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).
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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

Italian Seizures, the Bronze Athelete, and the Getty

The Getty has decided to appeal the February decision in which an Italian court ordered the seizure of this statue, Bronze Statue of a Victorious Youth.  An Italian appeals court judged ordered the work returned to Italy.  This was a new legal approach as nations as far as I’m aware have not attempted to bring forfeiture proceedings domestically, with an expectation that a foreign government or court would uphold the order.  Perhaps the Italian courts could seize other assets the Getty has in Italy in lieu of recovery, but my initial conclusions are shared by Patty Gerstenblith in Martha Lufkin’s excellent summary of the current disposition of the dispute.  Gerstenblith notes two problems.  First, illegal export does not give Italy a tenable claim in U.S. courts.  It may in conjunction with a law like the Cultural Property Implementation Act and bilateral agreements, but those were all enacted after the bronze was brought to California.  Second, an awful lot of time has elapsed, and it is likely that an American court will take a dim view of the length of time Italy has taken before this action.  Indeed, charges were brought in Italy against the fisherman who brought the bronze up in their nets in the 1960’s, but the defendants were acquitted. 

There is an extralegal dimension to the appeal as well, in that Italy continues to put pressure on the Getty, and its means of acquisition of the statue. 

We may question the Getty’s acquisition of the bronze, question where it currently belongs, and even debate the merits of restitution of these objects.  However, there is no evidence that this bronze was “looted” in the same way the Euphronios Krater was for example.  All reports I’m aware of indicate the fishermen fortuitously brought this up in the Adriatic, in international waters, in 1964.  They may have later passed it on to others who smuggled it out of the country, but this is not a looted object.

For noteworthy previous posts on the bronze, see here.

  1. Martha Lufkin, Greek bronze will stay in the Getty Villa, The Art Newspaper, April 14, 2010.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Portable Antiquities Seized in Iraq

Iraqi police announced today the seizure of 39 antiquities discovered hidden near a shrine outside Nasiriyah in Southern Iraq.  These included clay tablets and statues, some of which may date from the 4,000 year-old Sumerian civilization. Are these objects from one of Iraq’s museums?  Were these objects looted from nearby archaeological sites?  If I could speculate on why the objects were hidden near a shrine: it may have been a convenient place to hide these looted objects for sale to visitors to the shrine. 

  1. Katherine Houreld, Iraqi police seize artifacts amid smuggling fears – Washington Times, Associated Press, January 5, 2009.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Free Wally!

 The 10-year battle over the rights to this work may soon be nearing the beginning of the end:

A federal judge in Manhattan ruled that the U.S. government and the Leopold Museum in Vienna have enough evidence to possibly lay claim to the “Portrait of Wally.”  The painting by Austrian expressionist Schiele in 1912 depicts his mistress and primary model.    The U.S. government confiscated the painting when it was on loan from the Leopold, claiming the museum knew the painting had been stolen by a Nazi in 1939 from its Jewish owner, Lea Bondi.   The Leopold sent more than 100 works by Schiele to New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1997.  Acting on information that two paintings had been looted in Austria during World War II, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau seized “Portrait of Wally” and “Dead City” from the museum.



And the work has been in storage ever since.


Jonathan Perlow, Dispute Over Schiele Painting Heads to Trial [Courthouse News Service, Oct. 7, 2009]

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Stolen Antiquities Recovered With the Help of the Art Loss Register

The Art Loss Register—though not a cure-all for what ails the antiquities trade—is an invaluable tool for the recovery of stolen objects so long as they have been documented and reported.  I have received a couple of press releases from the ALR highlighting recent recoveries of antiquities.  Though it cannot help aid the recovery of antiquities which have never been documented, it can help in the recovery of stolen antiquities which have been documented and reported missing, underscoring the need I think for museums and nations of origin to do a better job documenting and reporting the stores of objects which they currently have.  A couple recent seizures by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) highlight this.

Yesterday ICE announced a wall panel fresco which had been stolen in 1997 was recovered.  I found the history of the site interesting:

The panel, rectangular with a white background depicting a female minister, white wash on plaster with a modern wooden frame, was previously located at the excavation office in Pompeii and was reported stolen with five other fresco panels on June 26, 1997.

The investigation revealed that, between 1903 and 1904, the Italian government authorized a farmer, Giuseppe De Martino, to restore his farmhouse, which was located on an archeological site in Boscoreale, province of Naples. During the restoration, six important frescos, originating from Pompeii were found.

On July 12, 1957, the Government of Italy purchased the frescos. On June 26, 1997, after the completion of work to the excavation site, the Italian government observed that the six frescos were missing and subsequently reported the theft.

 This follows soon after the recovery of seven Egyptian antiquities which had been stolen from the Bijbels Museum in Amsterdam in 2007:

The investigation received significant help from the Art Loss Register (ALR) of New York, an organization that maintains a database of stolen works of art. The ALR discovered the artifacts at the Manhattan auction house, which turned the artifacts over to the Register and ICE agents.

One of the pieces recovered is a 7-inch-high depiction of a mummy with arms folded over the chest and hoes in each hand. It dates to between 1307 and 1070 B.C. The other recovered artifacts were an bronze figure of Imhotep, artchitect of the first pyramid, and one of Hapokrates, and an Egyptian painted Wood Osiris, all dating as far back as 712 B.C.

“The recovery of these artifacts sends a strong message to thieves that the market to sell stolen antiquities in the United States is freezing up.” said Peter J. Smith, special agent in charge of the ICE Office of Investigations in New York. “ICE is committed to working closely with foreign governments and organizations like the ALR to recover priceless works of art and antiquities so they can be returned to their rightful owners.”

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

Antiquities Seized in Macedonia

The AP is reporting on a seizure of “dozens” of antiquities yesterday in Macedonia:

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Authorities have seized dozens of stolen ancient artifacts after raiding the homes of two suspected antiquities smugglers in southern Macedonia.

Police confiscated about 70 archaeological items, including coins, terracotta figurines, pieces of silver and bronze jewelry and amphora dating from the Hellenistic and Roman periods in the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C., police spokesman Ivo Kotevski said Wednesday.

They are believed to have been stolen from Isar, one of Macedonia’s largest archaeological sites in the south…

Macedonia has some 6,000 registered archaeological sites. Experts warn that since the country gained independence from Yugoslavia 17 years ago, the antiquities have become increasingly vulnerable to looters who use sophisticated navigation and excavating equipment.

I think the interesting aspect may be the difficulty the new Macedonian republic has had policing its archaeological sites. These former Yugoslav republics have had to dramatically ramp up their heritage protection after their independence. One wonders perhaps if they might begin to make calls for repatriation of objects?

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