30 Works Stolen from Berlin

Art thieves don’t party.  30 Works were stolen from a Berlin gallery sometime close to New Year’s Eve the AP reported earlier this week:

Nu au rocking chair by Henri MatisseThieves stole works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and others from a Berlin gallery over the New Year’s holiday, police said Friday.
More than 30 works — worth an estimated euro180,000 ($250,000) — were stolen, apparently between Wednesday afternoon and lunchtime Thursday, police spokeswoman Claudia Schweiger said. The artwork was taking from the Fasanengalerie, a private gallery near western Berlin’s central shopping district.
The etchings, prints and sculptures included “Profil au fond noir,” a 1947 work by Picasso; “Nude in a rocking chair,” a Matisse print from 1913; and “Le Boupeut,” a 1962 color print by Georges Braque.
The gallery’s owner discovered the loss New Year’s Day, having found signs the door had been pried open, police said. Given the number of works stolen and the weight of the sculptures, two or more people probably were involved, police said in a statement.

New Year’s Eve is a popular time to steal works of art, as are other nights when cities revel and police may be stretched thin.  The theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum took place on St. Patrick’s day in Boston. 

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Germany a Haven for Cypriot Antiquities?

According to German professor Klaus Gallas at a gathering in Dortmund as reported by the Financial Mirror of Cyprus:

Organised international art smugglers, in cooperation or with the tolerance of the Turkish occupation army, have virtually flooded international black markets with stolen icons and other religious and architectural artifacts stolen from the occupied areas of Cyprus, said German professor Klaus Gallas.

Speaking at a gathering at Dortmund, Germany on the destruction of the cultural heritage in the occupied north, Gallas made an extensive reference to the case of Turkish art dealer Aydin Dikmen in Munich and criticized the German authorities for not giving the go ahead for the return of artifacts which have proved to be of Cypriot origin…

 The event was organized by the Cypriot embassy in cooperation with the Greek Academics of North Rhine-Westphalia and was held at the Municipal Art Museum. It included a presentation of a documentary prepared by the Press and Information Office of the Republic of Cyprus on the destruction of the cultural heritage in the occupied areas…

According to the church of Cyprus, some 500 churches have been either destroyed or pillaged since the 1974 Turkish invasion. Some religious relics have been bought back, others were returned to the church after lengthy legal proceedings and others are still at large.

The PIO states that thousands of antiquities illegally excavated in the occupied part of Cyprus have found their way to foreign markets. The channels through which the works of art are sent to the West remain basically the same. Frankfurt has become the main destination for ‘hot merchandise’, from there it reaches antiquities lovers with purchasing power in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemburg, Spain, Switzerland, Great Britain, the United States and Canada.

Germany has a large Turkish population, and the problems with Cypriot antiquities can be traced to the armed conflict on the island between Turkish and Greek Cypriots and the armed conflict which escalated in 1974.  Both sides have accused the other of destruction of heritage on the island.

The limited reporting here is an anecdotal account, and I’d be interested to learn more about the specific objects at issue.   I have very little knowledge of German law, though I do know the relevant EU regulations enforce export restrictions of other member states.  Perhaps the difficulty is that these objects may be ‘orphaned’ objects, where German authorities are unsure of their nation of origin? Or perhaps because of the different governments on the island — the Turkish occupied North or the Republic of Cyprus to the South? Or perhaps its bureaucratic red tape delaying the repatriation?  Or perhaps Turkey is pressuring Germany in some way?  Are the disputes over these antiquities a proxy-fight between Turks and Greeks?  

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International Red Tape, $500 Translation

International red tape often hampers the investigation of the illicit trade in antiquities, this example involves Leonardo Patterson (discussed earlier here) and the difficulty in acquiring a decent Spanish-German translation. From AFP a couple days ago:

SAN JOSE (AFP) — The price of a translation is keeping the Costa Rican government from retrieving a collection of pre-Columbian objects it claims were stolen by a private collector now living in Germany.

In August 2007, Costa Rica first learned about Leonardo Patterson’s collection stored in Spain since 1997. Its more than 1,700 pre-Columbian pieces originate from Costa Rica, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru.

Costa Rica is seeking the recovery of 457 of those objects it says are part of its national heritage.

Patterson’s collection is of incalculable value, said Marlin Calvo, head of the Cultural Heritage Protection department at Costa Rica’s National Museum.

The objects are “very beautiful, very diverse, and in very good condition,” said Calvo.

Patterson, a former Costa Rican diplomat and renowned art collector, was questioned and part of his collection seized by Munich police in April this year, after he took it out of storage in Spain and had it shipped to Germany.

Investigators valued the objects at more than 100 million dollars.

Costa Rica, along with Mexico and Peru, say some of the pieces were stolen and are attempting to recover them, even as Patterson maintains he obtained them in Europe, legally.

Since May, Costa Rican authorities have tried, without success, to reclaim the pieces. Their main problem: the price of a translation.

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Profile of an Antiquities Dealer


The Associated Press has an extended profile of Leonardo Patterson. An antiquities dealer from Costa Rica who is currently being investigated by German and Spanish authorities. In April, police in Munich seized more than 1,000 objects from his warehouse.

Pictured here is Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva. He received a catalog of Patterson’s antiquities in 1997:

[H]e saw more than 250 ancient Peruvian pieces, mostly from tombs raided in the late 1980s. There were necklaces made of gold and lapis lazuli from la Mina in northern Peru. There were copper masks and a necklace made of 30 gold spiral-shaped ornaments from Sipan, the center of the Mochica culture dating to 200 A.D.

Alva was not surprised that many of the pieces had ended up in private European collections.

“There is a very active market in the United States and Europe,” said Alva. “We have to eliminate this idea that those who collect archaeological artifacts are cultivated people.”

He asked Interpol in Lima to investigate. Interpol in turn asked a Lima court for an international arrest warrant for Patterson in 2004. Four years later, there has been no ruling, according to Interpol officials in Lima.

Patterson is accused of selling fakes and forgeries as well as looted antiquities. It seems Patterson may have been connected in some way to the looted Peruvian gold headdress which was recovered from Patterson’s lawyer’s office in 2006.

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Germany Creates a Restitution Commission

Germany has decided to create a kind of Nazi Spoliation Office. From the AP:

BERLIN (AP) — A new office within Germany’s Institute for Museum Research is opening in January to help identify and research art stolen by the Nazis, Germany’s culture minister said Wednesday.

The office, which comes under the State Museums of Berlin, will help museums, libraries and archives identify items that were taken from their rightful owners during the Nazi period, Culture Minister Bernd Neumann said.

“I expect from this an important push in Germany in the clarifying of restitution questions,” he said.

Neumann founded a working group to look into how to deal with restitution issues, after Berlin sparked controversy with a decision last year to return Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s “Berlin Street Scene” to the heirs of a Jewish collector who said the Nazis forced the family to sell it in the 1930s.

Some art experts questioned whether the expressionist work was sold under duress and whether its return was legal.

With the new office, which has a $1.47 million annual budget, Neumann said he hoped the restitution process would be better coordinated and more transparent.

This appears to be a good idea, and perhaps will preclude the need for private legal disputes when, for example, these works are displayed abroad as is the case with Schiele’s Portrait of Wally. Will this commission help to return works to claimants? Offer settlements? Or, will it instead merely warn German institutions that certain objects are suspect and should not be loaned abroad?

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

Another Dutch Holocaust Claim


Four heirs of art dealer Nathan Katz have brought a claim for 227 works recovered in German at the end of World War II reports Marlise Simons in todays NY Times. Among the contested works is this painting by Salomon van Ruysdael, Horsefair at Valkenburg. The claim was made public Friday, just as the Dutch were moving to discourage new restitution claims.

These restitution disputes are ill-suited to an adversarial litigation process with one winner and one loser as is the current situation in the United States. Professor Norman Palmer has persuasively made this case in the UK, while Jennifer Anglim Kreder has proposed an interesting idea. She makes a great case for an International Tribunal for dealing with Nazi-Looted Art. It’s forthcoming in the Brooklyn Law Review, an early version is up on SSRN. In the Netherlands the claims are studied by the Restitution Commission which advises the government on the return of objects lost or stolen when the Germans invaded in WWII.

Here’s an excerpt of the NYT story:

Although the Dutch government in exile had decreed that citizens could not trade with the enemy, many Dutch art dealers, both Jews and non-Jews, sold works to eager German collectors, who circulated wish lists in the first few years of the war. Dutch traditional painting was sought after, because the Nazis did not consider it “degenerate” art.

After the war the Dutch government returned 28 paintings that the Katz brothers had claimed. Among them was Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Man,” believed to have been used to buy their mother’s freedom.

Evelien Campfens, a member of the Restitution Commission in The Hague, said the claim of the Katz heirs would “be a complex case, with many different aspects to it: it will take time.” She said that the Katz brothers were important dealers involved in many transactions, and that many important paintings had passed through their hands.

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Dividing a Nazi Art Dealer’s Collection

Catherine Hickley wrote a very interesting article for Bloomberg on the efforts by France, Germany and Switzerland to divide Bruno Lohse’s art collection. Here is an excerpt:

Bruno Lohse, a German art dealer appointed by Hermann Goering to acquire looted art in occupied France, dispersed his private collection of Dutch 17th-century masterpieces and expressionist paintings among friends and relatives in his will, the lawyer handling his estate said.

Lohse died on March 19, aged 95, and has since become the focus of a three-nation investigation into a looted Camille Pissarro painting discovered in a Swiss bank safe that was seized by Zurich prosecutors on May 15. The painting’s prewar owners said the Gestapo stole it from their Vienna apartment in 1938. Lohse controlled the Liechtenstein trust that rented the safe.

“Paintings have been willed to relatives and friends in individual bequests,” Willy Hermann Burger, the executor of Lohse’s will, said in an interview at his home in Munich. Burger, who declined to name the beneficiaries or disclose details on individual artworks, said he’s sure none of the paintings in Lohse’s private collection are looted.

Lohse became Paris-based deputy director of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, the Nazis’ specialist art-looting unit, in 1942, according to the interrogation report compiled by the U.S. Office of Strategic Services’ Art Looting Investigation Unit, which questioned him in Austria from June 15 to Aug. 15, 1945.

The E.R.R. plundered about 22,000 items in France alone, according to the O.S.S. reports. The Jewish Claims Conference estimates that the Nazis looted about 650,000 artworks in total.

“There is a lot of art still missing and we believe that a significant proportion remains in private collections, especially in Germany and Austria,” said Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, a not-for-profit organization based in London that helps families recover plundered property.

Adding to the difficulty is the fact that Lohse became an art dealer in the 1950’s, and thus most of his private collection is probably legitimate. However, the Pisarro found in the Swiss bank vault, Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps is probably looted, at least according to the Art Loss Register. This all underscores the importance of establishing and checking provenance for works of art when they are sold or donated. If the various European prosecutors are not as aggressive as their American counterparts have been, a lengthy and complex legal dispute between the successor and the descendants of the original1938 owner will likely ensue.

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

German Police Recover a Carl Spitzweg

German police have recovered a work by Carl Spitzweg worth half a million euros, or $650,000. The painting, “Friedenzseit” (“Peacetime”) was taken last March from the Kunsthalle in Mannheim during a weekend in which the museum had been opened later to allow more visitors to view the work. Security may have been less than one would expect during the theft. It highlights a continuing problem for museums though. They want to attract more visitors, but as they do, security issues become more acute.

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

Iraq Challenges a German Auction


Iraqi authorities have challenged an auction of two Sumerian artifacts which took place on Tuesday. One item was a limestone statue of a Sumerian (similar to the one pictured here), which dates to 2500 BC. The other was a nail made of clay bearing an inscription which puts its age between 2097 – 2095 BC. Iraq’s culture ministry appealed to UNESCO to intervene, but there is not much the organization can do in this case, other than publicize the problem and force German authorities to take action. There isn’t much information available on Iraq’s claim, so it’s very difficult to gauge the strength of their claim. Perhaps more information will come to light, but at this point, the German authorities are claiming that domestic law does not allow them to take any action. If this had occurred in the US, federal prosecutors may have been able to bring a forfeiture claim, if they were convinced the object was indeed stolen or illicitly excavated. I am not sure if Germany has a similar legal mechanism.

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

Germany Unhappy with the State of Restitution

Apparently, the German Government is considering its options about how best to deal with art sold by or confiscated from Jews under the Nazis the Sydney Morning Herald reports today. This comes in the wake of the record sale at Christie’s last week, in which a number of returned works
helped fuel the market. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has summoned culture ministers and museum directors to discuss overhauling the restitution law. This was a predictable development, especially considering the fabulous sums of money these works are getting on the market.

I postulated last week, that something does not quite seem right about the heirs of these works profitting so handsomely off works which had been hanging in German and Austrian museums. Another factor which may be fueling these discussions, is the news that the City of Berlin is in dire financial straits, and may have to sell some of its cultural buildings or works. When Berlin was essentially two cities, it maintained separate concert halls and museums, but since reunification, the city has too many cultural institutions for its budget. This museum is the Sammlung Berggruen, which houses many impressionist and post-impressionist works.

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