UK Enforces Italy’s Export Restrictions


European Council Directive 93/7/EEC creates a regime for the return of cultural property within the Community for cultural objects belonging to the national artistic, historical, or archaeological heritage which has been illegally exported from a member state.

Martin Bailey of the Art Newspaper has an example of this in practice. Two works by Francesco Guardi have been seized by Scotland yard in London. The paintings, The Departure of the Bucintoro to San Nicolo on the Lido and The Return of the Bucintoro to the Palaxxo Ducale (picture here) were owned by Lord Shuttleworth, and were later bought by an Italian, Mario Crespi in 1952. The paintings were purchased three years ago by an Italian art dealer, but it appears an export licence was made in Milan but the works were perhaps intentionally misattributed to an “anonymous artist” thereby allowing for their export. When a UK art dealer sought to re-export the works from the UK, he correctly labeled the works. The works may be worth “€6m ($9.4m) in Italy, but over £10m ($20m)” elsewhere.

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

More on Dr. Julius No


A warm welcome to everyone who’s clicked through from Randy Kennedy’s excellent piece which appeared in yesterday’s New York Times. He managed to add some analysis and even novelty to a subject which often gets the same treatment whenever a high-profile art theft takes place.

I think he contrasts nicely the idea of an alluring art thief with the reality that “art is an exceedingly dumb thing to steal.” That certainly seems to be the conventional wisdom. But of course because “art museums are still relatively unguarded public spaces”, these thieves will continue to have the opportunity to take objects. The ultimate tragedy would be if we had to run a gauntlet of airport-like security checks to view works of art. However if these thefts continue, that may be a step certain institutions may decide to take. I particularly like the comments he elicited from Thomas McShane, the former FBI agent whose memoirs I reviewed here.

The reason myself and others like to speculate about a “Dr. No” when an extremely valuable and well-known work is stolen can be traced to the very first bond film. Dr. No was of course the unwanted son of a German missionary and a Chinese girl, and a member of the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion (SPECTRE). The film makers, in a throw away moment, capitalized on the theft in 1961 of of this work by Goya, Portrait of the Duke of Wellington. Bond does a double-take when he reaches the island home of Dr. Julius No. He sees the painting and remarks “So that’s where that went”.

Hugh McLeave’s Rogues in the Gallery details the perhaps more bizarre reality. The real thief may have been a man named Kempton Bunton. He was a disabled British pensioner who confessed to committing the crime. Bunton was a retired bus driver. In 1961, Charles Wrightsman purchased the painting for £140,000. He wanted to take the work to the United States, but of course the UK’s limited export restriction applied, and money was raised to purchase the work and it was displayed at the National Gallery. At this time a great deal of press attention was paid to the work, and Bunton, upset at the amount of money he had to pay for his TV license, may have decided to break into the museum early in the morning and steal the work.

After chatting up the security guards, Bunton allegedly learned the electronic security system would be turned off early in the morning. He used tape and paper to insure the door and a window in the toilet would be unlocked, and made his way around back early in the morning and took the painting. He later said “I raced back to the lodgings. Taking the picture from behind the wardrobe, I stood it on the bed with the frame leaning against the wall and looked at it in triumph. Wellington returned my stare with cold contempt and I swear I saw his lips move, with the imaginary voice that said: ‘thou low-born wretch, I’ll break thee for this.’ And somehow I believed he would.”

Bunton seemed to be after some notoriety and fame. Letters were soon sent to newspapers, one asked for donations to charity to allow the poor to pay for TV licenses.

In 1965, four years after the theft, Burton reportedly returned the painting via a left luggage office at the Birmingham New Street Station. Soon after he went to the police and confessed to the crime. The police initially rejected him as a suspect, as they didn’t think a pudgy 61 year-old disabled man could have committed the crime. However charges were soon filed and the jury only convicted Bunton of the theft of the frame, which was not returned. Judge Aarvold explained to the jury that if they thought he meant to return the painting if a ransom bid failed, they must acquit him. If they felt he would keep it until he got the money, they would have to convict. The jury found Bunton not guilty of stealing the painting, but guilty of stealing the gilt frame, which was never returned. Bunton served only three months in prison.

The law was changed soon after as a direct result of this light sentence. A provision in the Theft Act 1968, sec. 11 makes it a crime to remove without authority any object displayed or kept for display to the public in a building to which the public have access. It does not require an intention to permanently deprive.

As for Bunton, there are some indications that he may have perhaps been innocent. In 1996 the National Gallery released an unsolicited and simple statement that he may have been innocent. What actually happened is still subject to some speculation.

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

Measuring the Size of the Illicit Antiquities Trade

There is more and more good empirical work being done to measure the size of the illicit trade in antiquities. The latest is a super paper by Raymond Fishman and Shang-Jin Wei, both of Columbia University (some users may need to pay to download if they don’t have an .edu or .gov ip).

They came up with a great idea to measure illicit antiquities entering the United States. They capitalize on the odd way the trade works. An object may be illegally exported from a source nation, but be imported and sold in a perfectly legal manner in the United States. The historic justification for this is the idea that nations will not enforce the public laws of another nation. However this policy has disastrous consequences for the antiquities trade. By focusing on this paperwork gap, they can estimate the nations with the biggest loss of antiquities. The biggest reporting gaps are in Syria, Iran, Egypt, Greece, Vietnam and Russia. As one would expect Canada, New Zealand, Britain and Hong Kong have low reporting gaps. Both Canada and Britain of course have limited export restrictions.

Here’s the abstract:

We empirically analyze the illicit trade in cultural property and antiques, taking advantage of different reporting incentives between source and destination countries. We thus generate a measure of illicit trafficking in these goods based on the difference between imports recorded in United States’ customs data and the (purportedly identical) trade as recorded by customs authorities in exporting countries. We find that this reporting gap is highly correlated with the corruption level of the exporting country as measured by commonly used survey-based indicies, and that this correlation is stronger for artifact-rich countries. As a placebo test, we do not observe any such pattern for U.S. imports of toys from these same exporters. We report similar results for four other Western country markets. Our analysis provides a useful framework for studying trade in illicit goods. Further, our results provide empirical confirmation that survey-based corruption indicies are informative, as they are correlated with an objective measure of illicit activity.

(Hat tip: Jay Hancock)

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

Export Problems


Martin Bailey of the Art Newspaper has an excellent story on the apparent export-bungling by Christie’s and UK authorities of this
£3m Rubens masterpiece. The Hunt of Meleager and Atalanta was granted a temporary export permit for 5 days to allow it to be displayed in New York. The work sold in London on December 2005 for £3,144,000 to an anonymous New York buyer. It was then re-exported after the sale.

In a statement to the Art Newspaper Christie’s said:

Our policy is to adhere strictly to all applicable laws and standard processes for the international transport of works of art. In the exceptional case of The Hunt of Meleager and Atalanta, a human error led to the accidental shipping of the picture to a client without completion of the appropriate export licensing process. Christie’s regrets the error and are co-operating fully on this matter with all relevant authorities to rectify this situation.

Some error. One would think a work of this magnitude would be double checked. Christie’s is subject to criminal penalties, and the New York buyer must be upset as well. Incredibly the Export Reviewing Committee flew to New York to examine the work and has deemed it of Waverley quality. A fundraising effort may now begin.

It’s uncertain whether the funds can be raised (as there are other works which need to be matched) or even if the New York buyer would consider selling the work. If she does not, the work will have certainly lost value, and I’d anticipate Christie’s would be subject to a civil suit brought by the buyer. Though the work cannot be recovered because the US does not enforce the UK export restrictions, it will not be able to be sold or even travel to Europe in all likelihood. Both Christie’s and HMS Customs have come out looking

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

HM Customs Arrest

“Certain export controls are put in place to protect our country’s cultural heritage”

-Customs Director of Operations Euan Stewart

I saw via the Museum Security Network that a British art dealer has been arrested in connection with the illegal export of paintings valued at $34 million. One of the works is this 17th century painting Portrait of an Artist by Michiel van Musscher.

My question is why? The government put a temporary export ban on the work in 2006 because it was of “outstanding aesthetic importance and of outstanding significance for the study of Dutch art and painting techniques.” But no funds were raised and an export license was granted. The work was then sold to the Prince of Liechtenstein Hans-Adam II. What’s the problem? The wire story doesn’t give any details, and it seems the customs spokesperson refused to comment further.

I think the arrest may reveal troubling shortcomings with UK export restrictions. The art dealer must have been attempting to defraud either the ultimate buyer or the Waverley system in one of two ways.

He may have lied about the size of the offer on the table, making it harder for domestic fund-raising of matching funds.

Or he could have stated there was a buyer when there really was none.

This is possible because there is no requirement that the buyers of Waverley-quality objects disclose their identity. The lack of provenance and the secrecy surrounding art transactions continues to cause problems. It’s a pity he tried to game the system, as the Waverley Criteria really are a model system. This kind of fraud must be thwarted for the system to work properly; and I would anticipate a new requirement into full disclosure to customs authorities will be the end result.

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

The Cultural Property Advisory Committee

The Museum Security Network mailing list today circulated a really fascinating blog entry by Gary Vikan from last month. Vikan was discussing a NY Times article on the Cultural Property Advisory Committee. It’s a State Department body which recommends whether the US should adopt import restrictions on certain classes of objects. It’s the way the US chose to implement the 1970 UNESCO Convention.

Here’s a link to the NY Times article, Is the US Protecting Foreign Artifacts? Don’t Ask. You can access it via the timesselect service, which is free to academics and students. `

Here’s a link to Gary Vikan’s post. Of particular interest are some of the comments after the post.

Here’s an excerpt of what Vikan had to say:

The work of CPAC, which was created in 1983 by legislation intended to give effect to ratification of the UNESCO Convention on cultural property (1970), is to make recommendations to the State Department on applications from foreign nations asking, in effect, that their export laws governing cultural property become our import laws. From its inception, the committee’s activities have been highly secretive; in recent years, its internal deliberations have become increasingly contentious, as the archaeologists’ voice has come to dominate the collectors and dealers on the committee.

The hot issue now is whether the State Department will accept, on CPAC’s recommendation, a sweeping ban on the import of Chinese art and artifacts predating 1911. (The often-repeated counterarguments are that the Chinese have yet to clean up their own art-dealing house and that the share of the Chinese trade is relatively small, and will simply go elsewhere.)

The points made by Kahn, and through him, by his many sources on and off the committee, including its present chair, Jay Kislak, are right on the mark. The archaeologists’ voice and values are disproportionately strong among the CPAC membership, and its activities are overly secretive and exclusionary.


Vikan’s perspective is very enlightening, as he served on the CPAC from 2000-2003, and resigned after the looting of the National Museum of Iraq. Both links are essential reading if you are interested in cultural policy or the protection of antiquities.

Much of this controversy centers around China. China may be one of the most important source nations for antiquities. Two aspects make it unique. First, as John Henry Merryman says “China, with its many centuries of high civilization and its vast area and large population, may be the richest source of cultural property of all.” Second, China has used some unique regulatory techniques, including a ratings system for antiquities and a state right of purchase, which might both prove useful if implemented properly. Unfortunately, China’s current legal framework does a poor job of preserving antiquities and their accompanying archaeological context, as antiquities may be the single most valuable commodity smuggled out of the country.



Without regard to the reasons given for the panel’s secrecy, from an academics perspective it is indeed frustrating that we can’t have a clearer picture of how the advisory committee reaches its decisions. However, all 11 requests for import restrictions have been granted. Whether that will continue for China and Cypress remains to be seen. The importance of the committee internationally should not be underestimated, as the US by most accounts is considered the largest importer of art and antiquities.

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

Modigliani in a toilet


This portrait of Rosalie Tobia by Modigliani was left in a staff bathroom close to a customs checkpoint in the Bergamo airport last week. Richard Owen of The Times has an article here.

The painting may be worth as much as $1.2 million. It was found wrapped in a sheet, packed in a box. Authorities have speculated that someone was trying to smuggle it out of the country. Italy’s Ministry of Culture would most likely have prevented the painting from leaving the country. Authorities also fear this may be part of a larger smuggling operation.

What seems most likely is a smuggler lost her nerve right before going through customs. Of course, the work has yet to be authenticated, so someone could have just forgotten a painting.

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