Five Important Works Stolen from Paris Musee d’Art Moderne

L’Olivier pres de l’Estaque, Georges Braque, 1906

 Very early this morning in Paris a thief stole these five works from the Musee d’Art Moderne near the Eiffel Tower.  CCTV cameras have reportedly caught one person breaking through a window.  Lots of figures will be thrown around about the value of these paintings, as for the reasons for the theft.  The value estimates are very rough, ranging already from 100-500 million Euro.  Yet these works can never be sold in a legitimate market, so in one sense their market value means little.  They have a kind of value in that they are so precious, museum and the authorities may be willing to take—or at least the thief thinks they will take—the unwise step of paying a ransom.  Or other criminals may try to launder some or all of the works through different individuals, in much the same way the Leonardo Yarnwinder was transferred. 

Why were the works stolen?  There are many reasons, but the simplest one may be the the most likely.  It is really not that hard, despite the loss we all suffer when works are damaged or lost forever. 

La Pastorale, Henri Matisse, 1906
Nature Mort au Chandelier, Fernand Léger, 1922
The Pigeon with Peas, Pablo Picasso, 1911-12
La femme a l’eventail, Amadeo Modigliani
  1. The Paris art theft has robbed us of some truly great paintings | Jonathan Jones | Art and design | guardian.co.uk, (2010), http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/may/20/paris-art-theft-picasso-matisse (last visited May 20, 2010).
  2. Catherine Hickley & Craig A. Copetas, Picasso, Matisse Paintings Stolen From Paris Museum – Bloomberg, http://preview.bloomberg.com/news/2010-05-20/picasso-matisse-modigliani-paintings-worth-123-million-stolen-in-paris.html (last visited May 20, 2010).
  3. AFP: Thief lifts 500 mln euros of art from Paris museum, , http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5irIRZ91WXBYeoJF1elwGm7XVV4Eg (last visited May 20, 2010).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

France Decides to Return Tatood Maori Remains

Last week the French National Assembly made the decision to return the mummified heads of 16 Maoris.  Maoris kept the tatooed heads and preserved them to honor their forebears.  When Europeans encountered these, many of the heads were taken back to Europe and put on display in museums.  New Zealand has requested these heads—as many as 500 heads may have been taken by colonial powers—since the 1980’s, but the issue gained widespread attention in 2007 when a city council voted to return one head.  The decision was overturned by the French Culture Ministry in part because these objects had ceased to become only human remains but had also become works of art.  The French Assembly has overwhelmingly decided to return the heads to New Zealand within the next year. 

  1. Maori Heads – Top 10 Famous Stolen Body Parts – TIME, http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1988719_1988728_1988720,00.html (last visited May 14, 2010).
  2. France to return 15 Maori heads, BBC, May 5, 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8661231.stm (last visited May 14, 2010).
  3. AFP: French parliament votes to return Maori heads to New Zealand, , http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jtL1CzbXXwAe2W9N6IedQHuTPawg (last visited May 14, 2010).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Auction Houses and the Sale of Heritage

“You have to know the dirty tricks, there are dirty tricks”.

So says Claude Pariset an antiques dealer from Champagne, discussing the art trade in the New York Times yesterday. 

A number of recent stories of this ilk continue to show why the auction house system of the sale of art and antiquities, with its anonymous sellers and buyers has had devastating consequences on our heritage.  As I’ve argued, these auction houses play an important role in the market, know exactly what they are doing, and yet the anonymity continues to shield their practices, and allow for the sale of looted and stolen pieces of heritage. 

First, an update on the wrongdoing at the Hôtel Drouot auction house in Paris.  Late last year French authorities had uncovered stolen artworks, and an art-trafficking network.  Now there are further reports of corruption, including faking bids, collusion to keep prices down, and theft as well. 

This comes as Bonham’s auction house tries to find some antiquities to sell in its auction today.  It has withdrawn a marble statue which was included amongst the notorious Medici polaroids. It has also withdrawn some Roman funerary sculptures that bore signs that they had recently been illegally excavated, pictured above.  An Anglo-Saxon stone was also removed from auction.

After concerned authorities and archaeologists contacted Bonham’s, these objects have all been withdrawn from auction.  But that does not mean they won’t be sold again privately, and does not mean that we know who the sellers were. 

  1. Scott Sayare, Chatter of Swindles and Scams at Auction House, The New York Times, April 26, 2010.
  2. Dalya Alberge, Roman sculptures withdrawn from auction amid fears they are stolen, The Guardian, April 27, 2010.
  3. Mike Pitts, Save our Anglo-Saxon stone!, The Guardian, April 24, 2010.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Forfeitted Pissarro Returning to France

A federal jury has ruled that this Pissaro painting, “Le Marché,” was stolen from the Faure Museum in Aix-la-Bains in France.  The work was seized by ICE agents from Sotheby’s in 2006, after its theft in 1981.  The thief took the work from the museum under his jacket.  The work has a storied history as the Department of Justice Press Release describes

It seems that in 1985 the thief, Emile Guelton, sold the work to Sharyl Davis who was using space art gallery in San Antonio owned by Jay Adelman.  Mr. Adelman seems to operate an antiques shop on the Riverwalk, and operate a website.  In 2003 the work was consigned to Sotheby’s by Davis.  Davis paid $8,500 for the painting in 1985, and estimated an auction price of $60-80,000.  However Sotheby’s asked about the history of the work and was told it was purchased from someone named “Frenchie”. But then Davis asked for “Frenchie’s” real name from Adelman, who told her it was Guelton and that he was from Paris.  That information appeared in the auction catalog with an image of Le Marché.”

Just before the auction, French federal law enforcement officers learned that Le Marché was at Sotheby’s. Based on the information in the auction catalog, the French officers located, contacted, and interviewed Guelton. Guelton confirmed that he knew Adelman, was living in Texas in 1985, sent a container of artwork from France to the United States in 1984, and sold Adelman paintings. The French officers, using a prior arrest photo of Guelton, created a six-person photo array, which they showed to the Faure Museum guard in October 2003.

 The Pissarro was then forfeited under the National Stolen Property Act.  Forfeiture allows prosecutors to bring a suit against an object which was part of a crime, and all claimants to the object come forward to challenge the forfeiture.  It is a powerful tool for prosecutors, and thus should be used carefully, else we may risk losing works of art for many years.  It seems like the right result was achieved in this case.  Mark Durney rightly points out that this round-about story reveals a lot about how difficult recovering stolen art is and how easy it is to acquire in “good faith”.

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

2,000 Art Thefts in France in 2008

That is the estimate given by French police Colonel Stephane Gauffeny.   2,000 is a staggering number, but apparently is a dramatic reduction from a decade ago.  He tells Roland Lloyd Parry of AFP:  “We concentrate our energy on the biggest thefts or the biggest criminal rings”.  One example is the Drouot investigation, which is taking precedence and resources away from some other thefts.  Italy is often a victim of art theft, but France is as well, with the recent holiday thefts and last year’s Picasso Museum theft just some recent high profile examples. Pictured here is the Cantini Museum in Marseille where a Degas was “unscrewed” from a wall over the hiliday season, yet there were no signs of forced entry. 

What happens to these stolen works?  The mundane objects are stored until they can be sold later.  The rare and valuable works are exported abroad illegally.  Yet the rate of recovery for many of these works is very low.  Yet the work of Colonel Gauffeny and others is key, and one of the important steps law enforcement agencies can take is to start keeping track and compiling statistics on art theft. 

  1. Lloyd Parry Roland, AFP: France battles theft of cultural treasures, AFP, January 10, 2010.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Holiday Art Theft in Southern France

Two high-profile art thefts occurred in Southern France in and around the New Year. 

The first was the theft of this work, Les Choristes by Edgar Degas which was reported missing from the Cantini Museum in Marseilles.  The theft was discovered when the museum reopened after the holiday, and was on loan from the Musée d’Orsay which was set to end on January 3rd.  The painting was unscrewed from the wall, and there was no evidence of forced entry.  Mark Durney points out that 2009 began much the same way, with thefts from a Berlin art gallery, and Southern France is no stranger to art crime.  The easy access the thief had to the work has led to the arrest of a night watchman at the museum. 

The second theft occurred in in La Cadière d’Azur, a village in Provence.  As many as thirty paintings were taken from a private home, including works by Picasso and Rousseau.  The owner was on holiday in Sweden. 

Big holidays are a difficult time for security.  Police, owners and the public all have different priorities during these festive days, which makes art particularly vulnerable. 

  1. Picasso, Rousseau works stolen in France days after Degas drawing taken, Telegraph.
  2. AFP: Picasso, Rousseau paintings stolen in France, January 2, 2010.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Ceremony for Egyptian Relics

Pictured here are French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak during a ceremony today.  The French returned some relics taken from Egypt in recent years which were purchased by the Louvre in 2000 and 2003.  Egypt had made a dramatic call for the immediate return of the objects, ordering the removal of all French archaeologists from Egyptian sites if the objects were not returned.  They were returned quickly.

Egypt demanded the return of the stolen fragments in October and broke off relations with the Louvre. Afterwards, France agreed to hand back the works, which are from Luxor’s Valley of the Kings.  “France is particularly committed to fighting the illegal trafficking of works of art,” Sarkozy said, in a statement.  The other four artefacts were to be given to the Egyptian embassy in Paris during Mubarak’s visit to Paris, French officials said.  The French president emphasized that the Louvre museum had acted in good faith when it purchased the artefacts and said that doubts were only raised in November during archaeological work at the site.  Egypt had produced photographs from the mid-1970s showing the fragments in place on the tomb’s wall.

  1. AFP: France returns stolen Louvre relics to Egypt, December 14, 2009.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com