Sicily says 23 works won’t travel

A depiction of Scylla, one of the objects from the "Morgantina Silver" collection recently repatriated
A depiction of Scylla, one of the objects from the “Morgantina Silver” collection recently repatriated

A good reminder that even when loan agreements are crafted, they don’t always produce a good deal for the source of this art. Sicily’s regional government has declared that 23 works of art should not go abroad for loans unless there are ‘extraordinary circumstances’. The list includes important paintings by Caravaggio, but also some antiquities, many of which have been the subject of recent disputes, including the Morgantina Silver, La dea di Aidone, the Gold Phiale, and other objects.

The reason for the ban? Loans are only going one way. When these objects are loaned abroad there is not sufficient art sent to Sicily. In essence it’s a one-way exchange, at least from Sicily’s point of view. If art is to be a good ambassador, the transfer should go both ways.

Hugh Eakin reports in the NYT that:

In recent years, Sicily, long a victim of looting, has gained back some of the most prized ancient art in the world, including a seven-foot limestone and marble Greek goddess from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. But many of the works reside in small regional museums that struggle to draw visitors. According to a report this year in the Corriere della Sera, a leading Italian daily, the museum in Aidone, which houses the silver and the cult statue, received 13,410 visitors in 2012.

A new administration that took power in Sicily in the last year has expressed disappointment with existing loan practices. In 2005, for example, the Sicilian region sent, on its own initiative, three Antonello paintings to the Met for a much publicized exhibition. Now, those three paintings are on the “immovable” list.

“It’s perfectly understandable,” said Philippe de Montebello, the former director of the Met who negotiated the museum’s 2006 restitution accord with Italy. “Sicily doesn’t have the depth. If you take away one of these top pieces, you’ve created a big gap.”

  1. Hugh Eakin, Citing Inequity, Sicily Bans Loans of 23 Artworks, N.Y. Times, Nov. 26, 2013.

Dallas Museum of Art Announces 6 Repatriations

The Orpheus Mosaic, once looted and now returned to Turkey

In a press conference today Max Anderson, the new director at the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) announced an agreement with Turkey to return this 2nd Century AD Roman Mosaic, and other objects. The mosaic was acquired in 1999 at a public auction at Christie’s in 1999 for $85,000. According to the DMA, after noting on Turkey’s cultural heritage ministry website that there had been an Orpheus mosaic missing, Anderson contacted Turkish officials. He was given photographic evidence showing the and comparing the mosaic with a border, being removed by looters near ancient Edessa, modern Sanliurfa in Southern Turkey.

In announcing the return, Anderson also announced a new initiative called ‘DMX‘ which attempts to seek loans and exchange agreements. A move that if successful would position the museum to pioneer the ideals of a universal museum while also respecting the laws and restrictions placed on objects by their nation of origin.

But other objects were also revealed. The DMA officials also announced that they had uncovered objects in their collection from Edoardo Almagià, an on-again/off-again antiquities dealer who has been tied to looted antiquities by Italian officials. The other objects may be more interesting, including:

  • a pair of bronze shields decorated with the head of the man-bull deity Acheloos, dating from the 6th century B.C.E;
  • a red-figure krater, designed for the burial of Greek nobles in southern Italy, dating from the 4th century B.C.E;
  • the head from an antefix, dating from the 6th century B.C.E; 
  • and a calyx krater, dating from the 4th century B.C.E.
The volute krater, 4th century B.C.E. its
provenance was “English collection”

Almagià is an interesting figure. In a 2010 interview with the Princeton alumni magazine, he is boldly critical of Italy’s heritage laws, and the agreements between Italy and the United States:

You are immediately equated with a criminal nowadays by being a collector. You have in Italy hundreds of thousands of people that have antiquities at home. They might have inherited them or bought them. In my youth, there were flea markets, and you could buy every antiquity you wanted. All those people that bought things – are they all criminals? It’s like Prohibition in the United States – there’s a criminal underworld. Italian law leads to crime. By legalizing the market in antiquities, you destroy the black market and eliminate the incentive to make forgeries.

He has been investigated by the public prosecutor in Rome since 2006, and his New York apartment has also been searched by U.S. Customs officials. Chasing Aphrodite points out that the returned material has ties to the usual suspects: Gianfranco Becchina, Robin Symes, and Giacomo Medici. And also notes other museums have similar objects. Given Turkey’s increasingly muscular calls for repatriation, the DMA has positioned itself to create favorable agreements with foreign nations, and also set itself apart from other institutions with similar material with insufficient histories. When I see these objects at a museum, with a scant or nonexistant provenance listed, I assume it must be looted. Forward-thinking museums are increasingly doing the same. And despite what value there may be in viewing the object in a ‘universal’ museum, that probable criminal history increasingly renders the display of these objects unjust.

  1. Michael Granberry, Dallas Museum of Art returns rare work of Roman art, signs memorandum of understanding with Turkish government for international exchange Center Stage, Dallas News (Dec 3, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

The Immunity from Seizure Act and the proposed clarification in the Senate

File:Suprematism 18th Construction.jpg
One of the Nazi-era works at issue in Malewicz, titled Suprematism 18th Construction, by Kazimir Malevich

Legislation which would have an impact on the lending of foreign artworks is currently moving through both the House and the Senate. The Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Immunity Clarification Act would remedy an inconsistency between two laws. The first act, the Immunity from Seizure Act bars suits which infringe on the custody or control of a museum while they are loaning the work of art. The other act, the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act has opened the door for some claims, even when immunity has been granted under the Immunity from Seizure Act. 


Two recent cases which highlight this are Magness v. Russian Federation, and Malewicz v. City of Amsterdam. In both those cases suits for the monetary value of the paintings were allowed to continue, despite the fact that they had been granted federal immunity. The proposed law seems to be a sound and reasonable accommodation for the recent conflict between these two statutes. However some have claimed that this would preclude certain claims in Federal Court. This strikes me as troubling because the State Department hears a request for immunity and the parties have to provide detailed information about the history of the loaned works. The implication is that the State Department is not thoroughly vetting these requests, and that when the works arrive in the United States unsuspecting lending museums, who may have been unaware they had a work of art subject to a claim, may be hauled into court, after they were given guarantees that this wouldn’t happen. A grant of immunity is issued by the State Department, which has the responsibility for checking that there is no potential claim to the work of art. I find it curious that many of the same groups expressing anxiety about the clarification (like the LCCHP here in this brief press release) advocate for State Department involvement in US import restrictions via the Cultural Property Advisory Panel. It seems to me that if we entrust the State Department with regulating imposition of import restrictions, why are they unable to research the history of an object entering the US for a temporary loan. And for me that makes bad law and bad policy. Foreign lenders perhaps should give up title to some of these contested objects, but claimants waiting in the wings and springing a lawsuit on a lending museum will lead to fewer art loans, and will end up limiting those temporary exhibitions anyway. What we have is a cultural embargo on works of art which may be the subject of a Nazi-era claim.


Art is a good ambassador, and the exchange of art is an admirable goal. Aggressive repatriation litigation, particularly after a foreign museum has been told it will not be sued in Federal Court, by the State Department, sets a troubling precedent and will certainly restrict number and quality of works of art museum visitors will see in loaned exhibitions. Remedying Holocaust-era wrongs is a worthy goal, but piercing immunity produces uncertainty for museums and current possessors of art. A better system would negotiate and recommend returns or compensation via something like the Spoliation Advisory Panel in the United Kingdom. Most interesting of all, the proposed clarification does not even attempt to remedy potential difficulties with Nazi-era disputes which arose between 1933-1945. Holocaust-era claims gained in number in the 1990’s with a number of important efforts and writers focusing attention on the issue. It is an example that many museum-goers are aware of. We all know the Nazi’s looted art and forced victims into selling or leaving behind their art collections. The legal precedents created in holocaust-era claims also can be applied to other periods of taking like the Bolshevik Revolution and the Cambodian conflict, and in fact we are seeing courts examine the taking of objects during those periods as well. The Holocaust repatriation movement has the benefit of a growing number of advocates who are actively networking with repatriation attorneys, auction houses, and art historians to aggressively pursue claims. However the cost of this litigation is restricted movement of art, and increasing silence on the part of museums in Europe and North America. Holocaust victims should have their rights vindicated, but a courtroom adversarial process is not always the best remedy for past injustices.

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

The Chimaera of Arezzo at the Getty

In a tangible shift in the way the Getty will perhaps operate in the future, the Chimaera of Arezzo has arrived at the Getty Villa in Malibu.  It is a loan of the work which combines history, archaeology, mythology and art appreciation.  Based on the initial reviews, it is exactly the kind of exhibition an institution like the Getty should be doing—rather than persisting in acquiring potentially looted antiquities. 

The Etruscan bronze was found in Tuscany in the 16th Century and installed at the Palazzo Vecchio by Cosimo I. It had been on display in Florence before being sent to Malibu.
 

The LA Times Arts blog reviews the bronze and the exhibition:

The roaring head, encircled by curving rows of tufted fur, strains upward and bends to the right. Behind it the goat’s head mirrors this pose but in the opposite direction. So the bodily motion goes down, back, up, left and right, yielding a marvelously animated dynamism. Skin is pulled taut over powerful musculature, while parallel curves, alternating shadow with light, articulate the beast’s gaunt rib cage. This is an animal with living, breathing innards, not just a ferocious outward demeanor.

Look closely and you’ll spot a couple of stylized floral rosettes on the goat’s neck and the lion’s hind end — in fact, engorged drops of blood, spurting from stabbed flesh. The beast has been wounded, no doubt from the fatal assault by the long-lost bronze figure of the Greek hero Bellerophon riding his winged steed, Pegasus — victors in the mythical ancient battle. The Chimaera of Arezzo is what remains of a surely amazing sculptural grouping, fabricated by a supremely gifted artist and his bronze casting crew, circa 400 B.C.

It is an antiquity with a well-storied history.  At the time, Cosimo I, the Grand Duke of Tuscany was competing with Rome.  When this bronze was unearthed, he had an antiquity to rival this bronze, “La Lupa”, which depicted the mythical founding of Rome. 

But has anything really changed?  It is interesting I think that the use of antiquities as symbols of power in the Renaissance continues in Italy today.  Consider the recent controversy which erupted when Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi may have revealed to an escort girl that his Villa in Sardinia may have been built on top of 30 ancient Phoenecian tombs without the necessary notification of the Culture Ministry or the Carabinieri. 

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

Greece Not Interested in Sharing the Marbles

Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum

Greek Culture Minister Antonis Samaras has said his nation is not interested in working out a loan arrangement for the Parthenon Marbles. 

I can certainly understand that point of view, but at some point don’t we need to move beyond the question of whether that taking in 1801-2 was wrongful; and start asking what is best for the marbles and those who want to learn from them today?  I don’t want to belabor the point, but isn’t the fact that the marbles are still on display at the British Museum a pretty strong indication that their removal was legal, or if not, not subject to current judicial scrutiny?  We can argue about whether their continued display in London is ethical, but not I do not think a legal question any longer. 

From the BBC:

The government, as any other Greek government would have done in its place, is obliged to turn down the offer,” Mr Samaras said, in a statement. 
“This is because accepting it would legalise the snatching of the Marbles and the monument’s carving-up 207 years ago.” 
He added that he was prepared to discuss lending Greek antiquities to the British Museum “to fill the gap left when the (Parthenon) Marbles finally return to the place they belong”. 
Mr Samaras was responding to comments made by British Museum spokeswoman, Hannah Boulton, on Greek radio. 
She said under existing British Museum policy the museum would consider loan requests by any foreign government, including Greece. 
But all requests would be considered on a case-to-case basis, taking many factors into consideration, including fitness of the item or items to travel. 
Greece would also have to recognise the museum’s ownership rights to the sculptures, which is a loan condition.

Ms Boulton told the BBC that the British Museum had not received a request from Greece, nor had it offered the marbles for loan.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Commemorating Nazi Restitution

Yonat Shimron has the story of this work, Madonna and Child in a Landscape in the News and Observer:

Apart from its origin as an object of religious devotion and a prized piece of German Renaissance art, the “Madonna and Child in a Landscape” is now famous because it was seized by the Nazis as loot. That’s why curators at the Austrian Museum of Applied and Contemporary Art, known as MAK, asked to borrow the painting to round out the exhibit “Recollecting: Looted Art and Restitution,” which opens Wednesday and runs though Feb. 15.
“It’s a great poetic conclusion to the story,” said John Coffey, deputy director of art at the N.C. Museum of Art. “It furthers the conversation of cultural property, who owns it and how it should be managed.”  In 1984, the painting came to the N.C. Museum of Art as a bequest by a California couple. It was mounted in the European art gallery as part of the museum’s permanent collection.
But in 1999, the Commission for Art Recovery of the World Jewish Congress notified the museum that it had a piece of looted Nazi art. Two elderly Austrian sisters — Marianne and Cornelia Hainisch of Vienna — claimed the painting belonged to their great-uncle, Philipp von Gomperz, a wealthy Viennese Jew.
As various documents attested, Gomperz was forced to turn over his art collection to Nazi police at the outbreak of World War II. His Madonna and Child landed in the palace of Vienna’s Nazi governor.  After a months-long investigation, the museum concluded that the sisters were right — and relinquished its claim to the painting. But then, under the terms of a unique agreement, the sisters sold the painting back to the museum for $600,000, half its estimated value.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

China Refuses Loans

Pictured here is a Chinese poster from the Cultural Revolution which states “We’ll destroy the old world and build a new one”. Notice the worker is smashing a Buddha, Chinese classics, and a crucifix. This paints a much different picture than the one China has tried to portray during the Olympics, particularly Zhang Yimou’s remarkable opening ceremonies.

Perhaps that’s why China has made the troubling decision to refuse to loan works of art to the Asia Society which will focus on Chinese art from the 1950s to the 1970s. Robin Pogrebin in the NY Times, and Jason Edward Kaufman for the Art Newspaper both report on the decision.

Kaufman says the show “Art and China’s Revolution” “surveys three decades of Chinese art following Mao Zedong’s establishment of the republic in 1949, including the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when the government controlled artist production. Exhibitions of photographs and posters have explored the politics and propaganda of Maoist China, but none has assembled ink and oil paintings, sketchbooks and prints by both underground and official artists, including the “model” paintings on which millions of social-realist posters were based.”

The art produced by these cultural shifts, through propaganda, often has tremendous impact and is highly sought after decades later. Such is the case with Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1964 film I Am Cuba (which is examined in some detail by Scott Tobias at the Onion AV Club). Works of art continue to be powerful political and cultural forces even after the impetus for their creation has diminished.

China perhaps has good almost realpolitik reasons for not deciding to allow these loans — they want to portray their nation in a much different light now. Individuals and States have a lot of reasons for wanting to restrict themovement of works of art. Some of them are sound (to prevent looting of archaeological sites for example) others are open to criticism (hiding or minimizing history).

This is a very good example of the detrimental impact of strong national control of works of art. James Cuno has been roundly criticized for many of his views — and for good reason in some cases. But in this situation, I think his main thesis is on point: works of art are often political tools for nations. The idea of cosmopolitanism can allevieate Chinese reluctance to show art from this period, and in fact some of the other private loans are doing just this. Of course art isn’t just used for political goals either, as Kaufman notes “It has been a decade since the Asia Society’s major exhibition “Inside Art: New Art from China” helped spur the boom in Chinese contemporary art. Will the present exhibition have a similar effect on the market for art of the Cultural Revolution?”

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