Some troubling news in London reveals that Scotland Yard may see an uncertain future for its Art and Antiques Unit. The offices who had been assigned to the unit have been reallocated to investigating the Grenfell Tower tragedy. This is a shame, as the unit is one of the world’s longest-running art crime policing units, with some terrific prosecutions of note, including the Jonathan Tokeley-Parry conviction (which set the stage for the Fred Schultz conviction in the United States), the discovery of the myriad art frauds committed by the Bolton Forgers, and many other notable initiatives.
Martin Bailey reported for the Art Newspaper that:
Vernon Rapley, who led the Art and Antiques Unit from 2001 until 2010, told The Art Newspaper that he is “worried that the closure of the unit is now being considered”. He added: “I am very concerned that the Metropolitan Police is unable to give assurances on when the three detectives who have been temporarily reassigned will be returned to the unit.”
The three officers are detective constables Philip Clare, Sophie Hayes and Ray Swan. There is currently no detective sergeant responsible for the unit, following the departure of Claire Hutcheon last March.
James Pickford in the Financial Times also noted the importance of the unit to the United Kingdom’s licit art trade:
Dick Ellis, founder and former head of the art squad, said: “To close — if it is to be closed — a small but very specialised unit at Scotland Yard, which is there among other things to assist other countries, is madness.” He added the squad had been closed once before, in 1984, for budgetary reasons, but reopened again in 1989 following pressure from other international forces and the art market. One issue at the centre of concerns about the possible closure of the Met art unit is the fight to prevent looted or stolen antiquities from the Middle East being used to fund terrorism. The unit works with overseas forces to identify illicit trafficking of cultural goods, and can take action when UK-based dealers and auctioneers relay their suspicions about objects of questionable provenance. It also maintains the London stolen arts database, which stores information and images of 54,000 items of stolen property. The UK had a 21 per cent share of the $56bn global art market by value in 2016, second only to the US with 40 per cent, according to research by Arts Economics, a consultancy. One art market professional who had dealt regularly with the Met art unit over the past decade described its detectives as “dedicated and knowledgeable”. “If that unit is lost it would be a great concern for the art market,” they said.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.