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.
More anecdotal evidence perhaps that prices paid for antiquities reflects not only the intrinsic value of the object, but the quality of its history as well. Unprovenanced objects are not selling. Souren Melikian reports on the importance of a pre-1970 history for antiquities at recent auctions in Paris:
At Pierre Bergé on May 29, an Egyptian portrait painted in encaustic on panel of the type conventionally associated with the Fayum area rose to €1.46 million, or nearly $2 million, paid by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The portrait, datable to the years 54 to 68 A.D. on the basis of the hairdo, was owned by a European collector as early as 1968. A week later, it was the turn of Boisgirard-Antonini to score with Egyptian art. The wooden mask of a woman, with its ancient polychromy unfortunately altered by heavy waxing, realized 10 times the estimate, at more than €75,000. It had surfaced in the Paris trade in June 1912. Two lots down, the star piece in the sale, an Egyptian torso of the fourth century B.C. more than tripled its high estimate as it went over €2.26 million. Hieroglyphs carved on the back name a prince who was the governor of Upper Egypt. The inscription was debated at length in three separate German publications before World War II. At the end of a sustained bidding match, the room broke out in applause. The contrast with the dead silence that greeted scores of bronzes, some very fine, from ancient Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Yemen and other areas was striking. None were documented and the majority remained unwanted at low prices ranging from €1,000 to €5,000 euros. In five to 10 years, these hot potatoes may not even make it to the auction rooms.
- Souren Melikian, Antiquities, With a Proven Record, Drive Auction Market, N.Y. Times, June 14, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/15/arts/15iht-melikian15.html.
Jason Felch reports that Federal agents have seized a whopping $100 million in art in the past couple years from Subhash Kapoor. Kapoor, an American citizen, is subject to potential criminal charges for dealing in looted and stolen art: a pending criminal trial in India; and he may be prosecuted in the United States as well.
Felch reports on the staggering number of esteemed Museums which have purchased material from Kapoor since:
Since 1974, Kapoor and his Madison Avenue gallery Art of the Past have sold or donated ancient art to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Norton Simon Museum, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Toledo Museum in Ohio and others. Abroad, his clients included the Musée des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet, Paris; the Museum f¿r Indische Kunst in Berlin; the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto; the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore; and the National Gallery of Australia. To date none of the museums has been accused of possessing stolen art or conspiring with Kapoor. Several have acknowledged having objects from Kapoor but declined to comment on the ongoing investigations.
This is a staggering array of objects and some very fine Museums.
The piece demonstrates how integral federal forfeitures are in policing the art and antiquities trade in the United States. Whether all that art will be repatriated to Southeast Asia remains to be seen, but the institutions which have material which passed through Kapoor would be wise to start preparing a strategy for the inevitable questions which will arise. Right now he looks to be as big an alleged antiquities smuggler as any of the names we’ve seen deal in art from Europe or even some of the notorious dealers in looted Mediterranean antiquities.
- Jason Felch, Feds pursue Manhattan art dealer suspected of smuggling, L.A. Times, June 11, 2013, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-asian-artifact-smuggling-20130611,0,3469733.story.
In the informal straw poll I’ve taken with Houston artists, art student and all-around jerk Uriel Landeros is universally reviled.
In June last year he spray painted a work by Picasso, woman in a Red Armchair, at the Menil here in Montrose. His lawyer attempted to partially defend the crime by arguing he was making an artistic statement. I find that a particularly unconvincing defense, as it seems the sentencing judge did as well.
A video of the damage was posted on youtube and Landeros fled to Mexico. But he turned himself in at the border in January, and agreed to plead guilty to a graffiti charge. He was sentenced to two years, but with his 5 months already served he may be eligible for parole soon. Glasstire reports that he may be planning to return to the University of Houston for his final semester.
Here’s hoping he’s denied admittance to Houston’s museums. And he can’t use this notoriety to further his art career.
- Paula Newton, Picasso Vandal Sentenced to Two Years, Glasstire (May 21, 2013).
|The Christie’s Auction catalog with a bronze rabbit head|
Earlier this week I was able to watch a screening on Earth Day of ‘Bidder 70’ a new documentary which examines the story of Tim DeChristopher. He was sentenced to two years in prison, and a $10,000 fine. His crime? He attended an oil and gas lease auction and bid on Utah land which was being leased for oil and gas exploration with no intent to buy the land (he didn’t have the money) or to drill on it. I’m not as interested in going through a review of the documentary itself. I thought overall its well worth taking a look at, but my biggest frustration with the story was it left out a lot of the details of the auction process, how he was able to bid and refuse to pay, and how his act of civil disobedience ended up being successful.
From what I gathered the Bush administration in their last weeks in office put opened up lots of land for oil and gas leases, and that DeChristopher successfully ruined these auctions. And then when the Obama administration took office the Department of the Interior later decided not to auction these parcels of land after all. The film does a great job of presenting DeChristopher’s story, and conveying his indignation at the ruination of what appears to be some pristine Utah wilderness.
But watching the documentary I was most struck by the connections between a couple of events that I’ve traced here before: the Bronze zodiac auctions in France from the Yves Saint-Laurent sale, and the sentencing of antiquities looters in Utah. Environmental and cultural heritage issues are inextricably linked, and the different priorities of prosecution and sentencing on display here were really striking.
If you aren’t familiar with the sad saga of the Chinese Zodiac heads, here’s a quick overview. Over 150 years ago the Summer Palace near Beijing was looted by British troops. Lots of art was burned, looted, destroyed, or lost. Some objects which had been taken were parts of a beautiful ornate fountain/clock mechanism which had the 12 Chinese zodiac animals. A handful of these still existing heads have been purchased by Chinese repatriation advocates on the open market. And two of these bronze figurines, the rabbit and the rat were acquired by Yves Saint Laurent. Well on his death many objects from his estate were set to go up for auction at Christie’s in Paris. But the looting of the Chinese Summer Palace is a notorious event in Chinese history, and the Chinese government lodged a number of protests at the sale. When the two heads were up for auction, the successful bid was nearly 32 million Euro. The winning bidder was Cao Mingchao, owner of a small auction house in China. After the auction he refused to pay the bid, exacting the same kind of civil disobedience that DeChristopher went to prison for. After the auction Mingchao stated “What I want to stress is that this money cannot be paid (…) I think any Chinese person would have stood up at that moment. It was just that the opportunity came to me. I was merely fulfilling my responsibilities.” Despite some hints at a French prosecution of the bidder, those never materialized and the heads as I understand it were never actually auctioned.
There have been a number of controversial sales of Precolumbian and native american sacred items in France in recent months. And it seems that despite some legal attempts to block sales, this kind of technically legal, but morally objectionable auction; which the current heritage law framework deems ok; will only be blocked if an auction house bends to public pressure or if there’s a bidder exercising civil disobedience.
Remember that in this part of the country the Four-Corners investigation uncovered a large network of illicit native american objects. That investigation led to 3 suicides and a number of citizens being indicted and later pleading guilty to heritage crimes. But no custodial sentences have been imposed. The sad takeaway is I think that you can loot native american sites, and the Federal government will have irregular investigations, but mess with the leasing of oil and gas, and you’ll feel the weight of the federal government.
And now it looks like the rat and rabbit will be returned to China: http://bit.ly/ZpP67I
Katherine N. Skinner has a student note titled “Restituting Nazi-Looted Art: Domestic, Legislative, and Binding Intervention to Balance the Interests of Victims and Museums“, 15 Vand. J. Ent. & Tech. 673. From the abstract:
The Nazis engaged in widespread art looting from Holocaust victims, either taking the artwork outright or using legal formalities to effect a transfer of title under duress. Years later, US museums acquired some of these pieces on a good-faith basis. Now, however, they face lawsuits by the heirs of Holocaust victims, who seek to have the museums return the artwork. Though good title cannot pass to the owner of stolen property under US law, unfavorable statutes of limitations, high financial hurdles, or discovery problems, among other obstacles, bar many of these claimants from seeking recovery. Though some museums have amicably settled with claimants, museums’ otherwise resistant responses are not surprising, considering the “cultural internationalist” attitude they adopt toward restitution in general. US federal action to resolve the issue of Nazi-art restitution has been aspirational rather than practical, and courts are not ideally suited to handle the difficult policy implications present on a one-off basis. Additionally, museums have not been faithful to their self-imposed ethical guidelines, which promote full out-of-court cooperation with claimants seeking restitution for Nazi-looted art. Therefore, this Note proposes that Congress step in to create a binding, uniform, domestic body to hear and resolve Nazi-art restitution claims brought against museums. Such a forum would eliminate many of the initial obstacles claimants face, and with its narrowly tailored application it would prevent museums from becoming more vulnerable to restitution claims in other contexts. Finally, with a sunset provision followed by a presumption against restitution, such legislation would provide museums a respite from facing these claims eternally.
If you are writing in the field and would like me to post your abstract, just drop me a comment below, or email me at derek.fincham ‘at’ gmail.com.