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

Sevso Treasure on Private Display

For the last week, the infamous Sevso treasure has been on display in Bonham’s auction house in London. The New York Times devotes an article in its art section to the exhibition. The private exhibition marks only the second time the 14 silver objects have been displayed, and its not even open to the general public. Some estimates value the 14 sculptures at $187 million. The last display occurred in new York in 1990. The silver objects are roman in origin, and are believed to date from 350 – 450 A.D.

Despite their beauty, the antiquities are marred by controversy. This week’s display was certainly made in anticipation of an eventual sale. However, the location, archaeological context and provenance of the find remain unknown. We do know the Marquess of Northampton acquired the objects in the early 1980’s. In 1983, 10 of the objects were offered for sale to the Getty museum, however the sale fell through because the export licenses were falsified.

One of the difficulties with these items is that their origin remains a complete mystery. Though certainly Roman in origin, Lebanon, Croatia, and Hungary have all made claims on the objects. There was a lengthy series of legal proceedings. After a 7 week trial in 1993 in the New York Supreme Court (the court of general jurisdiction in New York) a jury found that neither Croatia nor Hungary had established a valid claim over the treasure, and the Marquess of Northampton retained ownership.

The exhibition and potential sale have caused quite a stir already. In the London Times, Lord Colin Renfrew, former director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research argued that the display of the works by any UK museum would be unethical, and “It is an affront to public decency that a commercial dealer should do so – even if many archaeologists such as myself, will take the opportunity of going to inspect it.” The problem of course, is we know the objects are Roman, but not which part of the former Roman empire they were discovered in. Hungary and Croatia both feel strongly about their claims, but they are unable to establish concrete ownership.

There has been an atmosphere of reform in recent years in the UK, with accession to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, the Ministerial Illicit Trade Advisory Panel, the Parliamentary Inquiry in 2001, and the new Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003. How the UK government will respond to the trade in these objects, which was undoubtedly the result of an illicit excavation should be interesting to watch unfold.

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

New Italy-Swiss Art Pact


On Friday, Swiss Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin and Italian Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli signed a bilateral agreement making it more difficult for objects from Italy to be illicitly traded through Switzerland. I haven’t been able to track down the precise details of the agreement, but it seems the deal will require customs officials from both nations to require proof of a lawful export from the other nation before an object is allowed into the country.

This agreement may be another upshot of the Getty trial currently underway in Italy. Its also likely a product of Swiss concerns that its art market (valued at $1.2 billion) has taken on a seedy reputation in recent years as a transit state. Switzerland also recently signed the 1970 UNESCO Convention in an effort to change its image. The new agreement is set to come into force sometime early next year.

This measure could have a substantial practical impact on the amount of looting taking place in Italy. However one large obstacle is the fact that most antiquities are portable, and can be easily disguised as something mundane with a coat of paint or varnish. Jonathan Tokely-Parry and Frederick Schultz served prison time in the UK and US respectively for disguising Egyptian antiquities in this manner. One of the sad realities of the illicit trade is the fact that customs agents don’t have the resources to search every car, or freight container which enters its borders. Though bilateral agreements like this one are certainly a welcome development, more work needs to be done to remedy problems with the market.

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

Getty Trial Resumes in Italy


The New York Times devoted a short brief on the so-called Getty trial wednesday. After a long summer hiatus, the trial of former Getty Museum curator Marion True and art dealer Robert Hecht continued Wednesday in Rome, with the testimony of Fausto Guarnieri, who once worked for Italy’s art-theft squad. The statue is only on e of the objects at issue in the prosecution of True and Hecht, who are accused of dealing in stolen artifacts. A 1939 Italian law vests title to all unearthed antiquities in the State.

The statue of Aphrodite, pictured here, was purchased for $18 million by the Getty in 1988. It dates from the 5th century BC, near a Greek settlement in Sicily known as Venere di Morgantina. Italian authorities were alerted in 1986 by rival looters, who were angry that the statue had been sold too cheaply. Guarnieri testified that 20 years ago tomb robbers led him to a site in Sicily where the statue had been unearthed.

The trial is a tremendous black eye for the Getty, as the sculpture is a centerpiece of the museum’s antiquities collection in Malibu. True’s defense counsel are arguing that the sale of the statue was met with little official interest by Italian authorities in 1988 when the sale took place. Apparently, the statue was not on the official list of stolen objects when the Getty made official inquiries at the time of the sale. It would have been difficult though, as there was no record of what the statue actually looked like. Prosecutors are relying on scientific data which points to the statue’s origin in Morgantina.

This trial will of course be watched very closely by museums all over the world with Italian antiquities. Though I failed to grasp it when I posted comments about the decision by the Museum of Fine arts in Boston’s decision to return 13 antiquities to Italy, the True prosecution may have been at least part of the impetus behind the decision. Also, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art recently returned 21 pieces to Italy.

I’m not sure what this prosecution means for the illicit trade. Certainly, it seems likely that museums will be far more careful when they acquire Italian antiquities. However, it seems likely that the looters will continue their work, they just will sell to dealers and individuals rather than museums. Is the public good being served by having these objects in the hands of an individual rather than a museum? Perhaps not; but however nefarious we might believe the actions of True and Hecht were in this case, wasn’t there a tremendous value in allowing the public to view these objects? Its the same kind of argument that Greece and the British Museum have been fighting over for centuries in relation to the Parthenon Sculptures/Elgin Marbles. There are no clear answers. However, the Parthenon Sculptures have been resting in London for centuries now, while the Italian antiquites are a fairly recent acquisition by the Getty. Conversely, the archaeological context was lost when the statue was unearthed twenty years ago. However, was there anything in that soil record about Greek civilization that we don’t already know? We can’t be sure. At the very least, the idea of a museum acquiring a very valuable object which had been looted strikes me as distasteful. It certainly reveals a troubling part of museum acquisition which I suspect the vast majority of visitors are unaware of.

What is certain, is that Italian authorities are pursuing an aggressive policy of pursuing antiquities found/looted/unearthed within its borders. This will likely diminish the prices which sellers of certain questionable objects can expect to receive for their finds in the short-term. But it might increase the price which may be paid for objects with a clean provenance. An unintended consequence may be the decrease in opportunities for visitors and residents California, Boston, and New York to see these examples of Greek and Roman culture.

Perhaps the way forward is an increase in travelling exhibitions, but there are financial, logistical and other drawbacks to that remedy as well. The one thing all parties involved in this prosecution, and the wider debate can certainly agree on, is that these are extremely valuable and beautiful objects.

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

US Restrictions of Chinese Imports


In Wednesday’s New York Times, we learn that the US State Department has delayed a ruling on whether to limit the import of Chinese antiquities. The delay is unprecedented, and the State Department has been expected to issue the decision this fall. A number of interesting things are playing out here. Foremost is the very public battle between archaeologists and antiquities dealers.

First, a bit of background: The United States passed a law in 1983 called the Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA). It fulfilled America’s obligation as a signatory of the 1970 UNESCO World Heritage Convention (UNESCO Convention). The CPIA allows the US to ban the importation of antiquities from certain nations, via bilateral agreements. As part of the CPIA regime, an advisory board comprised of dealers and academics evaluates requests for bilateral agreements. The State Department has never refused a request like China’s. In recent years, 11 nations have asked for and been granted import restrictions of artifacts, including Italy, Mali, Cambodia, Cyprus and seven countries in Central and South America. Until China’s recent request, the State Department has never taken longer than a couple of years to come to a decision.

The CPIA establishes standards which a source nation must meet in order to qualify for import restrictions. These include showing that the nation has policed the antiquities market domestically, showing other countries are limiting the trade in the objects, and providing evidence that dampening the US market in these objects would significantly impact the effort to prevent pillaging and looting. This image is of an early Chinese tomb. Archaeologists are very critical of the art market, as it buys and sells objects which are looted from these sites. Unfortunately when the illicit excavation takes place, the archaeological record is lost.

Apparently, China’s request is quite broad. It deals with art and coins which are less than 250 years old, which is the threshold age of objects under the 1983 CPIA. There was one public hearing in February, 2005 in which the public was allowed comment. However the State Department has given no information as to how it may reach its decision.

The delay is troubling, and it may simply be a result of the market lobby exerting its influence. If the Cultural Property Advisory Committee and the State Department end up restricting the import of these Chinese objects, art dealers may consider challenging the ruling in court. However, they would have a great deal of trouble successfully overcoming the restrictions, as Administrative Agencies are given a great deal of deference by courts. It should be interesting to see how this plays out, and any updates I come across will be published here.

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

Arrests In Egypt

In Cairo, the AP reports police detained a group of 5 men who allegedly were attempting to smuggle stolen antiquities out of the country. Curiously, one man was a former state archaeologist, and another was a University Professor. Apparently the five had found five antiquities, and were attempting to sell them. It seems a security agent posing as an arab businessmen offered the men $2 million, but they were arrested. I’d be fascinated to know more of the details of who this ‘security agent’ is, who they work for, etc. The AP article is quite thin on the details. However, as I learn more, I’ll post it here.

My first reaction is that these men do not fit the stereotypical mold for antiquities smuggling. Writers in this field often assume much of the looting is done by dealers, thieves and looters. However perhaps that generalization is unfair. Academics and archaeologists may be involved in the illicit trade of cultural property as well.

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

Looting From Iraq: A Better Perspective


I’d like to devote some time today to the issue of looting following the invasion of Iraq in April, 2003. Specifically, I’d like to point out the perspective of Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, a Manhattan District Attorney, classics scholar, and Marine who led a specialized multi-agency task force. Immediately after the invasion, countless news agencies and press reports claimed that 170,000 Iraqi antiquities had been stolen while American forces stood by and let things happen. Bogdanos has recently published a book about his exploits, Thieves of Baghdad, and has also written scholarly articles, including this one from the American Journal of Archaeology.

Much of the recent book details his personal experience as the son of Greek immigrants in New York, his decision to study classics during his time in law school, and also his experiences near ground zero on September 11, 2001. He is passionate about his service in the marine corps, and about his mission in Iraq, which may put some readers who are critical of the war and the invasion ill-at-ease. However, Bogdanos remains candid throughout, pointing out the struggles of marines in Iraq in dealing with the media, tribal leaders, and even western misconceptions.

The strength of Bogdanos’ account of the looting of the Baghdad museum is the way he brings a prosecutor’s attention to detail to the whole controversy. He creates a time line, and gives his opinion as to what the US military should or should not have done at various times during the invasion of the city of Baghdad.

In my view, a lot of commentators took their anger at the invasion, and turned it into blind criticism of how the military should have protected these antiquities . After reading Bogdanos’ account, clearly mistakes were made, but not to the extent that initial reports indicated. The Baghdad museum itself was rarely open to visitors under Saddam Hussein. In fact, American troops would have likely done more harm to the objects in the museum if they had been more robust in capturing the museum earlier, as there were Iraqi troops inside the museum. This picture shows a hole left by an american tank which was being fired upon from the archway. Granted, there are many arguments against the US-led invasion of Iraq, and the loss of Iraqi cultural heritage is a shining example of what went wrong, just not to the extent initially reported.

Who exactly looted the museum remains unknown for sure, but the US military’s policy of amnesty for the return of objects helped to bring back a number of priceless artifacts, including the sacred vase of Warka, which is 5,000 years old and considered one of the oldest existing sculptures. Unfortunately many priceless objects are still missing, and are on the FBI’s most wanted art thefts list.

In the end, after reading Bogdanos’ account, the tragedy of recent Iraqi history becomes manifest. This is the cradle of civilization; unfortunately now it is the location of a great deal of violence. Sadly, the recent death estimates which exceed 600,000 illustrate this.

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