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”

Tang Shipwreck Exhibition at the Asia Society

Michael Flecker took this photograph of part of the wreck of the vessel in 1998.

The Asia Society has managed to avoid the scorn of underwater heritage preservers and exhibit objects from the Tang Shipwreck. Earlier attempts to display these objects by the Smithsonian in 2011 were cancelled because archaeologists argued the archaeological documentation of the wreck was insufficient and had been done with a primary aim of profit, not the advancement of knowledge.

The wreck was discovered in 1998 off the coast of Indonesia by sea cucumber divers. The vessel confirmed the sea routes between West Asia and Iraq or Iran. As the Asia Society’s director, Boon Hui Tan describes the exhibit:

[G]lobalisation is a very, very old concept—and it’s not just a Western concept . . . . There was a kind of economic dynamism [in the Tang Dynasty] that came from, in a sense, being connected with the outside world . . . . The Belitung shipwreck is one of the most significant archaeological finds in recent history . . .

The wreck held as many as 60,000 objects, including ceramic bowls; decorated mirrors; and valuable silver and gold objects. By all accounts this really was a chance find, fishermen were said to have been looting the wreck, so there was some urgency to recover the objects from the vessel while also undertaking research into the underwater archaeology. Whether that scientific undertaking was hastily done in order to secure financial rewards by putting together this kind of travelling exhibition, or the Indonesian authorities did the best they could with a limited budget is a question very much open to debate.  The exhibit titled “Secrets of the Sea: A Tang Shipwreck and Early Trade in Asia” will run through June 4, 2017.

  1. Robin Pogrebin, A Sunken Treasure Will Appear in New York Despite Its Controversial Excavation, The New York Times, Feb. 21, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/21/arts/shipwreck-treasure-new-york-display.html.
  2. Victoria Stapley-Brown, Controversial trove from imperial Chinese shipwreck lands in New York (Mar. 7, 2017), http://theartnewspaper.com/news/museums/controversial-trove-from-imperial-chinese-shipwreck-lands-in-new-york/.

Evaluating the Damage done at the Mosul Museum

This large hole in the floor of the museum allowed looters to carry away smaller portable antiquities

As Iraqi forces are slowly gaining ground against ISIL fighters in Mosul, journalists have been shown the damage done to the museum in Mosul. The museum now sits almost completely empty, with many objects either carted away or smashed.

To be clear though, many of the objects in the museum had been taken away from the museum, an estimated 75% of the collection, as the museum was slated for renovation. Even some of the objects that were damaged and destroyed in the ISIL videos were likely museum-quality reproductions, so though the damage looked to have been catastrophic, many things survived. As for the portable objects, that material seems destined for the international antiquities market, likely with a fabricated history.

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Operation Pandora nets 75 arrests in Europe

This Byzantine depiction of Saint George was one of the artworks recovered.

Earlier this week police in Europe announced the fruits of operation Pandora, an investigation into an international art trafficking network. In total, 75 people were arrested and 3,500 objects and artworks were seized. The investigation centered in Spain and Cyprus. The network allegedly moved works of art from conflict areas, and dealt in objects stolen from museums. The Europol press release boasted that over 48,000 individuals were investigated, almost 30,000 vehicles were investigated (along with 50 ships).

According to the release the aim of the investigation was to:

[d]ismantle criminal networks involved in cultural theft and exploitation, and identify potential links to other criminal activities. Moreover, there was a special focus on cultural spoliation, both underwater and on land, and the illicit trafficking of cultural goods, with a particular emphasis on conflict countries.

The operation was supported by UNESCO, INTERPOL, the World Customs Organization, Europol, and law enforcement officials from 18 countries. This was an extensive operation, which took a great deal of cooperation and resources. The investigators and policy makers who made this investigation successful should be commended. And yet, is this kind of large scale investigation sustainable? Will art thieves and traffickers be chastened and refrain from art crimes? Will the arrests actually produce successful prosecutions unlike so many of American investigations?

  1. Raphael Minder, 75 Arrested in European Crackdown on Art Trafficking, The New York Times, January 22, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/22/world/europe/75-arrested-in-european-crackdown-on-art-trafficking.html (last visited Jan 25, 2017).
  2. 3561 artefacts seized in Operation Pandora, Europol, https://www.europol.europa.eu/newsroom/news/3561-artefacts-seized-in-operation-pandora (last visited Jan 25, 2017).
  3. “Operation Pandora”: police in Spain and Cyprus lead major bust of antiquities traffickers, , http://theartnewspaper.com/news/operation-pandora-police-in-spain-and-cyprus-lead-major-bust-of-antiquities-traffickers/ (last visited Jan 25, 2017).

In Syria, looting causes faked antiquities too

Louis Vignes, Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra, Syria (1864)

Reporting for the L.A. Times last week, Nabih Bulos indicates that with the rise in looting of ancient sites, the market demand is starting to also be met by forged antiquities:

“In the last year, we’ve caught thousands of pieces. We noticed that the percentage of fakes has risen up from 30 to 40% to over 70%,” said Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s director-general of antiquities and museums.

“Bibles, coins, statues … the buyer wants a certain model of artifact. The seller doesn’t have it, so you have workshops that produce fakes.”

On his laptop, Abdulkarim played a video depicting an open-air workshop, which he said was in the town of Khan Al-Subul in the rebel-held province of Idlib. Men, their hands covered in white dust, sit cross-legged on the ground, carving delicate patterns on pieces of stone.

Off to the side, one worker washes down a column head with a wet sponge. The rivulets of liquid work their way down the stone’s surface, leaving a dark sediment that would give it the appearance of age, according to Abdulkarim.

But are the faked antiquities new, or are we just paying more attention because of the loud destruction and institutionalized iconoclasm taking place in parts of Syria.

In 2009, Charles Stanish argued that he stopped worrying about the sale of faked antiquities on internet sites such as eBay, in the hopes that antiquities fakers would ultimately put antiquities forgers and looters out of business. In Syria at least, this report indicates that instead, the art market’s failure to often sell objects with detailed and legitimate histories leads to first looting, then also a rise in faked artworks. Some of course will argue that there should not be a market for this material at all. Others argue that the market should be preserved. The inability to compromise, of these two competing interests to even discuss the possibility of the other existing has served to preserve not the sites or context, but the black market in looted archaeological material and fake antiquities.

 

  1. Nabih Bulos, After Islamic State Institutionalized Looting in Syria, the Market for Fake Antiquities is Booming, Los Angeles Times, Dec. 31, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-syria-fake-antiquities-2016-story.html.