museum to return the marbles, they should export their own English culture to Greece. That’s not to say that Appiah thinks repatriation is a bad thing, just that many are too quick to argue for it without thinking through the logical outcome of such a policy. Cultural Property has a value for everyone, and might there be some value in insuring some objects are preserved and looked avter, and enjoyed by millions of visitors tso that future generations can continue to enjoy the works? In that way, culture can grow and flourish.
In the Byrne interview, he discusses an essay he wrote for the New York Times, titled “I hate World Music”, in which he argued that if you really listen to music from a different culture and see it as valuable its impossible to see those other people as less than you after you’ve heard it. I think the same holds true for the visual arts. Music and visual art, and even food flows back and forth from what we can term the former colonial poweres and the former colonies. This flow of culture goes both ways, and can be quite positive.
When people discuss ideas of repatriation, and the like, often its in terms of how these indigenous or marginalized cultures have been wronged in some way; and certainly they have. However, a more positive way forward would be to emphasize this two-way flow of culture, rather than blindly punishing the former colonial nations.
The Chicago Tribune today has a nice piece on the Art Loss Register. Yesterday, I talked a bit about Mexico’s efforts to document its sacred colonial art, in the face of a spate of recent thefts. The more databases there are, the more difficult it will be be for courts to impose a duty on buyers and sellers to check these sources for the object they are buying as part of the good faith requirement enshrined in modern contract law. The piece reveals a number of things about the register.
In its 15 year history, it has compiled records of 175,000 stolen objects. And reportedly, $138 million worth of objects have been returned. It has a workforce of 30 people, and according the the register’s founder, Daniel Radcliffe, they average 3 recoveries per week. As the piece states,
the Art Loss Register played a key role in a 28-year-old case involving seven paintings valued at more than $30 million that were stolen from the Massachusetts home of collector Michael Bakwin. As a result of seven years of complicated, high-wire negotiations with a lawyer who claimed to have been given the paintings by a client, Radcliffe has secured the return of five of the paintings, including a Cezanne in 1999 and four other paintings in January.
These high-profile recoveries are a welcome development. A lot of the literature speaks with great interest of the advent of these kinds of websites in stemming the illicit trade in cultural property. And I admit the idea has a great deal of promise, and its one I’m particularly interested in.
However, one of Radcliffe’s comments strikes me as troubling. The database is not available over the internet, and searchers must comply with the ALR if they find a match. As Radcliffe says, “If we were to put all our information on the Internet, guess who’d spend all their time looking at it? The thieves.” That may be true, but what would be the harm in the theives looking at the website. If anything it would serve to make the piece harder to sell.
In fact, the way the database works may reveal a troubling aspect of the market; it must be incredibly easy to sell illicit cultural property as long as it is not a high profile piece. The database does not even attempt to limit the potential market for a piece. Rather it depends on individuals to track down a work to attempt to return it to its rightful owner. One interesting issue that the piece does not examine is how much the database charges for its services, including what it may charge to search its database. One welcome aspect though, is that searches are done for law enforcement free of charge. This further strengthens the notion that the database is primarily a tool for claimants seeking the return of their works.
In today’s New York Times, this piece details the theft of colonial art from Mexico’s rural churches. Apparently, theft from churches in Mexico’s colonial heartland near Mexico City has become widespread. According to the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico, 1,000 colonial pieces have been stolen since 1999. In response, the Mexican government is attempting to register the nation’s sacred art. According to the Times piece, 600,000 items have been inventoried so far. The institute is also preparing its own Web site of stolen art, so dealers and collectors can no longer claim that there is no record of the theft.
Such a database is both a welcome change, and worrying at the same time. In theory, a database should put dealers of Mexican colonial art on notice that a certain set of objects may be tainted. However, there are a number of such websites now available. See the Art Loss Register for example. The more of these databases there are, the harder it will be for the law to realistically impose an obligation on buyers and sellers of art and antiquities. If each segment of the cultural property market has its own database, this would almost certainly lead to confusion and overlap. One unified website would be a much better system. A buyer or seller could easily check a single website t insure their piece is not stolen.
Apparently, the former French waiter, and superthief Stephane Breitwieser has penned a memoir, soon to be published by French publisher Editions Anne Carrière. The work is titled Confessions d’un voleur d’art (Confessions of an Art Thief). Breitwieser stole an estimated $1 Billion worth of fine art during a 7 year spree, including this work, a 16th-century painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Sybille, Princess of Cleves,” which has been valued at between £4.2 million and £4.7 million. Most incredibly of all, his mother shredded canvases and threw a number of the pieces in a canal after learning of her son’s arrest. A Swiss court has sentenced him to 4 years, and a French court has sentenced him to 26 months.
Apparently he’s kept himself busy writing about his exploits. It’s worth noting the way a work’s fame and theft often go hand in hand. The most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa did not become famous until it was stolen in 1911. Art theft captures the imagination, and often leads to greater interest in a work. It’s hard to understand exactly why theives like Breitwieser steal art. They may be seeking fame, trying to earn money, overcome by their love of beautiful things, or filling an order for a wealthy collecter who wants a work for their own private use.