Looting From Iraq: A Better Perspective


I’d like to devote some time today to the issue of looting following the invasion of Iraq in April, 2003. Specifically, I’d like to point out the perspective of Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, a Manhattan District Attorney, classics scholar, and Marine who led a specialized multi-agency task force. Immediately after the invasion, countless news agencies and press reports claimed that 170,000 Iraqi antiquities had been stolen while American forces stood by and let things happen. Bogdanos has recently published a book about his exploits, Thieves of Baghdad, and has also written scholarly articles, including this one from the American Journal of Archaeology.

Much of the recent book details his personal experience as the son of Greek immigrants in New York, his decision to study classics during his time in law school, and also his experiences near ground zero on September 11, 2001. He is passionate about his service in the marine corps, and about his mission in Iraq, which may put some readers who are critical of the war and the invasion ill-at-ease. However, Bogdanos remains candid throughout, pointing out the struggles of marines in Iraq in dealing with the media, tribal leaders, and even western misconceptions.

The strength of Bogdanos’ account of the looting of the Baghdad museum is the way he brings a prosecutor’s attention to detail to the whole controversy. He creates a time line, and gives his opinion as to what the US military should or should not have done at various times during the invasion of the city of Baghdad.

In my view, a lot of commentators took their anger at the invasion, and turned it into blind criticism of how the military should have protected these antiquities . After reading Bogdanos’ account, clearly mistakes were made, but not to the extent that initial reports indicated. The Baghdad museum itself was rarely open to visitors under Saddam Hussein. In fact, American troops would have likely done more harm to the objects in the museum if they had been more robust in capturing the museum earlier, as there were Iraqi troops inside the museum. This picture shows a hole left by an american tank which was being fired upon from the archway. Granted, there are many arguments against the US-led invasion of Iraq, and the loss of Iraqi cultural heritage is a shining example of what went wrong, just not to the extent initially reported.

Who exactly looted the museum remains unknown for sure, but the US military’s policy of amnesty for the return of objects helped to bring back a number of priceless artifacts, including the sacred vase of Warka, which is 5,000 years old and considered one of the oldest existing sculptures. Unfortunately many priceless objects are still missing, and are on the FBI’s most wanted art thefts list.

In the end, after reading Bogdanos’ account, the tragedy of recent Iraqi history becomes manifest. This is the cradle of civilization; unfortunately now it is the location of a great deal of violence. Sadly, the recent death estimates which exceed 600,000 illustrate this.

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

New Documentary


A new documentary is receiving limited release, detailing an infamous art heist. Stolen, details the largest art heist in modern history, which took place at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston, the day after St. Patrick’s day, 1990. 13 works were stolen, including this work by vermeer called The Concert. Apparently the film follows a couple of storylines. One details the work of an investigator, Harold Smith, tasked with finding the missing works. The other, examines the artistic value of these stolen paintings. What exactly the thieves have done with the works remains a mystery, as they are too widely known to be sold on the open market. The film should be fascinating, unfortunately its not being widely released, and seems to only screened in art galleries across the US.

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

Thefts from South Africa

allAfrica.com reports today that over 14,000 objects of religious or artistic worth have been stolen from South Africa within the past 4 years. Next week will mark the beginning of an awareness campaign to highlight six of the most-wanted art works, similar to the FBI’s list. Ideally, law enforcement will know how to spot these high-profile objects, and check a database compiled by service and customs officials in South Africa. Once again, this is a noble attempt to curb the problems, and it appears much of the art on the list is South African, but more effort needs to be made to consolidate these databases for them to be truly effective. Whether the impetus for that consolidation is the market, NGO’s, or UNESCO remains to be seen however. As it stands now, technology is not being effectively utilized.

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

Theft from Leeds, for Dr. No?



Last Thursday night, a burglar stole an antique clock valued at £65,000 from Temple Newsam House in Leeds the Yorkshire Post reports. The antique clock, which is 2 feet high dates from the early 19th century. Police are positing that the raid may have been targeted as the thief only took one item. The piece is very elaborate, and widely known, according to the article. Thus rendering its potential market quite slim.

The question then becomes, why would the item be stolen if its difficult to sell. As I see it, there are four potential answers to this question.

The first, is that a wealthy collector admires the piece, and hired a thief to take it for him. I’ll call this the Dr. No situation. This seems the least likely possibility, but the one that strikes a chord with the imagination. Writers in this subject frequently cite the Dr. No as being responsible for thefts, and I admit it makes for good Bond villains, but there has been no convincing evidence that thsi is why people are stealing rare objects. Another similar possibility which seems far more likely is that an unscrupulous dealer may have a similar piece for sale, and if he can establish some excitement around these kinds of pieces, the price for his clock may go up. This is just wild speculation, and assigns a quite sinister tak to arts and antiquities dealers, a habit far too many writers in this field are fond of doing.

Second, the thief may not have known that the object was so rare as to make its subsequent sale difficult.

Third, the thief may simply be trying to kidnap the object. They could then insure its safe return for a generous reward, probably negotiated through a solicitor. Let’s assume now that those in charge of the Temple Newsom House are interested in generating more visitors, and a buzz around the clock. Perhaps they even staged the theft, and its sudden reappearance could become quite a windfall for the house, especially if it is struggling financially. This, of course, is wild speculation, and no evidence exists that this kind of activity takes place.

Finally, perhaps the market is doing such a poor job of regulating what is and is not legitimate, that it may not be all that difficult to sell this piece after all. This strikes me as the most troubling possibility.

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