Forgeries of Russian avant-garde

File:Artwork by El Lissitzky 1919.jpgKonstantin Akinsha and Sylvia Hochfield report for ARTnews on the slew of Russian avant-garde paintings which were alleged to be fakes. An exhabition at the Château Museum in Tours, France was slated to exhibit 192 Russian avant-garde paintings was abruptly canceled in March, three days before its opening. Russian avant-garde is the body of modern art which was created roughly between 1890 and 1930. Pictured here is an authentic (I think) lithograph by El Lissitzky, Beat the white with the Red wedge (c. 1919).

It seems there is a slew of these forged works. Natalia Kournikova of the Kournikova Gallery in Moscow notes in the piece that “we can say that almost every artist whose prices have risen has become the victim of fake makers.” Alla Rosenfeld, curator of the Norton Dodge Collection of Soviet Nonconformist Art at Rutgers University from 1992 to 2006 and former vice president of the Russian art department at Sotheby’s New York says “There are more fakes than genuine pictures”:

Fake icons and “fauxbergé” trinkets have bedeviled the art market for generations, but the escalating demand for Russian art in the last two decades has led to more ingenious abuses. For a while, “Russified” pictures—minor 19th-century European landscapes or portraits doctored to look Russian—flooded galleries and antique dealerships in Moscow and made their way to the West, appearing even at major auctions. But it has been Russian modernism—art from the first three decades of the 20th century—that has attracted the most Western collectors and consequently the most forgeries.

Hundreds of works have appeared in recent years at auction houses and in galleries all over Europe, from Munich to Madrid. These works have very sketchy provenances in which certain assertions are repeated again and again: the works are said to have come from hitherto unknown private collections or to have been smuggled to Israel by immigrants in the ’70s or to have been deaccessioned by provincial museums in the former Soviet republics—although this practice was strictly forbidden—or to have been confiscated and hidden for a half century by the former KGB (the secret police), although experts say there is not a single documented case of avant-garde works emerging from KGB vaults.

The means with which these forged works are given clean histories are familiar: publication in academic works or exhibition catalogs; previous owners who have suddenly disappeared or are unavailable to corroborate their story; questionable certification by Russian art historians, and a general lack of sufficient documentation. Again, it appears as if a segment of the art trade continues to skirt the rules. As I’ve argued elsewhere, we need a renewed emphasis on the means by which buyers of art acquire good faith status.

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

All or Nothing

Rose Museum

Lots of very thoughtful reactions to the shocking decision by Brandeis University to shut down the Rose Museum of Art.  The Art Law Blog and C-Monster have all the links.  The best coverage comes via the Boston Globe and NPR

The decision is upsetting on two levels.  For one, the institution is deciding art does not have a place in its core education mission.  Second and perhaps more troubling, how many more Universities and museums will be confronted with similar difficulties in the coming years.  There was the rumored Iowa proposed deaccessioning, the LA MOCA debacle, the National Academy deaccessioning, and even the dissolution of 18 research positions at the University of Pennsylvania all signal a shift away from the arts and humanities. Endowments are way down for a host of institutions.  Given the economic situations, might these increase, rather than decrease? 

One of the potential avenues to block the closure, or at least guide it towards a more-acceptable resolution will be the Massachusetts Attorney General.  One wonders if in this climate, we may have to think about adopting the approach much of the rest of the World uses for cultural management, namely Government support and funding.  Much of the cultural management structures in the UK, such as the Waverley Export Process, were initiated in response to economic hard times, and the loss of art and world-heritage leaving the UK and heading elsewhere, namely to the US.  It might be worth remembering, that the Universal Museums in america were formed at the expense of other nations.  If a similar trend continues here in the US, might something like a Culture Cabinet Post become not just a nice idea, but a necessity?   

William R. Ferris, senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, made the case in an op-ed piece last month in the New York Times. It begins:

IN 1935, as part of the New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Farm Security Administration, which reached out to rural families as they struggled during the Depression. Roy Stryker, who oversaw the agency’s photo documentary program, captured the strength of American culture in the depths of the country’s despair. The photographs of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks showed us both the pain of America and the resilience of its people.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson drew on his Texas roots when he created the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, organizations that share America’s arts and humanities with the American people.

As we are entering another era of increased government programs, or so it would seem.  Might not a strong Cabinet-level advocate make very good sense?  I think it would.  

Turning back to the Rose decision, Donn Zaretsky beats me to the punch on one of my initial reactions to the decision.  Namely, the deaccessioning hurdles may perversely make it more feasible for an institution in financial or other difficulty to completely shut down, rather than sell parts of a collection. 

I wonder if the taboo against selling individual pieces might not have contributed, in some small way, to Brandeis’s decision to close the museum? If they could have sold five or ten of the most valuable works without controversy, might the trustees have reached a different conclusion?

Richard Lacayo offers more substance on this with an interview with Michael Rush, the Rose’s director:

“You can’t solve a shortfall problem by selling, say, our Lichtenstein and still maintain yourself legally and ethically as a museum. I think that’s what’s behind the decision to do something drastic and close the museum.

“Over the last couple of years we went through one very meticulous deaccessioning. It involved some art that was not part of our mission and had never been shown in the museum but that happened to be valuable. We got in before the market crashed. We went through several meticulous processes there, with donors, with boards, with lawyers, with the AAMD.

“So the university, from the top down, was intimately familiar with deaccessioning processes. And I think that, rather than go through the scrutiny that would accompany the sale of a few paintings, they decided instead on what I’m sure they felt would be a one-shot situation of horrible feedback over closing the museum. As draconian as it may seem, I think that closing the museum was what they were advised, legally, to do. You can’t do this piecemeal.”

All or nothing, that seems to be the ethical landscape.   

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

Limiting Art and Antiquities Restitution?

So argues Norman Rosenthal in the Art Newspaper today.  The former Exhibitions Secretary at the Royal Academy does not see the merit in the current expansion of restitution and repatriation.  He draws parallels between antiquities restitution cases and the claims involving Nazi looted artworks. 

Since the late 1990s there has been a strong push towards provenance research of collections and museums, and restitution of items that were looted or taken by the Nazis during their period of power in Europe from 1933 to 1945. This process has been ongoing for ten years, and the items in question have often been claimed by people distanced by two or more generations from their original owners.
I have, perhaps, an idiosyncratic, non-politically-correct view that many people will disagree with, but I believe history is history and that you can’t turn the clock back, or make things good again through art.

History has always looked after works of art in strange ways. Ever since the beginning of recorded history, because of its value, art has been looted and as a result arbitrarily distributed and disseminated throughout the world. Of course, what happened in the Nazi period was unspeakable in its awfulness. I lost many relatives, whom I never knew personally, and who died in concentration camps in the most horrible of circumstances. I believe, however, that grandchildren or distant relations of people who had works of art or property taken away by the Nazis do not now have an inalienable right to ownership, at the beginning of the 21st century. If valuable objects have ended up in the public sphere, even on account of the terrible facts of history, then that is the way it is.

If, because of provenance research, works of art are taken from museums, whether in Russia, Germany, France, the US or the UK, and are then sold on for profit or passed around for political expediency, it is nearly always the rich who are making themselves richer. The vast majority of individuals, who were beaten up or killed during the Nazi period—or indeed by other oppressors in different parts of Europe—did not have art treasures that their children and grandchildren can now claim as compensation. The concept of the “universal museum” is also, in certain circumstances, a politically useful euphemism. Nonetheless, it has to be good that important works of art should be available to all through public ownership. Restitution claims from museums go against this idea and result in the general culture being impoverished.

He makes a good point that much of the restitution litigation has been very profitable for both attornies and auction houses.  But these claims are in response to very clear violations of the law.  Perhaps we need to be more careful about what circumstances an art or antiquity claim should be made, but when laws are broken claimants should have a right to justice.  He concludes by arguing for a statute of limitations on these claims.  However such limitations periods currently exist.  The difficulty is not the amoutn of time we might choose for a period, but rather what circumstances trigger the running of that limitations period. 

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

Art-Beat Constables

Martin Bailey of the Art Newspaper has the story of Scotland Yard’s part-time volunteer officers which have been tasked with policing art theft, the sale of looted antiquities, forgery and fraud. 

ArtBeat began in January 2007, and there are currently 13 special constables (six males and seven females). These include two from national museums, three from the Art Loss Register, three archaeologists with the remainder from a variety of institutions. The two from museums are Zoe Jackman of the V&A (see below) and Michael Lewis of the British Museum, where he is deputy head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

The Art and Antiques Unit needs all the manpower it can get. Last year Scotland Yard proposed halving the staff of its Art and Antiques Unit, which had four officers. In the end, the cuts did not proceed and funding has been confirmed for the current financial year. Nevertheless, resources are tight and having 13 part-time special constables for two days a month is equivalent to one extra full-time officer. Inspector Alan Seldon told us: “There are only four officers in the unit. The scheme expands what we can do, and enhances our capability.” He wants to encourage more recruits from the London art scene.

This seems to be a good idea generally, and if it helps the Arts and Antiques Unit, that must be a good thing.  But its no substitute for an open and honest market in art and antiquities. 

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

Is culture a basic need?

Dheera Sujan, presenter of Earthbeat on Radio Netherlands has an interesting account of something called a Cultural Emergency Response, sponsored by the Prince Claus Fund. You can listen to the show here.

It’s an international aid organization which both attempts to rescue and preserve culture during times of conflict, when “culture is the first to go and often the last thing on anyone’s mind.” The organization aims to prevent acts of destruction such as the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the Serb bombing the library of Sarajevo, and indeed the loss to Iraq’s heritage when the US the UK, and the other coalition countries invaded Iraq in 2003.

Aid organizations often don’t focus on cultural loss, they are tasked with other matters such as humanitarian and other assistance; the CER attempts to fill t;his gap. Els van der Plas, director of the Prince Claus Fund says “We feel that culture is a basic need and we think that rescuing culture can give people a sense of hope and direction.”

When a disaster or armed conflict occurs, an application can be submitted for up to 35,000 euros for a project, so long as it is completed within six months. The CER has sponsored a number of projects. In Nablus it helped stabilize the foundations of historic houses which were being damaged by the widening of roads used by the Israeli army; in Morocco, it funded the rebuilding of a mosque destroyed by an earthquake. In Afghanistan, it restored a synagogue in Heart which had been damaged by flood in conjunction with the Aga Khan Trust. As the radio piece argues, “the Jewish community is long gone from Afghanistan but the beauty of the building is undeniable. It’s also a beautiful metaphor for tolerance: a Western and a Muslim [organization] collaborating with primarily Muslim workers together to rebuild a Jewish synagogue in a Muslim country where the Jews are gone – so that their history may remain.”

These kinds of rebuilding efforts are symbolic and a powerful symbol. One wonders if the US and other coalition forces would have had a better result in Iraq and Afghanistan had they spent more time and effort on this kind of cultural aid, rather than what one Iraqi predicted for his nation after the invasion “Democracy! Whiskey! Sexy!“.

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

The Uneasy relationship between Scholarship and Journalism (UPDATE)


Lee Rosenbaum, arts journalist and fellow blogger at culturegrrl has an Op-Ed in today’s LA Times titled “Make art loans, not war” in which she argues for increased loans from Italy and Greece, a more collaborative relationship between North American “Universal” museums, and an increase in what she calls “citizen archaeology” along the lines of the portable antiquities scheme in England and Wales.

It’s a well written piece, but it strikes me as a compilation of a lot of other scholarship. I suppose it’s a journalists prerogative to take the work of scholars and researchers and reconfigure it in a more digestible (i.e. better written) form, but it does strike me as a bit unfair that she gets to take credit for some ideas which have been persuasively and compellingly articulated elsewhere. I’d like to point out some of the theoretical foundations for the ideas that Rosenbaum articulates.

John Merryman has long been a champion of “cultural property internationalism“, and Kwame Anthony Appiah also made a compelling argument for a similar kind of idea in his recent work, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers.

Antiquities leasing is a particularly interesting idea, and it’s one that’s received some interesting attention recently, including an article by Peter Wendel, a law Professor at Pepperdine University, as well as a recent working paper by Michael Kremer and Tom Wilkening who argue from an economic perspective that long-term leasing of antiquities would allow source nations to earn much-needed revenue from their antiquities, but would preserve their own long-term ownership interests. I’ve even argued here that the agreements forged by the Getty, the MFA Boston, the Met, Princeton, and Yale with Peru are essentially leasing agreements between the two sides. Clearly, the custom established by these agreements leads to the idea of leasing as a workable solution to these intractable disputes.

I found Rosenbaum’s argument for citizen archaeology particularly interesting:

More controversially, I believe that source countries should consider training and licensing citizen archaeologists. The antiquities police can’t hope to end all the looting or shut down the black market completely. But if those who make finds are compensated for reporting them and perhaps trained to help excavate them, midnight marauders who mangle masterpieces and destroy archaeological context may become less numerous and destructive. One precedent for the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach is Britain’s financial compensation of metal detector-wielding amateurs who turn over significant finds including gold, silver and prehistoric objects to the proper authorities.

This is a subject upon which I’ve written, and what she’s referring to here is the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and the Treasure Act. Their flickr site is particularly interesting, which is where I found the image above of a Roman horseman found in Cambridgeshire last year. The PAS operates only in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland is not a part of the scheme. Unfortunately the PAS is in danger due to budget restrictions and funding for the London Olympics.

I discuss the PAS and the idea of rewarding finders of objects in some detail in my recent article WHY U.S. FEDERAL CRIMINAL PENALTIES FOR DEALING IN ILLICIT CULTURAL PROPERTY ARE INEFFECTIVE, AND A PRAGMATIC ALTERNATIVE, 25 Cardozo Arts & Ent. L.J. 597 (2007), available on Lexis and Westlaw. I think she may be under a mis-impression regarding the scheme. The PAS encourages voluntary reporting of finds for those objects which fall outside the scope of the Treasure Act. The scheme has created a massive community archaeology project for objects which are found on private lands and do not belong to the Crown. There has always been a requirement in England and Wales to return valuable metal objects to the Crown, however the introduction of the scheme dramatically increased compliance with the law. Based on this, I argue that it’s not enough for a source nation to declare ownership; to effectively protect sites it must also erect appropriate mechanisms to promote compliance with those ownership declarations. When a metal detector finds a valuable piece of gold on private land (detecting on scheduled monuments is strictly forbidden) the finder is entitled to an award, which thus encourages the reporting of finds. However, such a system may not work in all source nations, as you do not want to encourage haphazard looting. As a result the PAS and the Treasure Act are important policy solutions to consider, but are not a cure-all for the antiquities trade.

In short, there has been a great deal of attention placed on the return of objects to Italy, but nearly all these returns, and certainly the most valuable and significant objects, were returned based on substantial evidence, often photographs, which indicate the objects in question had been illegally excavated. The Medici Conspiracy details the investigation. These returns to Italy are the product of a massive investigation of a single commercial stream (albeit a substantial one) from Italy to North America. The challenge for cultural policy makers is to think about the other source nations and other transactions. Rosenbaum rightly points out some of the innovative
potential solutions to these dilemmas, I just think it’s regrettable that the Op-Ed forum doesn’t allow her to reference some of the important work she may have relied on to formulate her thoughts.

UPDATE:

Rosenbaum responds to me here, and also posts reactions from a “prominent curator” and David Gill.

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

Endangered Species and Antiquities

Ben Macintyre has an excellent article in today’s TimesOnline, Elephants: the way to beat looters. He begins by describing looting taking place in Iraq:

Iraq has become a looter’s paradise, and history’s worst nightmare. The ancient sites of Mesopotamia, the very cradle of civilisation, are subjected to daily plunder. Friezes from the walls of the Assyrian city of Hatra are sawn off using stonecutters. Entire Sumerian cities have been erased from history by organised looters armed with guns and diggers, hacking down to bedrock and extracting everything of value: pottery, sculptures, bottles, anything that can make a buck on the international market. From the air, the ancient sites look like the surface of the moon, pitted and cratered.

The destruction has been well-documented, but Macintyre ties the trend to looting which takes place elsewhere, in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and elsewhere. He sees promise in comparing the looting of sites with smuggled antiquities:

[A]rchaeologists are turning to the lessons of wildlife conservation in their efforts to protect the world’s most threatened sites. The answer to the plague of looting may lie with the endangered elephant.

Looters of ancient sites are operating in precisely the same way as poachers hunting elephant, rhino or apes: ivory, rhino horn and bush meat attain their value by a combination of illegality and rarity. One solution may be to treat ancient sites as, in effect, protected wildlife preserves, which visitors pay to visit just as they pay to see rare animals in their natural surroundings.

Our attitudes towards rare animals have altered radically. Rather than capture them for zoos, or kill and mount them on our walls, we prefer to see them in game reserves, preserved as nearly as possible in a state of nature. The same should apply to the relics of history. Where once ancient relics were the preserve of museums, today we also want to see them, with others of their kind, in context.

I think that’s exactly right, and there are at least three very interesting ideas playing out here.

First, as I see it, to prevent looting in source nations requires three components: a respect for cultural heritage among the locals, an effective legal framework which encourages compliance, and sufficient enforcement resources. The absence of any one of these allows an illicit trade; and all three are lacking in Iraq.

Second, the comparison between endangered species and antiquities is interesting. The two trades are a study in contrast though. The multilateral framework regulating wild animals works on a tiered system of protection under CITES. The multilateral protection of antiquities under the relevant UNESCO and UNIDROIT Conventions does not work nearly as well. Part of the reason may be the way the public views both problems. Broadly speaking if you see an endangered animal in a zoo, I think you get a visceral reaction at seeing a wild animal penned up. I don’t think you get the same kind of reaction when you see an antiquity in a museum, because you cannot tell by looking at a vase or sculpture if it was properly excavated or looted in most cases.

Third, and most interesting is the idea of heritage tourism. This has been successful in many countries, and is a great way to encourage locals to respect and preserve their heritage. It’s benefits are potentially long-range, but there are risks and drawbacks. As Macintyre points out, this may not be an option for Iraqis if the current theft and destruction continues.

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