David Byrne

Nothing much new on the news front this morning, so I thought I’d point out an interesting piece from Pitchfork’s interview of David Byrne. The interview is from July, and coincided with the re-release of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, an album he created with Brian Eno, which basically took the music of different cultures and looped and mixed it together to create a new sound. The idea was to create an imaginary culture called Afropea, a made-up culture based on the real world.

The fantastic part of the interview for me was reading Byrne’s observations on how cultures can come together and create something new, that may be even better. He talks about how unfortunate circumstances (like slavery) can displace people and cultures can come together in places like New Orleans. As he says in the interview:

And those are places where the European culture and indigenous culture and African culture all met and lived together, and some new kind of culture and especially music came out of that, that had this incredible richness and strength that then just, boom, exploded and went all over the globe. The most common music that you hear anywhere in the world now basically has its roots in that union that happened in the last century, or in the century before that.

He’s talking about music here, but the same idea has been seen time and again in the visual arts as well. European impressionists were profoundly influenced by the Japanese watercolors in the 19th century.

I think that’s a beautiful idea; that we can take these terrible circumstances and out of it comes art, or some kind of human expression. What people create can come together to help people deal with their lot in life, or express themselves, and make something that people want to look at, or read, or listen to. I think this echoes the sentiments of Anthony Appiah’s recent work on Cosmopolitanism, in which he didn’t argue that the former colonial powers return works to the nations they were taken from (England and the Elgin Marbles is the most recognized example of this). Appiah argues that rather than forcing the British Museum to return the marbles, they should export their own English culture to Greece. That’s not to say that Appiah thinks repatriation is a bad thing, just that many are too quick to argue for it without thinking through the logical outcome of such a policy. Cultural Property has a value for everyone, and might there be some value in insuring some objects are preserved and looked avter, and enjoyed by millions of visitors tso that future generations can continue to enjoy the works? In that way, culture can grow and flourish.

In the Byrne interview, he discusses an essay he wrote for the New York Times, titled “I hate World Music”, in which he argued that if you really listen to music from a different culture and see it as valuable its impossible to see those other people as less than you after you’ve heard it. I think the same holds true for the visual arts. Music and visual art, and even food flows back and forth from what we can term the former colonial poweres and the former colonies. This flow of culture goes both ways, and can be quite positive.

When people discuss ideas of repatriation, and the like, often its in terms of how these indigenous or marginalized cultures have been wronged in some way; and certainly they have. However, a more positive way forward would be to emphasize this two-way flow of culture, rather than blindly punishing the former colonial nations.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

More Databases


The Chicago Tribune today has a nice piece on the Art Loss Register. Yesterday, I talked a bit about Mexico’s efforts to document its sacred colonial art, in the face of a spate of recent thefts. The more databases there are, the more difficult it will be be for courts to impose a duty on buyers and sellers to check these sources for the object they are buying as part of the good faith requirement enshrined in modern contract law. The piece reveals a number of things about the register.

In its 15 year history, it has compiled records of 175,000 stolen objects. And reportedly, $138 million worth of objects have been returned. It has a workforce of 30 people, and according the the register’s founder, Daniel Radcliffe, they average 3 recoveries per week. As the piece states,

the Art Loss Register played a key role in a 28-year-old case involving seven paintings valued at more than $30 million that were stolen from the Massachusetts home of collector Michael Bakwin. As a result of seven years of complicated, high-wire negotiations with a lawyer who claimed to have been given the paintings by a client, Radcliffe has secured the return of five of the paintings, including a Cezanne in 1999 and four other paintings in January.



These high-profile recoveries are a welcome development. A lot of the literature speaks with great interest of the advent of these kinds of websites in stemming the illicit trade in cultural property. And I admit the idea has a great deal of promise, and its one I’m particularly interested in.

However, one of Radcliffe’s comments strikes me as troubling. The database is not available over the internet, and searchers must comply with the ALR if they find a match. As Radcliffe says, “If we were to put all our information on the Internet, guess who’d spend all their time looking at it? The thieves.” That may be true, but what would be the harm in the theives looking at the website. If anything it would serve to make the piece harder to sell.

In fact, the way the database works may reveal a troubling aspect of the market; it must be incredibly easy to sell illicit cultural property as long as it is not a high profile piece. The database does not even attempt to limit the potential market for a piece. Rather it depends on individuals to track down a work to attempt to return it to its rightful owner. One interesting issue that the piece does not examine is how much the database charges for its services, including what it may charge to search its database. One welcome aspect though, is that searches are done for law enforcement free of charge. This further strengthens the notion that the database is primarily a tool for claimants seeking the return of their works.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Church Thefts

In today’s New York Times, this piece details the theft of colonial art from Mexico’s rural churches. Apparently, theft from churches in Mexico’s colonial heartland near Mexico City has become widespread. According to the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico, 1,000 colonial pieces have been stolen since 1999. In response, the Mexican government is attempting to register the nation’s sacred art. According to the Times piece, 600,000 items have been inventoried so far. The institute is also preparing its own Web site of stolen art, so dealers and collectors can no longer claim that there is no record of the theft.

Such a database is both a welcome change, and worrying at the same time. In theory, a database should put dealers of Mexican colonial art on notice that a certain set of objects may be tainted. However, there are a number of such websites now available. See the Art Loss Register for example. The more of these databases there are, the harder it will be for the law to realistically impose an obligation on buyers and sellers of art and antiquities. If each segment of the cultural property market has its own database, this would almost certainly lead to confusion and overlap. One unified website would be a much better system. A buyer or seller could easily check a single website t insure their piece is not stolen.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

$1 Billion

Apparently, the former French waiter, and superthief Stephane Breitwieser has penned a memoir, soon to be published by French publisher Editions Anne Carrière. The work is titled Confessions d’un voleur d’art (Confessions of an Art Thief). Breitwieser stole an estimated $1 Billion worth of fine art during a 7 year spree, including this work, a 16th-century painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Sybille, Princess of Cleves,” which has been valued at between £4.2 million and £4.7 million. Most incredibly of all, his mother shredded canvases and threw a number of the pieces in a canal after learning of her son’s arrest. A Swiss court has sentenced him to 4 years, and a French court has sentenced him to 26 months.

Apparently he’s kept himself busy writing about his exploits. It’s worth noting the way a work’s fame and theft often go hand in hand. The most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa did not become famous until it was stolen in 1911. Art theft captures the imagination, and often leads to greater interest in a work. It’s hard to understand exactly why theives like Breitwieser steal art. They may be seeking fame, trying to earn money, overcome by their love of beautiful things, or filling an order for a wealthy collecter who wants a work for their own private use.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

97 Maps


Edward Forbes Smiley III, a 50-year-old former Princeton divinity student is slated to be sentenced in US District Court on October 17, after pleading guilty to the theft of cultural property. Between 1998 and 2005 he admitted to removing 97 maps from institutions and public libraries in the United States and the United Kingdom between 1998 and 2005. The maps are worth an estimated $3 million. One of the works include this 1578 Flemish map valued at $150,000. He was caught attempting to steal the map from the Yale Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library last year, after a librarian discovered an exacto knife on the floor and called the police.

Initially, one wonders at the utter lack of security at these libraries and institutions. How could someone just walk in and slice things up? On the other hand, Smiley must have acted and played his role well. He was and Ivy-league-educated map dealer, and it seems safe to assume that he looked and acted like he belonged in these places. Also, it may be tempting to throw Smiley under the bus and impose a very strict sentence. However, he did cooperate with authorities, and nearly all of the maps are going to be returned to their owners. Predictably, Library and Museum groups are urging a very stiff penalty for Smiley to discourage behavior like this in the future.

In other news, last Wednesday, 15 paintings worth and estimated £300,000 were stolen from the Clark Art Gallery in Hale, just outside Manchester, England. A reward of £250,000 has been offered for information leading to the return of the paintings.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Interesting Development from the Museum of Fine Arts

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has returned 13 artifacts to Italy, including this amphora depicting the murder of Atreus. The return gets notice in the New York Times as well. This is another in a long line of high-profile efforts by Italy to seek the return of its objects. The MFA press release points out how the museum has been at the forefront of providing provenance information of their works. Curious, I searched for a Degas painting and picked this landscape, and indeed a surprisingly detailed set of provenance information was detailed. I also looked up a Cezanne, and this work, titled Turn in the Road also had a great deal of provenance information.

This is quite a fascinating development, and one that has not manifested itself in the literature yet. Ideally, more museums will devote some resources to this kind of endeavor. It would seem to serve a number of good purposes: it may make it easier to track down the work if it one day is stolen, it may limit the potential market for the work, and it allows anyone with internet access to view the work. Last but not lease, it effectively eviscerate a lot of the criticism involving museum and the high profile return of works including MOMA and the Getty. Throwing open the doors, so to speak, and heading off criticism at the pass is a shrewd and welcome move, and seems to be a fairly recent trend.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

From Buddha to The Scream


Welcome to the first ever post on my illicit cultural property blog. I’ll try to list important new events and happenings related to cultural property and its illicit trade.

In today’s news, see this BBC piece in which Indian authorities alerted Interpol of the theft of 18 bronze Buddha statues dating from the 9th and 10th centuries from a museum in Bihar, India. A piece from India enews reveals that apparently, some of the monks are frustrated with security lapses by State authorities. Also, the statues had been slated for an exhibition in France next month, which hardly seems a coincidence. Response to the theft has been predictable, with the usual cries of “the Mafia did it” echoing throughout most of the stories. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. What exactly Interpol may be able to do about it remains to be seen. Notionally, India hopes that customs and border officials should be on the look out for the statues. Another interesting question is what kind of market there might be for these statues. We’ll return to these issues time and again, but if these pieces are so wildly publicized, it seems hard to imagine what kind of market there is for them.

However, thieves continue stealing versions of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Speculation exists that thefts of this kind are instigated by what we can call theft on demand, or the Thomas Crown purchaser (Pierce Brosnan, not Steve McQueen). Thieves may steal a work for a wealthy individual, who pays handsomely to have the privilege of having such a rare work on their wall.

Alternatively, some Argue that these expensive thefts are used as collateral in Mafia deals. However, without more proof, claims of that kind seem like wild speculation. Incidentally, the Munch works recently recovered are going on display briefly before their restoration. Whether the Buddha statues will be recovered like the Munch paintings remains to be seen, and may ultimately depend on the publicity devoted to their disappearance, which seems one of the likely keys to the return of the Munch paintings. Though the scream is an iconic image, there are actually 3 versions, and much of the publicity surrounding the work seems to stem from the fact that the various versions keep getting stolen.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com