Auctions and Civil Disobedience (UPDATE)

The Christie’s Auction catalog with a bronze rabbit head

Earlier this week I was able to watch a screening on Earth Day of ‘Bidder 70’ a new documentary which examines the story of Tim DeChristopher. He was sentenced to two years in prison, and a $10,000 fine. His crime? He attended an oil and gas lease auction and bid on Utah land which was being leased for oil and gas exploration with no intent to buy the land (he didn’t have the money) or to drill on it. I’m not as interested in going through a review of the documentary itself. I thought overall its well worth taking a look at, but my biggest frustration with the story was it left out a lot of the details of the auction process, how he was able to bid and refuse to pay, and how his act of civil disobedience ended up being successful.

From what I gathered the Bush administration in their last weeks in office put opened up lots of land for oil and gas leases, and that DeChristopher successfully ruined these auctions. And then when the Obama administration took office the Department of the Interior later decided not to auction these parcels of land after all. The film does a great job of presenting DeChristopher’s story, and conveying his indignation at the ruination of what appears to be some pristine Utah wilderness.

But watching the documentary I was most struck by the connections between a couple of events that I’ve traced here before: the Bronze zodiac auctions in France from the Yves Saint-Laurent sale, and the sentencing of antiquities looters in Utah. Environmental and cultural heritage issues are inextricably linked, and the different priorities of prosecution and sentencing on display here were really striking.

If you aren’t familiar with the sad saga of the Chinese Zodiac heads, here’s a quick overview. Over 150 years ago the Summer Palace near Beijing was looted by British troops. Lots of art was burned, looted, destroyed, or lost. Some objects which had been taken were parts of a beautiful ornate fountain/clock mechanism which had the 12 Chinese zodiac animals. A handful of these still existing heads have been purchased by Chinese repatriation advocates on the open market. And two of these bronze figurines, the rabbit and the rat were acquired by Yves Saint Laurent. Well on his death many objects from his estate were set to go up for auction at Christie’s in Paris. But the looting of the Chinese Summer Palace is a notorious event in Chinese history, and the Chinese government lodged a number of protests at the sale. When the two heads were up for auction, the successful bid was nearly 32 million Euro. The winning bidder was Cao Mingchao, owner of a small auction house in China. After the auction he refused to pay the bid, exacting the same kind of civil disobedience that DeChristopher went to prison for. After the auction Mingchao stated “What I want to stress is that this money cannot be paid (…) I think any Chinese person would have stood up at that moment. It was just that the opportunity came to me. I was merely fulfilling my responsibilities.” Despite some hints at a French prosecution of the bidder, those never materialized and the heads as I understand it were never actually auctioned.

There have been a number of controversial sales of Precolumbian and native american sacred items in France in recent months. And it seems that despite some legal attempts to block sales, this kind of technically legal, but morally objectionable auction; which the current heritage law framework deems ok; will only be blocked if an auction house bends to public pressure or if there’s a bidder exercising civil disobedience.

Remember that in this part of the country the Four-Corners investigation uncovered a large network of illicit native american objects. That investigation led to 3 suicides and a number of citizens being indicted and later pleading guilty to heritage crimes. But no custodial sentences have been imposed. The sad takeaway is I think that you can loot native american sites, and the Federal government will have irregular investigations, but mess with the leasing of oil and gas, and you’ll feel the weight of the federal government.

Here’s the trailer for Bidder 70:
Bidder 70 – Trailer from Gage & Gage Productions on Vimeo.


And now it looks like the rat and rabbit will be returned to China:

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My Piece on the Cultural Heritage Movement and Environmental Justice

A typical row house in Houston’s 4th Ward, from 1984. Via FPH.

I’ve just received the final proof of an article I’ve written where I try to trace the connections between material culture and the environment: Justice and the Cultural Heritage Movement: Using Environmental Justice to Appraise Art and Antiquities Disputes, 20 Va. J. Soc. Pol’y & L. 43 (2012).

In the piece I look to some of the writing being done on environmental justice and I think about what lessons we can take as cultural heritage advocates. I examine disputes ranging from looting of antiquities sites to the lack of preservation of certain areas here in Houston like Freedmen’s town.

Here’s a short video segment interviewing an advocate for Houston’s Fourth Ward:

It’s a theoretical piece. One which I’ll freely admit is partly aspirational. But one that I’m proud of. As always I’d welcome any feedback. Here’s the abstract:

What does justice require? This paper aims to spark a conversation about the role of justice in art and antiquities disputes by introducing the concept of cultural justice. Borrowing from a principle known as environmental justice, cultural justice allows the application of critical scrutiny to the law and norms that govern cultural heritage. The history of environmental justice—including both its successes and failures—offers important lessons for the cultural heritage movement. Environmental and cultural injustice plagues the same nations and groups: Africa, Central and South America, and indigenous groups are denied the same environmental and cultural benefits. The cultural heritage movement has been subject to the same criticisms as the environmental justice movement, but has not had the benefit of an animating theoretical framework. The law strains to resolve art and antiquities disputes. Examining disputes through the lens of cultural justice allows us to move beyond thinking about art in terms of keeping it in museums (or the art trade) or returning it to its nation of origin. This paper applies Rawls’s theory of justice to cultural heritage and presents a taxonomy of cultural justice, examining in detail its distributive, procedural, corrective, and social aspects. Thinking about cultural justice allows a deeper understanding of the reasons why cultural heritage disputes are so difficult to resolve. By considering cultural justice, we can also begin to define the limits of what law and policy can do to remedy historical and contemporary art taking. These limits have eluded cultural heritage advocates, subjecting the cultural heritage movement to broad criticisms.

As always, I am very happy to post any link or abstract to anyone’s writing in the cultural heritage field, whether it’s a work in progress or has been published. Just drop me a comment below, or email me at derek.fincham ‘at’

Justice and the Cultural Heritage Movement: Using Environmental Justice to Appraise Art and Antiquities Disputes, 20 Va. J. Soc. Pol’y & L. 43 (2012).

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Looting and Cultural Destruction Happens in Big Prosperous Cities Too

The environmental justice movement got its start here in Houston when communities saw the unjust impact of hazardous siting decisions. Today this same neighborhood is at risk of gentrification, historical destruction, and architectural looting. I made a case and talked about the idea of cultural justice for areas like this in a forthcoming piece.

But I suspect Lenwood Johnson, in this terrific video report by Houston’s alt-weekly, the Free Press, makes a more compelling case than I ever could:

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Cultural Justice

Houston’s Fourth Ward/Freedmen’s Town

I have posted on SSRN a working paper “Justice and the Cultural Heritage Movement: Using Environmental Justice to Appraise Art and Antiquities Disputes” which attempts to make connections between the environment and culture.

The piece introduces the concept of cultural justice. It uses the recent scholarship examining environmental justice to apply critical scrutiny to the calls for repatriation of cultural heritage (including art and antiquities). The paper applies Rawls’s theory of justice to cultural heritage and presents a taxonomy of cultural justice examining in detail the distributive, procedural, corrective and social aspects.

The environmental justice movement has been an important grassroots effort which allows minority and underpriviliged communities to challenge environmental harms. It has its roots in Houston. I use as a starting point the cultural harm which has taken place here in Houston to a neighborhood called the Fourth Ward, at one time referred to as the “Harlem of the South”, which has fallen victim to cultural loss and over-development. In the piece I work to make broader observations about culture, the environment, and justice, focusing specifically on antiquities law and policy. It is my hope that by using justice we can begin to move beyond the source/market entrenchment and craft real solutions. I would of course welcome any comments or criticisms (derek.fincham ‘at’

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