“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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Repatriation by popular referendum

John Constable's "Dedham from Langham"
John Constable’s “Dedham from Langham”

Doreen Carvajal reports for the New York Times on a novel effort by Alain Monteagle to recover this work of art seized from his family in France during World War II. Monteagle is attempting to gather enough signatures to force a referendum:

So Mr. Monteagle and his relatives have taken to the soapbox. They are using the local Swiss system of popular referendums — which require the signatures of at least 10 percent of registered voters, 2,500 in this case — to  bring the issue before elected officials, since the museum is owned by the town. And they are taking the early, tentative steps required to force the local legislature to put an issue to a vote; if the legislature were to approve, more signatures could be gathered for a communitywide vote.

A referendum is it seems the only legal avenue remaining for Monteagle, as the Swiss Museum claims to have acquired the work by donation in 1986:

The Constable painting, “Dedham From Langham,” a 19th-century landscape of the English countryside, was seized in Nice, France, in 1943, along with all the valuables of Mr. Monteagle’s great-aunt, Anna Jaffé, a childless British expatriate and wealthy Jewish art collector who had died a year earlier. Her French heir, a nephew who was Mr. Monteagle’s grandfather, died in Auschwitz.

The pro-Nazi Vichy government of France organized an auction in Nice, unloading everything from silver sugar pots and tapestries to paintings by Turner and Tenier.

Ultimately, the Constable painting passed among three new owners during the war and was purchased by a Geneva gallery, which sold it in 1946 to René Junod. He was an art collector and Swiss businessman who, with his wife, left a collection of 30 paintings to the museum here in 1986, along with money for renovation and expansion.

Whether Mr. Monteagle’s effort will be successful or not remains to be seen. But his cause may certainly receive a boost from the high-profile article.

  1. Doreen Carvajal, Wooing the Public to Recover Art, The New York Times, March 18, 2014.

United States v. One Triangular Fresco Fragment

The fresco fragment from a tomb in Paestum, via chasingaphrodite.comThe Chasing Aphrodite blog has the story of a noteworthy new federal forfeiture involving billionaire hedge-fund manager and buyer of antiquities, Michael Steinhardt. At issue is this lovely fresco allegedly looted from Paestum. The name Steinhardt will likely be a familiar one as he was a claimant who lost another federal forfeiture action over the Gold Phiale, which helped set useful precedents for federal prosecutors.

The Federal prosecutor’s complaint alleges the importation of the fresco violated US customs law, §1595a, which prohibits the importation of objects contrary to law. The fresco was part of a FedEx shipment into Newark in 2011 that was detained by Customs and Border Protection. the shipment had a customs declaration form, but again, just like with the Godl Phiale case there appears to been misstatements on the customs form with respect to the country of origin for this object. The form declared the origin to be Macedonia, while the complaint alleges the fragment was taken from a tomb in Paestum.

The provenance for the object claims that the fresco was acquired by Lens Tschanned from a Swis art gallery in 1959, and it had been in his home from then until April of 2011. The fresco had no export permissions.

Customs and Border Protection contacted the Italian Carabinieri, and the Tutela Patrimonio Cultrale was able to identify the object as the pediment of a painted tomb north of Paestum in present-day Salerno. This site is known as the necropolis of Andriuolo. The complaint alleges that the figures on the fresco in question are painted in mirror image to another fresco from tomb 53 suggesting they may have likely been installed on different sides of the same tomb.

Here’s the mirror image fresco from tomb 53, which is not on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Paestum. Federal prosecutors appended both of these images in the complaint:

The Mirror image fresco from Paestum
The Mirror image fresco from Paestum

Chasing Aphrodite gives some background of the company Mat Artcare, based in Switzerland:

Mat Securitas is the same Swiss shipping service that transported the Getty Museum’s looted goddess of Aphrodite from Switzerland to London. (See Chasing Aphrodite p. 148).Their motto is “Safe. Discrete. Reliable.”

Will Steinhardt litigate this dispute as aggressively as he did in the 1990’s with the Gold Phiale forfeiture? The Federal complaint makes an extremely compelling case that this fragment was looted from a tomb in Paestum. It’s connection to macedonia seems ludicrous when compared to the other pediment which was excavated and is on display at the museum there.

Complaint, United States v. One Triangular Fresco Fragment, CV 136286 (S.D.N.Y. 2013).

Steinhardt Redux: Feds Seize Fresco Looted from Italian World Heritage Site, Destined for New York Billionaire CHASING APHRODITE, Nov. 18, 2013.

Italian Carabinieri Announce Operation "Andromeda"

Italian authorities today from the Carabinieri Art and Antiquities squad held a press conference at the Colosseum in Rome to announce the return of 337 antiquities, worth an estimated 15 million euros.  They had been seized from a Japanese antiquities dealer in Switzerland in 2008.  In 2008 Italy and Switzerland entered into a bilateral agreement which allowed for cooperation on antiquities investigations, perhaps this seizure is a product of that arrangement  David Gill points to images and a press release by the Carabinieri.  He notes “It appears that this is part of a major investigation into the assets of London-based dealer Robin Symes”. Among the objects returned are pieces of Greek pottery, frescoes, bronzes statues, and marble sculptures.  General Giovanni Nistri noted today, “We could make 10 museums abroad with what we’ve brought back”. 

  1. Andrew Davis, Italy Repatriates EU15 Million of Antiquities From Switzerland – Bloomberg, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-07-16/italy-repatriates-eu15-million-of-looted-antiquities-found-in-switzerland.html (last visited Jul 16, 2010).

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

A Pisarro Hidden for 70 Years to be Auctioned

Camille Pissarro’s Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps (pictured), previously discussed here, recently recovered from a Zurich bank vault will go on sale later this month according to Catherine Hickley for Bloomberg:

 Gisela Bermann-Fischer waited almost 70 years to get back a painting by Camille Pissarro stolen from her family’s home in Vienna by the Gestapo in 1938. 

She recovered “Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps” after a quest that pitched her into a battle of lawyers’ letters with Bruno Lohse, a Nazi art dealer appointed by Hermann Goering to loot treasures in occupied France, and finally led to a Zurich bank vault, where the picture was stashed in a safe. Prosecutors sealed the safe as part of a continuing three-nation probe into associates of Lohse suspected of extortion and money-laundering. 

Now 80, Bermann-Fischer will auction the 1903 painting at Christie’s International’s sale of impressionist and modern art in London on June 23. Its value is estimated at between 900,000 pounds ($1.45 million) and 1.5 million pounds. Bermann-Fischer says it cost her at least 500,000 Swiss francs ($466,000) to recover the Pissarro, mainly in lawyers’ fees. At no point during her quest could she be sure of getting the artwork back.

One of the intriguing parts of the story was the brief resurfacing of the work in 1984:

“I don’t think we’ll ever find out from where to where the painting was transported over the years,” Bermann-Fischer said. “It truly was hidden. I think the exhibition at l’Hermitage Lausanne in 1984 was a test run, to see whether the original owners or any heirs were still on the lookout for the paintings and would make a claim.”

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

Germany and the UNESCO Convention

David Gill speculates today that Germany may be a hub of the antiquities trade after recent reforms in Switzerland. That may be possible, or perhaps even likely, but he provides little empirical evidence, and merely some offers speculation. He does not consider for example the very useful EU restrictions on cultural objects which effectively prevent the trade in objects originating from EU member nations.

In the post he references an article by Andrew Curry ($), a journalist. Journalists do a lot of good reporting, and Curry may be a great one. Journalists who report on the law, particularly one as malleable as the UNESCO Convention often miss the mark however. Curry’s summary of the UNESCO Convention, and the arguments Gill makes are very misleading.

Curry’s piece states:

Whereas the United States and many of the other 112 signatories to the convention restrict or prohibit trade in broad categories of artifacts, the German law passed last Friday requires countries to publish lists of specific items they consider valuable to their cultural heritage. Only those items will be protected under German law, which means trade in undocumented artifacts, such as those looted from archaeological sites, will be difficult to restrict. “This is a bad signal,” says Michael Mueller-Karpe, an archaeologist at the Roman-German Central Museum in Mainz. “It tells the world that whatever isn’t published isn’t worth protecting.”

This is wrong on at least two accounts. First, both the United States and Switzerland do not prohibit broad categories of objects. They must be subject to ownership declarations. The real important issue here is the enforcement and recognition of foreign export restrictions. To recognize these both the US and Switzerland require individual nations to make a request and require bilateral agreements to implement the heightened restrictions. This is the province of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee in the United States.

Second, Germany requires nations to publish lists of specific items they consider valuable because this is what the Convention requires. Article 5 of the Convention states,

To ensure the protection of their cultural property against illicit import; export and transfer of ownership, the States Parties to this Convention undertake, as appropriate for each country, to set up within their territories one or more national services, where such services do not already exist, for the protection of the cultural heritage, with a qualified staff sufficient in number for the effective carrying out of the following functions:

(a) contributing to the formation of draft laws and regulations designed to secure the protection of the cultural heritage and particularly prevention of the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of important cultural property;

(b) establishing and keeping up to date, on the basis of a national inventory of protected property, a list of important public and private cultural property whose export would constitute an appreciable impoverishment of the national cultural heritage;

(c) promoting the development or the establishment of scientific and technical institutions (museums, libraries, archives, laboratories, workshops . . . ) required to ensure the preservation and presentation of cultural property;

(d) organizing the supervision of archaeological excavations, ensuring the preservation `in situation’ of certain cultural property, and protecting certain areas reserved for future archaeological research;

(e) establishing, for the benefit of those concerned (curators, collectors, antique dealers, etc.) rules in conformity with the ethical principles set forth in this Convention; and taking steps to ensure the observance of those rules;

(f) taking educational measures to stimulate and develop respect for the cultural heritage of all States, and spreading knowledge of the provisions of this Convention;

(g) seeing that appropriate publicity is given to the disappearance of any items of cultural property.

Note that article 5(b) requires a register and specific definition, the very thing Gill criticizes Germany for doing. This actually strikes me as a very good policy idea. Cultural heritage can mean lots of things to lots of people. I don’t see how its an onerous task for nations of origin at minimum to broadly define categories of objects which should be It should be noted that very few nations have successfully completed this task. This is one flaw, among many, of the UNESCO Convention.

The Convention is an important foundational document, but as a legal instrument leaves a great deal to be desired. Article 2, which can be read more broadly imposes vague requirements on States Party, but States are free to implement the Convention with a great deal of discretion.

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

3 Trucks Worth of Antiquities

The AP is reporting this afternoon that Switzerland is returning 4,400 objects to Italy, three trucks worth:

GENEVA (AP) — Switzerland is returning 4,400 ancient artifacts stolen from archaeological sites in Italy, including ceramics, figurines and bronze daggers dating as far back as 2,000 B.C., prosecutors said Thursday.

The transfer will require three tractor-trailers and all but end a seven-year legal battle over the antiquities.

They were seized in 2001 in storage rooms belonging to two Basel-based art dealers after a tip-off from Italy, said Markus Melzl, a spokesman for city prosecutors. The couple have since lost several court battles to prevent the antiquities from being returned to Italy, Melzl said.

More than half the objects were from the eastern Italian region of Apulia, an area that was heavily influenced by ancient Greek culture, said Guido Lassau, a Swiss archaeologist who worked on the case.

They include richly decorated vases and so-called kraters, large vessels that were used for mixing wine with water. The objects were stolen from upper-class tombs dating from the fifth to third centuries B.C., according to Lassau.

That’s a lot of lost context.

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