Persepolis Relief seized from New York Art Fair

A fragment of a bas-relief from the city of Persepolis, dating from the 5th Century B.C.E.

On Friday afternoon New York prosecutors and police officers seized a limestone relief which once decorated a building from the ancient Persian city of Persepolis. The New York Times reported that “cursing could be heard” from the booth. The seized bas-relief, valued at an estimated $1.2 million dollars was being offered for sale by Rupert Wace, a London-based antiquities dealer. In a statement, Wace argued that the stone fragment “has been well known to scholars and has a history that spans almost 70 years.”

According to Wace, the relief was donated to a Canadian museum in the early 1950s. It was on regular display until it was stolen from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2011. It was recovered by Canadian authorities, but rather than seek the return of the object, the museum decided to keep the insurance payout given by AXA Insurance Company. AXA then had title to the object, which sold it to Wace.

What then is the crime committed which would lead to a seizure? I have not had a look at the warrant, so I’m speculating here, but reportedly it alleges the bas-relief was stolen. Likely because it was removed from Iran after the enactment of an ownership declaration. That argument has not been helpful on its own for material from Iran when Iran initiated an unsuccessful civil lawsuit against Denyse Berend for another bas-relief removed from Persepolis before the Revolution.

This case may be different though, as this is a criminal seizure, not a private suite. Iran declared ownership of objects like this one in 1930. Adding to the claim is the immovable nature of this bas-relief. It had been affixed to the wall for 25 centuries before it was removed.

The Apadana Palace at Persepolis.

This object may have been transported in the modern era, but had been designed and crafted to stay on a wall as part of a monument. This seizure pushes up against some of the oldest successful seizure of illicit material, and has as one obstacle the passage of time. On the other hand though is the reality that this object was part of a monument, Persepolis, which was granted World Heritage Status in 1979.

The Antiquities Trade Gazette reported that the Art Loss Register was responsible for vetting objects at the fair. James Ratcliffe, the director of recoveries and general counsel at the Art Loss Register stated:

We understand this piece was seized and although we’ve not seen an official explanation for this we gather it relates to the possibility that it was taken from Persepolis unlawfully. Given that it was on public display in a museum for over 60 years it will be interesting to see how the claim develops.

Indeed it will. What claims Wace will offer to defend his possession of the object, and what claims he may have against AXA or other predecessors up the chain of possession will be interesting to watch. One thing is certain though, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office is vigorously policing the antiquities trade at a level not seen in the United States or elsewhere. Dealers of illicit cultural property are on notice.

  1. Laura Chesters, Persian limestone sculpture seized by police from antiquities dealer at TEFAF New York Antiquities Trade Gazette (2017), https://www.antiquestradegazette.com/news/2017/persian-limestone-sculpture-seized-by-police-from-antiquities-dealer-at-tefaf-new-york/ (last visited Oct 30, 2017).
  2. James C. McKinley Jr, Ancient Limestone Relief Is Seized at European Art Fair, The New York Times, October 29, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/29/arts/design/ancient-limestone-relief-seized-european-fine-art-fair.html (last visited Oct 30, 2017).
  3. Stolen artifact from Montreal museum recovered in Edmonton, CBC News (2014), http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/stolen-artifact-from-montreal-museum-recovered-in-edmonton-1.2535754 (last visited Oct 30, 2017).

The Met’s latest forced return of looted art

A Paestan Krater, which was connected to the Medici Polaroids

Yesterday Tom Mashberg reported in the NY Times that the Met would be returning this Greek krater to Italy. The Met has returned many objects to Italy in recent years, because they have been looted from tombs and archaeological sites before being smuggled abroad.

In 2014 this krater was linked by researcher Christos Tsirogiannis to Polaroid photos which had been seized from the Geneva warehouse of Giacomo Medici.

The interesting aspect of the story here appears to be the very slow response on the part of the Met to questions presented by Tsirogiannis. Tsirogiannis told the NY Times that the evidence: “[S]uggested that the item was disinterred from a grave site in southern Italy by looters,” before it passed on to Medici.

Medici was an antiquities dealer, convicted of trafficking in illicit cultural objects, and many objects which passed through his gallery/collection/storehouse have been deemed illicit. Reached by Mashberg for the story, Medici said:

[H]e had no recollection of having handled the vase in question. “Absolutely not,” he said. He said he had been released from house arrest last year after serving half of an eight-year sentence that was shortened by time off for good behavior and a two-year amnesty provision granted to all Italian prisoners.

“I am a free man,” Mr. Medici said. “I went on trial, it lasted years, I was convicted for some of the objects” that Italian prosecutors believed had been looted, “and now I have nothing more to do with the justice system. The story is finished.”

Continue reading “The Met’s latest forced return of looted art”

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:

Continue reading “On those Asia Week Seizures”

“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.

Continue reading ““New” Leonardo da Vinci seized in Switzerland”

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