On those Asia Week Seizures

Image from ICE, CBP, This seizure contained a 2nd Century Bodhisattva schist head from the Gandhara region (likely from what is now known today as Swat Valley, Pakistan,) and is estimated to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Image from ICE, CBP, a 2nd Century Bodhisattva schist head from the Gandhara region (likely from what is now known today as Swat Valley, Pakistan,) and is estimated to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Asia Week in New York is an effort by galleries and Museums to exhibit Asian art and promote sales. According to Tom Mashberg’s reporting in the New York Times, it generated $360 million in sales last year.

But this year the event also generated considerable law enforcement attention, with by my count the seizure of eight antiquities. At least so far It revealed again the depressing scope of antiquities looting networks. Even when a network is revealed, and dismantled, objects appear again on the market for years after a successful investigation—in some cases decades or more. The ICE press release estimated that the Kapoor investigation and Operation Hidden Idol has secured over 2,500 objects, worth an estimated $100 million, with a total of four arrests.

The seizures at Asia Week this year stem largely from the investigation by Federal Agents, in cooperation with Indian authorities, of Subhash Kapoor.

Chasing Aphrodite has comprehensive coverage, and offers this background on the investigation:

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“New” Leonardo da Vinci seized in Switzerland

A portrait of Isabella d'Este, seized from a bank vault in Lugano
A portrait of Isabella d’Este, seized from a bank vault in Lugano

A joint Swiss and Italian investigation has resulted in a seizure of this portrait, which may be a work by Leonardo da Vinci. Whether the work is, in fact, a recently surfaced work by the Renaissance master is very much in doubt. Some have tried to attribute the work to him the Telegraph reports:

Carbon dating has shown that there is a 95 per cent probability that the portrait was painted between 1460 and 1650, and tests have shown that the primer used to treat the canvas corresponds to that employed by the Renaissance genius.

Carlo Pedretti, a professor emeritus of art history and an expert in Leonardo studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the tests showed there were “no doubts” that the portrait was the work of Leonardo.

However Martin Kemp, professor emeritus of the history of art at Trinity College, Oxford, and one of the world’s foremost experts on the artist, has expressed doubts about whether the painting, which measures 24in by 18in, is the work of Leonardo.

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Increasing the Use of Forfeiture in Policing Heritage

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.

  1. 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).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

U.S. Repatriates 4,000 Looted Antiquities to Mexico

Yesterday U.S. law enforcement officials returned 4,000 object to Mexico. They are the fruit of 11 different investigations in cities like El Paso, San Antonio, Fort Stockton, Phoenix, San Diego, Chicago and Montana. These kinds of ‘art on the table’ news conferences are quite common. But I admit to feeling conflicted about them. On the one hand they certainly speak to the degree of seriousness with which ICE agents and the Federal Government take these crimes. But as with any crime that becomes federalized like this, the incentives are I think primarily geared towards rewarding these big investigations and successful returns. Yet the underlying problems endemic to the antiquities trade itself are not treated or targeted. It is an important step, but also the more of these returns I see (and there are a lot of them) the more frustrating it becomes as well. Because these investigations target the objects. There is no mention of arrests, prosecutions or of much of anything which would produced sustained compliance on the part of the art trade.

In fact after reading the news release I feel more pessimistic about the mass of objects which are being smuggled up from the south. Consider that three statues were smuggled in by a migrant worker on a bus; another clay statue was hidden in luggage in El Paso; another statue was hidden in the dash of a vehicle; a grinding stone was found in another vehicle; another millstone was found in the back of a truck; and the list goes on. These are straightforward and low-cost means to smuggle the objects into the country. We cannot I think expect ICE agents to catch every smuggled object found in luggage, trucks or cars. The trade itself and art buyers need to step up at some point and correct a market which routinely accepts these looted and stolen objects. But that kind of sober reflection on these recoveries is not to be found in the statements of U.S. and Mexican officials. From the ICE news release:

“The plundering of cultural property is one of the oldest forms of organized cross-border crime and has become a worldwide phenomenon that transcends frontiers,” said HSI Assistant Director Janice Ayala. “The teamwork and cooperation that exists between ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations and our Mexican law enforcement counterparts, as well as with U.S. federal, local and state law enforcement agencies made it possible for us to secure these cultural artifacts and to ensure that they are returned to the government of Mexico. HSI will remain committed to combating the looting and trafficking of Mexico’s cultural treasures.”
Consul General of Mexico Jacob Prado stated, “The restitution to Mexico of more than 4,000 archaeological pieces, which were seized by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations special agents, is proof of the excellent collaboration that exists between Mexico and the United States, and attests to the relevance of the institutions and legal framework that our authorities have developed to successfully address the many different issues of our bilateral agenda.” Consul General Prado also expressed the gratitude of the government and the people of Mexico to the six HSI offices involved in recovering the artifacts, “for their support to ensure the restitution of these archaeological pieces, which are part of the cultural heritage and the historical memory of the people of Mexico.”

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

Italian Court Confirms Seizure of "Getty Bronze"

The Getty received some very bad news Thursday.

Jason Felch reports on a ruling by an Italian regional magistrate in Pesaro upholding an earlier ruling to seize the bronze statue.

The ruling Thursday by a regional magistrate in Pesaro will likely prolong the legal battle over the statue, a signature piece of the Getty’s embattled antiquities collection whose return Italian authorities have sought for years. “This was the news we were waiting for,” said Gian Mario Spacca, president of the Marche region where the statue was hauled ashore in 1964, in an interview with Italian reporters. “Now we will resume contacts made with the Getty Museum to build a positive working relationship.” Spacca visited the Getty last year hoping to negotiate an agreement to share the statue. But the Getty has made clear it will fight in court to keep the piece and is expected to appeal the ruling to Italy’s highest court.

Using a domestic court to seek the seizure of an illegally exported object from another country has not been attempted before. But Italy has been at the forefront of repatriation strategies. This novel approach could lead to a new legal tool for nations of origin to pursue, if it can convince the Attorney General and a U.S. District Court to enforce this seizure order. The Getty appealed the earlier ruling, and they did so for a reason, this case could set a precedent which would open up museums to seizure suits in the nation of origin.

It should be interesting to watch this dispute continue. For background on this dispute, see here.

  1. Jason Felch, Italian court upholds claim on Getty bronze, L.A. Times, May 4, 2012, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-getty-bronze-ruling-20120504,0,2759444.story (last visited May 5, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

France Seizes Painting Stolen in 1818

Christ Carrying the Cross, Nicolas Tournier

The owner of Weiss Gallery in London is in “complete shock” after officials from the French ministry of culture have refused to allow The Carrying of the Cross, by Nicolas Tournier to be taken from France back to England. The gallery purchased the painting at a Maastricht art fair last year for 400,000 Euros. The gallery took it to a small old master art fair in Paris called Paris Tableau, but France has now detained the work of art.

Mark Weiss, the owner of the gallery stated “I’ve been in communication with the director of the Toulouse museum since I acquired the painting in 2010, and at no stage has he ever stated that the picture was a stolen painting.” The work originally hung in a chapel in Toulouse, but during the French Revolution the work was confiscated and moved to a museum. It was then apparently stolen from a museum in 1818. It would be interesting to know more about what those conversations were like between Weiss and the Toulouse museum.

France has argued this is the rediscovery of a long-lost work, yet it was stolen nearly two centuries ago. Have there been persistent claims for its return? I’m not sure. It is difficult to envision the French have the legal right to seize the painting so long after its theft. They do have the de facto power perhaps to temporarily detain the work, and make life very difficult for the gallery owner. Any experts in the area of French law care to offer any opinions? The newspaper accounts have merely focused on the seizure, without diving into the merits.

  1. AFP: British gallery rejects France’s claim to painting, (2011) (last visited Nov 9, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Looted Statute (maybe Caligula) Seized Near Rome

A Bust of Caligula at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

Italian police have arrested a tombarolo with an 8-foot ancient statue not far from Rome. The statue may be worth €1 million. They believe the statue may be of Caligula, and may even have been looted from Caligula’s tomb, which has not been discovered. We surely won’t know if this tomb or the site was the actual tomb, but if looting is destroying the archaeological record, we are losing information.

Might the record have given us information on Caligula, who may have received a bad rap from the sources which have survived antiquity? Contemporaries describe the emperor as insane, saying he appointed a horse as consul, slept with his sisters, and killed often. But these might have been claims made by his political enemies in the senate and elsewhere—perhaps not too different from today’s politics. After all, how could the son of Germanicus (my favorite Roman) have been such a bad guy. Caligula only ruled from AD 37-41, before he was assassinated.

I wonder where this statue was going to be sold? The United States, the middle-East, Asia? Excavations will start to reveal the archaeology of the site where the tomb raider unearthed the massive statue.

  1. Tom Kington, Caligula’s tomb found after police arrest man trying to smuggle statue, The Guardian, January 17, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jan/17/caligula-tomb-found-police-statue (last visited Jan 18, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com