I’m sad to relay the news that John Henry Merryman passed away on August 3. He was 95. No single individual did more to establish the field of art law, and I’m not sure any work on art or cultural heritage law can be written without accounting for his groundbreaking scholarship. He will certainly be missed, but he left behind a wonderful body of scholarship.
Merryman introduced the idea for the new course “Law, Ethics and the Visual Arts,” in 1970 to a somewhat skeptical law faculty. Merryman taught the course in 1971, the first of its kind. Elsen collaborated and co-taught with Merryman — the two delving into questions of tax, copyright, contracts, regulation, cultural property, ethics and more — creating a syllabus for the nascent field of study and publishing the groundbreaking book Law, Ethics and the Visual Arts, now in its fourth edition.
Before that, Merryman was a comparative law scholar of international standing.
“His great book on The Civil Law Tradition caused a fundamental rethinking of comparative law and subsequent scholarship — and courses based on that scholarship — were powerfully strengthened as a result,” said Thomas Ehrlich, dean of Stanford Law School from 1971 until 1976. “John’s many works relating to art and cultural property, as well as his multiple courses in that arena, were no less groundbreaking. He deployed his strengths in comparative law to produce penetrating analyses on the ownership of antiquities, as well as on art and the law more generally. Students from across the Stanford campus and beyond flocked to John’s classes. John was one-of-a-kind, as colleague and as dear friend.”
Perhaps commercial art storage institutions need to be held to a higher standard. Daniel Grant has a provocative piece in the Gallerist, exploring the possibility that a good deal of stolen art may be found in storage facilities like bank vaults or art storage facilities:
The past decade has seen significant growth in the art storage industry, but those recent discoveries of missing artworks raise questions about what is being stored. “I don’t check on what people are storing, that’s not my business,” said Robert Crozier, president of Crozier Fine Art, a storage company with locations in Manhattan, Long Island, Newark, N.J., and Philadelphia. Although he said that his company does not consult lists maintained by the FBI, Interpol or Art Loss Register of missing and stolen objects, Crozier mentioned a few instances over the years when a court order required him to “turn over our records.” However, he added that “we do extensive due diligence on our clients. Somebody can’t walk off the street and open an account to store their property in our warehouses. We have rules and regulations as to what can and cannot be stored, which we rigorously police.”
Crozier’s approach is standard for the industry. “I sort of know, but not really,” said Chris Wise, director of UOVO Fine Art Storage, a storage facility in Queens, when asked about his knowledge of work he safeguards. “A lot of people don’t share with us what they are storing. They send over a box from Europe and tell us to put it with their other boxes. They don’t want us to open their boxes to see what’s there, and I’m not in the provenance-checking business. If we had to check if pieces were stolen or if they were taxed at the right rate, storage would be a lot more expensive for our clients. So, I don’t really know what we have, and I don’t really want to have that knowledge.”
Thomas Ryan, the president of WelPak Corporation, a moving and storage company in Queens, said that “the greatest percentage of objects here are known to us,” but that checking their status is “beyond our requirements.”
Perhaps these storage companies should be prompted to require background searches with stolen art databases before storing works of art.
We are off for a few weeks for some summer teaching in Istanbul, some art-viewing in Amsterdam, and some other events. There will be lots to share here when I’m back in front of a keyboard, but posting will be light for a few weeks. In the meantime check out my blogging colleagues in the blogroll on the right for updates and commentary.
I have had five wonderful years serving ARCA (the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art), but in any professional endeavor, there comes a time to leave. For me that time is now. I have made the decision to resign due to differences regarding the management of the organization. Though I respect much of the work ARCA has done; share its passion for exposing heritage crime; and understand the struggles of small non-profits; as an advocate who urges transparency on the part of museums and auction houses, I must part ways when my concerns have not been addressed.
Good luck to all the teams competing in Chicago at the National Cultural Heritage Law Moot Court competition this weekend! This competition is put together by DePaul College of Law with the help of the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation. It’s a great showcase for these soon-to-be-lawyers and this field.
The problem this year:
The 2014 Competition will focus on the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA), 19 U.S.C. §§ 2601-13, which establishes a framework for imposing import restrictions on undocumented archaeological and ethnological materials. The problem will address the questions of whether agency action taken pursuant to delegated presidential authority is subject to judicial review under the Administrative Procedure Act and whether an intentional violation of the CPIA can serve as the basis for a criminal prosecution under the customs statute.
The city of Detroit has declared itself bankrupt. It also has a world class collection of art at the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA). The first to consult about what should happen to Detroit’s art must surely be Detroiters themselves. Yet one remarkable arts blogger referred to the potential sale of art as a “rape of its collection”. This kind of angry criticism reveals much more about the sorry state of certain arts commentary than it does the difficult decisions confronting Detroit. Because the same critics who pile on the city leaders in Detroit are often the same who angrily criticize efforts by nations of origin like Italy for attempting to repatriate works of art that have left the country. You cannot have it both ways. There must be some organizing logic other than: “I want it here”.
Egypt’s Minister of State for Antiquities, Mohamed Ibrahim in a Washington Post Op-Ed:
Egyptians need the people and the government of the United States to support our efforts to combat the systematic and organized looting of our museums and archaeological sites. Imagine a world in which the stories of King Tut, Cleopatra, Ramesses and others were absent from the collective consciousness. And with much of our history still waiting to be discovered under the sand, the potential losses are staggering. Antiquities theft is one of the world’s top crimes — after the trafficking of weapons, narcotics and people — but it is seldom addressed.
Egyptian antiquities are flooding international markets. Recent auctions at Christie’s in London and New York included several items from Egypt. Fortunately, when contacted,Christie’s in London withdrew a number of items that had been stolen from the tomb of King Amenhotep III, discovered in 2000 in Luxor. Among the items was a steatite bust of an official dating from 1793 to 1976 B.C.
Although arrests were made in this case, and two auction houses in Jerusalem canceled the sale of 126 antiquities after being contacted by Egyptian officials, the tide unfortunately flows in the other direction. After being contacted by the Egyptian foreign ministry, other auction houses have been unwilling to cooperate with requests to delay or cancel sales of items that experts assess have been stolen. Among those who make their money selling antiquities, cooperation with the Egyptian government has been mixed at best.
Looting is a centuries-old business and a crime that Egyptians will no doubt be fighting for years, especially during difficult economic times. Our country is willing to take a strong stand. No one can forget the stark images of Egyptians — men and women, Muslims and Christians, young and old — creating a human shield to protect the Egyptian Museum in Cairo during the 2011 revolution. Still, thieves succeeded in stealing several items from its collection. Despite our government’s best efforts to retrieve those artifacts, more than 50 items, including some from the famous King Tut tomb, remain missing.