In a criminal complaint filed in New York State Court last December, charges were brought against a New York Gallery owner, Nancy Wiener for dealing in stolen property. When examining a complaint, special care should be taken that they are by nature one-sided accounts that are only allegations, in this case the allegations are made by Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos.
In the New York Times yesterday, Ralph Blumenthal and Tom Mashberg reveal the identity of two anonymous alleged co-conspirators from the complaint:
In a provocatively-titled op-ed in the conversation, Tess Davis and Marc Masurovsky argue that a proposed bill would make American art museums a haven for stolen art by allowing them to “knowingly exhibit stolen art”. Their argument:
On March 25, backed by the art trade lobby, Republican Congressman Steve Chabot reintroduced the Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Immunity Clarification Act to the House of Representatives. On its face, HR 4292 asks Congress to “clarify” a small section of the the law. But in truth, the bill goes far beyond mere clarification.
It would instead undo established US law and policy by allowing American cultural institutions to block legal claims to artwork on loan from abroad. Museums would knowingly be able to exhibit stolen and looted art and antiquities. It would leave the rightful owners without any legal recourse to recover their property in US courts.
This bill is just the latest attempt by the less responsible players in the art market to weaken US law. American legal principles have long held that a thief cannot transfer good title. The receipt, possession, and transport of stolen property is a crime. US legislation has carved out a narrow exception to prevent the judicial seizure of art imported for exhibition, but only in very limited circumstances, which it clearly enumerates. HR 4292 would greatly expand this exception by divesting our courts of all jurisdiction over such objects.
Those are strong statements. And it must be said that the text of the proposed bill, at least by my reading, seems to do just the opposite. It makes it easier for Nazi-era claimants to pursue claims against possessors who send their art on temporary exhibition to the U.S.
It clarifies the concept of “commercial activity”; something needed after a 2005 case, Malewicz v
. City of Amsterdam, which saw heirs of Malevich bringing suit against Amsterdam in federal court in Washington D.C.
Since 1965 the Exemption from Judicial Seizure of Cultural Objects Imported for Temporary Exhibition act grants immunity for temporary exhibitions for material being brought into the U.S. if the loan is in the national interest, and the objects are of cultural significance. Rick St. Hilaire and others have supported this clarification. And on its face the clarification seems necessary. Perhaps what Masurovsky and Davis really want is an end to all art immunizations—but they don’t really come out and say that. Instead they accuse Americn Museums of knowingly exhibiting and gathering stolen art. Though there are certainly examples of this on the extreme margins, the examples that the authors use both cut against their underlying position. The Portrait of Wally litigation never involved Federal immunity, only New York State immunity. And the Koh Ker material was not loaned to the United States, it was acquired or up for auction, and the Federal Prosecutors initiated forfeiture actions.
I am not a provenance researcher, and I am not familiar with how in-depth the State Department grants of immunity checks are, but it seems to me the authors have exaggerated their position. Perhaps I’m missing something, but I don’t see any example of any museum in North America being able to knowingly exhibit stolen material.
Today, Ralph Blumenthal reports that the Met has agreed to return two 10th century statues to Cambodia. The Met’s director Thomas Campbell is quoted as saying:
This is a case in which additional information regarding the ‘Kneeling Attendants’ has led the museum to consider facts that were not known at the time of the acquisition and to take the action we are announcing today.
The piece reports the statues may have been removed from Cambodia at around the same time the Koh Ker statue was removed, which is the subject of an ongoing forfeiture action by a federal prosecutor. Little information has been reported that I can find on the precise circumstances surrounding the removal of these statues from Cambodia. We know the instabality and conflict taking place in southeast Asia at the time of course. The statues were donated by Douglas Latchford in a series beginning in 1987. The parts of the statues were broken into pieces at some point, and the individual pieces of the figures were donated between 1987-1992. Conservators at the Met reattached the heads and bodies in 1993.
The Met should be congratulated for doing the right thing here with these objects which have such an important connection to Cambodia. This return may also give pause to Sotheby’s, the Norton Simon museum, and others who have objects which were removed from Cambodia during this period.
Blumenthal, Ralph. “The Met to Return Statues to Cambodia.” The New York Times, May 3, 2013, sec. Arts / Art & Design. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/04/arts/design/the-met-to-return-statues-to-cambodia.html.
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The NYT’s Tom Mashberg reports that Sharon Cohen Levin and Alexander Wilson (two Assistant U.S. Attorney’s) have traveled to Cambodia to examine the site where the 10th Century Koh Ker statue was likely looted in Cambodia. I have no way of knowing whether a trip like this is unusual or not. It seems to me to be a good idea to get some context for the original looting. For those who don’t know, Assistant U.S. attorneys are the Federal government’s prosecutors. And when these folks take on a case, they do so selectively, and generally only if they are confident in a win. These offices across the country have a very high winning percentage in the cases they take on. So it is not much of a surprise that these AUSA’s have decided to make a trip to Cambodia to examine the site itself:
The NYT image of the feet at the temple where the Koh Ker statue was likely looted
A Cambodian government spokesman, Ek Tha, said the delegation that visited the temple included Cambodian and foreign archaeologists. A federal judge is scheduled to rule in weeks on whether the government’s case to seize the statue can proceed to trial. In earlier arguments District Judge George B. Daniels has pressed prosecutors on what proof they had that the statue, called the Duryodhana, was taken in the 1970s. Sotheby’s has been trying to sell the statue, valued at as much as $3 million, on behalf of its Belgian owner since 2011. The United States government says the auction house had reason to suspect that the statue had been stolen, and that it is the rightful property of Cambodia, citing laws governing antiquities adopted when the country was a colony of France. Sotheby’s has said the statue was legally purchased in good faith from a reputable London auction house in 1975 by the owner’s husband, now deceased, who had no reason to suspect that such a sale could be bound by laws set by a government that had long passed from power. In a statement the auction house said the trip by the lawyers “will not change critical weaknesses in the government’s case — most importantly, its reliance on hopelessly ambiguous French colonial decrees.”
Those French decrees aren’t all that ambiguous when considered in light of these two feet without the rest of the statue.
I thought the comments of Rick St. Hilaire were interesting, he argued that this trip was a kind of show of force by the AUSA’s. Not sure if that is true or not, or even if these folks even need to be concerned with a show of force, but it does highlight I think how even remote areas like this temple complex are more closely connected than before, and that makes a forfeiture proceeding like this more likely to proceed.
Tom Mashberg, United States Officials Travel to Cambodia in Statue Case, The New York Times, March 1, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/02/arts/design/united-states-officials-travel-to-cambodia-in-statue-case.html (last visited Mar 4, 2013).
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Prosecutors have amended their complaint which seeks to forfeit this Koh Ker Khmer statue. Much of the press coverage focuses on whether the colonial French government or some other legal enactment created ownership rights in the statue before the time it was removed. I don’t have a pacer account and access to these court filings, but based on the reporting it appears prosecutors saw a difficult path to victory in attempting to apply colonial French law to the statue. Instead they are also seeking a more straightforward argument: arguing that the importers of the statue lied on their customs forms. From the NYT:
Prosecutors say that in 2010, when the statue was being imported into the United States, the owner submitted an inaccurate affidavit to American customs officials, at Sotheby’s request, stating the statue was “not cultural property” belonging to a religious site. The government contended in its filing on Friday that both parties knew the statue, a mythic Hindu warrior known as Duryodhanna, valued at up to $3 million, was stolen when they agreed to ship it from Belgium to New York. The government says it can prove that the statue in fact came from a Khmer Dynasty temple, Prasat Chen, part of a vast and ancient complex called Koh Ker.
If prosecutors can establish these statements were inaccurate, the more difficult question of which law might apply to the statue would be largely irrelevant. This is the same legal principle used when prosecutors successfully forfeited a 4th-century B.C. ancient golden phiale from Michael Steinhardt in 1999. Lying to customs officials is a violation of the law, with its own forfeiture provision. If the prosecutors can establish this, a successful forfeiture seems very likely.
Anthony Kuhn reports for All Things Considered on the ongoing dispute between Cambodia and Sotheby’s over this Koh Ker statue. The feet were found at the complex, but Sotheby’s is attempting to prevent any seizure of the statue. This looting likely took place in the late 1960’s. The Cambodians make a compelling case for the statue, while Sotheby’s refused to comment for the piece. I’ll update the case here as it develops.
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One of two kneeling statues from Koh Ker, at the Met
Cambodia has discovered it may have a claim to another set of objects in New York. But these statues are on display at the Met, not up for auction.
The contested statues may have been taken from the same temple where a mythic warrior figure (discussed earlier here) was likely looted in the early 1970s. It seems the Cambodians have uncovered other objects which they may have tenable claims for in the wake of the research into the statue from the Koh Ker complex which was removed from auction at Sotheby’s last month. Federal prosecutors have initiated a forfeiture proceeding against that statue, based on the fact that despite the armed conflict at the time, Cambodia’s earlier pre-existing legal principles had established the statue was owned in some way—and thus any removal would have been an illicit removal.
It seems research into the temple complex and the established law have allowed Cambodia to cast a wider net for their repatriation claim. It will be interesting to see how the Met responds to Cambodia’s questions. The initial reaction from the Met in the piece does not seem to show the Met asked for much history when these objects were acquired:
The museum acknowledged that beyond the names of the donors it has no records on the statues’ origins, despite a longstanding policy to investigate the history of donated antiquities. “No one is concealing anything,” said Harold Holzer, the Met’s senior vice president for external affairs. “I’d like nothing better that to find more documentation.” Mr. Holzer cautioned against using current standards for museum collecting to evaluate the propriety of acquisitions dating back more than two decades. “There were no real prevailing restrictions against accepting these works of art,” he said of the period, “especially if, by doing so, they might be protected from disappearance completely from public view and from study.” The Met’s policy in 1992 allowed it to accept works without a detailed provenance. Such acceptance, though, was supposed to come after an effort had been made to root out the history of a piece in case it was illicit.
It looks like the attention drawn to Sotheby’s auction of this Koh Ker statue will result in Federal seizure of the statue:
Federal agents in New York on Wednesday moved to seize a thousand-year-old Cambodian statue from Sotheby’s, alleging in a civil complaint that Sotheby’s had put the 10th-century figure of a mythological warrior up for auction despite knowing that it had been stolen from a temple. Investigators said the sandstone statue, whose return is being sought by Cambodia and which is valued at $2 million to $3 million, would be impounded on Thursday by agents from the United States Department of Homeland Security. The statue, consigned to Sotheby’s for sale by a Belgian collector, had been set for auction in New York in March 2011 but was abruptly pulled from the market at the last minute after Cambodia claimed ownership. At the time Sotheby’s rejected Cambodia’s efforts to recover the Khmer antiquity, insisting there was no proof that it had been looted and therefore the auction was legal. But in a series of internal e-mail exchanges obtained by investigators and included in the federal complaint filed Wednesday in United States District Court in New York, at least one Sotheby’s officer is depicted as having been told in 2010 by a scholar in Cambodian art that Cambodian officials considered the statue a looted artifact.
With evidence that Sotheby’s was told the statue had been looted, the Federal agents have a powerful piece of evidence they did not have in the Ka Nefer Nefer case. I would expect the unnamed Belgian collector who put the statue up for consignment to consider relinquishing the statue quickly. If it was purchased in good faith, he or she has a good claim against the dealer they bought it from. How long new before the Norton Simon is pressured to return its version of the statue?