Returning a Stolen Eye

Zahi Hawass has announced Switzerland will return a 19 inch eye from this statue of Amenhotep III, according to AFP.  The statue was uncovered in 1970, and the eye was stolen in 1972.  Hawass said the eye was sold to an American antiquities dealer; who auctioned it at Sotheby’s; then it was bought by a German antiquities dealer; and it ended up in a museum in Basel, Switzerland.  That’s the typical journey of a stolen or illegally excavated antiquity. 

It’s a very good thing this eye is being returned — seemingly in an amicable way.  The wire story raises more questions though:  will the Swiss museum receive loans or other compensation; who are these dealers; are they still buying and selling objects. 

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

Another Major Theft in Switzerland (UPDATE)

A work by Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler has “gone missing” on its way to an exhibition in Bern. The work had been collected by a transportation company but never made it to the exhibition at the Bern Museum of Fine Art. It was to be included in an exhibition entitled “A Symbolic Vision,” a collection of Hodler’s works.

Swiss police are treating the matter as a major art theft, after two other high profile robberies occurred in the past few months: Two Monets and two Degas‘s, worth a combined 180 million francs ($163 million), were stolen from the Emil Buehrle private art collection in Zurich in February, and a few days before that, two Picassos on loan from Germany, worth an estimated 4 million francs, were stolen from an exhibition near Zurich. No further details have been released on the Hodler incident.

UPDATE:

Compensation for Restitution Experts

Elise Viebeck, a student writer for the Claremont Independent has an outstanding article about the conflicts of interest which arise when history and art history experts are brought in to assist the heirs of victims who lost valuable art to the Nazis during World War II. She details the actions of a CMC History Professor, Jonathan Petropoulos.

The article asks an important question: How should these experts, whose specialized knowledge can bring about the restitution of ultra-valuable masterworks be compensated? Swiss prosecutor Ivo Hoppler raided a Swiss safe in the Summer of 2007 as part of a “three-nation probe of a German art dealer accused of conspiring with an American at historian to withold a painting by French impressionist”. I talked about the discovery of the work at issue, Camille Pisarro’s Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps last summer, but was unaware of this controversy.

Here’s an excerpt of Viebeck’s interesting story:

The story of the Pissarro begins with Zurich resident Gisela Fischer, 78, who is of Jewish descent. She and her family fled Vienna in 1938 two days after the Nazi Anschluss. The Gestapo looted their home, and among the stolen items was a painting by impressionist Camille Pissarro, Le Quai Malaquais, Printemps.

After the war, Fischer’s father successfully located and reclaimed many of his family’s stolen assets. After her father’s death in 1995, Fischer concentrated her efforts on the Pissarro which had remained elusive. In early 2001, she registered the painting with the Art Loss Register (ALR), a London-based for-profit company involved in stolen art recovery.

The ALR began to research the painting’s provenance, or history of ownership, in the hope of ascertaining its location. There was no initial financial arrangement, as at that time the ALR did not charge for Holocaust and World War II art claims…

On January 8, 2007, at a meeting in Munich, a representative of the ALR gave Fischer a message from Petropoulos. He wrote in a letter dated December 7, 2006 that he had located the painting in Switzerland and was communicating with an unnamed contact of its owner. The owner was a “foundation created by the heirs of the person who purchased [the painting] in 1957.”

The foundation, he wrote, wished to remain anonymous.

Two days after the meeting in Munich, Radcliffe also sent Fischer a letter, this time to request a finder’s fee for the organization’s success in finding the Pissarro in Switzerland. Despite its earlier commitment not to charge Holocaust claimants, the company had changed its charging policy for Holocaust art claims, telling claimants that the company could complete restitution “at far less cost and often more efficiently” than the expensive lawyers who took some cases. The meeting with the ALR in January 2007 was the first Fischer knew of the ALR’s changed policy…

For the Pissarro case, Radcliffe proposed an elaborate compensation scheme, including 20 percent of the first $1 million, 15 percent of the second million and 10 percent of any additional value of the painting. Included in his price was a stipend for Professor Petropoulos, who had requested $100,000 from the ALR for his services.

In a letter dated January 23, Fischer’s lawyer, Dr. Norbert Kückelmann, rejected the ALR’s proposal. Three days later Petropoulos met with Fischer at the Hotel St. Gotthart in Zurich to try a new arrangement…

Radcliffe and Sarah Jackson of the Art Loss Register also went to Zurich, only to find themselves excluded from the dealings. “We went expecting to be included in the meetings with Ms. Fischer only to discover that they had already had meetings without us. We realized we had been cut out,” Radcliffe told the CI.

At the hotel, Petropoulos and Peter Griebert, a Munich art dealer, showed her digital photos of the Pissarro, claiming to have taken them that morning. According to an account published in ARTNews magazine, they did not give further details about its location or the identity of its owners at that time.

It’s a very interesting account, and I don’t think Petropoulos, nor even the Art Loss Register are painted in a favorable light based on this account. Though much nazi restitution litigation rests on the assumption that the law should compensate the victims of the holocaust and other misappropriation, the engine driving these claims are the large sums of money these works can bring at auction. I think an interesting issue which needs to be researched in more detail is how and to what extent these restitution experts owe a duty to claimants.

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

Two Recovered, Two Still Missing

Two of the four works stolen from the Buhrle Collection have been recovered at a mental hospital 500 yards from the private art museum in Zurich. Monet’s Poppy Field at Vetheuil and van Gog’s Blooming Chestnut Branches were discovered in a parking lot, still behind their display glass and completely unharmed. The two easier-to-carry works, Degas’ Ludovic Lepic and his Daughter, and Cezanne’s Boy in the Red Waistcoat are still missing.

There’s no word about how long the car has been parked in the lot. Did the thieves leave it there immediately after the theft? Or, did they return it there to show they still had the works and were serious about a ransom?

There are also indications that the returned van Gogh may in fact be a copy (Ger.) by his friend and homeopathic physician Paul-Ferdinand Gachet. The Weltwoche, a German-language weekly newspaper publiched in Zurich, has investigated these claims in recent years. Gachet’s copies of impressionist works were the subject of a 1999 retrospective at the Met.

(Photo Credit)

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

More on Dr. Julius No


A warm welcome to everyone who’s clicked through from Randy Kennedy’s excellent piece which appeared in yesterday’s New York Times. He managed to add some analysis and even novelty to a subject which often gets the same treatment whenever a high-profile art theft takes place.

I think he contrasts nicely the idea of an alluring art thief with the reality that “art is an exceedingly dumb thing to steal.” That certainly seems to be the conventional wisdom. But of course because “art museums are still relatively unguarded public spaces”, these thieves will continue to have the opportunity to take objects. The ultimate tragedy would be if we had to run a gauntlet of airport-like security checks to view works of art. However if these thefts continue, that may be a step certain institutions may decide to take. I particularly like the comments he elicited from Thomas McShane, the former FBI agent whose memoirs I reviewed here.

The reason myself and others like to speculate about a “Dr. No” when an extremely valuable and well-known work is stolen can be traced to the very first bond film. Dr. No was of course the unwanted son of a German missionary and a Chinese girl, and a member of the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion (SPECTRE). The film makers, in a throw away moment, capitalized on the theft in 1961 of of this work by Goya, Portrait of the Duke of Wellington. Bond does a double-take when he reaches the island home of Dr. Julius No. He sees the painting and remarks “So that’s where that went”.

Hugh McLeave’s Rogues in the Gallery details the perhaps more bizarre reality. The real thief may have been a man named Kempton Bunton. He was a disabled British pensioner who confessed to committing the crime. Bunton was a retired bus driver. In 1961, Charles Wrightsman purchased the painting for £140,000. He wanted to take the work to the United States, but of course the UK’s limited export restriction applied, and money was raised to purchase the work and it was displayed at the National Gallery. At this time a great deal of press attention was paid to the work, and Bunton, upset at the amount of money he had to pay for his TV license, may have decided to break into the museum early in the morning and steal the work.

After chatting up the security guards, Bunton allegedly learned the electronic security system would be turned off early in the morning. He used tape and paper to insure the door and a window in the toilet would be unlocked, and made his way around back early in the morning and took the painting. He later said “I raced back to the lodgings. Taking the picture from behind the wardrobe, I stood it on the bed with the frame leaning against the wall and looked at it in triumph. Wellington returned my stare with cold contempt and I swear I saw his lips move, with the imaginary voice that said: ‘thou low-born wretch, I’ll break thee for this.’ And somehow I believed he would.”

Bunton seemed to be after some notoriety and fame. Letters were soon sent to newspapers, one asked for donations to charity to allow the poor to pay for TV licenses.

In 1965, four years after the theft, Burton reportedly returned the painting via a left luggage office at the Birmingham New Street Station. Soon after he went to the police and confessed to the crime. The police initially rejected him as a suspect, as they didn’t think a pudgy 61 year-old disabled man could have committed the crime. However charges were soon filed and the jury only convicted Bunton of the theft of the frame, which was not returned. Judge Aarvold explained to the jury that if they thought he meant to return the painting if a ransom bid failed, they must acquit him. If they felt he would keep it until he got the money, they would have to convict. The jury found Bunton not guilty of stealing the painting, but guilty of stealing the gilt frame, which was never returned. Bunton served only three months in prison.

The law was changed soon after as a direct result of this light sentence. A provision in the Theft Act 1968, sec. 11 makes it a crime to remove without authority any object displayed or kept for display to the public in a building to which the public have access. It does not require an intention to permanently deprive.

As for Bunton, there are some indications that he may have perhaps been innocent. In 1996 the National Gallery released an unsolicited and simple statement that he may have been innocent. What actually happened is still subject to some speculation.

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

Major Theft in Zurich (UPDATE)


Police in Zurich have announced a major theft from an art museum in Zurich. Works by Paul Cezanne, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, and Vincent van Gogh were taken from the Emil Buehrle art foundation. Details are still sketchy, I’ll update more this afternoon when we learn more. This theft follows of course from the theft last week of two works by Picasso from another museum in Switzerland.

Why would someone steal such widely-known works? As I see it, there are four potential answers to this question.

The first, is that a wealthy collector admires the piece, and hired a thief to take it for him. I’ll call this the Dr. No situation. This seems the least likely possibility, but the one that strikes a chord with the imagination. Writers in this subject frequently cite the Dr. No as being responsible for thefts, and I admit it makes for good Bond villains, but there has been little convincing evidence that this is why people are stealing rare objects.

Second, the thief may not have known that the object was so rare as to make its subsequent sale difficult.

Third, the thief may simply be trying to kidnap the object. They could then insure its safe return for a generous reward.

Finally, perhaps there is a market somewhere for these works. Perhaps it may not be all that difficult to sell these kind of works. This strikes me as the most troubling possibility, but also the least likely, as these works will likely be widely-publicized and photographs will be circulated as more details emerge.

UPDATE:

Swiss police have held a press conference and released more details on yesterday’s massive theft in Zurich. Three men entered the Buhrle foundation 30 minutes before closing yesterday, and while one man forced museum workers to the floor, the two other men collected four paintings:

Cezanne’s Boy in the Red Waistcoat

https://i1.wp.com/www.buehrle.ch/pics/07_0003_x.jpg?w=840

Monet’s Poppy Field at Vetheuil
Zurich art theft:

Degas’ Ludovic Lepic and his Daughters

https://i1.wp.com/www.buehrle.ch/pics/13_0004_x.jpg?w=840

and Van Gogh’s Blooming Chestnut Branches

https://i2.wp.com/www.buehrle.ch/pics/21_0003_x.jpg?w=840

The estimated monetary value of these stolen works is about $164 million USD, which would put it near the top of works stolen in recent decades; I’ll leave to art historians the task of evaluating the cultural value of these works which may be far larger.

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

Two Picasso Works Stolen in Switzerland


Two works by Pablo Picasso, Verre et pichet (pictured here), and Tete de cheval were stolen from the Seedamm-Kulturzentrum in Pfaeffikon just outside Zurich Switzerland.

The thieves set of a security alarm when they were leaving, and police are speculating that the thieves may have hidden in the museum until after closing, and then broke out with the works.

Both the Telegraph and the BBC are pointing out this morning that works by Picasso are frequently stolen. One of the now-recovered works from Sao Paolo was a Picasso, and police in August recovered works stolen from the artist’s granddaughter’s home in Paris.

He’s a popular artist to steal certainly, but these works will never be sold on the open market, they are too widely known. I think a more interesting issue is security when these works are loaned out to regional museums like this one, which was the problem with works stolen in Nice last August. I think there are a lot of benefits to loaning works, and sharing collections; however there are trade-offs. Often these smaller regional museums have less-sophisticated security systems given their smaller budgets and collections.

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