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”.

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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.
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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.
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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.
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Update on the Drouot Arrests

The AP reported yesterday that charges have been filed against nine employees of the Drouot auction house. French authorities last week found a stolen work by Gustave Courbet.

An auctioneer and eight commission agents were given preliminary charges, including ”organized theft,” the prosecutor’s office said.
Three others detained last week in the police raids on Drouot, its warehouses and homes of employees were released with no charges filed against them.
When the bust was announced last week, there was initial confusion about which Courbet work had been recovered. The painting — stolen several years ago from a collection whose owner had recently died — was not clearly identified, and the heir had confused it with another work, an official close to the inquiry said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the case is ongoing.
Police initially identified the recovered Courbet work as ”La Vague” (The Wave), worth euro900,000 ($1.3 million), but officials said Monday it was actually ”Paysage marin sous un ciel d’orage” (Marine Landscape Under a Stormy Sky), worth about euro100,000.
The stolen Courbet — one of several paintings by the convention-smashing realist master with a stormy ocean theme — was found at the home of one of the commission agents being investigated. Other pieces recovered in the sweep included artworks, frames and furniture.
Under French law, preliminary charges give the judge more time to investigate and determine whether to send the case to trial. Three commission agents were jailed in the case, with the prosecutor’s office accusing them of deep involvement in thefts dating back to 2001.
The auctioneer was released pending the investigation with the stipulation that he stop hosting sales.

  1. The Associated Press, Preliminary Charges vs 9 in Paris Auction Sweep, The New York Times, December 7, 2009.
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César Baldaccini and the Definition of Art

One of the ways criminal defendants can often try to evade “art crime” offenses is by challenging the definitions of art.  The most recent example is the Piedoie brothers.  The two are accused of pawning off 130 of their own creations as genuine works by César Baldaccini Baldaccini.  Baldaccini died in 1998, and was known for his sculptures which were made by compressing consumer goods like cars or refrigerators into metallic blocks, like this one.

During a trial this week, the brothers will attempt to argue that made these César works as a kind of imitation, but not fakes.  In a report by a French magistrate, the “lack of seriousness” of several auction houses was blamed, and the French prosecutor has expressed dismay that the French art market has been “flooded” with these kinds of fakes since the artist’s death in 1998. 

The investigation into these forgeries began in 2001 by mistake:

Police in the south of France searching for stolen art works, including a Chagall and a Magritte, bugged several suspects in a world of high-living, cocaine-taking art lovers and dealers. They stumbled on evidence that Eric Piedoie was flooding the Côte d’Azur with fake Césars.

The appearance of so many unknown works enflamed feelings within César’s family and entourage. The artist’s wife Rosine Baldaccini and daughter Anna Puységur Baldaccini were disputing his inheritance with his mistress Stéphanie Busuttil. Each side accused the other of selling off works before the dispute was settled in court.
Mme Busuttil was allegedly approached by the Piedoie brothers to sign certificates of authentification for some of their works. She says she did so in good faith: a claim accepted by the prosecution.
In other words, both César’s own mistress and the art critic who catalogued his work could not tell authentic “compression” sculptures from fake ones knocked off in a garage. Awkward questions therefore arise. Were César’s “compression sculptures” really art? Are the Piedoie brothers con-artists or true, accidental artists themselves?

 

  1. On trial: the question of what is modern art, The Independent, December 1, 2009.
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"It’s about emotion, not airtight logic and consistent policy."

So argues Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times in describing the recent calls for repatriation of works of art.  He takes as examples the recent repatriation claims made by Egypt against Germany and France.  He makes two points that I’d like to draw out of the article.

First, he claims that globalization has intensified “cultural differences” between nations.  This allows nationalism to “exploit culture”.  He may be correct in some cases, but he fails to note that the frescoes returned by the Louvre had been purchased recently, with little history.  Given what we know about the antiquities trade, this means they were likely illegally exported or looted. 

Second, he argues these claims are often based on emotion.  That is certainly true in some cases, because after all works of art are often designed to convey emotion.  One example of this would be Scotland’s desire for the return of the Lewis Chessmen.  But not all of these claims are without merit.  Moreover, why is it that only claimant nations are “emotional”.  Are not museums and other groups “emotional” when they make arguments that works of art should stay where they are currently situated?  Kimmelman makes the argument that justice has shifted.  But I think that is a good thing.  We are closer to better justice for all nations, not merely the wealthier market nations via International treaties like the 1970 UNESCO Convention, and important decisions like the Schultz and Barakat decisions in the United States and the United Kingdom.   

Michael Kimmelman, When Ancient Artifacts Become Political Pawns, The New York Times, October 24, 2009.

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China to Research Foreign Museum Archives for Chinese Artifacts

https://i2.wp.com/rtoddking.com/images/chinasum2004/04092110.jpg?resize=400%2C300

  China seems to be taking a new approach to repatriation, creating research teams which will inspect the holdings of museums to “document” the archives.  This has led to speculation that China may use its growing economic clout to demand the return of objects.  

Peter Foster reports for the Telegraph:

The sacking of the Old Summer Palace – or ‘Yuanmingyuan’ – as punishment for the torture and execution of 18 emissaries sent by western powers to Beijing, remains an emotive subject in China, where it is still viewed as one of the nation’s great humiliations.
The decision to try and document the millions of items now scattered round the world comes as China takes an increasing interest in retrieving artefacts that were removed from China during the colonial period and in the early 20th century.
“We don’t really know how many relics have been plundered since the catalogue of the treasures stored in the garden was burned during the catastrophe,” the palace’s current director Chen Mingjie told the state-run China Daily newspaper.
“But based on our rough calculations, about 1.5 million relics are housed in more than 2,000 museums in 47 countries.” China’s sensitivity towards such ‘looted’ treasures was demonstrated in March when a Chinese collector sabotaged the auctioning of two bronze heads taken from the Old Summer Palace, bidding £13.9m for each, but later refusing to pay.

Peter Foster, China to study British Museum for looted artefacts, Telegraph.co.uk, October 19, 2009.

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

Louvre to Return Egyptian frescos

Egypt’s decision to force France to return the potentially looted frescos has proven very successful.  The objects, allegedly stolen from Egyptian tombs in the 1980’s had been purchased by the Louvre in 2000 and 2003.  At least two consequences of this decision will soon emerge.

First, how many other nations of origin will attempt to make similar claims?  Egypt ceased all ongoing archaeological digs by French archaeologists.  Was this a threat only reserved for objects which may have been looted recently?  Will this set the precedent for this kind of treatment by German archaeologists if the bust of Nerfertiti isn’t returned to Egypt?

Second, might this signal renewed scrutiny of the acquisition practices of museums outside the US?  Much of the discussion has rightly focused on wrongdoing by some American museums and dealers.  But what of their counterparts around the world?  Shouldn’t they be subjected to the same scrutiny?

Louvre to return Egyptian frescos, BBC Oct. 9, 2009.

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