More from the Stair Gallery and William M. V. Kingsland

When rare objects turn up stolen, speculation often arises about wealthy collectors who in their opulent boredom have commissioned a theft-by-order. I think an apt label for this kind of collector could be Dr. No. These kinds of stories and attendant speculation are far-fetched, but are they sometimes true? One possible Dr. No figure may be the mysterious Melvin Kohn, also known as William M. V. Kingsland, which I first discussed last week.

The NY Times devoted an article to his death and the auction of his estate last week, but unfortunately the article was labeled local news and was only available via their Select Service. Lucky for us, they made an error in the story, and a corrected version is available free here. Kingsland died this spring, and apparently he was a widely known figure in his East-Side neighborhood. His obituary is here. His estate, including a great deal of art, eventually went to auction, leading to the discovery that at least some of the pieces were stolen. As I said last week, the auction has been halted, and the Stair Gallery is attempting to undo the auction, a process that can’t be very pleasant for anyone involved. The Harvard Crimson reports that one of the portraits could be a John Singleton Copley, or could be a copyist. The Copley may have been stolen from Harvard in 1968; the work is pictured here.

In addition to the NY Times article, there’s been coverage in the Harvard Crimson and the Boston Globe. Some have commented that its rare that the Copley went so cheap at auction, but that this may have been due to the fact that one just doesn’t expect to find one of his undiscovered works at an auction. The New York Sun also has an article that clarifies how the material was sold. The City of New York sold the Kingsland estate to Christie’s and Stair Galleries, who then resold it.

If nothing else, the Kingsland estate’s misadventures make for an interesting story. They also point out continued flaws in the market. Auction houses are selling objects without a provenance, or chain of title. If we buy and sell cars with a chain of title, why cannot dealers and galleries introduce such information? The answer, I guess, is that it may be bad for business; tradition may dictate against such a thing; or they may not know the information. It may also just be a practical extension of the fact that, they have purchased this estate, and need to sell it as quick as practicable, because they are running a business.

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

Praise for the Stair Gallery


Stair Galleries, a small gallery in Hudson, New York has discovered that it was auctioning works which may have been stolen from Harvard University in 1968. The painting, similar to this portrait of 19th century Harvard President, and founder of the law school, John T. Kirkland. The work resembles this portrait by Gilbert Stuart which sold for $182,000 this summer in Manchester, New Hampshire (pictured here).

However, it appears that the work may not be an original Gilbert Stuart painting, according to the Harvard Crimson. The painting was sold for $7,500 last week, as a part of the estate of William M. V. Kingsland. Kingsland had no heirs, and no will. The distribution of his estate was in the charge of a public commissioner, which commissioned the items to Christie’s and Stair galleries to auction the objects.

Colin Stair, the president of Stair galleries, halted the sale of 250 objects from the Kingsland estate. The FBI has been investigating the sale, to determine if any of the works have been stolen. A dealer who purchased paintings was the first to discover that one had perhaps been in the Harvard collection in the 1960’s.

Details are still a bit sketchy, and the only reporting on this I have found has come from the Harvard Crimson. It raises some issues though. What database were being consulted. Did they check the Art Loss Register, or another? Was the work published in these databases? If anything it highlights the need for a single database, and a need to publish these stolen databases for everyone.

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

Getty Trial Resumes in Italy


The New York Times devoted a short brief on the so-called Getty trial wednesday. After a long summer hiatus, the trial of former Getty Museum curator Marion True and art dealer Robert Hecht continued Wednesday in Rome, with the testimony of Fausto Guarnieri, who once worked for Italy’s art-theft squad. The statue is only on e of the objects at issue in the prosecution of True and Hecht, who are accused of dealing in stolen artifacts. A 1939 Italian law vests title to all unearthed antiquities in the State.

The statue of Aphrodite, pictured here, was purchased for $18 million by the Getty in 1988. It dates from the 5th century BC, near a Greek settlement in Sicily known as Venere di Morgantina. Italian authorities were alerted in 1986 by rival looters, who were angry that the statue had been sold too cheaply. Guarnieri testified that 20 years ago tomb robbers led him to a site in Sicily where the statue had been unearthed.

The trial is a tremendous black eye for the Getty, as the sculpture is a centerpiece of the museum’s antiquities collection in Malibu. True’s defense counsel are arguing that the sale of the statue was met with little official interest by Italian authorities in 1988 when the sale took place. Apparently, the statue was not on the official list of stolen objects when the Getty made official inquiries at the time of the sale. It would have been difficult though, as there was no record of what the statue actually looked like. Prosecutors are relying on scientific data which points to the statue’s origin in Morgantina.

This trial will of course be watched very closely by museums all over the world with Italian antiquities. Though I failed to grasp it when I posted comments about the decision by the Museum of Fine arts in Boston’s decision to return 13 antiquities to Italy, the True prosecution may have been at least part of the impetus behind the decision. Also, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art recently returned 21 pieces to Italy.

I’m not sure what this prosecution means for the illicit trade. Certainly, it seems likely that museums will be far more careful when they acquire Italian antiquities. However, it seems likely that the looters will continue their work, they just will sell to dealers and individuals rather than museums. Is the public good being served by having these objects in the hands of an individual rather than a museum? Perhaps not; but however nefarious we might believe the actions of True and Hecht were in this case, wasn’t there a tremendous value in allowing the public to view these objects? Its the same kind of argument that Greece and the British Museum have been fighting over for centuries in relation to the Parthenon Sculptures/Elgin Marbles. There are no clear answers. However, the Parthenon Sculptures have been resting in London for centuries now, while the Italian antiquites are a fairly recent acquisition by the Getty. Conversely, the archaeological context was lost when the statue was unearthed twenty years ago. However, was there anything in that soil record about Greek civilization that we don’t already know? We can’t be sure. At the very least, the idea of a museum acquiring a very valuable object which had been looted strikes me as distasteful. It certainly reveals a troubling part of museum acquisition which I suspect the vast majority of visitors are unaware of.

What is certain, is that Italian authorities are pursuing an aggressive policy of pursuing antiquities found/looted/unearthed within its borders. This will likely diminish the prices which sellers of certain questionable objects can expect to receive for their finds in the short-term. But it might increase the price which may be paid for objects with a clean provenance. An unintended consequence may be the decrease in opportunities for visitors and residents California, Boston, and New York to see these examples of Greek and Roman culture.

Perhaps the way forward is an increase in travelling exhibitions, but there are financial, logistical and other drawbacks to that remedy as well. The one thing all parties involved in this prosecution, and the wider debate can certainly agree on, is that these are extremely valuable and beautiful objects.

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

Arrests In Egypt

In Cairo, the AP reports police detained a group of 5 men who allegedly were attempting to smuggle stolen antiquities out of the country. Curiously, one man was a former state archaeologist, and another was a University Professor. Apparently the five had found five antiquities, and were attempting to sell them. It seems a security agent posing as an arab businessmen offered the men $2 million, but they were arrested. I’d be fascinated to know more of the details of who this ‘security agent’ is, who they work for, etc. The AP article is quite thin on the details. However, as I learn more, I’ll post it here.

My first reaction is that these men do not fit the stereotypical mold for antiquities smuggling. Writers in this field often assume much of the looting is done by dealers, thieves and looters. However perhaps that generalization is unfair. Academics and archaeologists may be involved in the illicit trade of cultural property as well.

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

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