Oct 31, 2007

Catching Up

Apologies for the light posting the last couple of weeks. I've returned from the US and the AALS hiring conference. It seemed to go well, and I was pleased with the response I got from the handful of interviews I had. I am cautiously optimistic about my chances of further interest from the schools I spoke with, but I'm also glad to be back here so I can concentrate on finishing up my thesis.

Enough about me, there was a lot of exciting news while I was away, including:

  • This Morning's news that a private investigator has been charged in the theft and recovery of da Vinci's Madonna of the Yarnwinder. That brings the total to five now.
  • Iran's Cultural Heritage News Agency reports on last Thursday's auction of the Achaeminid limestone relief from the city of Persepolis, in present-day Iran. It's a slanted view of the dispute, which ignores Iran's difficult legal footing. But the unpleasant outcome is the acquisition by an anonymous buyer for $1.2 million USD.
  • Three paintings worth an estimated $100,000 were stolen from a San Antonio gallery on Sunday.
  • Germany has finally returned 100 objects to Greece, many of which date back 8,000 years. The objects were stolen in 1985, and recovered in a raid last year. They were seemingly forgotten until a German court ruled in August that they should be returned.
  • A number of news outlets have coverage of the antiquities playing cards now issued to US soldiers in the middle east, urging them to take care of the archaeological heritage there.
  • And most importantly, Princeton has reached a repatriation agreement with Italy. The deal is similar to those reached with the Getty, the Met, and the MFA Boston.

Oct 25, 2007

Man Charged in Goya Theft

Steven Lee Olson has been charged under the Federal major art theft statute for last year's theft and recovery of Francisco de Goya's Children With a Cart. Here's an excerpt of the AP story:

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — A truck driver who stole an art masterpiece from an unattended transport truck, then claimed he found it in his basement was charged with theft, authorities said.

Steven Lee Olson, 49, was charged with stealing "Children with a Cart," a 1778 painting by famed Spanish artist Francisco de Goya, federal prosecutors said Wednesday. The painting was insured at a value of about $1 million.

In an initial appearance in federal court in Newark on Wednesday, Olson through his lawyer decided not to immediately contest his detainment. A bail hearing was scheduled for Oct. 31.

The federal public defender representing Olson didn't immediately return a phone message. A message left at a number listed for Olson also wasn't immediately returned.

The painting was being trucked to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City from Ohio's Toledo Museum of Art last November. It was stolen as the transport drivers spent the night at a Pennsylvania motel. They discovered it missing the next morning.

Within days, Olson contacted federal authorities through an attorney to say he found the painting in his basement, said U.S Attorney's office spokesman Michael Drewniak.

After a lengthy investigation, authorities determined that Olson, a self-employed truck driver, had lifted the piece himself, Drewniak said.

"It was a crime of opportunity that didn't pay," FBI agent Sandra Carroll said.

I'm traveling to Washington D.C. today so I don't have time to post much substantive thought on this, but I am struck by how much more coverage this charge and arrest has received here in the US than the recovery and and subsequent arrests arising from the recovery of da Vinci's Madonna of the Yarnwinder a few weeks ago in a Glasgow law firm's offices.

Oct 22, 2007

Unsuccessful Nazi Spoliation Claim


From the LA Times last week, Suzanne Muchnic reports that a federal judge has dismissed a claim against Norton Simon over this work and another by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

A Los Angeles federal judge has dismissed a case that jeopardized the Norton Simon Museum's ownership of a nearly 500-year-old pair of paintings of Adam and Eve by German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder.

The action halts dueling lawsuits filed by the museum and Marei von Saher of Connecticut, the heir of a Jewish art dealer who lost the artworks to the Nazis in World War II. The museum filed a motion to dismiss the case, and a hearing was to be held Monday. But Judge John F. Walker granted the motion Thursday afternoon. He did not immediately disclose his reasons for doing so.

The museum's attorney, Luis Li of Munger, Tolles & Olson in Los Angeles, declined to comment on the ruling. Von Saher's attorney, Lawrence M. Kaye of the New York firm Herrick, Feinstein, could not be reached for comment.

Cranach's monumental paintings of life-size nudes in the Garden of Eden have been a highlight of Simon's collection since 1971, when the Los Angeles industrialist and collector bought them from George Stroganoff-Scherbatoff, an heir of a noble Russian family thought to have lost the paintings to the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. But the Cranachs have a complicated history, at issue in the legal battle.

Von Saher's Dutch father-in-law, Jacques Goudstikker, bought the paintings in a 1931 auction in Berlin, billed as "Stroganoff Collection Leningrad" and staged to raise funds for Stalin's impoverished government. "Adam" and "Eve" remained in his gallery in Amsterdam until 1940, when the Nazis took over his business. Goudstikker died in a shipboard accident while fleeing the Germans, but his wife, Desiree, and son, Edward, survived, as did a list of artworks left behind.

After the war, Desiree Goudstikker settled with the Dutch government, regaining part of her husband's inventory. She did not claim another group of artworks, including the Cranachs, because she would have had to return payment received from the Germans. That settlement made it possible for Stroganoff-Scherbatoff to pursue his claim. The Dutch transferred the paintings to him in 1966.

The matter might have rested there, but as Holocaust restitution escalated, the Dutch reconsidered claims against Nazi loot, and scholars questioned long-accepted accounts of the Cranachs' Russian history.

There is no doubt that the paintings were sold in the Stroganoff sale, but some researchers think they were among confiscated goods from other collections, included in the auction to give the other items a "noble" provenance and disguise that they actually were being sold by the government.

No evidence that the paintings did or did not belong to the Stroganoffs has been found, but a document has come to light stating that they were in a church and other buildings in Kiev, the capital of what is now Ukraine, a few years before the auction. No one knows how they got there.

Von Saher, the widow of the Goudstikkers' son, has spent the last nine years trying to retrieve artworks owned by her husband's parents.

Last year, the Dutch government gave her 202 works that had been housed in Dutch museums, stating that the Goudstikker case had been handled properly in legal terms but that it had been reconsidered on moral grounds.

She learned that the Cranachs were at the Simon museum in 2000, and her attorney contacted the museum the following year.

Throughout the lengthy period of mediation and legal proceedings, Von Saher has contended that the Simon cannot have title to the paintings because they are stolen goods. The museum has argued that it is the rightful owner of the Cranachs, whether they belonged to the Stroganoffs or not, because the family's heir acquired good title to them under Dutch law, and in any event, California's three-year statute of limitations to challenge the Simon's purchase has long since passed.

In its motion to dismiss the case, the Simon argued that a California law extending the statute of limitations for heirs of Holocaust victims is unconstitutional because it wrongfully empowers the state to remedy war injuries, which is a duty of the federal government.

I haven't had a chance to track down the actual judgment. I'm back in the States at the moment, preparing myself for the AALS hiring conference in Washington D.C. later this week. There appears to be an error in Muchnic's understanding of the relevant California limitations rules. Though the limit is indeed three years, that period does not begin to start running until the claimant discovers, or by exercising reasonable efforts should have discovered the present owner of the object. Since the work has been on display since 1971, a dismissal of the claim was a likely result.

But in any event, California has extended the time with which claimants can bring these kinds of claims for nazi spoliated artworks until 2010 I believe, though I'd have to check that. I've not read anything questioning the constitutionality of that, though it appears to be an interesting question.

Upcoming Events in the UK

The Institute of Art and Law is organizing two upcoming events in the UK in November. The first is on forgeries; while the second looks at the role of lex situs in cultural property disputes. This has had a lot of impact in recent months with the Iranian claims at the High Court.

I am pleased to be able to present a bit of my own work at the second conference. I'll focus on the approach the US has taken to the lex situs rule. I'm excited to present my work, but perhaps more interested in hearing what Norman Palmer and Kevin Chamberlain have to say on the topic, two of the very best cultural heritage lawyers in the UK. Here are the details:

Fakes and Forgeries: International efforts to maintain the integrity of art and antiquities in association with Devonshires Solicitors on 23rd November in
central London.

Subjects to be examined include:
• the liability of auction houses in the sale of fake or forged artworks
• the criminal investigation and prosecution of those responsible for fakes and forged works
• liability in English civil law for fakes and forgeries
• the continued expansion of the criminal market for fakes and forgeries with emphasis on Russian and Aboriginal cases
• liability in French law for fakes and forgeries


Location, Location, Location: the role of the lex situs principle in modern claims for the return of cultural objects in association with Withers LLP on 30th
November in central London.

Recent cases emphasise that the role of private law in determining claims for art and antiquities is vital. This seminar will examine the workings of the ordinary law of title in a cross-border setting and ask whether private title claims are more effective than claims based on international treaties or other legal devices.

Full details of these seminars are available at www.ial.uk.com or tel: 01982 560 666

Oct 19, 2007

Map Recovered in Sydney


Another example of the international nature of the cultural property trade: the Sydney Morning Herald is reporting in tomorrow's edition that this 15th century map by Ptolemy has been recovered after its theft in Spain, shipment to the US, sale on ebay, and eventual purchase and shipment to Australia. I'd imagine that seller will be receiving negative feedback on this transaction. There's no word yet on whether criminal charges will be filed, or who the seller may have been.

The map, known as the Ulm Ptolemy World Map, illustrates what was then known about the world and is described as "perhaps the most famous and highly sought after of 15th-century world maps, and certainly the most decorative".
Valued at $160,000 [australian], the Ptolemy map was stolen from Spain's National Library and made its way to the US, where it was bought on the internet by Simon Dewez, owner of the Gowrie Galleries in Bondi Junction."I had absolutely no idea it was stolen," Mr Dewez said yesterday. "I thought it was a fantastic buy, a rare opportunity." The map has been recovered and is with the Australian Federal Police, who sent photographs to the National Library in Madrid. "They've confirmed it's their missing map," a spokesman said. "The gallery surrendered it willingly." Spain will apply to Australia to have the map returned. A legal dispute over ownership is not expected. Mr Dewez declined to name the dealer from whom he bought the map but described him as a reputable dealer who had refunded him. Mr Dewez, whose gallery has a 120-page catalogue offering rare maps for sale, bought the map on behalf of a client as a superannuation investment.

The stolen map was one of 12 maps and other documents cut from a 16th-century edition of Ptolemy's Geographia, based on the original work by Claudius Ptolemy in the second century. Best known as an astronomer, Ptolemy (AD 85-165) compiled Geographia from existing records and by detailing the geographic co-ordinates of 8000 locations. He was the first to visualise a great southern land mass uniting Africa with Asia and enclosing the modern Indian Ocean.

Iznik Tiles Returned


From the Art Newspaper, two Iznik tile panels stolen from an imperial Ottoman tomb from the New Mosque in Istanbul were offered for sale at Sotheby's earlier this year; but are slated for a return to Istanbul sometime this month. Pictured here are other tiles from the new mosque. The stolen tiles had been slated for an April 13th sale, and were described as 16th century originating from Turkey or Syria.

No provenance was given and their estimate was £15,000 to £25,000 ($30,000-$50,000). Soon after the catalogue was published, the auction house was
informed by the Turkish authorities that the panels were among a large number of tiles which are said to have been stolen from the Hunkar Kiosk in the mosque on 20 January 2003. In a statement to the Turkish press, the head of Turkey's General Directorate of Foundations, Yusuf Beyazit, said that other tiles stolen from the mosque had been discovered near the coast of Istanbul's Golden Horn. He said that the Sotheby's panels accounted for the rest of the missing tiles and would be returned to the mosque where closed-circuit cameras were now being installed. Mr Beyazit said that the directorate's new Anti-Smuggling Bureau had recovered the tiles in close co-operation with Scotland Yard and Interpol.

If the consignor has lost the tiles, she should now have a claim against the intermediate seller. Such suits are relatively rare though. That is seldom the case unfortunately. Importantly, though these tiles were certainly stolen, why no criminal charges? Well, because the Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003 makes it nearly impossible to do so. A defendant must have been aware of an object's "tainted" status under the offence, which will be impossible to do in nearly every case; especially considering the flawed way the market operates.
In this case, though the art loss register was checked, Turkey had not registered this theft. The reasons for that are unclear. I know there is something like a $100 dollar charge to search the database in some cases, but I'm not sure if there is a charge to include objects in the database. But the market cannot continue to just rely on these limited databases. These objects came from somewhere. Merely stating "Turkey or Syria" as the nation of origin is not sufficient; beautiful tiles like this don't just go missing. We had a chance to visit a number of Mosques back in April, but not the new mosque. To my untrained eye, these tiles really are stunningly beautiful.
Ultimately, if there is going to be a viable licit art market, buyers and auction houses must do a much better job of determining where objects have come from.

Oct 16, 2007

Spain Seizes the Ocean Explorer

An intrepid commenter has alerted me that Spain has in fact seized the Ocean Explorer, the vessel belonging to Odyssey Marine which had been anchored in the British colony of Gibraltar. It's the latest in an ongoing dispute between the salvage company and Spain over perhaps the largest single underwater recovery in history. The BBC has coverage here.
On Tuesday, patrol boats from Spain's maritime police intercepted the 76m Odyssey Explorer, owned by underwater salvage firm Odyssey Marine International, three miles off the coast of Gibraltar. It was ordered to the Spanish port of Algeciras for inspection. Spain's Guardia Civil has been keeping a close eye on the company's vessel since a Spanish judge ordered that it be detained and searched if it left port in Gibraltar. The company says its recovery vessel has been effectively blockaded since the ruling in June. Spain believes it could provide clues to the identity and location of the wreck that yielded half-a-million colonial era silver and gold coins. It suspects that a Spanish galleon is being secretly plundered - or that the wreck lies in Spanish waters.
This is the predictable result when there is no workable international legal framework governing underwater archaeological sites, combined with the failure of states to delimit their maritime boundaries. As I've stated before, whether the waters near Gibraltar are international is still very much an open question.

Perhaps most importantly, Odyssey may have discovered the largest ever quantity of shipwrecked "treasure", but it seems Spain is going to do everything in their power to prevent the company from profiting off the recovery; in the hopes perhaps of discouraging future salvage operations. Is this merely profit-seeking, or is there archaeological research being conducted? The fact that the wreck has been code-named the "black swan" and has not been revealed to Spain or other nations in the Mediterranean indicates the former.

Oct 15, 2007

The Semiotics of Cultural Discourse


Alan Audi has an interesting Feature Article titled A Semiotics of Cultural Property Argument in the latest issue of the International Journal of Cultural Property. The article is here, but I'm afraid is free only for University folks and those with institutional access. Here's the abstract:

This article applies the tools of legal semiotics to examine the terms, modalities, and conventions of legal argument in the cultural property context. In a first instance, the author re-enacts Duncan Kennedy’s study of recurrent patterns within legal argument to illustrate the highly structured nature of most cultural property argument. This mapping exercise shows how legal concepts draw their meaning in part from their place within a broader linguistic system, and as a result cannot by themselves form an adequate basis for ethical positions. Following this, the pervasive Elgin Marbles controversy is shown to resemble a myth (in Roland Barthes’s sense of the term) behind which a series of value judgments and support systems are embedded into cultural property argument. The conclusion presents a number of observations sketching a framework centered on restitution as a starting point for resolution of cultural property disputes.


There are then responses from some of the best cultural property writers around, including Patty Gerstenblith, Daniel Shapiro, Yannis Hamilakis and perhaps the best response was from Barton Beebe. In a final rejoinder Audi engages in an entertaining, if perhaps unhelpful scholarly kerfluffle with Prof. Gerstenblith's critiques.

I'm a newcomer to the field of semiotics. If I understand Audi's arguments correctly, he believes many cultural property scholars have unwittingly used canned responses to a number of the same recurring debates. This dialectic does not promote a better legal framework and renders many arguments stagnant. I think this may be exactly right in some cases. The problem is Audi does not define what he means by a cultural property debate. It seems he is speaking in the main about restitutions of objects such as the Elgin Marbles. Some of his more general arguments about the law are perhaps diminished by his failure to discuss the current state of the law, as Prof. Gerstenblith rightly points out.

I think he is exactly right about the arguments being made about these kinds of objects, but there is settled law for other classes of objects; for example for newly and illicitly excavated antiquities. For these objects there is not a problem of discourse, but rather a problem with implementing the law because the market effectively evades regulation.

I think perhaps one of the most insightful comment on the cultural property trade was made by Kurt Siehr,

If pieces of visual arts were treated like other commodities traded in international commerce, we would have to talk about letters of credit, charter parties, import and export regulations, embargoes, dumping, most-favoured-nation clauses, GATT and arbitration. It is interesting to observe that none of these terms are in fact used in the field of international art trade, except for ... import and export restrictions.


There are gaps in the regulation, and strong conflicts in the ongoing debate. Audi I think does show how many legal arguments can be classified as maxims and countermaxims. However good legal analysis should get to the root of that tension, and show the policy at play on both sides, and effectively evaluate the state of the law. Unfortunately he doesn't incorporate enough of the cultural policy-making scholarship into his analysis on "cultural property debates" as he calls it; which he seems to only believe can encompass the intractable dilemmas posed when the law has nothing to say for claimants in situations like the Parthenon marbles.

Oct 8, 2007

Antiquities Telethon

Even in Italy, where cultural policy plays a bigger role in politics than perhaps any other nation, funds for preserving and protecting objects and sites are hard to come by. As such Italy and Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli have resorted to a 3-day telethon to publicize the return of works from the Getty and to raise much-needed funds. One wonders how much of this is needed to raise funds and how much is political posturing. From Tom Kington's report in today's Guardian:

To soaring music by Ennio Morricone, seven sites featured in rotating TV spots, including Augustus's villa where the frescos and flooring are decaying, the Sulky Punic necropolis in Sardinia, dating back to the fourth century BC, and an abandoned Norman fort near Cosenza.

Organisers also made room for more recent sites such as the Racconigi Royal Park in Cuneo, where a restoration project is needed for the 19th-century greenhouse in which the first Italian pineapples were grown. Also to benefit is Cremona's centre for the restoration of antique musical instruments, as well as a rusty 19th-century railway line which connects the Sicilian baroque towns of Syracuse, Modica and Ragusa. If viewers cough up, the train will be turned into a museum on wheels for visitors.

The most modern candidate was championed by opera singer Andrea Bocelli: a museum for visually impaired people in Ancona lets visitors run their hands along reproductions of sculptures and archaeological finds.

Italy's culture ministry pointed out that Italians only donated €42m in 2006 to protect their cultural heritage, compared with the €350m handed over by the French.

As the weekend drew to a close, donations were nearing the target, albeit with €300,000 of that coming from a US foundation.

The telethon comes amid rising resentment in Italy at the perceived free-spending habits of privileged politicians.

In an attempt to give an example of honest toil by politicians, Mr Rutelli displayed some of the artworks Italy claims were stolen and smuggled from its shores and has won back through the courts from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Mr Rutelli said the works would go on free display at the Quirinale in Rome, the sprawling presidential palace which has taken centre stage in the row over politicians' spending after it was revealed that the cost of maintaining the president and his army of guardsmen, gardeners and silver polishers was higher than that of Buckingham Palace.


Oct 5, 2007

"A Silly Thing to Steal"


So said my cab driver on the way down to the BBC's Aberdeen studios bright and early this morning to talk about the recovery of the Da Vinci yesterday. A stream of the interview is available here.

I'm not sure I was able to offer much more insight. Details on this recovery are still sketchy. The FBI estimates the size of the illicit trade in art and antiquities at $6 billion, which is quite a sum. A better estimate may be the idea put forth by Simon Houpt in the excellent Museum of the Missing that if we were able to collect all the stolen works in one single museum, it would be the world's greatest by a good measure.

Why then was the work stolen? This question will surely be answered in the coming months, but there are three reasons usually given. First it may have been a theft to order. This seems the least likely. If you have a masterpiece you want to show it off and put it on display. Second, the thieves may have been unaware how hard this kind of work might have been to sell. Finally, and most likely I think is the thieves may have wanted to ransom the work back to the Duke of Buccleuch or to the insurance company. This is just idle speculation, but I wonder if the passing of the Duke last month may have encouraged the thieves to think they could dispose of the work.

In any event this is a fantastic recovery. Police recovered the work yesterday from the law offices of HBJ Gateley Wareing; and arrested a partner in the firm and three other men. At this point there are far more questions than answers. An interesting issue may be whether the lawyer committed any wrongdoing, or if he in fact alerted the authorities to the location of the work. I'll confess to a total ignorance of the professional rules of conduct for lawyers in Scotland, but I would venture a guess that assisting a client in committing a crime is frowned upon. Various news reports have speculated that the lawyer may have been assisting in repatriation, or looking at how to draft a contract under Scots law to allow the return of the painting.

There are other initial questions I have. For starters has the work been damaged? Will the work return to Drumlanrig Castle? What is the insurance agreement regarding the work? If an insurance policy has been paid out, the insurer now may have title to the work, but the Duke's estate may be able to trade the money paid for the work, depending on the agreement.

The four men will appear at Dumfries Sheriff Court this morning, so more details should be forthcoming this afternoon.

Oct 4, 2007

Da Vinci Recovered



After four years this work has been recovered. Madonna of the Yarnwinder, a masterpiece by Leonardo Da Vinci was stolen four years ago from Drumlanrig Castle. It was a daring theft, and was listed on the FBI's top 10 Art Crimes. The BBC has the details of today's recovery here.

Three men were arrested today in Glasgow, apparently after they attempted to sell the work. This was a major theft, and a great recovery. I'll have a lot more to say on this tomorrow. If everything goes as planned I should have an interview on the Good Morning Scotland program tomorrow morning, and I'll post a link here when one becomes available.

In the meantime congratulations should go to the law enforcement services who recovered the work, led by the "
Dumfries and Galloway Police and involved the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency (SCDEA), Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) and Strathclyde Police." Odds are that a work like this only has a 20% chance of recovery within 30 years.

Measuring the Size of the Illicit Antiquities Trade

There is more and more good empirical work being done to measure the size of the illicit trade in antiquities. The latest is a super paper by Raymond Fishman and Shang-Jin Wei, both of Columbia University (some users may need to pay to download if they don't have an .edu or .gov ip).

They came up with a great idea to measure illicit antiquities entering the United States. They capitalize on the odd way the trade works. An object may be illegally exported from a source nation, but be imported and sold in a perfectly legal manner in the United States. The historic justification for this is the idea that nations will not enforce the public laws of another nation. However this policy has disastrous consequences for the antiquities trade. By focusing on this paperwork gap, they can estimate the nations with the biggest loss of antiquities. The biggest reporting gaps are in Syria, Iran, Egypt, Greece, Vietnam and Russia. As one would expect Canada, New Zealand, Britain and Hong Kong have low reporting gaps. Both Canada and Britain of course have limited export restrictions.

Here's the abstract:

We empirically analyze the illicit trade in cultural property and antiques, taking advantage of different reporting incentives between source and destination countries. We thus generate a measure of illicit trafficking in these goods based on the difference between imports recorded in United States' customs data and the (purportedly identical) trade as recorded by customs authorities in exporting countries. We find that this reporting gap is highly correlated with the corruption level of the exporting country as measured by commonly used survey-based indicies, and that this correlation is stronger for artifact-rich countries. As a placebo test, we do not observe any such pattern for U.S. imports of toys from these same exporters. We report similar results for four other Western country markets. Our analysis provides a useful framework for studying trade in illicit goods. Further, our results provide empirical confirmation that survey-based corruption indicies are informative, as they are correlated with an objective measure of illicit activity.


(Hat tip: Jay Hancock)

Oct 2, 2007

Donny George Youkhanna on Iraqi Heritage

Mike Boehm of the LA Times has an interesting summary of the talk given by the former director of the Baghdad museum, Donny George Youkhanna, at the Bowers Museum on Sunday. It's a troubling account. Here's an excerpt:

"To have the museum hurt in this way, it bleeds my heart," George said in a quiet, even voice during the opening moments of his talk and slide presentation Sunday at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art. Among the images worth a thousand sad words were before-and-after photographs of statuary that had been pulverized or beheaded. And there were numerous "before" photos with no "after" standing in for some of the 7,500 or objects still missing from the museum -- most of them small items such as coins and cylindrical seals used to press imprints into clay tablets.

The huge projections on the auditorium's screen during George's 75-minute talk included views of an almost perfectly round hole left by American tank gunners above the entry arch of the Iraq Museum's children's wing. George said the gunners had returned the fire of Iraqis who had taken up positions on the museum's rooftop during the U.S. ground assault to capture Baghdad in April 2003. An image from last January showed the same building, hole-free, but with one wall now marred by huge bloodstains -- part of the spatter-pattern from a car bombing in the street below.

George, a stocky, graying man who speaks English fluently, is a war refugee who has landed at Stony Brook University in New York, where he is a visiting professor of anthropology. He told of how, in short order during 2006, he was stripped of his authority and forced to resign because "this institution should not be led by a Christian, it should be led by a Shiite Muslim." Simply living in Iraq soon became untenable. His 17-year-old son received a death threat -- an envelope containing a bullet and a message that accused the youth of "cursing Islam, teasing Muslim girls" and having a father who was helping the Americans.

George said that during the American ground assault on Baghdad, he and a colleague who had been baby-sitting the Iraq Museum were forced to leave for three days. When they returned, its interior looked "as if it had been hit by a hurricane."

Initial media reports said the museum had been utterly ransacked, with 170,000 objects stolen or destroyed, but the truth was closer to 15,000. Many priceless collections, including the fabled Treasures of Nimrud, a horde of exquisitely wrought gold and jewelry, had long been secured in Iraq's Central Bank. Still, an investigation-and-recovery task force led by Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos found that looters who knew what they were looking for -- and probably gained entry with help from somebody with inside knowledge -- had made off with 40 prime objects on display in the galleries and more than 10,500 items that had been secreted in a basement storeroom.

Rare Book Thefts in Italy

Marta Falconi has an interesting AP story, Book Thief Investigation in Italy. An Italian man disguised himself as a priest and stole "dozens of 300-year-old books, drawings and watercolors from top libraries and public archives in Rome". Italian authorities have recovered items worth close to $1 million.

The suspect, in his mid-40s, used ink remover to delete identification numbers and library stamps from the items, said Gen. Giovanni Nistri, who heads Italy's police art squad.

When marks were engraved in the paper, he used an iron to smooth them out. He dripped coffee on pages to make them look moldy.

"He showed great competence and even ingeniousness," Nistri said. "In some cases, he dressed as a priest and even locked himself in a bathroom for one day, besides altering the items to make their identification harder," Nistri said.

Some items were sold in Italy and abroad, particularly in France, Nistri said. Nistri did not reveal what led police to the man.

The investigation is now aimed at tracing other trafficking channels, police said.

"Even in the libraries, there's a gigantic cultural heritage that we risk losing for the pleasure of some," Nistri told a news conference Monday.

The suspect, whom authorities would not identify, has been convicted of similar thefts in Turin and is believed to have stolen papers in Modena, Turin and Florence in recent months, Nistri said.

The suspect, who is cooperating with officers, has not been arrested, but police did not rule out an arrest in the future. Officers said there was no immediate risk he would try to flee the country.

An undersecretary in the Culture Ministry, Danielle Gattegno Mazzonis, said the ministry was planning to increase staff and set up alarm systems to monitor libraries and public archives because the trafficking is increasing.

"There are collectors and amateurs of specific epochs that would spend a fortune to have; for example, the original edition of a newspaper which came out the day Garibaldi was born," Mazzonis said.

Police said that as of the end of August, 73,000 stolen books and archive documents were recovered across Italy.

That final number is staggering. How many items are still missing? These items are the most difficult to protect, as they are not especially rare or rise to the level of ultra-valuable items. This makes them much easier to sell.

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