Aug 27, 2008

Trashed or Just Stolen?

The Boston Globe today has the story of this work, Woman and Child by Fernand Leger which has been lost.

It seems the work was sent to Oklahoma City in 2006 for an exhibition which ran until April of 2007. The work was then sent back, but many of the loaned works "remained in crates for months because the Davis construction project was still underway". Then it seems the crate containing this work was "moved to a vault elsewhere in the building". And then in November administrators "discovered the painting was missing when they were compiling a digital catalog."

The story goes on to say the undisclosed insurance payout was paid. The work was perhaps thrown out or even stolen. Perhaps a little more care is required of multi-million dollar masterworks.

Aug 26, 2008

On the State of Cultural Heritage Sites in Georgia

Kudos to Tom Flynn for anticipating the potential cultural heritage destruction in Georgia and South Ossetia today:

...the draft of a preliminary report prepared by ICOMOS Georgia for Mr. Dinu Bumbaru, Secretary General of ICOMOS, states that, "On 7 August, ICOMOS Georgia professionals were at the village Ateni (near the town Gori) working on the 6th-century Ateni Sioni Church when shelling of the village had started. Fortunately, all the team had managed to leave the village together with other civilians without losses. Regretfully, there are casualties among our colleagues and their families working in the field of heritage preservation of Georgia."

There are around 345 registered historical monuments and archaeological sites within the main conflict zones (Gori District, Java District, Akhalgori District, Kareli District), 53 of which are in the city of Gori itself. These include the cave city of Uplistsikhe (dating from the 1st millennium BC up to the late Middle Ages) ; the Church of Ateni Sioni (7th century architecture, 11th century murals), and Ikorta Church (12th century).


I've been following the media reports of the conflict there with some interest, and Flynn is the first blogger or reporter to recognize the legitimate threat to heritage in this region. Hopefully it has survived relatively-intact.

More Bad News for da Vinci defendant

A solicitor accused of helping to try and launder Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna of the Yarnwinder is in the news again. Marshall Ronald is also being investigated into possible theft from clients' accounts -- a very serious crime given the vast sums of money lawyers typically handle for their clients. Via the Liverpool Echo:

A SOLICITOR accused of taking part in a £40m Leonardo Da Vinci painting robbery is being investigated for allegedly stealing from clients’ accounts.

Officials from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) visited the business address of Marshall Ronald, 51, in Skelmersdale, last week.

They shut down his company and removed documents and money relating to his former practice.

It's probably not too surprising that a lawyer willing to violate the law in one instance -- trying to launder a priceless painting -- would also be inclined to perhaps mismanage client funds. Its another indication though that art crime is seldom isolated. It often has other corrolaries, whether its organized crime, violent crime, or in this case, white-collar crime.

Aug 20, 2008

China Refuses Loans

Pictured here is a Chinese poster from the Cultural Revolution which states "We'll destroy the old world and build a new one". Notice the worker is smashing a Buddha, Chinese classics, and a crucifix. This paints a much different picture than the one China has tried to portray during the Olympics, particularly Zhang Yimou's remarkable opening ceremonies.

Perhaps that's why China has made the troubling decision to refuse to loan works of art to the Asia Society which will focus on Chinese art from the 1950s to the 1970s. Robin Pogrebin in the NY Times, and Jason Edward Kaufman for the Art Newspaper both report on the decision.

Kaufman says the show "Art and China's Revolution" "surveys three decades of Chinese art following Mao Zedong’s establishment of the republic in 1949, including the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when the government controlled artist production. Exhibitions of photographs and posters have explored the politics and propaganda of Maoist China, but none has assembled ink and oil paintings, sketchbooks and prints by both underground and official artists, including the “model” paintings on which millions of social-realist posters were based."

The art produced by these cultural shifts, through propaganda, often has tremendous impact and is highly sought after decades later. Such is the case with Mikhail Kalatozov's 1964 film I Am Cuba (which is examined in some detail by Scott Tobias at the Onion AV Club). Works of art continue to be powerful political and cultural forces even after the impetus for their creation has diminished.

China perhaps has good almost realpolitik reasons for not deciding to allow these loans -- they want to portray their nation in a much different light now. Individuals and States have a lot of reasons for wanting to restrict themovement of works of art. Some of them are sound (to prevent looting of archaeological sites for example) others are open to criticism (hiding or minimizing history).

This is a very good example of the detrimental impact of strong national control of works of art. James Cuno has been roundly criticized for many of his views -- and for good reason in some cases. But in this situation, I think his main thesis is on point: works of art are often political tools for nations. The idea of cosmopolitanism can allevieate Chinese reluctance to show art from this period, and in fact some of the other private loans are doing just this. Of course art isn't just used for political goals either, as Kaufman notes "It has been a decade since the Asia Society’s major exhibition “Inside Art: New Art from China” helped spur the boom in Chinese contemporary art. Will the present exhibition have a similar effect on the market for art of the Cultural Revolution?"

Aug 19, 2008

Mardirosian Guilty

Robert Mardirosian was found guilty by a jury yesterday in US District Court in Boston. From the Boston Globe:
Mardirosian, 74, who faces a maximum of 10 years in federal prison, sat impassively as each of the 12 jurors individually agreed with the verdict in response to a defense request to poll the jury.

"I expected it," the silver-haired, mustachioed defendant told a reporter outside the courtroom afterward. But, he added, "I think we've got a good appeal."

Assistant US Attorney Jonathan F. Mitchell asked US Chief District Judge Mark L. Wolf to immediately detain Mardirosian, who has been on home confinement in East Falmouth and is scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 18. Mitchell said Mardirosian poses a risk of flight because he faces a potentially long sentence.

Brian Fitzsimmons, one of Mardirosian's lawyers, countered that Mardirosian voluntarily returned to the United States from France in February 2007 to surrender to authorities and has never missed a court date. He also said his client has a good chance of getting his conviction overturned on appeal.

Returning, Recovering and Punishing


Three stories caught my eye this morning:

First, Police in Sao Paulo have recovered a Pablo Picasso print that was stolen back in June (mentioned earlier here). The police have already recovered three other works. Details are thin, but what often takes place in these kinds of recoveries is thieves or their agents will offer to sell a portion of a group of stolen works, holding the remaining works as a kind of collateral against possible arrest.

Second, the FBI in its continuing investigation into the William M.V. Kingsland collection is trying to track down the owners of 300 works. This work, Riders in a Landscape by Henry Aiken (~1840) is included in the collection. You can read more about the rather bizarre Kingsland collection here. If you have any information on the Kingsland collection, you can contact FBI Agent Wynne at 7182867302, or by email at James.Wynne "at" ic.fbi.gov.

Finally, in the Mardirosian trial, Federal District Court Judge Mark Wolf dismissed a stolen transportation charge as the NSPA does not in his view apply to a transfer between Switzerland and England. He does still face a charge for possessing or concealing the stolen works though.

Aug 18, 2008

On Art Crime

Last week Noah Charney had a very good article in ARTINFO on the four main types of art crime, including art theft, forgery/deception, vandalism, and antiquities looting. He argues art crime is increasing:

For centuries, art crime was relatively harmless, at least from the perspective of the global economy and international crime. Forgers fooled the occasional buyer, tomb raiders dug up what archaeologists didn't have time to reach, and the occasional nonviolent thief would steal for reasons more often ideological than fiscal. Even vandalism was dismissed as part and parcel of the ravages of war.

But since the Second World War, art crime has evolved into the third-highest–grossing annual criminal trade worldwide, behind only the drug and arms trades. Most art crime is now perpetrated either by or on behalf of organized crime syndicates, who have brought violence into art theft and turned what was once a crime of passion (think of Vincenzo Peruggia's stealing the Mona Lisa in order to repatriate it to Italy, or Kempton Bunton's stealing Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington as a protest against taxes on television sets) into a cold business. Art crime now funds, and is funded by, organized crime’s other enterprises, from the drug and arms trades to terrorism. It is no longer merely the art that is at stake, and it is no longer a crime to be admired for its elegance.

I think he's right on for the most part. I think we can apply some pressure to one of his assertions, that is often mentioned in the press. I don't think there's any way to state with confidence that art theft is the third-largest grossing criminal activity, as I've argued before. Something like automobile theft surely cracks the top 3 in terms of mere monetary value. But I do think if we incorporate the intangible or cultural value of works, then perhaps art theft (including antiquities looting) may in fact be near the third-largest.

(Hat tip: Art Law Blog)

Aug 15, 2008

No Cosmopolitanism in Iowa?


There has been a surprising amount of uproar over the University of Iowa considering deacessioning this work, Jackson Pollock's Mural. Tyler Green and Lee Rosenbaum have both weighed in, both fairly critical of the potential sale. I can see their point, these works develop a presence in a way, and people have a relationship with a work of art that continues to bring them back to an art museum. However, circumstances change, and there are some very good reasons for considering the sale or partial transfer of a work of art. I tend to agree with Donn Zaretsky on this when he says:

I know I seem to lack the deaccessioning-outrage gene, but my first reaction to hearing about a possible deal with the DMAC is, "What's so bad about that?" If $100 million or so could go to the University to help it deal with its flood-related problems, with the Pollock moving a mere 115 miles down the road (plus a promise to "allow UIMA to show the painting occasionally"), how exactly does that amount to a catastrophe?


Indeed, there may not be anything wrong with such a decision, and we can't know what artists or benefactors would have wanted these museums to do with these works when confronted with serious financial pressures. However I find it very interesting that many of the calls for anti-deaccessioning are very contrary to the kind of art cosmopolitanism and sharing of art and culture that many have advocated, notably James Cuno.

In theory the idea of sharing art and culture is a very good idea, but there are always complications, and in the end local communities, arts patrons, and even large nations want to keep their art. People don't like to see beautiful works leave, especially under bad circumstances -- like they may not be protected from looters adequately, or people are breaking the law, or a catastrophic flood has forced them to.

Aug 14, 2008

Federal Art Theft Prosecution

The trial of Robert Mardirosian has begun. For much more on the initial arrest of the former attorney, see my earlier summary here, and more from Donn Zaretsky.

Assistant US Attorney Jonathan Mitchell argued the defendant was "caught red-handed", while the defense attorney argued his client only wanted to collect a finder's fee for the works.
He's accused of theft under the National Stolen Property Act for concealing and possessing stolen works, including this work by Cezanne, Pitcher and Fruits. This and six other works were stolen from Michael Bakwin in 1978, but had been entrusted to Mardirosian by the thief. The works had been shifted all over the world from Massachusetts to Switzerland to London to Monaco. I'll have more on the trial when the jury reaches a decision.

Aug 9, 2008

Career Update

Apologies for the light posting in recent days. I'm in the process of moving from Aberdeen in Scotland to New Orleans, where I'll be taking up a teaching fellowship for two years at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. I'll be continuing my cultural heritage research, and this blog as well, but I'll also be working on a soon-to-be launched resource coordinated by some very good people at the London School of Economics, which I'll be talking about as we get closer to launching the site.

Many thanks to all of you who read, and are kind enough to send along articles, your work, and advice. I hope to resume regular posting this week.

Aug 2, 2008

Does Energy Trump Heritage in the Four Corners



Kirk Johnson of the New York Times has an excellent article about a disheartening subject: the threat energy projects pose to Native American heritage in the West. Its a familiar story: not enough funding for surveys and archaeological research, pressures from development and expanding populations, plus the problem of illegal looting.

Above is a picture from the piece, of Chimney Rock Archaeological Area. Federal land managers are forced to make difficult judgment calls, considering using portions of funds for energy development to help safeguard and protect sites.

As the piece notes, "A spokesman for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, which represents drilling companies, described helping defend historical sites as good for business, especially if financing volunteers created more contact and understanding between local residents and energy explorers."

That seems like a big lump to swallow and a dangerous compromise of heritage values. I'm highly skeptical of this kind of give and take, though perhaps some with more understanding of specific cases might offer some kind of hope for this kind of compromise. Consider that "[t]he Forest Service, for example, using research at Chimney Rock that suggests the place was chosen by the Anasazi at least partly for its vantage point of the San Juan Mountains and river valley below, recently decided that a big natural gas drilling project just a mile or so away must not be visible from the rock." Wow, one would have thought that would have been a no-brainer.

Also at risk is the 2,000 year-old rock art in Nine Mile Canyon (previously discussed here); in Montana, a coal-fired power plant has been proposed near "one of the last wild sections of the Lewis and Clark trail"; and in New Mexico a uranium mine has been proposed on a national forest site sacred to Native American tribes.

It's a disheartening story, which indicates I think how much more effort and advocacy is needed. Strict criminal penalties are in place for looting of sites, and there are even nimble civil fines which can quickly punish looters. But heritage policy does not start and stop with looting, it also requires funding, and good policy solutions. Sadly many of those appear to be lacking in the American West, despite some notable heroic eforts

More on the Caravaggio Theft in Odessa

Takingofchrist_1There are more reports now on the theft of Taking of Christ or the Kiss of Judas attributed to Caravaggio. It was stolen from the Museum of Western and Eastern Art in Odessa, Ukraine. Reportedly, the stolen work looks very similar to this work, also called The Taking of Christ which is on display in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin.

There had been questions about the authenticity of the stolen work. It seems Soviet experts in the 1950s confirmed the works authenticity, and it was restored in 2006. I'm completely unaware of the Soviet art-authentication track-record, but there at least seems to be some suspicion that these authenticators may have gotten it wrong, especially given some of the Soviet practices just a few years earlier in World War II. Perhaps an art historian knows whether Caravaggio might paint the same work twice? One could be a study or earlier version perhaps.

Lyudmila Saulenko, the museum's deputy director is quoted as saying:

"We came in here to find that the wind was blowing the blinds around through a window with no pane, ... And where the painting had hung we just saw its stretcher. The painting had been removed from its frame.... Thefts, of course, do occur in great museums like the Hermitage (in St Petersburg) or the Louvre (in Paris),... But the answer is to put in a truly effective alarm system and not postpone this."

It certainly appears as if the window was not terribly difficult to remove, and not a hard night's work given the reported $100 million USD value placed on the work, though that's a very speculative number, and the thieves certainly won't get more than a fraction of that kind of money I would imagine.

Aug 1, 2008

Caravaggio Stolen in Odessa

There are a few wire reports indicating a work attributed to Caravaggio The Taking of Christ has been stolen from a museum in Odessa, Ukraine. It seems the thieves removed the windows, so as to evade the alarm system.

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