On that funerary statue seized in the UK

HMRC seized this funerary statute because it was misdeclared
HMRC seized this funerary statute because it was misdeclared

Janet Ulph has given a helpful overview of the seizure by UK Customs of this funerary statue. The statue was seized after Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs said the statue was “misdeclared”. It was declared as a statue from Turkey, with an estimated value of $110,000. Yet HMRC alleged the statue originated from Cyrene, Libya and its value was closer to £1.5m.

Continue reading “On that funerary statue seized in the UK”

UK Pledges to Ratify 1954 Hague Convention (again)

The UK seems poised to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. The Convention responded to the horrible theft and destruction which took place during World War II. The UK Government has at various points in the past indicated ratification of the Convention was imminent, including in 2004, as pointed out by the IAL blog. It was even an original signatory to the agreement when it was adopted. But ratification has been slow, even leading Colin Renfrew to accuse the UK of “dithering” over ratification. It seems that dithering may now be coming to an end. The new culture secretary, John Whittingdale, has indicated he will introduce legislation to formally bring the UK in line with the 115 other countries which have ratified the Convention. The UK has claimed to have been in compliance with the Convention anyway, so the practical changes brought about by the UK ratification seems to be slight. But the symbolic effect is considerable.

In his statement Whittingdale said:

While the UK’s priority will continue to be the human cost of these horrific conflicts, the UK must also do what we can to prevent any further cultural destruction.The loss of a country’s heritage threatens its very identity. The knowledge and expertise of the experts in our cultural institutions makes us uniquely qualified to help. I believe that the UK therefore has a vital responsibility to support cultural protection overseas.

A terrific sentiment, and one that will hopefully will lead to ratification of the Convention.

Some of the other comments made by Whittingdale though may do more in the near term for heritage in conflict zones. He announced a new “cultural protection fund” which would help safeguard cultural heritage in conflict areas. Funding if deployed well could have a positive impact. He also announced a summit bringing together individuals from the government and institutions like the British Museum, the V&A, and perhaps others.

University of London Considering a Deaccession of Shakespeare Folios

The University of London is testing the deaccession waters, tentatively planning to auction four early Shakespeare folios. They were gifted to the University’s Senate House Library in 1956. The proposal to sell them has drawn the usual arguments about commodification of rare objects, and the possible reticence of future donors to donate their rare possessions: Continue reading “University of London Considering a Deaccession of Shakespeare Folios”

Arrests in the Fitzwilliam Theft

There are reports that between two and six individuals have been arrested in connection with the theft of 18 Chinese objects from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The theft was the subject of BBC’s Crimewatch Tuesday:

The stolen pieces had been given as gifts or bequests to the museum, with some experts estimating the artifacts to be worth approximately £18 million (about $28.7 million Cdn). None of the artifacts has been recovered. Police sought help from the public through a segment on the BBC-TV program Crimewatch on Tuesday evening. The show aired closed-circuit camera footage of four suspects sought in conjunction with the robbery.

As Dick Ellis explained in an interview last week, these thieves probably saw the booming trade in Chinese artworks, and may not have understood how difficult an eventual sale would be. Much in the same way similar objects were stolen from the Durham museum.

17th Century jade "imaginary beast" stolen from Fitzwilliam MuseumNoah Charney speculated last week that the stolen objects will be “smuggled [to China] . . . for in China the general rules about not purchasing art without performing Due Diligence and checking stolen art databases do not apply. Provenance is far less of an issue, sometimes for cultural reasons, but also for practical ones–Internet black-outs mean that many in China could not check stolen art databases, even if they were inclined to do so.” I’m not sure that will be the case.

The Chinese have—on paper at least—the most regulated art market in the world, with a tiered series of regulation. It is one of the only sets of regulations which puts direct regulation in the art market, at the point of sale. Are there problems and corruption? Perhaps. But what art market—whether its in Rome, Paris, London, or New York is not corrupt?

In 2002, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress passed the Law on the Protection of Cultural Relics. The 2002 Law legalizes private transactions involving cultural relics in five circumstances, (1) legal inheritance or gift; (2) purchase from cultural relics shops; (3) purchase from cultural relics auction enterprises; (4) exchanges or transfers between individual citizens; and (5) other methods authorized by the central government. Many of these transactions take place at officially sanctioned cultural relics shops and auction enterprises; and the 2002 Law prohibits a cultural relic shop from running an auction and vice versa.

Under Article 58, the government may buy any cultural relic submitted to a mandatory inspection before sale pursuant to Article 56. During this mandatory inspection, under Article 56, the government is given a kind of right of first refusal, with the purchase price determined by the government representative. Pursuant to article 57, in the event of a sale to a private individual, a report is produced, effectively tracking the buyers and sellers of cultural objects. This new regulatory framework seems a very aggressive strategy, and one that, if implemented effectively, could positively impact the illicit trade in China. However, implementing this strategy may be difficult and subject to corruption.  And yet by recording who buys what, it may be possible not only to track the chain of title of specific cultural objects, but also to evaluate whether individuals are routinely buying and selling stolen, looted, or suspicious objects. What other nation does this routinely? Perhaps the Italian Carabinieri, but that may be it.

Many in the West have an immediate reaction to all things China. And I think that quote above does not really convey the reality of the Chinese art market. Prof. Paul Bator remarked in 1983 that China was the great under-researched area of the world when it comes to sources of heritage theft (he called it art theft). Despite s few reports, that is still the case. We can blame the Chinese for other problems perhaps, but the Chinese art market does not I think bear the collective guilt for the Fitzwilliam theft. Rather it seems to be a more homegrown set of thieves from East London.

  1. He Shuzhong, Protection of China’s Cultural Heritage, 5 J. Art, Antiquity & L., 19 (2000).
  2. J. David Murphy, Plunder and preservation : cultural property law and practice in the People’s Republic of China, (1995), http://www.bcin.ca/Interface/openbcin.cgi?submit=submit&Chinkey=204154 (last visited May 2, 2012).
  3. Andrew Jacobs, China Hunts for Art Treasures in U.S. Museums, The New York Times, December 17, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/17/world/asia/17china.html?_r=2&hp (last visited Dec 17, 2009).
  4. Peter Foster, China to study British Museum for looted artefacts, Telegraph.co.uk, October 19, 2009, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/6374959/China-to-study-British-Museum-for-looted-artefacts.html (last visited Oct 20, 2009).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Holocaust (Stolen Art) Restitution Act takes effect

New legislation which took effect on Friday will allow national museums in England and Scotland to act to return works of art, based on the recommendations of the Spoliation Advisory Panel.  The panel resolves claims arising from the loss of objects to the Nazis.  There have been nine instances of wrongful takings in which claimants were compensated, yet the national institutions have been forbidden from returning objects outright.  The only remedy was payment.  This is a welcome change, and allows UK museums to do the just thing.  Andrew Dismore, MP sponsored the act, and said:

It shows what could be achieved by a determined backbencher: by rolling out my sleeping bag and sleeping on the floor of the Public Bill Office overnight, I was able to become the first in the queue to apply for Second Readings after the balloted Bills, and this tactic paid off.

While I do not envisage the Act having to be used very frequently, this is an important moral step, to ensure that we can close yet a further chapter on the appalling crimes of the Holocaust.

  1. UK museums can return looted art, BBC, November 13, 2009.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

China to Research Foreign Museum Archives for Chinese Artifacts


  China seems to be taking a new approach to repatriation, creating research teams which will inspect the holdings of museums to “document” the archives.  This has led to speculation that China may use its growing economic clout to demand the return of objects.  

Peter Foster reports for the Telegraph:

The sacking of the Old Summer Palace – or ‘Yuanmingyuan’ – as punishment for the torture and execution of 18 emissaries sent by western powers to Beijing, remains an emotive subject in China, where it is still viewed as one of the nation’s great humiliations.
The decision to try and document the millions of items now scattered round the world comes as China takes an increasing interest in retrieving artefacts that were removed from China during the colonial period and in the early 20th century.
“We don’t really know how many relics have been plundered since the catalogue of the treasures stored in the garden was burned during the catastrophe,” the palace’s current director Chen Mingjie told the state-run China Daily newspaper.
“But based on our rough calculations, about 1.5 million relics are housed in more than 2,000 museums in 47 countries.” China’s sensitivity towards such ‘looted’ treasures was demonstrated in March when a Chinese collector sabotaged the auctioning of two bronze heads taken from the Old Summer Palace, bidding £13.9m for each, but later refusing to pay.

Peter Foster, China to study British Museum for looted artefacts, Telegraph.co.uk, October 19, 2009.

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

More Repatriations to Italy Likely?

At the ARCA Conference in Amelia back in July, Francesco Rutelli gave a very interesting talk elaborating in some detail on the wave of repatriations from many museums to Italy; and of course this resulted in many North American museums and even a collector returned works of art to Italy. The Met, the MFA Boston, the Getty, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Princeton University, and Shelby White have all returned important antiquities to Italy.

Some have questioned whether these repatriations have been worth all the negative publicity, particularly if the nation of origin cares little for the returned objects. At the conference, I asked Rutelli about that, about how some have argued that Italians don’t seem all that interested in the return of the Euphronios Krater and how not many people are visiting it. He responded with what I thought was a pretty thoughtful answer. He stated that the piece is in “the correct place” and that in “scientific terms it is correct”. It is an Etruscan object, and the Villa Giulia is the Etruscan museum—arguing that if the piece had been properly and legally excavated from Cerveteri, this is where the piece would have been displayed. He did acknowledge though, that there may have been problems with “publicity and information”, a problem he traces to the current government, which he argued “should do more”, and these repatriated objects should all be displayed together as part of a meaningful message.

Rutelli finished his talk by providing a number of documents to ARCA Director Noah Charney, and I’ve had a chance to scan some of them (some of the same pictures also appear in a piece by Suzan Mazur for Scoop).

The image on the left is a picture of a terracotta relief from the Symes collection, the picture on the right is a photo seized from Giacomo Medici. The resemblance is striking, and they indicate, if Medici had a polaroid of the object over a decade ago; it was very likely looted.

There are more documents and photos embedded below, but first a little background. The impetus for the recent returns was the criminal investigation of Giacomo Medici, whose conviction was upheld in July. When Medici’s Swiss warehouse was searched, it produced a number of Polaroids of works of art which ultimately wound up in the United States and elsewhere. Italy has been engaged in a concerted effort to seek the return of many of these objects. Rutelli argued that these returns were not on “nationalistic terms” a rebuke to the criticism of Jim Cuno and others who have criticized the repatriations. Rutelli argued they were “fighting to recover some masterpieces” and that Italy did the same when other countries discovered other stolen works of art in Italy. He said the effort was motivated by the “context of archaeology”, adding that “when you enter a museum you should be sure that these objects are clean”.

One of the individuals Rutelli focused on during his presentation was Robin Symes. Symes is a former antiquities dealer who has served 7 months in prison in the U.K. for perjury. Roberto Conforti, former head of art recovery for the Carabinieri has been labeled “the core” of the illicit antiquities trade for a period, and “everyone’s boss”. He was “once the prince of the ancient art trade.” But those days have long since passed. There are a number of indications he had a very close relationship with Giacomo Medici, Robert Hecht, and even Marion True. As a consequence, any antiquities which have been handled by Symes may likely have been looted. Rutelli revealed in July that the Italian government had attempted to reach an agreement withe the U.K. authorities over the Robin Symes collection. They had included photographs and other evidence, and in total some 1,000 pieces were requested from the estate of the now-bankrupt Symes. However the Italians were not able to secure a return of the objects, which was a “failure in criminal court”. Rutelli noted that these objects have no likely purchaser, someone “could buy them, but they shouldn’t”. Despite this photographic evidence, it seems unlikely any scrupulous buyer would purchase these looted objects. Indeed it is troubling that the Italians continue to have such difficulty seeking the return of these objects. Such is the state of the antiquities trade.

Embedded below are some of the documents Rutelli provided at the conference on July 11th. The first three pages are in English, while the rest are in Italian. They reveal I think the tremendous difficulty Italy has had in seeking the return of these objects, even in the face of clear and convincing photographic evidence. How can these objects from the Symes collection not be returned?

Rutelli Looted Antiquities Documents Provided to ARCA

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