Pilot Project by the German Lost Art Foundation

Catherine Hickley reports for the Art Newspaper that a new study has shown that serious state-sanctioned seizures of privately-held artworks continued long after the conclusion of World War II, particularly in east Germany. The study examined acquisitions between 1945 and 1989 by four museums: the Viadrina Museum, and museums in Strausberg, Eberswalde, and Neuruppin. The study was conducted by the German Lost Art Foundation, and was intended as a pilot project to guide further research.


One of the most common ways that art confiscated from individuals wound up in East German museum collections was through the clearance of the residences of people who had fled the country, especially in the second half of the 1950s, Sachse says.
At the end of 1961, just a few months after the Berlin Wall was erected, East German Minister for State Security Erich Mielke gave orders for a secret operation to force open and empty unused, privately rented bank vaults, safety deposit boxes and safes at around 4,000 locations across the country and empty them of their contents.
The stealth operation, known as Aktion Licht (Operation Light), amounted to an orchestrated, state-sanctioned mass theft from people who had left the country. The treasures belonged to East Germans who had escaped to the West, but also to Jewish people forced to flee or who were taken to concentration camps during the Third Reich. The Stasi valued its findings at 4.1m deutschmarks (around $10m at the time).
After 1970, the preferred method of theft by the East German authorities was to invent astronomical tax bills and then seize art when the victims could not pay.

Catherine Hickley, Mass theft of art from East German citizens revealed in new report, The Art Newspaper (Jun. 12, 2019), http://theartnewspaper.com/news/mass-theft-of-art-from-east-german-citizens-revealed.

My Article on the Council of Europe’s ‘Blood Antiquities’ Convention

The Arch of the Temple of Bel, near Palmyra in Syria in 2005 (via)

In 2017 the Council of Europe opened the Nicosia or ‘Blood Antiquities’ Convention up for signature. The new initiative is the first of its kind devoted to the criminal and penal aspects of policing cultural property. I wrote a discussion of the Treaty, examining its provisions in detail and thinking about what this initiative may mean for the future of cultural heritage law.

In 2017 the Council of Europe opened for signature the first ever international treaty aimed at policing cultural property. As more attention has been paid to the damage done by the theft, looting, and illicit trafficking of cultural objects, the Council of Europe has met this challenge with an ambitious convention which aims to fill gaps in the current criminal laws. These gaps have too often been exploited by individuals in the illicit antiquities trade. The author had an opportunity to present his analysis of a draft version of the Council of Europe’s Convention at a meeting held in Lucca, Italy in 2017. The meeting of that group of experts revealed a document that had the benefit of grand ambitions and tough talk on the policing of illicit antiquities. Yet there was pessimism expressed by many experts that the Convention would accomplish the goals which it set out to achieve. The essay which follows is an expansion of the remarks given at that meeting. It argues that the cultural property trade badly needs to be properly regulated. This includes not simply seizure and forfeiture of objects, but also the prosecution of persistent bad actors. The Nicosia Convention opens up new possibilities for prosecution at all levels of the illicit trade. Although the Convention is the first of its kind, it has been met with surprisingly little attention in the cultural heritage law academy. This essay introduces the main reforms offered by the Convention and argues that it points the way forward for future policing of the illicit trade in cultural property.


The Blood Antiquities Convention as a Paradigm for Cultural Property Crime ReductionCardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal, Vol. 37, No. 2, 2019

Janet Ulph on Acquiring Fossils

A Seymouria Fossil , from the California Academy of Sciences, via.

Professor Janet Ulph of Leicester Law School has written a handy and concise discussion of how fossils fit into the overall picture of cultural heritage crime.

This article explains why museums should avoid acquiring fossils which lack sufficient provenance and where the circumstances are suspicious. It argues that, regardless of whether one considers fossils to be cultural property or not, the Museums Association’s Code of Ethics should be followed not only in order to maintain public trust in museums but also to ensure compliance with current laws

Ulph, J. 2018. Acquiring fossils: a complex picture. The Geological Curator 10 (10): 657-670.

Babcock on “The Public Trust in Public Art”

Winslow Homer, The Veteran in a New Field, 1865, (source).

Professor Hope Babcock, of Georgetown Law, has published an interesting discussion on public art which carries forward a number of ideas presented by Joseph Sax and the public trust. She looks at the interesting problem of art which is withheld from public enjoyment. In other words should this iconic work of Winslow Homer enter the public patrimony, and thus be prevented from disappearing into a private collection if the Met would ever decide to deaccession it?


Private hoarding of important works of art is a phenomenon that has caused their disappearance from public view. The loss of this art undermines republican values like education, community, and citizenship, and therefore should be resisted. This Article explores various legal tools to prevent this from happening, including doctrines and laws that protect artists’ rights in their work, but which offer the public little relief. Turning to two well-known common-law doctrines—public dedication and public trust—to see whether they might provide a solution, the author favors the latter because it is nimbler and better suited to the public nature of important works of art. But she recognizes that making viable use of the public trust doctrine requires enhancement with incentives, such as those offered by listing the art on a register, the tax code, and external norms of social behavior. The Article is a tribute to Professor Joseph L. Sax’s public trust scholarship, which has inspired so many of us who follow in his footsteps.


Babcock, Hope M., “The Public Trust in Public Art: Property Law’s Case Against Private Hoarding of ‘Public’ Art” 50 Conn. L. Rev. 641 (2018). https://scholarship.law.georgetown.edu/facpub/2139


New article on the market for anonymous paintings

The King’s Fountain, 16th Century anonymous Flemish work (source)

Anne-Sophie V. E. Radermecker, affiliated with the Department of History, Arts and Archaeology (Cultural Management) Université libre de Bruxelles, Brussels, Belgium has published a paper devoted to the market for anonymous Flemish paintings which were sold between 1955-2015.


This paper explores the market for indeterminate works of art. Our data set includes 1578 sales of fifteenth and sixteenth-century anonymous Flemish paintings, mainly collected from the Blouin Art Sales Index over the period 1955–2015. After a brief introductory section to the issue of anonymity in early modern art, and the different situations of information failure generated by anonymous paintings, the empirical part examines the supply and demand for paintings by unrecorded artists, using a hedonic pricing model. We find evidence that the degree of specification of the spatio-temporal designations given to the paintings (e.g. Flemish school, sixteenth century) affect prices differently (H1). The more specific the designation is in time and space, the more it tends to make up for the lack of information, and to positively affect the market value of anonymous paintings. When the artist name is missing, we also argue that purchasers pay greater attention to other quality signals. Four other hypotheses, which are expected to influence the buyer’s willingness to pay, are successively tested: H2) the physical condition of the painting; H3) oral or written interventions by an expert; H4) the length of the lot essay; and H5) previous attributions to named artists. The results suggest that most of these variables operate as significant pricing characteristics. We finally compare price indices of named artists, indirect names and spatio-temporal designations.

Radermecker, AS.V.E. J Cult Econ (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10824-019-09344-5

An interesting article with some very useful data. The article’s conclusions are unsurprising: the more information provided about a work of art, the higher the price will generally be.

Italy’s Carabinieri Outwits Art Thieves

The Crucifixion, by Pieter Bruegel the Younger, a copy of a similar work by his father (wikipedia commons)

Italy’s art squad, the Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, are the pre-eminent art police squad for a reason.

Thieves hoping to steal this work learned that lesson the hard way last week when they attempted to steal this work of art from a baroque church (Chiesa di Santa Maria Maddalena) in Castelnuovo Magra in Liguria. Working from information that a theft was imminent, the Carabinieri and only a handful of the residents of the town orchestrated and elaborate switch.

They swapped the real painting out for a copy, and that’s what the thieves stole.

The thieves now have a near-worthless copy, and the painting is still safe in storage.

Daniele Montebello, the mayor of the town which has a population of 8,500, said “The original painting was replaced by a copy more than a month ago . . . We were hearing rumours that someone wanted to steal it, so the Carabinieri brought in the fake and installed security cameras.”

Parish Priest Fr. Alessandro Chintaretto, who was reportedly napping nearby when the theft took place, expressed relief the original is safe: “It is a work of rare beauty which expresses a moment of profound faith . . . ”. 

A Profile of Vjeran Tomic


Georges Braque, 1906, L’Olivier près de l’Estaque (The Olive tree near l’Estaque)

In 2010 Vjeran Tomic managed to pull off an improbable heist. During a series of late night visits, he managed to make off with five important works from the Musée d’Art Moderne, including Pastoral by Henri Matisse, Woman with a Fan by Modigliani, Pablo Picasso’s Dove with Green Peas, and George Braques Olive Tree near Estaque. These works were always going to be difficult to sell, leading many to speculate they might have been destroyed.

Writing for the New Yorker, Jake Halpern speaks with Tomic and in a downright readable profile, attempts to figure out why. Here’s an excerpt:


Many of the luxurious apartments that Tomic broke into had valuable paintings, but he tried to resist taking them, knowing that they would be difficult to unload. “To sell them was dangerous, and I didn’t have reliable sources abroad in order to flog them to collectors or receivers,” he told me. Occasionally, though, the allure of the art proved overwhelming, and Tomic took what he found—including, he says, works by Degas and Signac. “A decent amount passed through my home,” he wrote. He hid some pieces in a cellar, “and some stayed with me for a long time, on the wall, and it’s in these cases that I fell in love.”
This might sound like braggadocio, but Tomic did make off with some masterpieces. In the fall of 2000, in an episode that subsequently made the papers in France, he used a crossbow with ropes and carabiners to sneak into an apartment while its occupants were asleep and stole two Renoirs, a Derain, an Utrillo, a Braque, and various other works—a haul worth more than a million euros.


Jake Halpern, The French Burglar Who Pulled Off His Generation’s Biggest Art Heist, The New Yorker, Jan. 7, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/01/14/the-french-burglar-who-pulled-off-his-generations-biggest-art-heist [https://perma.cc/M7FK-M39R].

Its a terrific profile, and if you enjoyed it, it recalls another terrific read, David Grann’s profile of the prolific aging bank robber Forrest Tucker.

Stéphane Breitwieser alleged to have committed more thefts


Sibylle of Cleves at the time of her betrothal to Electoral Prince John Frederick, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526. This work was stolen by Breitwieser in 1995 from a castle in Baden-Baden.

The notorious art thief Stéphane Breitwieser who committed numerous thefts in France, Switzerland, and Germany between 1995 and 2001 is alleged to have continued committing crimes after his release from prison. He worked as a waiter travelling around Europe, and stole on average once every 15 days a quantity of art estimated to total $1.4 Billion. In 2006 he wrote an account of his thefts. But that book has not it seems sold very well, or occupied Breitwieser’s time.

Vincent Noce reports for the Art Newspaper that:

He had been under surveillance since 2016 when he offered a 19th-century paperweight on eBay. Several such objects were stolen from the crystalware museum in Saint Louis, owned by the fashion house Hermès. At his house in the city of Marmoutier, police also discovered roman coins from an archeological museum and other pieces from local and German galleries; €163,000 in cash was stashed in buckets at his mother’s home.


Serial art thief Stéphane Breitwieser arrested—again, The Art Newspaper (Feb. 14, 2019), http://theartnewspaper.com/news/serial-art-thief-stephane-breitwieser-arrested-again [https://perma.cc/NR7T-97LN].

United States will withdraw from UNESCO

The San Jose mission is one of five missions granted World Heritage Designation.

The United States has made the unfortunate decision to withdraw from membership with UNESCO. I should probably have some thoughts about this, but I just feel profoundly sad. The Trump administration is a parade of embarrassment, and this is one of a series of anti-science, anti-art, anti-culture decisions. Sadly it may not be the last.

The best reads I’ve found on the decision is this reporting by Eli Rosenberg and Carol Morello in the Washington Post. Jack Morgan also has a very fine radio report for the Texas Standard on how much work goes into seeking World Heritage designation, and how the decision may impact the World Heritage sites in San Antonio.

New Issue of the International Journal of Cultural Property

The new issue of the International Journal of Cultural Property is available now, with contributions discussing deaccession, the status of fauna as cultural property, the role Sotheby’s has played in the collection of Maya antiquities, the fascinating case of the Buddhist Mummy, and other contributions. Here is the table of contents with abstracts:

Mann, D. (2017). To Have and To Hold … Or Not? Deaccessioning Policies, Practices, and the Question of the Public’s Interest. International Journal of Cultural Property,24(2), 113-159. doi:10.1017/S0940739117000091

Shockwaves echoed through the media and the arts community when the Delaware Art Museum chose to deaccession pieces from its collection and when the public learned that the Detroit Institute of Arts might be forced to do the same. Further concern arose when financial troubles compelled the Corcoran Gallery of Art to merge with the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University. An examination of the climate and legal battles surrounding these events shows how these institutions chose to cope with the financial adversity that put their collections at risk and illustrates the precarious position of works in a museum’s collection when that museum experiences financial distress. This article explores the ethical, judicial, and legislative frameworks currently governing deaccessioning and ultimately advocates for new legislative solutions to guide the deaccession process in order to provide the opportunity to maintain these works in the public sphere.

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