Gerstenblith on Provenance

John Myatt forged a number of prominent Old Masters, and his conspirator John Drewe invented provenance for many of the works.

Prof. Gerstenblith has a new Piece in the International Journal of Cultural Property titled “Provenances: Real, Fake, and Questionable“. Here’s the abstract:

Provenance, the ownership history of an artifact or work of art, has become one of the primary mechanisms for determining the legal status and authenticity of a cultural object. Professional associations, including museum organizations, have adopted the “1970 standard” as a means to prevent the acquisition of an ancient object from promoting the looting of archaeological sites, which is driven by the economic gains realized through the international market. The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), one of the museum world’s most influential professional organizations, requires its members to list the ancient artworks and artifacts that they have acquired after 2008 that do not conform to the 1970 standard in an online object registry. The study presented here of the AAMD’s Object Registry for New Acquisitions of Archaeological Material and Works of Ancient Art analyzes the extent to which AAMD member museums do not comply with the 1970 standard and, perhaps of greater significance, the weaknesses in the provenance information on which they rely in acquiring such works. I argue that systematic recurrences of inadequate provenance certitude are symptomatic of the larger problem of methodology and standards of evidence in claiming documented provenance. A museum’s acceptance of possibly unverifiable provenance documentation and, therefore, its acquisition of an object that may have been recently looted, in turn, impose a negative externality on society through the loss of information about our past caused by the looting of archaeological sites.

Gerstenblith, P. (2019). Provenances: Real, Fake, and Questionable. International Journal of Cultural Property, 26(3), 285-304. doi:10.1017/S0940739119000171

What Blockchain can (and can’t) do for the antiquities trade

Can Blockchain help ensure the Metropolitan Museum will not acquire more looted material like this Gilded Coffin?

Last March I participated in Cardozo’s Arts and Entertainment Law Journal Spring Symposium on the topic of Digital Art & Blockchain. I learned a lot about this new technology, and wrote a bit about how Blockchain can impact the antiquities trade. Here’s the abstract to my essay:

Blockchain, the technology underpinning Bitcoin and other digital currencies, offers promise to shift the gathering and sharing of information in profound ways. It could help form a new kind of financial system that limits current inefficiencies, or even radically change how parties enter into contract, or monitor supply chains. The technology’s distributed ledger allows users in a network to monitor and access peer-to-peer digital transactions in real time. This digital ledger allows users to maintain this information securely by encrypting and allowing access only to those who have permission, given by cryptographic keys.

For the art market, blockchain offers a tantalizing possibility: a verifiable provenance research platform that would eliminate or minimize the problems with title history, authenticity, and looting, which have long-plagued the art and antiquities market. This essay examines whether blockchain might offer a chance for the antiquities market to remedy its persistent problems. The antiquities market has been beleaguered by the sale of forgeries, allowed stolen material to find a market, been hampered by market inefficiencies, and even been a haven for looted archaeological material. Distributed ledgers and blockchain could alleviate or eliminate these problems, but only if the market and those who shape it want to utilize them. No technology, no matter how ingenious or elegant, can end problems caused by the unprincipled actors in the antiquities trade. Such change has to come about with a culture shift and continued pressure by regulators and cultural heritage advocates.

Assessing the Viability of Blockchain to Impact the Antiquities Trade
Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal, Vol. 37, No. 3, 2019

Pilot Project by the German Lost Art Foundation

Catherine Hickley reports for the Art Newspaper that a new study has shown that serious state-sanctioned seizures of privately-held artworks continued long after the conclusion of World War II, particularly in east Germany. The study examined acquisitions between 1945 and 1989 by four museums: the Viadrina Museum, and museums in Strausberg, Eberswalde, and Neuruppin. The study was conducted by the German Lost Art Foundation, and was intended as a pilot project to guide further research.

One of the most common ways that art confiscated from individuals wound up in East German museum collections was through the clearance of the residences of people who had fled the country, especially in the second half of the 1950s, Sachse says.
At the end of 1961, just a few months after the Berlin Wall was erected, East German Minister for State Security Erich Mielke gave orders for a secret operation to force open and empty unused, privately rented bank vaults, safety deposit boxes and safes at around 4,000 locations across the country and empty them of their contents.
The stealth operation, known as Aktion Licht (Operation Light), amounted to an orchestrated, state-sanctioned mass theft from people who had left the country. The treasures belonged to East Germans who had escaped to the West, but also to Jewish people forced to flee or who were taken to concentration camps during the Third Reich. The Stasi valued its findings at 4.1m deutschmarks (around $10m at the time).
After 1970, the preferred method of theft by the East German authorities was to invent astronomical tax bills and then seize art when the victims could not pay.

Catherine Hickley, Mass theft of art from East German citizens revealed in new report, The Art Newspaper (Jun. 12, 2019),

“Beltracchi’s forgeries have made the covers of Christie’s catalogs”

This work sold for 7 million euros in 2006, and is a fake
This work sold for 7 million euros in 2006, and is a fake

The art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi was the subject of a lengthy 60 minutes profile last night. It was a reminder of how little safeguards protect genuine works of art from  forgeries. Fakes defraud the public and dilute an artist’s body of work. When a staged photo counts as the ‘gold standard’ for provenance, the art trade is in serious trouble.

Beltracchi is reported to have been the most ‘successful’ art forger in recent history. He was caught and prosecuted by German authorities. Titanium White was able to do what the art trade could and would not: determine a fake from the real thing. Here’s an interview with forensic authenticator Jamie Martin:

Bob Simon: You actually take little pieces off of the painting?

Jamie Martin: We take very little pieces. We take only the minimum amount that’s required. Smaller than the width of a human hair.

He uses what is called Raman spectroscopy, which can help detect historically inaccurate pigments. That’s what cut Beltracchi’s career short.  He was sentenced to six years in a German prison. His wife, Helene, to four. But the chaos they wrought has not been undone.  Now, galleries and auction houses who vouched for his forgeries have been sued by the collectors who bought them.

Why then was Beltracchi so forthcoming to 60 minutes producers?

 And no one disputes that they are awfully good.  Beautiful. This $7 million dollar fake Max Ernst is being shipped back to New York.  Its owner decided to keep it even after it had been exposed as a fake. He said it’s one of the best Max Ernsts he’s ever seen.

Beltracchi spent a year and a half in this grim penitentiary, but is now allowed to spend many days at home, where he is launching a new career. Beltracchi is painting again and is signing his works Beltracchi.  He needs to get his name out there, which is probably why he agreed to talk to us. He’s lost everything is now facing multiple lawsuits totaling $27 million.

  1. Art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi’s multimillion dollar scam, (Feb 23, 2014).

Continue reading ““Beltracchi’s forgeries have made the covers of Christie’s catalogs””

The Art Loss Register profiled in the New York Times

The Art Loss Register and Julian Radcliffe got the New York Times treatment last week. I think it was an accurate portrayal of the ALR and its role in the art market. I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed in many of the same art crime tropes that some are unable to resist in a piece like this. Things like Radcliffe’s physical appearance, his almost spy-novel backstory, and other aspects distracted me from some of the good reporting in the piece.

The main point holds true I think, that nobody really loves the ALR, but they do perform a service for the Art Market. Much of the criticism lobbied against the organization is entirely justified, but many critics point to the fact that the ALR not only is a database, but also acts as a stolen art recovery service, in exchange for a sizable portion of the value of the work. That has often put them in an uneasy position.

For example the incident involving a Norman Rockwell painting, ‘Russian Schoolroom’ is discussed:

Judy Goffman Cutler, an art dealer who became entangled in a Register hunt for a Norman Rockwell painting, has sued the company twice, contending that it harassed her for years in its zeal to collect a fee for recovering the work.

Mrs. Cutler had clear title to the painting in 1989, when she sold it to the director Steven Spielberg. Later it was mistakenly listed as stolen by the F.B.I. and, consequently, the Register, which tried for years to recover it.

Mrs. Cutler said that the Register pursued her even after company officials had reason to know she had done nothing wrong. Neither of her suits against the company succeeded, and she is still angry.

“They knew better but chose to follow the greedy path,” she said.

The Register has characterized its dispute with Mrs. Cutler as a misunderstanding based on faulty information it received from the F.B.I. and others that suggested that the painting was stolen.

I have heard many similar arguments and criticisms of the ALR. Dorothy King relates a similar example from last year.

Have any experience dealing with the ALR that you’d like to share? Comment below or drop me a note.

  1. Kate Taylor & Lorne Manly, Tracking Stolen Art, for Profit, and Blurring a Few Lines, The New York Times, September 20, 2013.

Provenance and the 1970 UNESCO Convention

17 of the 21 objects at the Phoenix Ancient Art
Exhibition lack pre-1970 documentation

In a lengthy recent piece in Art & Auction, Souren Melikian argued that fewer and fewer antiquities without histories which pre-date 1970 are appearing at auction. The main argument for the piece, that the 1970 Convention is slowly encouraging a reformed antiquities market, rests on the idea that higher prices are paid for objects with documented and reliable evidence showing the object was either legally exported or removed from the probable country of origin before 1970.

Yet just because higher prices are paid for licit objects (or at least objects which were only illicit before 1970) does not necessarily mean that other looted or illicit objects are appearing on the market. Nord Wennerstrom makes this point, detailing four examples of antiquities up for sale which lack provenance information predating 1970. Of course the fact that an object does not come with this history does not mean automatically that it has been looted or stolen. But it is a very very big red flag.

Nord concludes by arguing:

All of the works discussed in this blog post may well have secure provenance dating before the November 14, 1970 UNESCO accord (or other corroborating evidence) – but if that’s the case, why isn’t it being provided? Melikian is right – caveat emptor – buyers need to demand secure provenance that dates before the UNESCO accord for any antiquities they contemplate buying. However, sellers – including auction houses and private galleries – also have a responsibility. And, it would be helpful if the media, when covering the sales, also mention the number of lots lacking that all important pre-1970 provenance. Melikian writes that we should “give it another 10 years” – that’s not a long time, but it could mean a lot of looting.

Yes it does.

  1. Souren Melikian, How UNESCO’s 1970 Convention Is Weeding Looted Artifacts Out of the Antiquities Market, ARTINFO (2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at

A New Museum Position: Curator of Provenance

A Medallion looted during WWII

Geoff Edgers had a terrific piece over the weekend profiling Victoria Reed, curator of provenance at the MFA Boston. Her position was created in 2010, and is unique in the museum community. She is according to the piece the only curator of provenance at an American museum, a post which can put her in an uneasy position, recommending that the museum should not acquire objects with insufficient history.

Enter Victoria Reed, the MFA’s curator of provenance. Her job, which is almost as rare in the museum world as is the medallion, is to research works with questionable histories both in the collection and on the MFA’s shopping list. As a result, Reed’s other job is to break curators’ hearts. Through months of research, Reed traced the medallion to a museum in Gotha, Germany, that she knew had been looted during the Nazi era. With that information, the MFA’s jewelry curator, Yvonne Markowitz, put the brakes on its purchase. And in September, the Art Loss Register announced that S.J. Phillips Ltd., the dealer who had offered the medallion, would be returning it to the Castle Friedenstein museum.

This can’t be an easy position to be in, but as more scrutiny attaches to museums, their collection, and their acquisitions, this kind of position will likely become more and more common. The market and dealers have not been adequately accomplishing this painstaking but necessary task, but perhaps they should be.

Paying for a position like this can be difficult given the funding climate for many museums. The piece notes that the position was funded by an MFA Boston donor, Monica S. Sadler, who stipulated that her position should not be cut from the museum’s budget. So other benefactors to museums out there, if you are concerned with the practice at your local museum, give a gift with similar stipulations. Easier said than done of course, but all parties involved should be praised for undertaking an important piece of reform which really could continue to substantially change the importance of provenance research. The piece deals primarily with works of art and paintings, but a position like this which examines antiquities could have even more far-reaching consequences for repatriation and acquisition.

  1. Geoff Edgers, A detective’s work at the MFA, The Boston Globe, December 11, 2011, (last visited Dec 13, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at

An Amicable End to a Nazi-era Spoliation Claim

Some museums do unilaterally do the right thing. I have been forwarded on a press release from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston regarding the purchase agreement for four tapestries which had been held by the museum since the 1950s. A provenance search by the museum revealed that the tapestries had been included in a forced sale in 1935. Jakob and Rosa Oppenheimer had been forced to sell the works. In 2010 The MFA contacted the successors of the Oppenheimers and a settlement was recently reached. The museum’s press release is embedded below:
MFA_Barberini Textiles Press Release

Questions or Comments? Email me at

Stolen Icons Discovered in London

Six stolen Byzantine-style icons have been discovered in London near the Greek embassy.

The plundered art was revealed after a telephone call from a woman claiming to recognise one of the icons – a famous rendition of the Virgin – on the website of the Temple gallery in west London.
Further investigation showed that the immaculately preserved gold-edged painting was among six icons reported missing from Greece that the specialist was selling for up to £5,000 each. 

Richard Temple, who owns the gallery and is acknowledged as London’s foremost dealer in icons, said that when he bought them he had “absolutely no reason” to suspect they were stolen. 

“I’ve been in the business for 51 years and I’m too well known as a gallery to take any risks at all,” he said. “We are an obvious target. We had gone through the correct protocols, but one has to have a certain amount of trust as business is conducted in good faith. I know the seller – he is somebody I deal with and I think he, in turn, was duped.” 

Upon presentation of documentation showing them on display in Greece, the art dealer voluntarily gave up his rights to the icons last week. “They left last Thursday in the hands of Scotland Yard,” he said. “It was very painful and unfortunate.”

So Mr. Temple blames the sale on another unnamed dealer, who was also “duped”. Another unfortunate example of incomplete history. If the dealer was in fact duped he would have a remedy against the unnamed dealer.

  1. Helena Smith, Stolen Greek relics found in London | Art and design | The Guardian, The Guardian, March 20, 2011, (last visited Mar 21, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at

Seminar Paper: William M. V. Kingsland and the Importance of Provenance

I’m publishing here a series of papers written by law students in my ‘Property, Heritage and the Arts’ seminar from the Fall of 2009. This paper was written by Michael Poché

William M. V. Kingsland and the  Importance of Provenance

1. Introduction

Nature, left undisturbed, so fashions her territory as to give it almost unchanging permanence of form, outline, and proportion, except when shattered by geologic convulsions. . . . In countries untrodden by man, the proportions and relative positions of land and water. . . are subject to change only from geological influences so slow in their operation that the geographical conditions may be regarded as constant and immutable. Man has too long forgotten that the earth was given to him for usufruct alone, not for consumption, still less for profligate waste. . . But she has left it within the power of man irreparably to derange the combinations of inorganic matter and of organic life. . . man is everywhere a disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords. . . [O]f all organic beings, man alone is to be regarded as essentially a destructive power….

George Perkins Marsh, The Earth as Modified by Human Action: Man and Nature [fn1]

When George Perkins Marsh first penned those words in 1874, he was speaking in his role as one of America’s first important environmentalists. Contrary to the prevailing notions of his contemporaries, Marsh felt that, rather than being owners of the earth – as in the traditional Abrahamic concept of property – we are in fact only stewards of the earth, here for a short time only, and that instead of practicing some supposed birthright over the land, we were instead bound by a birth “duty”, so to speak, to protect it.
Though his expertise was in the environment (as well as diplomacy and philology), Marsh may as well have been speaking about the art world; the philosophy of guardianship he espoused towards the Earth would serve us well as a basic model for how humankind should safeguard its cultural riches. One of the few things which can be said with some certainty about art is that nearly every culture throughout human history has spent time creating works which are largely decorative in nature; the big question is, “Why?” While we still do not possess an all-encompassing answer to that question, the question itself is strongly suggestive that the creative act, in its myriad forms, is some form primal human strategy, on par with survival, sustenance, procreation, etc.

It is here that the comparison to Marsh’s quotation becomes problematic; Marsh saw man as “. . . essentially a destructive power.”[fn2] This is true, but he is also the only consciously creative power as well. Because of this dual nature, it is important to ensure that our destructive tendencies do not overshadow our creative ones. Now, clearly, not every person has a creative (or rather, artistic) bent. For some of those who do not, art may be nothing more than a blank slate; some may be appreciators, either highly opinionated or more catholic in taste; but some have an almost hostile stance towards art, which could manifest itself in numerous ways.
Much environmental advocacy is practiced from a state of naiveté and pessimism; that is, we don’t know what the long range effects of our actions will be – and we are assuming that our actions and their effects will be negative – so a prudent course would be to treat our environment as cautiously as possible. And so it should be with our cultural heritage: because we don’t fully understand why people have always made art, it would behoove us to assume that the fact of its universality indicates its importance to our existence. As we are only stewards of this Earth, so too are we stewards of our cultural legacy.

One of the primary tools we have at our disposal to this end is that of provenance. Provenance acts as a sort of cultural lineage, or a chain of succession. It ensures the integrity and value of art, as well as provides a guidepost of authenticity. It is especially important when purchasing art; potential buyers need to be made aware of a piece’s particular history, and failure to be able to do so should be a big red flag to purchasers, be they newbies or long time connoisseurs.

So, what to say of someone who, despite an obvious love for art, so eradicates the provenance of, not one or a few, but of close to three hundred valuable pieces[fn3] that they end up languishing in the hands of the F.B.I., awaiting either return to their rightful owners or an uncertain fate on the auction block, where disinterested relations of the previous “owner” hope they will eventually end up?


2. The Mystery of William M. V. Kingsland

On March 21 2006, the body of William Milliken Vanderbilt Kingsland was discovered in his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, dead of a heart attack; he was later estimated to be 62 years of age. On April 13 of that same year, an article which appeared in The New York Sun painted a portrait of a man almost genetically enhanced to appear in the dictionary next to the entry for “eccentric” or “character:
With a wry Cheshire cat smile, Kingsland cut a striking figure among the interlocking worlds of historic preservationists, galleries, and the gavel set of New York auction houses. . . “The thing about Kingsland was that he was slightly annoyed that the 20th century had occurred.” . . . His particular metier was the minutiae of the lives in Upper East Side buildings over generations. . . [H]e arguably made his greatest contribution by piecing together connections between cemetery vault purchasers and their living descendants. . . This flaneur was known to stop friends on the sidewalk and seemed to have all day to talk. He did not appear to have to be anywhere unless he decided to be there. He had leisure to deliver correspondence personally, too. . . In successive apartments on East 78th and 72nd Streets, friends recalled floor to ceiling paintings, some stacked against each other more for protection than for show. Shelves of books competed for space with folded tapestries, bibelots, objets de vertu, snuffboxes, bronze items, and illuminated manuscripts peering out of boxes. . . Reliquaries may have been kept in the dishwasher, and a Giacometti used as a doorstop. While he said his East 72nd Street apartment was for storage, it is unclear where his primary residence was. . . Kingsland worked at Vito Giallo Antiques on Madison Avenue three days a week from 1986 to 1991. Singer Elton John was so enchanted with Kingsland that he left a blank check for him to fill out for 19th-century statues. Andy Warhol befriended Kingsland for a time. At lunchtime at the store, Kingsland ate two jars of Gerber baby food. . . A longtime preservationist, Tony Wood, said there was an “air of delightful mystery around him.” Though he said he had attended Groton, the school has no record of him.[fn4]

The stories about Kingsland go on and on: writing about art for Art/World and Art + Auction; he had reportedly once been married to French royalty[fn5]; alternatively, he claimed to have been descended from long dead French royalty[fn6]; as a young man he had attended Harvard University[fn7]; and on and on.

– – – – –
Of course, it was all too good to be true. The fact that during his lifetime he was known to have used the Giacometti he possessed as doorstop – a statute which was later estimated to be between $900,000 and $1,200,000 in value[fn8] – should have been a big warning flag to anyone who may have visited his home; perhaps they were too enchanted by his quirky charms to care. For his own good and that of his “fans”, it may be just as well that the unraveling of the Kingsland mystique only began after his death.
It began with the discovery shortly after his death that Kingsland had left no will, and at the time appeared to have no living relations. Then, just a few months after his death, it was discovered that Kingsland was not “William Milliken Vanderbilt Kingsland” but actually one Melvyn Kohn who lived, not on fashionable and tony Fifth Avenue as believed by those who knew him, but in fact a small, cramped apartment on 72nd Street. Two independent genealogical researchers, Leslie Corn and Roger Joslyn, apparently intrigued by the Kingsland/Kohn mystery, discovered that he had come, not from an aristocratic lineage as he asserted in life, but from refugee parents escaping from Europe; his father was from Austria and his mother was born in Poland. Rather than to the manor born, Melvyn Kohn was actually born at Park East Hospital in New York City in 1943. Unearthed records also reveal a more pedestrian education: rather than the upper-crust Groton Academy, Kohn actually graduated from the Bronx High School of Science in 1959. Later, Kohn spent some time at the NYU College of Arts and Sciences; there appears to be no record of his graduating, however.[fn9]
Most unusual of all is the story of how the mythical “William M. V. Kingsland” came into being. In some bizarre attempt to raise their son beyond his station, Kohn’s parents filed a motion for a legal name change in the hopes that a more aristocratic appellation would assist him in his pursuit of becoming a writer. One early example of his writing was a letter sent to The New York Times when Kohn was only 18 years old. The subject? Nothing more than the controversy surrounding the status of the Elgin Marbles; the irony and prescience of this topic as it relates to the later controversy surrounding his legacy should be apparent.
Kingsland died intestate; accordingly, the art in his private collection – which had filled his 245 East 72nd Street apartment from top to bottom and included works by Picasso, Giacometti, Copley, Morandi, Redon, and Gorchov, among many others – was slated to be auctioned off by order of the Public Administrator for New York[fn10]. Christie’s auction house and the Stair Gallery were chosen for the task, but before the auctions began, both of the esteemed art merchants discovered the shocking truth: during the standard pre-sale research of the artworks, many were discovered to have been reported as stolen, with the thefts going back as far as the 1960s.

At this point in time, no authority has been able to state unequivocally that Kingsland himself actually stole the works in question; indeed, no would-be Thomas Crown has yet been tied to the alleged thefts, nor has the mode by which the works came to be in Kingsland’s possession. To further complicate matters, many who had reported the works as stolen in the first place have since died, lost interest, or have been unable to be either identified or found. The final twist was the revelation of previously unknown relations of Mr. Kingsland; an uncle and four cousins have now come forward, claiming themselves as rightful heirs to the Kingsland estate.

But is the art in question inheritable? Though not all of the pieces in the collection have been listed as stolen, the very presence of so many with questionable provenance throws the legitimacy of the entire estate into question. As it now stands, all of the works which have been positively identified as reported stolen are in the possession of the F.B.I., awaiting their true owners to come forward.

– – – – – – – – – –

Of course, the mystery and confusion surrounding the collection is wholly of Kingsland’s own doing. As a self-styled expert on art, Kingsland surely must have realized that acquiring such works outside of legitimate legal channels would lead to eventual controversy upon his death, and that the possible effects on the work could be negative. As a semi-famous genealogist, one would think that Kingsland would appreciate the importance of a sound succession. Finally, as an art lover, Kingsland should have understand the disservice he was doing to the works in his possession.

What motivated him? Was there some frustration on his part over never having accomplished the lofty artistic agenda set up for him by has parents when he was young? Was he simply an obsessive-compulsive pack rat who got a charge out of stealing art, with little concern for its intrinsic worth? These are questions we’ll never be able to answer fully. The one thing we can say, however, is that because of his actions, the majority of the works in his possession have been deprived of their rightful place in the hands of those who had originally possessed them, and that they now face an uncertain fate at the hands of distant relations who have yet to voice any concern for the art other than their own personal interest in it. To follow through on the analogy voiced earlier in this essay, Kingsland is something of a plunderer of the earth, perhaps one who thought that hoarding a small stash of the art world’s riches secured him some place of importance. Kingsland for too long denied the art in his possession its rightful place in our cultural landscape; by doing so, Kingsland in a sense defiled the very art he supposedly loved.

– – – – – – – – –

The great unknown in this debacle is the fate which awaits the Kingsland lode. The potential heirs of the collection have (at least) two options before them: on the one hand, they could blindly fight for ownership of the art and, if successful, simply sell to the highest bidder. The other option would be to recognize that their claim to the stolen property is tenuous at best. One can hope that they would recognize the injustice of profiting from the criminal acts of a wayward relation.

Though small, there is a chance that the heirs of the Kingsland collection will do right by the art, either in the form of an en masse donation or the establishment of some private trust to ensure for the future of the works. In an odd sense, the total worth of the collection as a whole may be greater than the sum of the parts. Despite the controversy surrounding the collection – or perhaps because of it – Kingsland’s stash is now a singular entity. The disruption caused to the provenance of the works by Kingsland’s mischief may now best be rectified by keeping the collection intact, thereby returning a bit of the natural order to them that misfortune had deprived them of. It would not be completely unprecedented for the Kingsland heirs to take such a action; at least once fairly contemporary example could serve as a model for such a course of action.

3. The Sisto Collection

In 1958, John Sisto, a native of Bari, Italy, immigrated to the United States. Accompanying him was a small collection of antiquities, mostly old documents. He became something of a self-styled expert in ancient Latin and, despite his lack of education, came to be called upon as an expert by various universities in assorted subjects. He began to periodically receive shipments from Italy of assorted antiquities, mostly from his father: documents such as letters from King Charles V and King Ferdinand II, a statue collection known as the Canosa artifacts, and at least two papal documents from 1500s-1600s.[fn11]

Over the ensuing years, Sisto’s collection grew to over 3,500 pieces – some dating back as far as the 500 B.C.[fn12] – and the collection came to fill his Berwyn, Illinois home in large trunks covering the floors, and all the way up to the ceiling… is this starting to sound familiar?[fn13]

Upon his death, Sisto’s son, Joseph Sisto – who already harbored misgivings regarding the origins and source of the collection for some time – contacted the local police, and later the F.B.I., over his suspicions. Out of the 3,500+ items in the collection, the F.B.I. determined that approximately 1,600 of the items had been illegally removed from Italy. During the course of his studies, the younger Sisto became aware of a treaty enacted by UNESCO in 1970 which asserts that items of cultural importance should be returned to their country of origin; to this end, he requested that the questionable property be repatriated back to Italy.[fn14]
There are some who question the validity of Italy’s claim to the property; art law attorney Peter Tompa feels that the repatriation is merely the latest in a cynical attempt by the Italian government to reacquire its lost artifacts, as opposed to any concerted effort to reclaim actual stolen property. [fn15] Tompa also indicts Italy for having what he calls an guilty until proven innocent mentality, and references a quote from The New York Times which states that Italy “. . . the general assumption is that someone is guilty until proven innocent. Trials — in the press and in the courts — are more often about defending personal honor than establishing facts, which are easily manipulated.”[fn16]

But let’s compare this to the Kingsland saga. On the one hand, a valuable collection of art – the majority of which has been positively identified as having been reported stolen at some point in the past – has the likelihood of never being returned to its proper owners; instead, it could very well end up on the auction block at some point in the future, where distant relations of the possible thief will stand to make a healthy profit from the auction of the purloined goods.

On the other hand, we have an extensive collection of possibly stolen / possibly legally purchased goods, of similarly questionable provenance, all of which can be tied to the nation of Italy and of great historical importance for the country, which have been returned at the bequest of the of inheritor of the goods, facilitated by the US government, to their (arguably) rightful home.

Which scenario seems more ethical? It is difficult to make an argument which favors the heirs of the Kingsland collection; should a completely disinterested group of relatives be allowed to profit from possibly criminal activity? True, there is no single entity like a country claiming rightful ownership of Kingsland’s art; but does that mean that simply because no one at all is stepping forward to claim it that it should be open season on it?
The heirs of Kingsland/Kohn would be well-advised to consider the importance to art as an essential part of our cultural landscape and to take an approach similar – though not identical – to that taken by Joseph Sisto. Like the natural resources which make up our environment, the art of the past is an important and dwindling cultural resource, one which needs to be properly nurtured and tended in order to thrive. When it is treated as mere common chattel, of no greater significance than an old family dresser, all suffer.

It is both unfathomable and unfortunate that Kingsland had such disregard – intentionally or otherwise – for the importance of maintaining the provenance of art. Let us hope that, whatever eventually becomes of the Kingsland collection, that it won’t be hoarded like it was by Kingsland himself, and that the future owners / possessors / proprietors treat it not as mere objects to be owned and disposed of at will, but as precious artifacts to be cherished, appreciated, and then passed on to the next generation, in a sound manner of succession which respects both the integrity of the art itself and the culture to which it belongs.


[fn1] Marsh, George Perkins. The Earth as Modified by Human Action: Man and Nature (1874) [emphasis added]
[fn2] Ibid.
[fn3] Konigsberg, Eric. “Two Years Later, the F.B.I. Still Seeks the Owners of a Trove of Artworks” The New York Times, August 11, 2008
[fn4] Shapiro, Gary. “William Kingsland, City ‘Gazetteer,’ Is Dead” The New York Sun, April 13, 2006
[fn5] Konigsberg, Eric. “Two Years Later, the F.B.I. Still Seeks the Owners of a Trove of Artworks” The New York Times, August 11, 2008
[fn6] Shapiro, Gary. “William Kingsland, City ‘Gazetteer,’ Is Dead” The New York Sun, April 13, 2006
[fn7] Konigsberg, Eric. “Two Years Later, the F.B.I. Still Seeks the Owners of a Trove of Artworks” The New York Times, August 11, 2008
[fn8] Ibid.
[fn9] Shapiro, Gary. “Genealogists Discover Identity of Enigmatic Upper East Side Collector” The New York Sun, December 14, 2006
[fn10] Ibid.
[fn11] Ramirez, Margaret and Mitchum, Robert. “1,600 antiquities for Italy: FBI sending back stolen artifacts found in Berwyn” Chicago Tribune, June 9 2009
[fn12] “Stolen Cultural Artifacts Found in Berwyn Residence Returned to Italian Authorities” June 8 2009, F.B.I. Press Release
[fn13] “Son ‘Relieved’ To Tell Cops Of Dad’s Stolen Artifacts” June 10, 2009,
[fn14] Tompa, Peter. “The Strange Case of the Sisto Collection” June 9 2009,
[fn15] Ibid.
[fn16] Donadio, Rachel. “In Italy, Questions Are From Enemies, and That’s That” The New York Times, June 6, 2009,


Alter, Denise M., Esq. “Should Collectors Worry about Art Theft? The Importance of Provenance and Good Title”

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