I’ve posted on SSRN a short paper discussing the Menil Foundation’s stewardship of the Lysi Frescoes. Given how much art is in jeopardy in the middle-East at the moment, it may be worth revisiting the Menil Foundation’s courageous decision to purchase, restore, and return these frescoes. It highlights that permanent acquisition is not the only way for museums to acquire new material.
The return of works of art by museums to nations of origin has generated considerable scholarly response, yet there has been little engagement with the potential role museums could have as responsible stewards for works of art that are at risk. One important example can be seen in the actions of the Menil Foundation. The Menil, with the permission of the Church of Cyprus, conserved a series of frescoes and created a purpose-built gallery on the Menil campus in Houston to safely house them. It was a novel solution to the problems caused by the situation in Cyprus. Acquiring and saving these thirteenth century frescoes gives an important template for the rescue and conservation of works of art that are at risk, but also exposes similarly-situated actors to the moral dilemma of purchasing looted art with the consent of the original owner.
The Rescue, Stewardship, and Return of the Lysi Frescoes by the Menil Foundation (September 10, 2015). 22 International Journal of Cultural Property 1, 1-14 (2015). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2661091
Daniel Klerman, of the University of Southern California Law School, has a new paper titled “Jurisdiction, Choice of Law and Property” up on SSRN. The piece looks at international choice of law generally, but he argues that the situs rule produces bad outcomes with respect to stolen art disputes. Instead, he argues the lex originis rule produces better outcomes. From the abstract:
Jurisdiction and choice of law in property disputes has been remarkably stable. The situs rule, which requires adjudication where the property is located and application of that state’s law, remains the norm in most of the world. This article is the first to apply modern economic analysis to choice of law and jurisdiction in property disputes. It largely confirms the wisdom of the situs rule, but suggests some situations where other rules may be superior. For example, in disputes about stolen art, the state where the work was last undisputedly owned may be both the most efficient forum and the best source of applicable law.
The return of the Byzantine Frescoes to Cyprus presents an opportunity to consider what will happen to the physical space which was specially created to house them at the Menil in Houston. But it also offers an opportunity to look back at the acquisition process for the frescoes. Lisa Gray reports that at the time of the acquisition, Dominique de Menil understood they were dealing with ‘Thugs’:
An example of the chopped up mosaics before restoration
De Menil and her associates had flown to Munich, expecting to see two Byzantine frescoes of unusual excellence. Their contact, Turkish businessman Aydin Dikmen, led the little party to a ratty neighborhood at the edge of Munich, then up a flight of stairs to an apartment that had no electricity. In a room lit only by two candles, de Menil was shown two pieces of plaster (John the Baptist, plus part of an angel) propped against a wall. Other bits were packed in a crate. De Menil was horrified. “The pieces were too much chopped up to derive any impression of beauty,” she later told Texas Monthly reporter Helen Thorpe. “It was like a miserable human being that has to be brought to the hospital.” Through translators, Dikmen told her that the frescoes had been discovered under rubble at a construction site in Turkey. The de Menil party doubted the story. But de Menil agreed to pay Dikmen earnest money in exchange for the right to buy them in the future. At that point, she did something unusual for the wild-and-woolly 1980s antiquity market: She began earnestly trying to track down the frescoes’ rightful owner. Eventually, after many letters exchanged by lawyers and embassies, it became clear that the frescoes had been stolen from a tiny church near the town of Lysi, on the island of Cyprus. In 1974, after Turkey invaded northern Cyprus, looters systematically robbed the area’s churches and monuments of anything they could carry off. In the little church at Lysi, where the frescoes were painted into the walls’ plaster, they’d glued cloth to the walls’ surfaces, then used a chain saw and chisel to hack away Christ, Mary and the angels, yielding 38 cloth-fronted pieces.
It is a fascinating story of one of the rare examples of a collector working with the original owner to solve a theft, restore the mosaics, display them, and return them to Cyprus. But in this case, the thieves were rewarded. The mosaics were stripped from their church, sold on the international market in Munich. So it is a good result, and the Menil and the Byzantine Church of Cyprus should be rewarded, and yet this was a success for the thieves as well.
The Chapel in Lysi, Cyprus where the mosaics were stolen
Last Thursday I attended a terrific panel discussion at the Menil. It affirmed for me why cultural heritage offers such a rich area of study. It gives us an opportunity to think beyond who owns what and offers new ways of envisioning things like patent rights in the human body, the trade in works of art, stewardship, engineering design above and beyond contractual relationships, open source museums which can extend beyond cultural walls and bureaucracy, and the creative commons. As Rex Koontz, Director of the School of Art at the University of Houston noted, short of discussing pre-Columbian art, his area of focus, a conversation about heritage and stewardship is the most important conversation we could be having. The discussion touched on all these areas in exciting ways.
The moderator, Kristina Van Dyke facilitated the free-flowing exchange. She began the conversation by pointing out that artworks have lives and a offer us an opportunity for each visitor to “possess” them in a way. If I like to stand and absorb and really take in a work of art, I’ve created a connection with the work which might not be the same as ownership, but is in many ways a richer more fulfilling relationship. The starting point was the recent announcement that the Menil would return the Byzantine Mosaics which were on long term loan from Cyprus.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Dominique de Menil was offered the mosaics for sale in 1983. The pieces had been stolen from a small church in the Northern Turkish-controlled region of Cyprus. After consulting the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus Ms. de Menil purchases the mosaics, restored them, and they have been on display in a specially-constructed building near the Menil since 1997. Recently it was announced that this long-term loan will end and the mosaics will return to Cyprus. The acquisition, restoration and long-term loan of the mosaics offers lessons for the antiquities trade, and was a remarkable act of stewardship which eschewed the concept of permanent ownership and instead produced a collaborative relationship which benefitted the original owner—the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus—and also allowed Ms. de Menil to put the mosaics on display for many visitors to see. You can read more about the story at the Menil’s chapel website.
This was the starting point for the conversation which took on a number of interesting themes. Prof. James Leach from the University of Aberdeen offered his thoughts on property. He is an anthropologist who has worked in Papua New Guinea and he provided an overview of property theory, which he defined as the relationships among people with respect to things. Property in fact stands as a particular form of ownership, while other conceptions of property offer a richer and more meaningful way to foster relationships. In fact anthropology, and the law grudgingly, has begun to increasingly view property not as mechanical rights but as a complex web of interconnected relationships. This is an idea I’ve tried to think a lot about, and I wish I’d had the benefit of this exchange before I tackled the ideas of property and heritage. Before the event, the audience may have been skeptical that biomedical research, the legal relationships of Schlumberger and intellectual property would link up to heritage. But of course they do if you move beyond property and examine these problems through the lense of stewardship and conceive of property as a web of relationships.
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Some cultural repatriation news from my neighborhood. The Menil has announced that it will return the byzantine mosaics frescoes currently housed in a custom-built chapel here in Montrose in Houston. In 1983 Dominique de Menil was offered frescoes from Cyprus. After a rigorous due diligence inquiry, it was discovered that the mosaics had been looted from Cyprus. And in a groundbreaking move, she worked with the theft victim, the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus to purchase the mosaics, to restore the damage done to them when they were looted. The mosaics have been displayed since 1997, but next year they will return to Cyprus to go on display in a new museum, though they sadly cannot be returned to the original church, for fear it might be disturbed again.
After more than two decades in Houston, the beloved Byzantine frescoes will go back to Cyprus in 2012. While this moment is bittersweet, the story of these frescoes—from their rescue, to their long-term loan to us, and now to their return—very much reflects the essence of the Menil Collection, its focus on the aesthetic and the spiritual, and our responsible stewardship of works from other nations and cultures
When we consider when this decision took place, in the 1980s during an era in which so many wealthy collectors bought so much looted art, this long-term lease and ‘rescue’ of the frescoes really stands apart and should be commended.
I haven’t read this in any of the reporting on the Menil, but I’ve wondered whether there is other art at the Menil which might have been acquired under suspect circumstances. In the antiquities room in the Menil there are a number of works also purchased during this period which might be suspect—red-figured vases, small pre-historic carvings of deities, cycladic figurines. The kinds of objects that were ubiquitous in the market in the 1970s and 1980s, and which we now know were likely looted. These objects may have been lawfully acquired, but its an indication of just how many objects were looted and sold to collectors at this time, and how far law, policy, and behaviors have changed. So I’ll cheer the return of these mosaics, and their responsible stewardship but I also wonder, should other objects go back?
The Original Location of the Frescoes in Cyprus
Douglas Britt, Houston’s Menil is returning holy artworks to Cyprus – Houston ChronicleHouston Chronicle (2011), http://www.chron.com/life/article/Houston-s-Menil-is-returning-holy-artworks-to-2186452.php#photo-1621133 (last visited Sep 27, 2011).
Bill Davenport, Space-Age Chapel Will Need New Art: Menil’s Byzantine Frescos a Go-Go GoingGlasstire (2011), http://glasstire.com/2011/09/24/space-age-chapel-will-need-new-art-menils-byzantine-frescos-a-go-go-going/ (last visited Sep 27, 2011).
Elisabetta Povoledo, Menil Collection Is to Return Frescoes to Cyprus, New York Times (2011), http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/24/arts/design/menil-collection-is-to-return-frescoes-to-cyprus.html?_r=1 (last visited Sep 27, 2011).
Kelly Crow, Houston’s Menil Collection to Return Frescoes to CyprusThe Wall Street Journal (2011), http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111903703604576587072924927678.html (last visited Sep 27, 2011).
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Some folks on the internet are not too pleased about the letter I collaborated on with Noah Charney re-examining Hugh Eakin’s review of Chasing Aphrodite. A pointed response by David Gill here, and another critic wonders “whether anything done by Marion True herself actually led to the capture and conviction of a single looter of archaeological sites, or advanced any “Research into Crimes against Art”?
Yes, she certainly did, according to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. As anyone should know who claims to study looting of archaeology and heritage, Marion True was the hero of one of the most prominent antiquities cases of the last thirty years, AUTOCEPHALOUS GREEK-ORTHODOX CHURCH OF CYPRUS vs.GOLDBERG, 917 F. 2d 278 (7th Cir., 1990) (available here). The case involved an antiquities dealer, Peg Goldberg, as well as Michel van Rijn. A helpful summary of the case is available here from IFAR. I discuss the case at some length in an article where I argue the nation of origin’s law should be applied more often in cross-border trafficking in pieces of cultural heritage.
But with respect to Marion True, she is the unabashed hero of the case. From the opinion by Chief Judge Alex Bauer:
Peg Goldberg’s efforts soon turned to just that: the resale of these valuable mosaics. She worked up sales brochures about them, and contacted several other dealers to help her find a buyer. Two of these dealers’ searches led them both to Dr. Marion True of the Getty Museum in California. When told of these mosaics and their likely origin, the aptly-named Dr. True explained to the dealers that she had a working relationship with the Republic of Cyprus and that she was duty-bound to contact Cypriot officials about them. Dr. True called Dr. Vassos Karageorghis, the Director of the Republic’s Department of Antiquities and one of the primary Cypriot officials involved in the worldwide search for the mosaics. Dr. Karageorghis verified that the Republic was in fact hunting for the mosaics that had been described to Dr. True, and he set in motion the investigative and legal machinery that ultimately resulted in the Republic learning that they were in Goldberg’s possession in Indianapolis.
The opinion is also widely cited because of a concurring opinion by Judge Cudahy embedding the 1954 Hague Convention and the 1970 UNESCO Convention into cultural heritage law, a precedent which has had a number of important effects.
Marion True is no saint, nobody would argue she is, but her story is more complicated than merely painting her as the endpoint for looted antiquities. She did so much more, as Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino explain in their book. Italian officials will tell you if asked that the case was brought against her because they had the evidence, not necessarily because she was the worst offender. And yes, she was instrumental in returning at least one looted object. group of looted objects.
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Police in Cyprus have detained ten people over the weekend and are looking for five more after the discovery of an international antiquities-smuggling ring believed to be the largest such discovery in Cyprus’s history. The objects seized may be worth more than 11m euros, and include pottery, coins, figurines, some of which may be 4,000 years old. Many of the objects may have originated elsewhere, and authorities now are attempting to determine the origins of many of the objects. The BBC points out that Cyprus was an important crossroads in the ancient Mediterranean, with armies and merchants from Egypt, the Roman Empire, Persia, and others. This may make it difficult to trace the origin of these objects, many of which could plausibly have originated from dozens of modern-day nations. The smugglers of course were likely to have disguised or destroyed any evidence of the history of these objects.