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].

Successful Trial Attorney, Unsuccessful Art Owner

La Plaine de Gennevilliers, by Claude Monet

One of the times when thefts of art are most common is surrounding holidays and festive events. The most obvious example is of course the Isabella Stewart Gardner theft. The same goes for large homes as well. Tony Buzbee, a successful Houston trial attorney found himself the victim of a home burglary early Monday morning. He had apparently had a Superbowl party at his large mansion the evening before, and discovered a man riding away on a moped from his garage at around 6 a.m. on Monday. He discovered that an estimated $21 million worth of goods was stolen, including this art:

  • Pablo Picasso’s ‘Femme Accoudee’ painting, valued at $216,611
  • Claude Monet’s ‘La Plaine de Gennevillers’ painting, valued at $1,273,125 (auctioned at Christies in 2006)
  • A Fernand Leger painting, ‘Paysage au coq rouge’, valued at $1,284,015
  • Pierre Bonnard’s ‘Jeune Femme au Chapeau noir,’ valued at $832,125.00
  • Jean Pierre Cassigneul’s painting, ‘Femme en Vert,’ valued at $111,563
  • Childe Hassam’s ‘California Hills in Spring’ painting, valued at $985,000.

Buzbee has had trouble keeping his art safe before. In 2017, a first date with a Dallas court reporter got out of hand and she allegedly, in a drunken frenzy, started throwing sculpture and damaged a couple of Andy Warhol paintings when Buzbee tried to call her a ride home.

Locally, Buzbee has a reputation as a colorful trial lawyer apart from his art troubles. In 2016 he hosted a fundraiser for Donald Trump, and he’s currently running a Trumpian mayoral campaign. He has netted some fantastically high sums of money in a number of high profile trials, but also gained notoriety for parking a M4A4 Sherman Tank, dating to WWII, in front of his home. That street is River Oaks Boulevard, one of the wealthiest streets in Houston, and probably in all of the United States.

But he continues to have a hard time securing his art.

Italian Court Upholds Seizure Order for Fano Athlete

Bronze Statue of a Victorious youth, at the Getty Villa

Will the Getty’s prize bronze return to Italy? On Monday Italy’s Court of Cassation upheld the seizure of the Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth, currently on display at the Getty Villa. Though the legal dispute has taken years, that’s not out of the norm for the amount of time prominent repatriation conflicts take to resolve. The written opinion has not yet been published, but it certainly appears to be a favorable development for Italian officials.

Gaia Pianigiani reported for the New York Times:

After a decade-long legal battle, Italy’s Court of Cassation ruled Monday that the statue should be confiscated and brought back to Italy, rejecting the Getty’s appeal. The decision had not been published Tuesday but a message from a court official describing it was provided to The New York Times.

“It was a very, very long process, but we now hope that we will be able to have it in Italy as soon as possible,” said Lorenzo D’Ascia, a lawyer representing the Italian government.

In a report on ANSA, comments by Italian heritage advocates, ministers and lawyers seemed optimistic:

The top court rejected an appeal by the US museum against a Pesaro judge’s order to confiscate the fourth-century BC bronze statue.
“The Lysippos (as it is known in Italy) must return to Italy, it’s the last word from Italian justice,” Pesaro prosecutor Silvia Cecchi told ANSA after the long legal battle.
Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli told ANSA “now we hope the US authorities will act as soon as possible to favour the restitution of the Lysippos to Italy”.
He said he was happy that “this judicial process has finally ended and the right to recover an extremely important testimony of our heritage has been recognised.
“Let’s hope the statue can soon return to be admired in our museums”.
In June the Pesaro prosecutors announced that the order issued to seize the statue for years disputed by Italy and the Getty Museum in Malibu was “immediately executive”.
“The Lysippos statue must return to Italy,” prosecutors told ANSA, accompanied by Tristano Tonnini, the lawyer for the association “Cento Citta'”, which has been fighting the legal battle for 11 years.
“We expect politicians to play their part,” they said.

For Italy, the path to a successful repatriation of the Bronze could come via an agreement with the Getty. And such an agreement may be more likely to occur with this favorable ruling. The forfeiture can be successfully enforced by a U.S. Federal Court via transnational forfeiture and a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty between Italy and the United States. I detailed how such a transnational forfeiture could work in a 2014 article, available here.

  1. Lysippos statue is Italy’s says court, ANSA.it (2018), http://www.ansa.it/english/news/lifestyle/arts/2018/12/04/lysippos-statue-is-italys-says-court_8405f7ad-e1d1-4aef-aa4d-998c98c1a7ec.html (last visited Dec 4, 2018).
  2. Gaia Pianigiani, Italian Court Rules Getty Museum Must Return a Prized Bronze, The New York Times, December 4, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/04/arts/design/getty-bronze-italy-ruling.html (last visited Dec 4, 2018).
  3. Derek Fincham, Transnational Forfeiture of the Getty Bronze, 32 Cardozo Arts & Ent. L.J. 471–500 (2014), available at https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.journals/caelj32&i=485.
  4. Luis Li & Amelia L.B. Sargent, The Getty Bronze and the Limits of Restitution Symposium: The Cultural Identity and Legal Protection of Art, 20 Chap. L. Rev. 25–50 (2017) (for a discussion of the case from the perspective of the Getty’s attorneys).

Mural in Houston’s 3rd Ward at Risk

 

This mural, “Contribution of Negro Women to American Life and Education”, finished by John Biggers in 1953 is at risk.

Natural disasters pose many risks to works of art, but one of the saddest is the damage done to works of art at cultural organizations that may go unnoticed. In Houston’s Third Ward, the Blue Triangle YWCA has served black women and girls for decades. The building includes a gym, kitchen, meeting rooms, and an indoor pool. Unfortunately the building itself has needed repairs for many years. In 2016 the Houston Chronicle reported that the organization was raising funds to repair the roof. But the torrential rainfall of Hurricane Harvey in August of 2017 finally caused serious damage to an important mural.

The Blue Triangle building, a state historic landmark.

That mural created by John Biggers, “Contribution of Negro Women to American Life and Education”. The mural, completed in 1953, was commissioned by a local Pastor and was one of Biggers most important early murals. Biggers was an important figure in Houston’s arts community. He was recruited to what was then known as the Texas State University (now Texas Southern) for Negroes in 1949 as the first director of its Art department. Ileana Najarro reported for the Houston Chronicle that:

 

The mural, which served as Biggers’ doctoral dissertation and features images of abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and poet Phillis Wheatley, was an opportunity to recognize these women’s work.

“He told me that he wanted to give [it] as a tribute to the Negro women,” Bryant said.

To Robert Proctor, co-director and chief painting conservator for Whitten & Proctor Fine Art Conservation in Houston, the mural exemplifies Biggers’ “compositional ability to work across large space.”

Proctor, who has restored other Biggers’ paintings, noted that the artist’s unique brushstrokes and his attention to work surfaces make them some of the most difficult pieces of art to restore.

Unfortunately the leak in the roof has imperiled the mural, damaging the mural itself and causing black mold to set in.

A section of the mural that was damaged by mold.

The work has been treated to prevent further mold, but further work cannot be undertaken until the roof of the building is repaired. The Houston Endowment has offered an initial $258,000 to repair the roof, but more funds are needed.

Repairs to historic John Biggers mural on hold, roof repair funds needed – HoustonChronicle.com (Nov. 10, 2018), https://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Repairs-to-historic-John-Biggers-mural-on-hold-13406397.php.
Biggers mural now subject of online fundraiser – HoustonChronicle.com (Jan. 2016), https://www.chron.com/about/article/Biggers-mural-now-subject-of-GoFundMe-online-6784605.php.
Interested donors reach out to save endangered Biggers mural – HoustonChronicle.com (Jan., 2016), https://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Interested-donors-reach-out-to-save-endangered-6777606.php.
Holland Cotter, John Biggers, 76, Painter Who Explored African Life, The New York Times, Jan. 30, 2001, https://www.nytimes.com/2001/01/30/arts/john-biggers-76-painter-who-explored-african-life.html.

Taxpayers paid triple for the forgeries at the Museum of the Bible

The Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C.

The Museum of the Bible, a private museum located in Washington D.C., has announced that some of its most heralded objects are likely forgeries. Five fragments, purported to be a part of the Dead Sea Scrolls, are actually fakes. In a statement the Museum of the Bible announced that the fragments “show characteristics inconsistent with ancient origin and therefore will no longer be displayed at the museum.”

The Museum of the Bible has generated controversy since it opened. In 2017 for example the Museum paid $3 million and returned thousands of objects illegally removed from Iraq. The Museum is the passion project of Steve Green, a billionaire and founder of the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores.

Michael Press in a post for Hyperallergic  does an excellent job pointing out the real cost of these forgeries. He references the work of Candida Moss and Joel Baden for a 2017 book Bible Nation, which reports the Green family uses a 3:1 tax deduction to purchase price ration. Meaning that for every dollar used to buy these objects, the tax write-off is triple the amount. We the american taxpayer are paying for the Green family to acquire this material, much of it either looted or fake.

As Press argues:

Some may celebrate the latest news as a vindication of their criticisms of MOTB or Hobby Lobby. But, as with the prior series of scandals with which they’ve been involved — the forfeiture of thousands of cuneiform tablets and other artifacts smuggled into the countrythe issuing of fake receipts for purchases along with tax evasion and money laundering; or the funding of an archaeological excavation in the West Bank in violation of international law — this is not really a loss for MOTB.

Considering how the story has been told to date, it is a PR coup. More than that: based on the Greens’ 3:1 model for purchase and donation, and exorbitant purchase prices for the post-2002 Dead Sea Scroll fragments (tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars each), they have likely made millions of dollars in profit just from their “altruistic”donation of these 16 fragments. Given that this profit consists of public funds (in the form of tax breaks), the real losers, in this case, are us.

Sadly, that’s exactly right. We are paying for looting and forgery. Other museums certainly have acquired forged material in the past, but the Museum of the Bible in acquiring so much material so aggressively is bound to acquire looted and forged material.

Daniel Burke, Bible Museum say five of its Dead Sea Scrolls are fake, CNN (Oct. 23, 2018), https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/22/us/bible-museum-fake-scrolls/index.html.

Emily Sullivan, Museum Of The Bible Says 5 Of Its Most Famed Artifacts Are Fake, NPR.org (Oct. 23, 2018), https://www.npr.org/2018/10/23/659741484/museum-of-the-bible-says-5-of-its-most-famed-artifacts-are-fake.

Dead Sea Scrolls at the Museum of the Bible Revealed as Forgeries, Hyperallergic (Oct. 0, 2018), https://hyperallergic.com/467318/dead-sea-scrolls-at-the-museum-of-the-bible-revealed-as-forgeries/.

Museum of the Bible Releases Research Findings on Fragments in Its Dead Sea Scrolls Collection (Oct. 22, 2018), http://www.museumofthebible.org/press/press-releases/museum-of-the-bible-releases-research-findings-on-fragments-in-its-dead-sea-scrolls-collection.

A recovered de Kooning reveals more questions

“Woman-Ochre” by Willem de Kooning

In 1985 this work of art by Willem de Kooning was stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of art. The thieves entered the museum when it opened, the day after Thanksgiving. One of the thieves, a woman, distracted the museum security guard, while a man went upstairs and cut the canvas from the frame. The work has now been returned, and the story of the theft and recovery is pretty remarkable. The reporting indicates that the work very likely was stolen as a prize for a couple’s private collection, hidden in plain sight behind their bedroom door.

The painting was recently discovered in the estate of Rita Alter after her death. Rita and her husband Jerry may have been the thieves. The Arizona Republic reports:

Jerry and Rita Alter spent Thanksgiving Day 1985 with family in Tucson.

A newly discovered photo from the gathering shows them smiling side by side at the dinner table, plates of pumpkin pie in front of them.

Jerry was a retired music teacher and Rita a speech pathologist; a couple of New Yorkers in their 50s who had moved to rural New Mexico.

A day after the photo was taken, a valuable painting by the artist Willem de Kooning was taken from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson. Officials believed the thieves — a man and a woman — distracted a guard, cut the painting from the frame, rolled it up and carried it out of the museum under a coat.

The thieves and the painting disappeared without a trace.

Composite sketches, in hindsight, resemble the faces in the Thanksgiving photo, down to their position side by side.

Here’s a terrific local news documentary on the theft, which hints that there may have been other thefts:

Antonia Farzan, A small-town couple left behind a stolen painting worth over $100 million — and a big mystery, Washington Post (Aug. 3, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/08/03/a-small-town-couple-left-behind-a-stolen-painting-worth-over-100-million-and-a-big-mystery/.
William K. Rashbaum, A de Kooning, a Theft and an Enduring Mystery, The New York Times, Dec. 905, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/09/nyregion/a-de-kooning-a-theft-and-an-enduring-mystery.html.
Anne Ryman, Who stole the $100M masterpiece? Clues emerge in year since recovery of Willem de Kooning painting, Arizona Republic (Aug. 1, 2018), https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-best-reads/2018/08/01/art-heist-woman-ochre-clues-emerge-willem-de-kooning-painting-recovered/789652002/.
Discovering de Kooning: A WFAA documentary (WFAA dir.), https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=189&v=fwvqHeb32lY.

Profile of Tsirogiannis by Vernon Silver

This polaroid image of a Bell Krater from teh Medici archive was submitted by Tsirogiannis to Manhattan prosecutors, who seized the krater from the Met in 2017.

If you haven’t yet read the profile of Christos Tsirogiannis by Vernon Silver, you should. Silver wrote a terrific account of the Euphronios Krater called The Lost Chalice, so this extended profile into how Tsirogiannis uses his database, and how auction houses and prosecutors use this information is fascinating. I really recommend you give it a read, but here is a taste:

When he finished clicking through the last of Christie’s 109 lots, Tsirogiannis was ready to dive into his archive. It’s meticulously organized so he can fetch images from one of three major dealers, including Medici, and from galleries and smaller dealers whose photos help him reconstruct who owned what and when. Within each of these libraries, he has folders for about 10 object types, amphorae in one, kylix drinking cups in another. Those in turn are categorized by shape and color. Figurines are sorted by animal type—horses are with horses, boars with boars.

To vet the catalog, he’d made a list of about 15 suspect lots. Then, one at a time, he looked for matches. The laptop screen was filled 14 across with thumbnails from the Medici folder, and Tsirogiannis’s eyes darted left to right as he scrolled through in an intricate game of Memory, where players turn over two cards at a time looking for a pair.

He’d barely begun when he needed to run to a lunch meeting. He would continue the search that evening; we could meet the next day, he said. As we prepared to leave, he deleted the downloaded portion of the archive. Tsirogiannis’s curiosity proved overwhelming. As soon as I left, he logged back in. “These are things that always have priority for me,” he told me later. What he found made him late for his appointment. By midnight, he’d alerted law enforcement on two continents.

The Ancient-Art Vigilante Who Holds the Global Market Hostage, Bloomberg.com, Jun. 26, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2018-06-26/if-you-steal-it-the-art-vigilante-will-find-you.
Laura Chesters, Auction house Sotheby’s takes on Greece in landmark antiquities court case, Antiquities Trade Gazette (Jun. 6, 2018), https://www.antiquestradegazette.com/news/2018/auction-house-sotheby-s-takes-on-greece-in-landmark-antiquities-court-case/.
Tom Mashberg, Ancient Vase Seized From Met Museum on Suspicion It Was Looted, The New York Times, Jul. 17, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/31/arts/design/ancient-vase-seized-from-met-museum-on-suspicion-it-was-looted.html.

 

BLM Accidentally Reveals Location of 900 Heritage Sites

Cedar Mesa in Utah”That’s a big screwup”

So says Paul Reed, an archaeologist with Archaeology Southwest in a story by Jennifer Oldham for Reveal and Salon, which describes the massive error by Bureau of Land Management officials who posted a 77-page report which included the locations heritage sites in Utah. All in all 900 sites were described, including cliff dwellings, religious sites, rock art, and other archaeological sites.

The Bureau of Land Management posted a 77-page report online that included unique identifiers for priceless artifacts as it prepared to auction the most archaeologically rich lands ever offered for industrial use. The report exposed ruins spanning 13,000 years of Native American history to vandalism and looting, and experts say the BLM violated federal regulations that prohibit publicly sharing information about antiquities.

The document appeared on a BLM web page before the March oil and gas lease of 51,482 acres in a remote desert region of southeastern Utah. The BLM removed it and then reposted it with entire pages of detailed site descriptions blacked out. The report appeared online the last weekend in February and remained there for at least a few days – long enough for a state agency in Utah to download it and realize it violated the state’s privacy restrictions.

Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa was quoted in the story expressing his surprise at the report, which “went to a level . . . that was very unusual in terms of listing site numbers and descriptions by parcel that I haven’t seen before.” So how did this information get published? Oldham’s story notes that the BLM field offices are understaffed, and have been instructed by the Trump administration to undo the “regulatory burdens” impacting the energy industry. The report was only online for a few days, but likely made it easier for determined looters to target and clandestinely remove material from a staggering number of archaeological sites.

Jennifer Oldham, Oops! Federal officials divulge secret info about Native American artifacts, Salon (Jul. 15, 2018), https://www.salon.com/2018/07/15/oops-federal-officials-divulge-secret-info-about-native-american-artifacts_partner/.

Operation Demetra and familiar names

The Aidone goddess, likely depicting the Earth goddess Demeter at the Archaeological Museum in Aidone.

Police in Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Italy have announced arrests in a four year investigation named Operation Demetra. The name for the investigation has a bit of history, which it may be worth remembering. Demeter, the ancient Greek Earth goddess was likely depicted in the notorious Getty goddess. The Getty mistakenly referred to her as Aphrodite.

As many of you likely know, the story of this and other illicit acquisitions by the Getty, and the tax fraud perpetrated to pay for much of this is described in the terrific book, Chasing Aphrodite. In a nutshell: The statue was first smuggled from Morgantina. Looters broke her into pieces, and it was acquired by the Getty in 1988 for $18 million. While at the Getty, it was described as the finest classical piece of sculpture in North America, perhaps even outside of the Mediterranean and Europe.  She was brazenly referred to for a while as the Getty Goddess, before ultimately being returned to the small archaeological museum at Aidone after evidence of the statue’s theft and connection to organized crime groups in Sicily helped build a case for return. Aidone and this part of Sicily are covered in wheat fields, the choice of using Demeter for a codename, goddess of the Earth and the wheat harvest was certainly intentional.

These objects were likely looted from archaeological sites in Sicily, and the investigation recovered an astounding 25,000 objects including coins, statues, and pottery fragments.

One of the individuals arrested was Thomas William Veres in London, a man of Hungarian origin antiques dealer who has long been involved in trafficking illicit material from Sicily to other parts of Europe and abroad. Police told reporters that:

The London art merchant Thomas William Veres commanded a transnational criminal holding that was able to traffic considerable quantities of Sicilian archaeological artifacts . . .

He was prominently featured in a case of another Sicilian antiquity, the Gold Phiale case. In 1991 Veres helped transport an ancient Greek Phiale (plate) to Switzerland where it was sold to Michael Steinhardt for $1.2 million. Veres was referred to by Federal prosecutors as a Swiss art dealer. Veres and another art dealer, Robert Haber, revealed how little faith they had in the licitness of the gold plate when in the purchase agreement with Steinhardt thy agreed that:

If the object is confiscated or impounded by customs agents or a claim is made by any country or governmental agency whatsoever, full compensation will be made immediately to the purchaser.

Steinhardt’s customs agent failed to accurately disclose the purchase price and the location of the plate, which ended up setting an important precedent for customs forfeitures and the use of civil forfeiture by Federal prosecutors in the United States for securing the return of illicit material.

It likely came as no surprise then to many who follow the antiquities trade that the name William Veres appeared in the news reports of arrests stemming from Operation Demetra. That investigation reveals a massive looting, smuggling, and counterfeit operation involving the movement of authentic and inauthentic material across borders, where histories were fabricated, and sales routinely took place.

John Phillips & Justin Huggler, Italian Police Smash £30m International Ancient Artefact Smuggling Ring, The Telegraph, Jul. 4, 2018, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/07/04/italian-police-smash-40m-international-ancient-artefact-smuggling/.