Prott on Australian museums and illicit art

The 900-year-old bronze Dancing Shiva (Shiva Nataraja)  returned by the National Gallery of Australia to India in 2014
The 900-year-old bronze Dancing Shiva (Shiva Nataraja) returned by the National Gallery of Australia to India in 2014

Lyndel Prott, Honorary Prof. of International Heritage Law at the University of Queensland has authored a timely Op-Ed for the Conversation. In it she argues the 1970 UNESCO Convention has a role to play in impeding the flow of illicit art. But wonders about its impact on the recent spate of illicit material revealed in Australian Museums:

In September the Australian Prime Minister personally returned a 900-year-old bronze Dancing Shiva (Shiva Nataraja) to the Prime Minister of India which had been bought by the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) and was subsequently found to have been stolen from a temple in southern India.

In a country which has been a party to the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property – 1970 since 1989, how did the AGSA, the NGA and the AGNSW find themselves in such egregious situations?

Despite the passage of the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986 which implements for Australia the provisions of the 1970 Convention, the holding institutions have not undertaken the effort that they should have over the last 25 years.


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Lyndel Prott argues this idol should be returned to India

Bronze Idol of Shiva acquired from Subhash Kapoor
Bronze Idol of Shiva acquired from Subhash Kapoor

In an op-ed in the Australian, Lyndel Prott argues that Australia’s Attorney-General George Brandis should repatriate this Bronze idol to India:

Documents revealed in The Australian state the gallery, under director Ron Radford, paid alleged smuggling mastermind Subhash Kapoor $5.1 million for the 900-year-old statue. There have been several other notorious cases of similar bronzes. One arrived in the Norton Simon Museum, California, in 1973. India protested and, following an agreement in 1976 to allow its exhibition in that museum for nine years, it was returned to India.

These events, widely published at the time, should have put any potential purchaser on notice to research diligently the origin of any such item offered. Furthermore, the International Council of Museums has had a strict code of ethics since 1986 concerning acquisitions. A museum professional should not support illicit traffic and should follow national legislation and the principles of the 1970 convention, which require governments, for example, to take the necessary measures to prevent museums from acquiring cultural property originating in another state party and that has been illegally exported.

Australia adopted federal legislation to implement that agreement, the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986, and set up the National Cultural Heritage Committee to supervise its workings. It is an offence to import an object that has been exported illegally — as is the case of the idol in the hands of the NGA. If such an object arrives in Australia, it may be forfeited. A person who imports an object, knowing that the object is a protected object of a foreign country whose export was prohibited by a law of that country, is guilty of an offence.

Let us live up to our international commitments and our own legislation. We await a thorough and rapid review of this case and a decision from the new Attorney-General.

Prott, Lyndel V. “Bronze Idol Should Be Returned to India Now.The Australian, November 6, 2013.

Art Forgery in Australia

Australia’s Four Corners has aired a piece on art forgery in Australia today titled “FAKE!“: 

Reporter Quentin McDermott tells how up to ten per cent of art that’s resold across Australia could be problematic. This crisis of confidence has led art lovers to demand that any fake unfairly traded should be destroyed or registered, to avoid it being traded again. 
It’s a practice as old as art itself. A gifted painter takes a major artwork and reproduces it, or a variation on it. No harm in that, provided it’s clear that it’s not the real thing. Unfortunately some of these paintings find their way into the mainstream art market. Right now it’s clear that certain individuals are prepared to place fakes for sale, making handsome profits.
Alone this would be of concern, but Four Corners reporter Quentin McDermott investigates the role of gallery owners in the marketing and sale of fakes. It’s now clear that, either knowingly or unknowingly, a number of high profile gallery owners have been responsible for selling paintings worth thousands of dollars, with a question mark over their authenticity.
 . . .  

None of this is good news for art lovers. It’s now clear consumers have to be very careful who they deal with, what kind of paintings they buy and who has authenticated them.
This crisis of confidence has led some artists to demand any work sold under false pretences to be destroyed. Others believe there should be an art register of forged works, once they are detected, that could then be accessed by dealers and the general public.
“FAKE!” will be broadcast at 8.30pm on Monday 8 June on ABC1. It is replayed at 11.35pm on Tuesday 9 June.
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ebay and Aboriginal Heritage

The Sydney Morning Herald has a very good piece on the looting and destruction of aboriginal sites in New South Wales, and the link to online auction sites like ebay. 

The situation is infuriating indigenous groups and heritage experts, who say NSW has the most toothless protection regime in Australia.
NSW has successfully prosecuted just 10 cases for destroying or disturbing heritage without permission since 2005.
The NSW Environment Department litigation manager, Gordon Plath, said prosecutions were increasing but were difficult to secure because state law required proof that heritage was destroyed knowingly.
A Bourke collector prosecuted last year for selling stone axes and tools on the auction website eBay was caught because his advertisement demonstrated he had knowingly committed the crime.
He was charged under the National Parks and Wildlife Act with disturbing up to 129 Aboriginal objects and defacing two of them and fined $1650.

It seems one of the difficulties is ineffective legislation in New South Wales in particular.  As the former Head of Aboriginal heritage policy at the Environment Department, Brad Moggridge says in the piece, “The legislation is not worth the paper it’s written on. The provisions aren’t there to protect. The penalties aren’t there to deter people. There should be an Aboriginal heritage act like most other states have.”

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Map Recovered in Sydney

Another example of the international nature of the cultural property trade: the Sydney Morning Herald is reporting in tomorrow’s edition that this 15th century map by Ptolemy has been recovered after its theft in Spain, shipment to the US, sale on ebay, and eventual purchase and shipment to Australia. I’d imagine that seller will be receiving negative feedback on this transaction. There’s no word yet on whether criminal charges will be filed, or who the seller may have been.

The map, known as the Ulm Ptolemy World Map, illustrates what was then known about the world and is described as “perhaps the most famous and highly sought after of 15th-century world maps, and certainly the most decorative”.
Valued at $160,000 [australian], the Ptolemy map was stolen from Spain’s National Library and made its way to the US, where it was bought on the internet by Simon Dewez, owner of the Gowrie Galleries in Bondi Junction.”I had absolutely no idea it was stolen,” Mr Dewez said yesterday. “I thought it was a fantastic buy, a rare opportunity.” The map has been recovered and is with the Australian Federal Police, who sent photographs to the National Library in Madrid. “They’ve confirmed it’s their missing map,” a spokesman said. “The gallery surrendered it willingly.” Spain will apply to Australia to have the map returned. A legal dispute over ownership is not expected. Mr Dewez declined to name the dealer from whom he bought the map but described him as a reputable dealer who had refunded him. Mr Dewez, whose gallery has a 120-page catalogue offering rare maps for sale, bought the map on behalf of a client as a superannuation investment.

The stolen map was one of 12 maps and other documents cut from a 16th-century edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia, based on the original work by Claudius Ptolemy in the second century. Best known as an astronomer, Ptolemy (AD 85-165) compiled Geographia from existing records and by detailing the geographic co-ordinates of 8000 locations. He was the first to visualise a great southern land mass uniting Africa with Asia and enclosing the modern Indian Ocean.

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New Addition to Top 10 Art Crimes

The FBI Art Crime Team announced on Monday that it was adding the theft of Frans Van Mieris A Cavalier (Self Portrait) which was stolen from an Australian Gallery back in June. The work may be worth as much as $1.4 million Australian. The work is not large, measuring about 30cm x 26cm. The Director of the Art Gallery of NSW, Edmund Capon said “To be honest, I could slip it under your coat… it could have happened that way”.

The Top 10 Art Crimes list was initiated in 2005, and since then 10 of the various examples have been recovered:

  • A Rembrandt self-portrait and Renoir’s Young Parisian from Sweden’s National Museum theft;
  • Goya’s Children with a Cart from the Toledo Art Museum theft;
  • Munch’s The Scream and The Madonna from the Munch Museum theft in Oslo;
  • and the Cellini Salt Cellar from the Kunsthistorisches Museum theft in Vienna.
  • Also recovered was the Statue of Entemena from the Iraqi Looted and Stolen Artifacts entry.

That’s an impressive start, and indicates there is a growing need for continued publication of high-profile thefts like these.

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Theft of a Small Masterpiece in Sydney

Last week a work by Dutch master Frans van Mieris, A Cavalier (Self Portrait), was taken from a busy gallery last Sunday. The work may be worth as much as $1.4 million Australian. The work is not large, measuring about 30cm x 26cm. The Director of the Art Gallery of NSW, Edmund Capon said “To be honest, I could slip it under your coat… it could have happened that way”.

Many of the Australian news outlets refer to an interview on Australian ABC radio with Robert Goldman, an agent with the FBI Art Crime Team. Goldman runs through the usual speculation which occurs when a valuable painting has been stolen, as the market for a high-profile work is negligible. As he said, “Our experience, the FBI experience, is that approximately 80 per cent of museum theft cases of art are inside jobs – either people who work there – people whom we say ‘have the keys to the kingdom’.”

Other theories are that the thieves were just foolish, thinking they could have sold it, when in reality they cannot. Also there is the usual speculation that the work could have been stolen on consignment by a Dr. No character because as Goldman says “There are collectors out there that don’t care if the items are stolen.”

The recovery rate for these works is very low. When this kind of work does resurface, it is often a generation later. The irony in this case is this gallery had begun to trumpet its new security in preparation for an upcoming exhibition on Islamic Art. The other possibility may be that security is so lax, a gallery visitor may have just admired the work and wanted it on their wall. Though much of the gallery is under video surveillance, it seems the room where this object was displayed was not.

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Historic Brestplate Not for Sale

Thanks to Will Anderson and Dave Phoenix for pointing this one out for me. South Australia’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister Jay Weatherill has barred a ceremonial breastplate linked to the Burke and Wills expedition from sale. An earlier post is here, and there are some very good comments by folks who know a great deal more about Aboriginal Heritage than I do.

Minister Weatherill will now undertake an investigation to determine the rightful owners of the breastplate. The sale was banned under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988 (SA). As Weatherill said, “This breastplate is a significant piece of our shared Australian history… It is one of the earliest symbols of reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.”

The object was due to be auctioned today, but it has been declared an object of Aboriginal significance. Had it gone to auction, some estimate it would have sold for up to $200,000 Australian. It is an interesting situation in that the object was a gift to aborigines for helping the expedition, yet is still deemed a piece of aboriginal heritage. It think the Minister made the correct decision here, as the breastplate was an early effort at aboriginal reconciliation.

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Australian Auction Halted

Will Anderson over at The Assemblage was kind enough to point out the decision by the South Australian government to possibly halt an auction. An Australian news outlet, ABC News Online is reporting that the South Australian Government is considering halting the auction of a breastplate recently discovered by two brothers. It was estimated to bring half a million dollars (aus.) at auction. The object may have been presented to Aborigines in 1863 who helped the explorers Burke and Wills. Wikipedia has a nice overview of that expedition here. Let’s just say despite grand ambitions to cross the continent, it did not end well.

The Aboriginal Affairs Minister Jay Weatherill may attempt to acquire the brass plate under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988 (SA), which is available here. I’m not very familiar with it, but it seems the Minister may elect to purchase the object, or even seize it if a crime has been committed.

It’s a bit of a curious action here in that it is protecting a gift which the newly-arrived explorers gave to the aborigines who helped them. Most protections of this kind would seem to protect the creations of the indigenous groups, and not gifts given to them by the new European explorers. It’s a different way of thinking about an antiquity I think, and challenges what we might consider to be heritage.

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