Five paintings stolen from the Museum of Modern Art in Paris feared destroyed

Nature Mort au Chandelier, Fernand Léger, 1922

The Associated Press reported this week that five important works stolen from the Museum of Modern Art in Paris in 2010 may have been destroyed. This work by Léger was apparently stolen to order, and in his zeal to capitalize on his time in the museum, the thief managed to make life considerably more difficult for his alleged co-conspirators because he stole some more very notorious works which only served to attract more attention from the authorities.

At a trial in Paris, one of the defendants, Yonathan Birn, claimed to have destroyed the works after fears that the investigation into their disappearance would lead to him.

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A rare prison sentence for an antiquities dealer

Federal agents raided the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Thursday as part of a five-year inquiry into smuggled relics. Credit Nick Ut/Associated Press
Federal agents raided the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Thursday as part of a five-year inquiry into smuggled relics. Credit Nick Ut/Associated Press

In 2008 a massive federal investigation unfolded in a coordinated series of searches that produced dramatic images of federal agents standing outside prominent Southern California Museums. As Jason Felch points out:

The investigation sent shockwaves through the art world, suggesting that even amid an international scandal over the Getty Museum’s role in looting, other local museums had continued to do business with the black market. Some critics later called the raids over-zealous, noting that despite that the massive investigation, the government had failed to win jail time in the long-delayed criminal trials that followed.

The museums which were targets of the search included the Los Angles County Museum of Art, Pasadena’s Pacific Asia Museum, the Bowers Museum, and the Mingei Museum in San Diego. One of the antiquities dealers responsible for facilitating moving material from Southeast Asia to the United States was Jonathan Markell. This week he was sentenced to 18 months in prison. An extremely rare occurrence. Markell and his wife Cari were both sentenced this week. They were ordered to return hundreds of objects seized from their gallery, and were ordered to pay the shipping  costs and tax penalties. So at long last a successful prosecution in these raids, which at the time in 2008 seemed destined to produce a number of prosecutions and fundamental changes.

Rick St. Hilaire this week heaped praise on the prosecutors and investigators:

In the annals of cultural property law, prosecutions targeting transnational antiquities trafficking networks are rare. Even more rare are felony convictions. Scarcer too are prison sentences. . . . So what happened this week to a pair of California gallery owners tied in with the “Museum Raids” cases is a momentous achievement, an example of careful and intelligent case development by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California, resulting in felony convictions for antiquities traffickers rather than a “seize and send” photo-op that cultural property watchers are accustomed to witnessing.

Whatever you think of the antiquities trade will probably dictate whether you agree with St. Hilaire or not. But this is one of the exceedingly rare prosecutions of an actor in a transnational antiquities network.

  1. Jason Felch, Beverly Hills antiquities dealer sentenced to jail for smuggling scheme, The Art Newspaper, 12–16, 2015, http://theartnewspaper.com/news/museums/beverly-hills-antiquities-dealer-sentenced-to-jail-for-smuggling-scheme/ .

 

The ICC has dramatically increased the profile of heritage crime

Militants destroying a shrine in Timbuktu in July, 2012
Militants destroying a shrine in Timbuktu in July, 2012

The International Criminal Court may be on the verge of dramatically increasing the profile of cultural heritage crimes. Perhaps even ushering in a new era of thinking about international criminal law’s role in the destruction of cultural heritage.

This potential shift comes with the  announcement that the ICC will prosecute Ahmad al Mahdi Al Faqi for alleged war crimes violations in intentionally directing attacks against religious and historical monuments in Timbuktu. The offense alleged, in Article 8 (2)(e)(iv), charges him with war crimes. Specifically, he is charged with directing attacks against mausoleums and the Sidi Yahia mosque in the city. ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said in a statement:

The people of Mali deserve justice for the attacks against their cities, their beliefs and their communities.  Let there be no mistake: the charges we have brought against Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi involve most serious crimes; they are about the destruction of irreplaceable historic monuments, and they are about a callous assault on the dignity and identity of entire populations, and their religious and historical roots.  The inhabitants of Northern Mali, the main victims of these attacks, deserve to see justice done.

Matt Brown, writing at Opinio Juris argues the decision by the ICC prosecutor should be seen as a watershed moment:

This news is an exciting development in efforts to enhance protection of cultural heritage and bring the perpetrators of cultural attacks to justice. At the same time however, it throws up many more questions about the broader definition of ‘culture’, victim participation in cultural matters, and whether this could give the Court a unique opportunity to tackle an issue of growing importance in international law.

Marion True Resurfaces

MARION TRUE, curator of the Getty Museum. LA Times photo by IRIS SCHNEIDER. 10/24/99
MARION TRUE, curator of the Getty Museum. LA Times photo by IRIS SCHNEIDER. 10/24/99

Geoff Edgers managed to snag an interview with Marion True, former curator of antiquities at the Getty Museum, and the subject of an antiquities-trafficking trial in Rome. A trial that even Paolo Ferri admits was only to “show an example of what Italy could do.”

I don’t imagine many will change their view of True based on the reporting or her comments. There is nothing especially revelatory here—perhaps its best viewed as a reporting coup by Edgers in getting access to True. But its also an initial first step by True in seeking to get her own book published. The piece even links to a few small excerpts of her memoirs. Here are the handful of paragraphs which stood out to me:

A decade after her downfall, True knows that she was singled out, with Hecht, by the Italians to strike fear in American museums. The strategy worked. The Getty and others, fearing prosecution, returned hundreds of objects worth millions of dollars.

True was never found guilty — the trial ended in 2010 without a judgment – and the curator maintains her innocence. But today, for the first time, she is talking openly about the way she and her museum world colleagues operated. Yes, she did recommend the Getty acquire works she knew had to have been looted. That statement, though, comes with a qualifier:

If she found out where a work had been dug up from, she pushed for its return. In contrast, many of her colleagues did little, if anything, to research a work’s source. None of them were put on trial.

The pursuit of True was aided by raids of dealers and a massive leak of internal Getty documents to a pair of Los Angeles Times reporters. That paper trail linked looted sites in Italy to the museum’s Malibu galleries.

True plainly did recommend the acquisition of looted material. A revelation that few if any in the museum community have acknowledged publicly. But the fact that Edgers fails to acknowledge in his reporting is the damage done to future sites. The sums of money paid by the Getty fueled more looting.

  1. Geoff Edgers, One of the world’s most respected curators vanished from the art world. Now she wants to tell her story., The Washington Post, August 19, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/museums/the-curator-who-vanished/2015/08/19/d32390f8-459e-11e5-846d-02792f854297_story.html (last visited Aug 20, 2015).

Metal Detecting Permits up in Greece

Two illegally excavated ancient male  statues recovered from antiquities smugglers in southern Greece are displayed at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Tuesday, May 18, 2010. Greek authorities say two farmers have been arrested for allegedly illicitly excavating the statues, which date between 550 and 520 BC, and trying to sell them to a foreign buyer for euros 10 million. Police are seeking a third suspect. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
Two illegally excavated ancient male statues recovered from antiquities smugglers in southern Greece are displayed at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Tuesday, May 18, 2010. Greek authorities say two farmers have been arrested for allegedly illicitly excavating the statues, which date between 550 and 520 BC, and trying to sell them to a foreign buyer for euros 10 million. Police are seeking a third suspect. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Nick Romeo reports for National Geographic that the economic downturn in Greece may be leading to a spike in looting of ancient sites. Apparently there has been an increase in the applications for permits to use metal detectors:

As the Greek economic crisis has intensified over the past five years, police detectives with the Greek Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage have noticed not only that illegal excavations and thefts of archaeological artifacts increased, but also that the typical profile of looters has changed.

Before the crisis, many looters were members of criminal networks that also trafficked in guns and narcotics. Now it appears that regular people with access to tools for digging are unearthing pieces of Greece’s past and selling them for quick cash.

This surge comes at a time when agencies charged with protecting the country’s antiquities are underfunded and understaffed because of government budget cuts.

“We need more staff, more people,” said Evgenios Monovasios, a lieutenant in the Security Police Division of Attica. He estimated that in all of Greece there are roughly 60 employees who work exclusively to prevent and disrupt looting. While cooperation with local police departments across Greece expands this capacity, it’s difficult to monitor more than a fraction of the country’s vast and varied landscape, which ranges from the mountainous north to hundreds of islands in the Aegean and Ionian Seas.

“It would take an army to catch everything,” said Elena Korka, the Director General of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage. “It’s impossible not to find antiquities in Greece; they are literally everywhere.”

The increase in looting in Greece can be connected to the economic stagnation there, and also the limited resources the heritage officials have to combat this destruction. How much both of these factors contribute to looting is debatable. What is not debatable is the appetite of the antiquities trade for ancient works of art without documented histories continues to lead to the loss of context and damages Greece’s (and our) heritage.

  1. Nick Romeo, Strapped for Cash, Some Greeks Turn to Ancient Source of Wealth National Geographic News, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/08/150817-greece-looting-artifacts-financial-crisis-archaeology/ (last visited Aug 18, 2015).

The lack of options to combat heritage loss in Syria

A bust from the Palmyra Museum, likely representing Odenaethus are ruler of Palmyra in the second half of the 3rd century who fought a successful campaign against Persia.
A bust from the Palmyra Museum, likely representing Odenaethus a ruler of Palmyra in the second half of the 3rd century who fought a successful campaign against Persia.

In remarks marking the opening of the 39th session of the World Heritage Committee in Bonn, Germany yesterday, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova asked for help from the international community:

Heritage is under attack today. In Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, we see the brutal and deliberate destruction of heritage on an unprecedented scale. This is a call for action . . . Our response to ignorance and criminal stupidity, must also have a cultural dimension: knowledge, the sharing of Islam’s millennial learning and wisdom, sharing the message of Palmyra, the ‘Venice of the Sands’, that is like a bridge between the legacies of ancient Greece and Rome, the Persian Empire and the Arab culture from ancient times to the present. . .

That is a wonderful sentiment, and one I endorse, but note also that there are not calls for much in the way of concrete action. And that’s because short of military intervention there really is not much that can be done to dissuade those bent on erasing heritage. In a statement today the UNESCO World Heritage Committee stated its deep concern about the situation in Palmyra:

Intentional attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes and historic monuments may amount to war crimes . . .

So it may amount to war crimes, yet the International Criminal Court has no good opening to bring charges even if it wanted to. That’s because neither Syria nor Iraq has signed on to the ICC convention, and the individuals who commit this destruction are not high-profile enough it seems to warrant an ICC investigation and prosecution anyway. And so the end result is there is an accountability gap for this destruction.

Marina Lostal arrived at the disappointing conclusion that prosecution of ISIS iconoclasts is difficult under current law:

[T]he legal bases for prosecuting individuals for violations of the 1954 Hague Convention and the World Heritage Convention are largely absent. Those responsible may be prosecuted under the Syrian Antiquities Law, a law that was presumably approved independently of those conventions and hence present a number of caveats explained above. If the Chautauqua Blueprint is successful, it would turn a blind eye to three major causes of damage (viz. looting, use for military purposes, attacks against sites that constitute military objectives) allowing those behind this vicious circle of violations to “walk away.” This is especially frustrating if one takes into consideration that the driving force behind the adoption of conventional laws for the protection of cultural property has mostly been motivated by a desire to hold individuals accountable. The accountability gap shown in the case of Syria should serve those involved in the implementation of cultural heritage laws (e.g., UNESCO, the World Heritage Committee at the international level) as a warning that the 2003 UNESCO Declaration, or any other instrument before that, did not manage to have consequences for Bamiyan or beyond.

So if there is one thing that can be done, it may be to consider reforms to the current laws to hold those who destroy heritage individually accountable. But that change would have little impact on the current conflict in Syria.

DAVID RISING Associated Press, UN: Islamic State Destruction of Heritage Sites a War Crime, ABC News (Jun. 29, 2015), http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/islamic-state-destruction-heritage-sites-war-crime-32100589.

United Nations News Service Section, UN News – As World Heritage Committee opens session, UNESCO urges protection of sites targeted for destruction, UN News Service Section (Jun. 28, 2015), http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=51279.

Sangwon Yoon, Islamic State Is Selling Looted Art Online for Needed Cash, Bloomberg.com, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-06-28/isis-has-new-cash-cow-art-loot-it-s-peddling-on-ebay-facebook.

Derek Fincham, Display of Islamic Art Exposes Terrorists’ Lie, Houston Chronicle, Apr. 3, 2015, http://www.chron.com/opinion/outlook/article/Fincham-Display-of-Islamic-art-exposes-6178172.php.

Marina Lostal, Syria’s World Cultural Heritage and Individual Criminal Responsibility, 2015 International Review of Law 3 (2015).

 

One Way to Counter Art Terrorists

Destruction of an unidentified king of Hatra by militants in 2015
Destruction of an unidentified king of Hatra by militants in 2015

I argue in a Saturday Op-Ed that one way to think about the iconoclasm of so-called Islamic State militants is to value the art they would destroy:

The Islamic State militants destroy art to send a powerful and destructive message: that learning, beauty and the transformational power of art has no place in any so-called Islamic State. We can expose the lie in this message in one simple way: by supporting ancient and contemporary art from the region.

Our city demonstrates how effective an ambassador art can be. Houston stands proud as one of America’s emerging cities for terrific art from all over the world, especially art from the Middle East. Works of art that formed the Houston-based FotoFest 2014 Biennial are currently on display at the Emirates Palace Gallery in Abu Dhabi. Also, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) has an outstanding collection of Islamic art spanning the 9th to early 20th centuries; beautiful calligraphy and other decorative art that demonstrates the region’s commitment to learning and beauty.

We should encourage the MFA and other museums to responsibly display more works of Islamic art from this troubled region. By countering the vile message of the Islamic State by consuming and valuing Islamic art, we value and preserve what they would destroy.

The full piece is here.

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