The Met Sued in Bolshevik-era Restitution Suit

“Portrait of Madame Cezanne”, Pierre Cezanne (1891)

The Met has been sued by Pierre Konowaloff over this work. The claimant argues the work was stolen from his great-grandfather during the Russian Revolution, Ivan Morozov. Morozov was a Russian textile merchant, who collected a number of works by Cezanne. His works were zeized in 1918, and Morozov’s home was made a state museum.  This work was apparently purchased by Morozov in 1911, and he owned the work for seven years. In contrast, the Met has had the work for the last 50 years. The work was donated to the Met in 1960 by Stephen Clark, who purchased it from a gallery in 1933.

This suit, if successful, would really extend the limits of restitution claims further into the past to touch not just the Second World War, but the first one as well.

Konowaloff is currently defending a declaratory judgment suit brought by Yale University over the disposition of Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Night Cafe”. Yale is seeking a court determination that it is the rightful owner of that work, which would preclude a sale by the claimant.

  1. Philip Boroff, Met Museum Sued Over Cezanne Painting Stolen by Bolsheviks From Collector, Bloomberg, December 8, 2010, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-12-09/met-museum-sued-over-cezanne-taken-by-bolsheviks-from-collector.html (last visited Dec 10, 2010).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

The Morgantina Treasure Returns to Sicily

“Here they are not orphans.”

So says Enrico Caruso, the director of the Archaeological park in Morgantina upon the installation of the Morgantina Silver in Aidone, Sicily. The 16 ancient Greek silver objects had been partially returned to Italy as a part of a 2006 agreement between Italy and the Met, and will now be on display near the site where they were likely looted nearly 30 years ago. Both Italy and the Met will share joint custody of these objects, and the objects will rotate between Aidone and the Met every four years. In this way visitors to both the Met and Aidone will be able to decide for themselves where they prefer to view and appreciate this collection of objects.

One of the tireless campaigners for the return of the silver objects has been Malcolm Bell III who is quoted in the New York Times:

“’The silver can perhaps shed light on the brutal, dramatic circumstances of the final years of the Second Punic War and, seen within the framework of the house, we get a sense of the art and the material culture of Hellenistic Sicily,’ said Malcolm Bell III, professor emeritus of art history and archaeology at the University of Virginia and the director of excavations at Morgantina. ‘They have truly been recontextualized, and that is really important.’”

The Morgantina Objects, as displayed at the Met

And yet I think the reason this recontextualization is important can be tied to the experience of viewing the landscape, the situs of the objects, and the current culture in the region.

Next year the Getty will return the statue of Aphrodite to Aidone, and residents there surely hope visitors will seek out the repatriated objects and boos the local economy. One of the striking themes which emerged from Elisabetta Povoledo’s reporting of the story are the economic benefits which will accrue to the city and territory when visitors flock to see the ancient objects. There appears to be a shift in culture, away from tolerating the looting of sites and the clandestine sales of these objects and a move towards responsibly managing these pieces of heritage.

And yet I wonder as well whether much would be made of this collection of silver, or the Aphrodite had these objects not been displayed in Los Angeles and New York, and then sent back in a very public way.

  1. Elisabetta Povoledo, Morgantina Silver Returns to Italy in Aidone Museum, The New York Times, December 5, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/06/arts/design/06silver.html?_r=2&sq=Morgantina&st=cse&adxnnl=1&scp=1&adxnnlx=1291737663-LJxPa3Cb/2lTVd2f0CM/fg (last visited Dec 7, 2010).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Egypt Secures Return of 19 Objects

One of the 19 objects returned to Egypt by the Met

The Met will return object to Egypt which had been unlawfully removed from Egypt after the excavation of Tutankhamen’s tomb. Archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb in 1922, and at the time some archaeologists may have kept some of the objects they found.

As the Met’s Director Thomas Campbell said in a statement “Because of precise legislation relating to that excavation, these objects were never meant to have left Egypt, and therefore should rightfully belong to the government of Egypt”.

These objects will likely assist Dr. Zahi Hawass in his attempts to secure the return to Egypt of objects which are very famous, which were removed from Egypt much longer ago—the Rosetta Stone and the Bust of Nefertiti. Hawass has made clear that he is seeking to fill a new national museum in Cairo with many of these renownd objects.

  1. Kate Taylor, Met to Repatriate Objects From King Tut’s Tombs to Egypt, The New York Times, November 10, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/10/arts/design/10met.html?_r=2 (last visited Nov 11, 2010).
  2. Ashraf Khalil, Egypt Hunts Ancient Artifacts, wsj.com, November 11, 2010, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704689804575535662169204940.html (last visited Nov 11, 2010).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

China’s Repatriation Team Visits the Met

File:Yuanmingyuan zuoshi.jpg“That wasn’t so bad after all”

So said James C.Y. Watt, the head of Asian art at the Met after a team of Chinese experts visited the institution looking for objects which had once been at the Chinese Old Summer Palace in Beijing.  China has been looking to buy or repatriate objects from the Old Summer Palace. 

The looting of the palace during the Second Opium War in 1860 holds great historical significance for many in China.  In response to the execution of twenty European and Indian prisoners, Lord Elgin (son of the the Elgin who removed the sculptures from the Parthenon) ordered the destruction of the palace.  As a 27 year-old captain in the Royal Engineers wrote:

We went out, and, after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying in a vandal-like manner most valuable property which [could] not be replaced for four millions. We got upward of £48 apiece prize money…I have done well. The [local] people are very civil, but I think the grandees hate us, as they must after what we did the Palace. You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one’s heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army.

This destruction continues to shape how China views its relationship with the West.  Chinese experts have conducted a campaign to seek the return of many of the objects looted from the palace.  This includes the “guerilla bidding” last year which effectively prevented the auction of two bronzes from the palace last year. 

Andrew Jacobs account of the visit calls into question the motives of the Chinese delegation.  He throws quotations around the phrase “treasure hunting team”, but the tenor in his piece echoes the pejorative of the phrase.  Many in the West still fail to engage with the fundamental issue.  Had the White House been burned and sacked in 1860, wouldn’t a powerful America be doing everything it could to seek the return of these objects? 

Jacobs references the criticism of Chinese destruction of historical sites.  But nearly every nation can be accused of the same.  What about the Native American burial mound which was decimated to create fill-dirt for a Sam’s Club in Alabama this year?  Does that mean America is an unsuitable steward for cultural treasures? 

  1. Andrew Jacobs, China Hunts for Art Treasures in U.S. Museums, The New York Times, December 17, 2009.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

The Met Returns Object to Egypt

Curious story involving the Met and Egypt. It seems the museum will return a fragment of a red granite shrine purchased from an antiquities collector in New York last October “so that it could be returned.” It seems the Met purchased the object specifically to return it to Egypt. Curious to say the least, why couldn’t ICE agents or the NYPD have gotten involved? Perhaps because it was a prominent unnamed collector? There are more questions than answers at this point.

Here’s a part of the AP story:

The piece arrives in Egypt Thursday, the statement said. Egle Zygas, senior press officer for the Met, confirmed the museum’s decision.
SCA head Zahi Hawass hailed the Met’s move as a “great deed,” singling it out as the first time a museum has bought an item for the sole purpose of repatriating it.
The fragment belongs to the naos honoring the 12th Dynasty King Amenemhat I, who ruled 4,000 years ago, which is now in the Ptah temple of Karnak in Luxor.
It’s the latest coup for Hawass, Egypt’s assertive and media-savvy archaeologist, who has been on an international lobbying campaign to reclaim what he says are stolen Egyptian artifacts from the world’s most prestigious museums.
He says so far he has recovered 5,000 artifacts since becoming antiquities head in 2002.

  1. Joseph Freeman, The Met returns Egyptian artifact, The Associated Press Oct. 27, 2009.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

The Journey of the Euphronios Krater


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Sylvia Poggioli has more on the looting and eventual return of the Euphronios Krater to Italy.  In sharp contrast to Michael Kimmelman, Poggioli states “In its new home, Rome’s Villa Giulia museum, the Euphronios vase has been given a place of honor in a glass case with special cool lighting.”  Poggioli takes us to the tomb complex where the krater was looted.

Vernon Silver has written a forthcoming work, The Lost Chalice, detailing the illegal journey of the famous “hot pot”: 

“They started coming out and poking the ground with a spillo, a long pole, that could probe into the ground until they found something,” he says.
Silver says the ancient Etruscans bought and collected imported Greek vases. Euphronios was among the artists in Athens who made many of those objects specifically for export. 
Silver says that when the tomb robbers carted off the Euphronios masterpiece, they destroyed many clues that would help archaeologists understand the history and culture of the people buried in the Cerveteri tomb. “It’s like a page being ripped out of a book of Etruscan history and Greek history and world history, when you have the opportunity to see what was buried with what, and who those people were, and who they were friends with, and who they traded with, and you don’t have that anymore,” Silver says. “It’s a finite resource; there aren’t an infinite number of these tombs sitting around.”

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

Francesco Rutelli on the Euphronios Krater

File:Villa Giulia cortile 1040216-7.JPGThis Saturday I participated in the ARCA Conference on the study of art crime in Amelia Italy.  I’ll have a lot more to say about my time in Italy, ARCA, and the masters course generally in the coming days, but I wanted to share one of the highlights.

One of the speakers, and the recipient of one of the ARCA awards was Francesco Rutelli, former Culture Minister of Italy.  Following his short discussion there was time for a couple of questions, and I was able to ask about his thoughts on the current disposition and position of the Euphronios Krater, on display here at the Villa Giulia.  Michael Kimmelman had an interesting piece last week in the New York Times, arguing “Italy’s biggest prize in the war against looting antiquities went on view recently at the Villa Giulia in Rome” but that “Italians didn’t seem to care much”.  I found that to be pretty typical, as an American visiting Rome, itis not really easy to see how or it can be quite difficult to find where the Krater, or many of the other returned objects are currently on display, particularly in a city and country with so many beautiful objects and heritage sites, wich  which truly is an enormous open-air museum. 

I asked Rutelli about that, about how Italian’s don’t seem all that interested in the Krater and how not many people are visiting it.  He responded with what I thought was a pretty thoughtful answer.  He stated that the piece is in “the correct place” and that in “scientific terms it is correct”.  It is an Etruscan object, and the Villa Giulia is the Etruscan museum—arguing that if the piece had been properly and legally excavated from Cerveteri, this is where the piece would have been displayed.

He did acknowledge though, that there may have been problems with “publicity and information”, a problem he traces to the current government, which he argued “should do more”, and these repatriated objects should all be displayed together as part of a meaningful message. 

He had a lot of interesting things to say, and the presentation of the award, and the audience of ARCA Masters students, interested observers, and reporters gave him an opportunity to look back on the repatriations of the last few years; and of course he was the public face of much of the negotiations between Italy and many North American museums.  Though he did point out that it was not just North American institutions.  Repatriations were also reached with Japanese and other European institutions—a fact often overlooked.  I’ll have much more to say about his other comments, which included Robin Symes, and a kind of a response to James Cuno, in the next few days.

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

MoMA Sued in Nazi-era Restitution Suit

The successors in interest of German artist George Grosz filed suit in federal court last friday to claim three works: Portrait of the Poet Max HerrmannNeisse (1927), Self-Portrait With Model (1928) and the watercolor Republican Automatons (1920) (pictured here).

The claimants allege the works were left with Grosz’s dealer Alfred Flechtheim when the artist was forced to leave Germany in 1933. The New York Times summarizes the plaintiff’s version of events

Charlotte Weidler, an art dealer and curator for the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, said that she had inherited “Portrait of the Poet Max Herrmann-Neisse” from Flechtheim and that she gave it to Curt Valentin, a German dealer in Manhattan, to sell to the Museum of Modern Art in 1952. The museum bought “Republican Automatons” from a Toronto collector in 1946 and was given “Self-Portrait With Model” in 1954.

Back in 2006 the Met declined to borrow the work Portrait of the Poet Max HerrmannNeisse due to the potential lawsuit.

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

Waxman in NYT Op-Ed Urges the Met to Come Clean about Acquisitions

Both the recent purchases and the acquisitions from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  In so doing she continues to conflate historical taking founded on imperialism with modern concepts like looting and smuggling.  Both imperial taking and the illicit purchase of these objects can be criticized, but for very different reasons.  She does have a point though, institutions will likely face continued pressure to admit how and why objects came to these institutions:

The Met’s galleries and Web site are mysteriously devoid of recent facts about the provenance of many artifacts. Most visitors have no idea how the treasures on display in the Greek and Roman rooms, the Egyptian antiquities department, or the Byzantine, African, Asian and Oceanic collections came to be housed in the museum.


Who among them knows that Louis Palma di Cesnola, the Italian-born collector and Civil War veteran who was the first director of the museum, appropriated a huge number of antiquities for more than a decade? As the American consul in Cyprus in the 1860s, Cesnola kept 100 diggers busy in Larnaca; his house became a kind of museum. Cesnola smuggled out no fewer than 35,573 artifacts — passing them off as the property of the Russian consul — for which the Met paid $60,000. 

The Met doesn’t tell this story. Even many people who work at the Met don’t seem to know it. Plunder is also the provenance of one of the museum’s most imposing artifacts in the Greek and Roman collection — an Ionic capital from the Temple of Artemis at Sardis. Massive and graceful, it sits prominently in a gallery on the first floor of the Met.

How did it get here? In 1922, as the Greeks and Turks warred over the port of Izmir, the column was spirited away by American archaeologists along with hundreds of other pieces and sent to the Met. When the hostilities ended, the Turks protested and the theft (or rescue, depending on one’s perspective) became an international incident, recorded in State Department archives. After much negotiation, the Turks ceded ownership of the column in exchange for the return of 53 cases of antiquities, also stolen from Sardis.

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

Comic Books, Myth and Cultural Policy


I’ve been thinking about what may seem a curious intersection in recent days. Namely the creation of modern myth and the connection between comic books and antiquities. I’ll first argue that comic books are nothing more than today’s modern myths, and then show how this relates to the summer Met exhibition, as well as dispute the claim that we are “losing” our connection to ancient mythology.

If you’re paying attention, comic books have a lot to teach us. Sure, they’re fun, and they for kids in many cases, but they also reveal deeper truths. As David Edelstein pointed out in his review of Iron Man, every age gets the super hero which will assuage its fears. Superman was a midwest farmboy, which was a product of major migration from “heartland to city”; similarly, Batman gained popularity in the 70’s with the “surge in urban crime”.

In Iron Man, Edelstein worries we might be glossing over the unpleasantness of our Military-Industrial complex, and its actions in Afghanistan. Iron man first appeared, in 1968, when the US was in the midst of the Vietnam War. He says “But at a time when America is viewed around the world as arrogant, will the picture be seen as another in that long line of Hollywood superhero movies aimed at making Americans feel better about themselves?” That’s a pointed question, as America is in fact the weapons maker to the world. But we don’t get to that deeper question if we can’t at least see the value in these myths, which are slick, and certainly very accessible.

There are other examples of course. Godzilla is a product of Japanese unease in the 1950’s following the dropping of the atomic bomb. Spider Man is the first superhero whose skin we can’t see in his costume, because in the 1960s Stan Lee wanted to create a superhero for all races. It’s hard not to see the struggle of World War II in Tolkien’s work. Now, perhaps I’m just an aging fanboy whose read too much Joseph Campbell, but is the story of the Odyssey really that different from a comic book? The point, I think, is not to choose ancient myths over modern pop culture, but to see how the two inform each other. David Simon has openly acknowledged that the Wire is nothing more than Greek tragedy, save instead of gods and goddesses he substitutes in their place modern institutions like police departments, the media, and the school system. If you’re paying attention, I think this nexus between Simon’s depiction of the Baltimore drug trade with ancient tragedy can inform both our understanding of urban cities, and realize that many similar struggles existed thousands of years ago.

Through September, the Met will be showing Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy.

C-MONSTER has photos, and Lee Rosenbaum is not a fan. Though she admits some of her complaints may be sour grapes, she expresses frustration at the fact that Philippe de Montebello, the “dean of American art museum directors” has tarnished his reputation by writing a Forward for the Met’s catalogue. Now, I’m out of my league if I attempt to unpack Rosenbaum’s argument from a scholarly curatorial perspective. However, she seems to strongly insinuate that comic books are for the uneducated, and beneath the lofty de Montebello. I couldn’t disagree more. I haven’t seen the the exhibition, and can’t speak to it’s merit, but the idea on its face strikes me as a good one. Why can’t we take comic books and superheroes seriously? The pop artists played with comic book forms and style to great effect didn’t they? Granted, the Met is trying to please its audience, perhaps blatantly so, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take this stuff seriously right?

This brings us to the comments of Charles K. Williams II in the recent The Acquisition and Exhibition of Classical Antiquities, edited by Robin F. Rhodes. Williams argues “Note that modern mythology is being manufactured at such a rate and in such quantity in the United States and norther Europe that it appears, at least to me, to be wiping out the need or desire to know, even less to understand, ancient epics, myths, and fables.” I don’t think the creation of modern myth is necessarily a bad thing. Williams, an esteemed field archaeologist argues we should ensure people can continue to view these objects around the world to maintain our connection with ancient myth. He argues we need more responsible international loans and a responsible international movement of objects. I agree.

To the unreasonable skeptic, both the labors of Hercules and the efforts of Tony Stark may seem childish, but if we are paying attention, putting the two side by side can teach us a lot about the darker side of powerful civilizations, the US and ancient Greece (and later the Roman empire).

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