Two Ways of Policing Heritage

A red-figured krater withdrawn from auction at Christie's in Dec. 2014 after Christos Tsirogannis connected the image to David Swingler, who has been investigated by US Customs Authorities and was sentenced to prison in absentia in Italy
A red-figured krater withdrawn from auction at Christie’s in Dec. 2014 after Christos Tsirogannis connected the image to David Swingler, who has been investigated by US Customs Authorities and was sentenced to prison in absentia in Italy

Christie’s had an auction of antiquities on Dec. 11, and some of the objects up for auction were ‘matched’ with photographic archives seized from dealers and collectors who deal in illicit material. These matches have always left me a little uneasy. If an object is matched, it means it is most likely looted. But the auction houses have no good way to match these objects because these photo archives are closely held by law enforcement agencies and a group of researchers. There are claims that the auction houses could go directly to Greek or Italian officials and have these objects checked against these databases for free. As Christos Tsiogiannis answered when asked by Catherine Schofield Sezgin: “The auction houses, and the members of the international antiquities market in general, always have the opportunity to contact the Italian and Greek authorities directly, before the auctions. These authorities will check, for free, every single object for them.”  But it seems they do not do this. Objects are invariably withdrawn after a match, where they disappear back into collections in most cases, and we are left with little progress in stemming future looting and protection of sites. And so each new antiquities auction continues the cycle of public shaming and return. But the looting continues.

That was the core point of a paper I presented last year in a meeting of ISPAC and the United Nations office on Drugs and Crime in Courmayeur. Some of the papers have been collected and published by Stefano Manacorda and Arianna Visconti. I’ve posted my short paper “Two Ways of Policing Cultural Heritage” on SSRN. From the introduction:

The title of this paper is, of course, a play upon the title of Professor John Henry Merryman’s well-known essay which laid out the ways of conceptualizing cultural property law there are two ways to think about cultural objects. One as part of a national patrimony, and second as a piece of our collective cultural heritage. In a similar way there are two ways to envision jurisdiction of cultural heritage crime. Criminal law can of course apply to policing the individuals responsible for stealing, looting, selling and transporting illicit art and antiquities. Or, law enforcement resources can be used to secure the successful return of stolen art, and the protection of sites. The criminal law can regulate people; and it can also regulate things. In order to produce meaningful change in the disposition of art, it must do both effectively. Focusing on art at the expense of criminal deterrence for individuals is an incomplete strategy.
Fincham, Derek, Two Ways of Policing Cultural Heritage (December 10, 2013). Courmayeur Mont Blanc, Italy, edited by Stefano Manacorda, Arianna Visconti, Ed. ISPAC 2014 . Available at SSRN:http://ssrn.com/abstract=2536542

 

Gold Hand Sculpture Stolen from Christie’s

Auction houses are often in the news for the fantastic sums their works achieve, or for protesting they didn’t know this or that work was looted or stolen. It’s not often they are the victims of theft. This work by Turner prize-winner Douglas Gordon has been stolen from Christie’s auction house. There are fears it is likely going to be melted down for its scrap value. Given the work is solid gold, that scrap value is considerable, likely £250,000. Apparently Christie’s was not forthcoming about details of the theft to the artist, who was also the sculpture’s owner:

He said Christie’s only told him about the disappearance of the sculpture after he had spoken about the theft elsewhere. Gordon, who owns the work, said: “It is like someone borrowing your car, and then you finding out from a neighbour that it has been crashed,” he said. “It looks like I am the last person in the chain to know.” Gordon said he had first heard of the theft second-hand, from a curator, last week; a Christie’s representative contacted him on the morning of 29 November, 16 days after the crime was reported to the police. Scotland Yard confirmed it was “investigating the alleged theft of a piece of artwork from a secure warehouse in the King Street area of Westminster. The incident was first reported to police on 12 November”. A Christies’s spokesman said: “This matter is under investigation and we are in contact with all parties involved. We cannot comment further.” A source at the auction house said Gordon’s gallery had been informed right away, and that a Christie’s representative had attempted to contact the artist on 28 November. The theft from Christie’s storage facility – which claims on its website “world-class security, management and expertise” – is likely to cause significant reputational damage for the auction house. A spokesman declined to comment on arrangements at the storage facility, citing the need to keep security measures confidential. A source said: “Given the sheer volume of works of art that come in, this as an extraordinarily rare thing to happen.”

There are no reported details about the theft from the storage facility.

  1. Charlote Higgins, Turner prize-winner’s work stolen from Christie’s, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2012/nov/29/turner-sculpture-stolen-christies (last visited Nov 29, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

More Reactions to the "Medici Dossier"

Kimberley Alderman starts a discussion on whether Italy should release all the images in the “Medici Dossier”. 

Christie’s is being criticized for leaving on the auction block three items which have been alleged by archaeologists and an Italian prosecutor to have originated from the famous and illicit antiquities trader, Giacomo Medici.  Italy, however, has not submitted a formal request for repatriation of the objects to the U.S. government or even a title claim to Christie’s.

She offers some strong comments from attorney William G. Pearlstein:

What the Italians are doing is outrageous. They are deliberately withholding the Medici files from the public, allowing hot pieces to remain in circulation and then playing up every seizure for maximum publicity value. They continue to play the role of victim when actually they have became cynical predators on American institutions that want nothing more than to do the right thing.

David Gill responds with his typical pointed questions about diligence for buyers, Christies, and collecting histories. I think many good points are made here, and we need to have an open conversation about what role the market and auction houses can or should play in this trade.  Damage is done, demand remains high, and the current rules aren’t preventing destruction or producing an honest market.  I’ve argued that auction houses need to be held to a higher standerd, because they act as heritage market makers, and the fact that an object comes up for auction means something, and is an important event in the history of an objects such that increased liability should attach when these objects are found to be lost or stolen.

  1. David Gill, Christie’s, the Medici Dossier and William G. Pearlstein Looting matters (2010), http://lootingmatters.blogspot.com/2010/06/christies-medici-dossier-and-william-g.html (last visited Jun 7, 2010).
  2. Kimberley Alderman, Is Italy “Asking For It” By Refusing to Release the Medici Photographs? Three items at Christie’s raise questions « The Cultural Property and Archaeology Law Blog, http://culturalpropertylaw.wordpress.com/2010/06/06/is-italy-asking-for-it-by-refusing-to-release-the-medici-photographs-three-items-at-christies-raise-questions/ (last visited Jun 7, 2010).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Sotheby’s Refuses to Disclose Executive Bonuses

Sotheby’s auction house is refusing to disclose to government regulators how much its executives receive in bonuses.  They defend the refusal by noting that if Christie’s (which as a private corporation does not have to disclose the same information) were to learn the bonuses, they could lure away these executives.  Any follower of the art trade will hardly be surprised by the hesitancy to disclose this information, but Jeremy Telman at the Contracts Prof blog outlines pokes three holes in Sotheby’s argument:

1. Sotheby’s and Christie’s are undoubtedly at the top of the heap in the art dealing industry.  Based on my circle of acquaintances, which includes many unemployed or underemployed artists, art curators and art experts, it seems likely to me that Sotheby’s and Christie’s benefit from being in a buyer’s market when it comes to hiring executives.  If both companies under-compensated their executives, where would those executives go?  And if they left, so what?  Couldn’t Sotheby’s and Christie’s easily find highly competent replacements who would work on paint fumes just for the honor of getting those great auction houses on their resumes?
2. But even if I’m wrong about that, if Christie’s were really interested in luring executives away from Sotheby’s, couldn’t they just ask the executives about what sort of compensation package it would take to motivate them to move?  Is there a number one rule of Sotheby’s Club that you don’t talk about Sotheby’s Club?
3. In any case, didn’t Sotheby’s waive its right to whine about the hassles of disclosure when it went public?

Daniel Wakin, Sotheby’s Keeps Its Executive Bonus Plan Under Wraps – ArtsBeat Blog – NYTimes.com.

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

"Christies takes disputed earrings off auction block"

From today’s Christian Science Monitor:

The gold neo-Assyrian earrings were claimed by Iraq but awaiting the highest bidder Monday in New York. Just days before the sale of ancient art and antiquities, however, Christie’s took the jewelry, believed to be from the treasure of Nimrud, off the auction block. 

Christie’s says it is cooperating with an investigation into whether the earrings were in fact stolen from Iraq.

“When Christie’s learned that there might be an issue with the provenance of the earrings they withdrew the lot from the sale,” says Sung-Hee Park, a spokeswoman for the auction house in New York. “The lot is still with Christie’s in New York, but we are cooperating in the investigation.” 
As of Wednesday night, when a Monitor story detailed an Iraqi petition to stop the sale, the earrings were still part of the Dec. 9 auction. On Thursday morning, the auction house website said Lot 215 – a pair of neo-Assyrian earrings believed to be between 9,000 to 10,000 years old – had been withdrawn. 
US officials say they have been involved for at least several weeks in trying to prevent the earrings from being sold after they were alerted that the ancient jewelry might have been part of the treasures of Nimrud, one of Iraq’s greatest archaeological finds. 
“This is an issue we have been aware of for quite some time,” says Adam Ereli, spokesman for the US Embassy in Baghdad.
The Christie’s spokeswoman said she did not know why they were publicly withdrawn from sale only Thursday.
The treasures of Nimrud are considered one of the most important finds of the last century – the hundreds of pieces of gold jewelry, bowls, and ornaments compare in lavishness to the jewelry from King Tut’s tomb. A prominent Iraqi archaeologist, who photographed the hundreds of pieces excavated from the ancient Assyrian capital in 1989, says the earrings are unique. 
“I’m sure it is from the collection. I’ve been there during the excavations, I know the pieces,” says Donny George, former director of the Iraq museum and now a professor at Long Island’s Stony Brook University.

The interesting issue now is whether there’s going to be enough evidence or a fruitful investigation.  Who consigned the earrings to Christie’s?  Removing the earrings from auction is great, and Christie’s should be commended, however that is just the first step.  Iraq protested the sale earlier, but this earlier CSM article may have helped prod Christie’s along. 

Are we able to investigate back up the stream of commerce to discover who stole or looted these earrings?   There are very strong import restrictions in place to prevent these objects from being imported into the US.  The difficulty is the efficacy of those restrictions, given the massive amount of objects which flood America’s ports. 

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

"Iraq bids to stop Christie’s sale of ancient earrings"

It is imperative, given the current state of regulation of the antiquities trade, for nations of origin to document their existing collections.  Unfortunately they are not always willing or able to do that.

From the Christian Science Monitor:

Baghdad – They were earrings that literally could have been worn by a queen. The neo-Assyrian jewelry, 9,000 to 10,000 years old, is Lot 215 in an auction of ancient art and antiquities to be held at Christie’s in New York next week. They are expected to fetch up to $65,000. 
But Iraqi authorities say they might have belonged to the treasures of Nimrud, excavated by an Iraqi team in 1989, just after the devastating Iran-Iraq War. They have been publicly exhibited only twice – the second time for just one day under the US coalition authorities. 
“I am 100 percent sure they are from the same tombs from Nimrud,” says Donny George, the former director of the Iraq Museum and now a professor of archaeology at Stony Brook University in New York. “Nothing of this nature has been excavated from it before – I witnessed the excavation. I would say it is 100 percent from there.”
Iraqi authorities have petitioned to stop the sale. “We’re hoping to get them back,” says one official.
The auction listing says the elaborate gold hoops were acquired from their previous owner before 1969. As of Tuesday evening, the auction house said they had not been withdrawn from sale. On Wednesday, they were still listed on Christie’s website, which refers potential buyers to a German archaeological text “for a similar pair from a royal tomb at Nimrud.” A UNESCO convention enacted in 1970 made it more difficult to trade in illegal antiquities.

The difficulty here is the amount of evidence Iraqi officials can muster to show the objects were once in an Iraqi state collection.  These objects might be 10,000 years old.  Where did they come from?   Can something like this really be purchased in ‘good faith’?  Indications are that the objects came from the excavation of Nimrud by Iraqi archaeologists.

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

Christie’s Halts two Russian lots

Christie’s International has removed two lots from their Nov. 29th auction of Russian books and manuscripts. John Varoli has an account at Bloomberg, and Reuters has a story as well. In total, 41 Russian army documents were removed, most once belonging to Marshall Georgi Zhukov. It seems “a cultural watchdog agency said they were stolen.” Varoli speculates that:

Prices for Russian art, books, manuscripts and historical memorabilia have risen rapidly since 2000, and this has been accompanied by an increase in thefts from Russian museums and archives. In August 2006, the Hermitage disclosed that 226 Russian works of art had been stolen by staff over the previous decade.

Will any charges ensue? Someone made up a provenance for these objects somewhere between their theft in Moscow and consignment to Christie’s. I’d imagine it wasn’t the final consignor though, these letters probably passed through a few hands first, and were “laundered”. Perhaps not enough to justify their sale, but probably enough to preclude criminal charges or an investigation.

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