Feb 28, 2012

Cambodia Disputing a Koh Ker statue up for auction at Sotheby's


The disputed limestone Koh Ker statue
Cambodia is asking for assistance from the U.S. government in repatriating a limestone statue which was likely looted during the Vietnam War/Khmer Rouge era. Jane Levine, compliance director for Sotheby's argues that "there are widely divergent views on how to resolve conflicts involving cultural heritage objects". Here is mine.

The statue has considerable value, its pre-sale auction price was estimated at between $2-3 million. That estimate will likely be considerably less after the report in the New York times, detailing the dubious history of the object. Sotheby's claims the object was acquired by a "noble European lady" in 1975. Hardly a complete history of the object, and hardly enough to invoke the protections of good faith. The absence of information should not confer the benefits of a good faith purchase. Sotheby's argues the burden should be placed on Cambodia. I wonder though if the blunt reality of two feet without a body might lead a thinking person to a different conclusion. No museum can ethically acquire this object. Though the Norton Simon has a similar statue, also without feet, no word yet on whether Cambodia may seek the repatriation of that statue as well.

I would expect if a resolution between Sotheby's and Cambodia cannot be reached that the government consider using its forfeiture powers on the grounds the statue was under the ownership of Cambodia after a 1925 French colonial law declaring objects in Cambodia to be the exclusive property of the state.

Should the forfeiture proceeding be declined, I would urge Cambodia or its lawyers to consider using a civil action using as a precedent the English case, Bumper Development Corp. v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis [1991] 1 WLR 1362. That case successfully achieved the repatriation of an object taken from an Indian temple, but it was the temple itself was given legal rights as a party. Perhaps there is a legal personality in Cambodia which might offer a similar connection to this statue.
    A Pedestal in Cambodia, which might be the base
  1. Tom Mashberg & Ralph Blumenthal, Sotheby’s Caught in Dispute Over Prized Cambodian Statue, The New York Times, February 28, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/29/arts/design/sothebys-caught-in-dispute-over-prized-cambodian-statue.html (last visited Feb 28, 2012).

Thank You

Calder's Flamingo in front of the Dirkson Federal Building
I just want to thank everyone who had a hand in organizing the Cultural Heritage Moot Court Competition in Chicago last weekend, especially the folks at DePaul and the Lawyers Committee for Cultural Heritage Protection.

I heard a lot of strong arguments all weekend, with a very strong team from Chicago-Kent edging out a South Texas team of Adriana Lopez, Joe Bramanti and Joel Glover in a well-argued final round.

I especially want to thank the two teams from South Texas who competed at a very high level, with Brian Evans earning a tie for best orallist—and along with his teammate Chris McKinney earning the runner up for best brief. The best-argued round of the weekend came when the two South Texas teams were paired up in the quarterfinals, and in a close round Adriana and Joel won. Both teams knew each other's arguments so well—it was a shame they were paired up so early in the competition.

These guys were awful fun to coach.



Feb 24, 2012

Good Luck

Best of luck to all the teams competing at the Cultural Heritage Law Moot Court Competition in Chicago this weekend. The competition is sponsored by DePaul and the Lawyers Committee for Cultural Heritage Protection.

The problem involves a defendant challenging her conviction under the Theft of Major Artwork Act, passed partly in response to the theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Feb 23, 2012

Footnotes



Feb 20, 2012

More on Antiquities Thefts

Last week was a bad week for antiquities protection, as thefts of antiquities from both Montreal and Olympia in Greece were revealed. It reminds us that antiquities are vulnerable in archaeology, but also when they are displayed in museums, just as works of art are.

Both instances are troubling examples of thieves overcoming museum security. But, to borrow a phrase from Prof. Merryman, no thinking person would use these thefts to argue that (1) Western museums should repatriate all their antiquities; or (2) Greece should sell its "surplus" antiquities to alleviate its culture funding difficulty. Both propositions are wrongheaded. They are a reason why cultural heritage policy has such difficulty getting off the ground, if the discourse can't even acknowledge and admonish thieves as thieves.

With respect to the Olympia thefts, there is not much to report since last Friday's theft. Channel 4 has a short video report showing the interior of the museum and images of the kinds of objects which were stolen. Dick Ellis, who formed the Art and Antiques Squad (and also lectures in ARCA's Summer Program in Amelia) is quoted in the piece. He notes that

 It has become an organised crime business the incentive is there to make money in Greece. . . . And they may well begin a life which sees them travel from the poorer hands of the lowly thieves who broke into the museum to reach the lucrative shores of London or New York, and in some cases, find themselves auctioned off for tens of millions of dollars. . . . I am sure the current economic situation is Greece is triggering people to become more active, . . . I would expect these objects are going to get moved. It's a transitional country for other stolen goods, and they can go west or east.

The Channel 4 Video:

 
  1. Armed robbers loot ancient Greek museum - Channel 4 News, (2012), http://www.channel4.com/news/armed-robbers-loot-ancient-greek-museum (last visited Feb 20, 2012).

Antiquities and the New Leadership at the Getty

Jason Felch reports for the LA Times on the new director of the Getty Museum, Timothy Potts, who has opposed reforms of the antiquities trade. He will join James Cuno, the Getty Trust CEO, who has also been critical of efforts to restrict the flow of looted antiquities. The Getty has a very strict acquisitions policy, so I'm not sure how much their criticism of the reform will lead to the actual acquisition of objects. They will be subject to a great deal of scrutiny like this report where Felch details a previous controversy involving a Roman torso:


 In late 2000, Potts approved the acquisition of a rare Sumerian statuette for $2.7 million. The 15-inch alabaster figure was an ancient masterpiece from the cradle of civilization, the region Potts had specialized in while studying at Oxford. It was to be an important contribution to the Kimbell's small but highly regarded collection. 
But shortly after the statue arrived at the museum, court records show that Potts took the unusual step of returning it to the dealer and asking for a full refund. 
Publicly, Potts said that he wanted to free up money for other acquisitions. But he later testified that he had learned the dealer — Hicham Aboutaam, owner of the New York City antiquities gallery Phoenix Ancient Art — was under investigation by the IRS, and decided against buying from him. 
Soon, though, Potts changed his mind about doing business with Aboutaam. After receiving repayment for the Sumerian statuette in November 2001, Potts moved to acquire a $4-million Roman torso he had admired on an earlier visit to Aboutaam's gallery on East 66th Street in Manhattan.
  1. Jason Felch, Antiquities issue rears head with Getty leaders Potts, Cuno in place, Los Angeles Times Articles, February 17, 2012, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/feb/17/entertainment/la-et-getty-antiquities-20120217 (last visited Feb 20, 2012).

Feb 17, 2012

Armed Antiquities Theft from the Greek Museum in Olympia

The Museum in Olympia, before the theft
There has been another museum theft in Greece. At 7.30 local time this morning two masked men overpowered a security guard and stole between 60-70 objects. The Museum guard was tied and gagged. The BBC reports that "the robbers - one of whom had a gun - targeted the guard during a shift change, after having already knocked out the alarm." Most of the stolen items were small bronze, gold, and clay statuettes, which will be very easy to hide, and unfortunately easy to sell. The thieves were dressed in military fatigues, and were well-armed. Police have described it as a "well-calculated" hit. But other reports indicate the thieves spoke only broken Greek, and that they weren't familiar with the museum, asking where objects like a gold wreath were, even though the museum had none of those objects.

This theft comes after the theft from the National Gallery in Athens, and amid protests and fires which have destroyed some buildings. It also has caused the Greek Culture Minister Pavlos Geroulanos to resign. Connections will be drawn to Greek austerity, but whether it was funding cutbacks which have made this theft possible has not been established. There was a breakdown of security here, and it may be that thieves saw the thefts in Athens and were brazened. A culture ministry official told the AP that the thieves "seem to have operated more as if they were carrying out a holdup".

Yiannis Mavrikopoulos, head of the culture ministry museum and site guards' union put the cutbacks squarely at the feet of the bodies urging Greek cutbacks: "The cutbacks imposed by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund have hurt our cultural heritage, which is also the world's heritage . . . There are no funds for new guard hirings, . . . There are 2,000 of us, and there should be 4,000, while many have been forced to take early retirement ahead of the new program of layoffs. We face terrible staff shortages. As a result, our monuments and sites don't have optimum protection - even though guards are doing their very best to protect our heritage. "
  1. Robbery at Ancient Olympia museum, BBC, February 17, 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-17071934 (last visited Feb 17, 2012).
  2. Nicholas Paphitis, Museum robbed at Greece’s Ancient Olympia, Google News, February 17, 2012, http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hueW4Ohi6iY0JYUbVnIZslcSHwoA?docId=f762a40068e9489dacd391175db3023e (last visited Feb 17, 2012).

Feb 16, 2012

Antiquities Stolen From Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

An Assyrian bas-relief stolen in October
Two antiquites have been stolen from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts last October. The theft is just now being publicized. Surveillance video which may show the thief released by AXA Insurance has been embedded below. One objects is a Persian bas-relief, the other is a stone head from the Roman Empire. A $10,000 reward has been offered for anyone with information on the man caught in this security video. It reminds us that video, without more, is of very limited usefulness if the thief leaves the museum with the object. It is worth noting that this is not the first theft from the Montreal MFA, a number of works were stolen in 1972 in a crime which is still unsolved.


 

Feb 15, 2012

Art and Antiquities Crime Up 30% in Greece

"We have now come back, hiring just security personnel to man museums and archaeological sites. Well, doesn't that prove our genuine conviction to safeguarding our cultural heritage?" 


So says Lina Mendoni, secretary general of the Greek Culture Ministry in response to questions that the Greeks aren't paying enough to safeguard its sites. 


As protests continue to unfold in Greece, one report looks back at the theft of art from the Greek National Gallery in Athens. Anthee Carassava, reporting from Athens for the L.A. Times can't help but to add a few glamorizing details to the theft. One of the thieves is a "virtuoso lock picker". The thieves manipulated the security system and eluded the one guard on duty and stole works by Picasso (pictured here), Mondrian, and a sketch by Guglielmo Caccia. I'm always skeptical of reporting in one nation's papers pointing fingers at the ineptness of another nation's efforts to protect its heritage. This problem plagues loads of international reporting in places like Italy and also Greece. And even if we take the United States or United Kingdom, theft and looting takes place, and there aren't enough security guards to police remote sites and small institutions, which results in the theft of objects. Market safeguards are unreliable, and the law enforcement framework all over the world is still developing. So when funding pressures and unrest take hold, there can be dire consequences for cultural security.

The theme of the report here ties the theft in this case to the wider theme of Greek austerity, and unrest.


Greece's economic crisis has left the Culture Ministry desperately short of cash, resulting in a near-shutdown of scores of museums, dwindling archaeological work in various parts of the country and, in some cases, severe cutbacks in security. At the National Gallery, the curator acknowledged that although the safety of its collection "is not in peril," budget cuts have scaled back security personnel by about 50% since 2010, leaving the country's biggest storehouse of fine art with just 19 of the 37 guards it employed before the fiscal crisis.
. . .
Greece has never been a generous investor in culture. Even in the 1990s heyday of spendthrift policies, Athens allocated just 0.7% of the national budget for the promotion and preservation of Greece's cultural inheritance. Now nearly bankrupt, the state has halved that figure to 0.35%, allotting 42% of that — about $173 million — to the operation and security of museums, monuments, monasteries and archaeological sites, according to the 2012 budget. Government officials are emphatic, however, that the financial crisis is not taking a toll on the safety of Greece's fine art and antiquities.
. . .
About 1,900 government-paid guards protect more than 15,000 museums, monuments and archaeological sites across the country. Of these, 1,350 are full-time staff members; the rest are either contract employees hired during the peak tourist season or civil servants relocated from state corporations that the government shut down last year in a bid to slash public spending. "What am I supposed to do with a 63-year-old mechanic or bus driver who is clueless about antiquity and is just interested in clocking time until retirement?" asked Giorgos Dimakakos, the head guard at the Acropolis, Greece's landmark monument. In recent months, Culture Ministry guards have heightened demands for permanent employment and an exemption from further austerity cuts, saying the government's Band-Aid solutions to personnel shortages pose grave security and liability risks. With poverty levels rising and more than 100,000 businesses shuttered or close to bankruptcy, art and antiquities thefts are up by at least 30% in the last year, said Kouzilos of the special police unit. It's hardly a surprise, then, to see a dramatic increase in small-time hoods and first-time crooks trying to join the ranks of seasoned art thieves.
I'd be interested in hearing how this security compares with even the 'model' in the rest of Europe or North America. I also wonder if it might be time to prepare a 'red list' of objects from Greece that the art market should report and flag.
  1. Anthee Carassava, Art heist robs Greece of a sense of security - latimes.com, L.A. Times, February 11, 2012, http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-greece-antiquities-20120212,0,3742515.story (last visited Feb 15, 2012).

Feb 13, 2012

Congratulations to Simon Mackenzie and Neil Brodie

Simon Mackenzie and Neil Brodie have been awarded a substantial grant to study the illicit trade in antiquities. This is very good news for those of us who follow this issue. Brodie and Mackenzie have both produced terrific research in this area, using empirical data to track the looting of sites and its connections to major art markets in New York, London, Paris, and Hong Kong. They have taken the study of antiquities looting from impressionistic accounts to a solid empirical foundation for future policy changes in the law and the art trade generally.

From an announcement on the Guardian's web page:
"It's extremely widespread," said criminologist Dr Simon Mackenzie, who will lead the project. "There are architectural sites and museums that are being looted all over the world, including Britain and the USA, but obviously more so in the developing world. Previous safe areas have become accessible and the material is saleable. Nowhere is safe." 
. . .
Neil Brodie, accepting an ARCA award in 2011
The market, says Neil Brodie, is driven by availability, and the size of an artefact is not a problem "It goes through phases. Greek pots have always been popular but there are not a lot of new Greek pots coming on the market so people might start marketing Iranian pottery. There is more actually coming out of Iran. Some of the pieces are huge; Cambodian sculptures, for example. "The people who sell this material they are actively wanting to create markets. If it becomes possible, for instance, to dig up rock art in the deep Sahara, they will be promoting that; they will actively create a market for it. There is a synergy between the accessibility and the availability of the material, and the marketability by the dealers. The internet has made that a lot easier."
Congratulations to them both, best of luck with their important work.

  1. Kristy Scott, Glasgow team gets £1m grant to study illegal trade in antiquities, the Guardian, February 13, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/scotland-blog/2012/feb/13/glasgow-team-gets-1m-grant-to-study-illegal-trade-in-antiquities (last visited Feb 13, 2012).

Feb 6, 2012

More Context on the Menil Frescoes

The Frescoes at the Menil in Montrose
The return of the Byzantine Frescoes to Cyprus presents an opportunity to consider what will happen to the physical space which was specially created to house them at the Menil in Houston. But it also offers an opportunity to look back at the acquisition process for the frescoes. Lisa Gray reports that at the time of the acquisition, Dominique de Menil understood they were dealing with 'Thugs':

An example of the chopped up mosaics before restoration
De Menil and her associates had flown to Munich, expecting to see two Byzantine frescoes of unusual excellence. Their contact, Turkish businessman Aydin Dikmen, led the little party to a ratty neighborhood at the edge of Munich, then up a flight of stairs to an apartment that had no electricity. In a room lit only by two candles, de Menil was shown two pieces of plaster (John the Baptist, plus part of an angel) propped against a wall. Other bits were packed in a crate. De Menil was horrified. "The pieces were too much chopped up to derive any impression of beauty," she later told Texas Monthly reporter Helen Thorpe. "It was like a miserable human being that has to be brought to the hospital." Through translators, Dikmen told her that the frescoes had been discovered under rubble at a construction site in Turkey. The de Menil party doubted the story. But de Menil agreed to pay Dikmen earnest money in exchange for the right to buy them in the future. At that point, she did something unusual for the wild-and-woolly 1980s antiquity market: She began earnestly trying to track down the frescoes' rightful owner. Eventually, after many letters exchanged by lawyers and embassies, it became clear that the frescoes had been stolen from a tiny church near the town of Lysi, on the island of Cyprus. In 1974, after Turkey invaded northern Cyprus, looters systematically robbed the area's churches and monuments of anything they could carry off. In the little church at Lysi, where the frescoes were painted into the walls' plaster, they'd glued cloth to the walls' surfaces, then used a chain saw and chisel to hack away Christ, Mary and the angels, yielding 38 cloth-fronted pieces.

It is a fascinating story of one of the rare examples of a collector working with the original owner to solve a theft, restore the mosaics, display them, and return them to Cyprus. But in this case, the thieves were rewarded. The mosaics were stripped from their church, sold on the international market in Munich. So it is a good result, and the Menil and the Byzantine Church of Cyprus should be rewarded, and yet this was a success for the thieves as well.
The Chapel in Lysi, Cyprus where the mosaics were stolen


  1. Lisa Gray, Afterlife for a chapel, Houston Chronicle, February 5, 2012, http://www.chron.com/life/gray/article/Gray-Afterlife-for-a-chapel-2968817.php#src=fb (last visited Feb 6, 2012).

Feb 3, 2012

Objects from the Mercedes Wreck to be Returned to Spain

Images from an Odyssey Marine Press Release of the Coins
The costs of recovering objects from underwater sites is very high. As Andrew Lambert, a maritime historian says, "If you want to stand in a cold shower tearing up £50 notes, go shipwreck hunting . . . Most shipwrecks are rotting away, or carrying dull things—all the romance has been taken out of it." Those working for Odyssey Marine may feel the same way this week.

The company has had its motion denied; the motion asked to stay last year's decision in the 11th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals in Atlanta this week.

This means the thousands of silver and gold coins the company spirited up from the ocean floor in the North Atlantic, and flown to Florida—will now finally reach Spain. The company may decide to appeal the case to the United States Supreme Court, which would be an expensive and risky undertaking. So for now at least, Spain has prevailed. As the embedded video below reports, the coins may finally reach their ultimate destination—Spain—over 200 years after they first began their journey. The coins were minted in Peru and were sent around South America, before their vessel wrecked in the North Atlantic. The Spanish culture minister states in the video embedded below the jump that Spain is willing to return some of the coins to South America, which is the origin of many of those objects.

Odyssey Marine will not be going away any time soon however. Odyssey has it seems carefully timed an announcement that it reached an agreement with the UK Ministry of Defence and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that will provide for, as Odyssey's press release puts it "financing, archaeological survey and excavation, conservation and exhibit of HMS Victory (1744) and artifacts from the shipwreck site".

HMS Victory in Portsmouth Harbour, 1828
So that site may provide objects, and Odyssey will receive "80% of the fair value" of most of the objects it may recover for the site. I'm not a marine archaeologist of course, and don't know how well this agreement will preserve the archaeology of the site. On the one hand the wreck has been underwater for nearly two centuries, and the policy international legal instruments have taken is that that is the best place for them until they can be recovered. But on the other hand I've spoken to Odyssey employees that sites like this in the Atlantic are at risk due to commercial fishing, and other activities which disturb the site. And they have the pictures of scallop trawlers dragging through underwater sites. Yet is the answer to that destruction that we get these objects up quickly? Or should we mark these sites as marine preserves where commercial fishing cannot take place?

In the short term Odyssey has another wreck to attract investors, and buoy its stock price. This 'stock treasure', as one analyst argues, is the real treasure Odyssey is pursuing:
If the net recovery of Odyssey Marine is consistently negative, what exactly is its treasure? Like Mel Fisher, these folks want to chase the dream of finding the big score, with the romance of searching the unknown, and the possibility of becoming really famous (at least among wreck divers) and of getting on TV a few times to smile for Mom. Unlike Mel Fisher, these guys ahve figured out how not to get ruined doing it: Every time they run out of money, they ask you to refill their coffers. And that's the real treasure of Odyssey Marine -- they are chasing a romantic dream and being paid a nice salary to do so at the expense of investors who are unfamiliar with the outlandishly poor outlook for salvage operations.

Or as the New York Times breathlessly proclaims, this deal may be the 'world's richest shipwreck trove'. Perhaps, but not in the ways we might expect.


Background on Odyssey Marine here.
  1. Al Goodman, U.S. court backs Spain over $500M sea treasure, CNN, February 2, 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/02/01/world/europe/spain-u-s--treasure-dispute/index.html (last visited Feb 3, 2012).
  2. Brooke Bowman, Shipwreck hunters stumble across mysterious find - CNN.com, CNN, January 30, 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/01/28/world/europe/swedish-shipwreck-hunters/index.html (last visited Feb 3, 2012).
  3. William J. Broad, Deal to Salvage Britain’s Victory May Yield Richest Trove, The New York Times, February 1, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/02/science/wreck-of-british-ship-victory-may-yield-richest-trove.html (last visited Feb 3, 2012).



An Update on the Institute of Art and Law


The Institute of Art and Law sent along an announcement about an upcoming Study Forum and three new books:

We are holding a Study Forum on Saturday 3rd March in London.  It will start at 10.30 am and finish around 4.30 pm, and speakers will include Kevin Chamberlain, Richard Harwood, Charles Hill, Alexander Herman and Freda Matassa.  Further details can be found atwww.ial.uk.com/study030312 and reservations can be made either by email to Ruth Bowen (ruth.bowen@ial.uk.com) or online atwww.ial.uk.com/studyforumreserve.php.  The cost of the session is £144 (£120 plus VAT) with a 50% reduction for IAL members and past IAL students, and it will carry four hours’ Law Society CPD points.

In 2011 we published three new books – these can all be ordered online using the links below, or to be invoiced please email us

Taking it Personally: the Individual Liability of Museum Personnel, a collection of essays edited by Ruth Redmond-Cooper and Norman Palmer

Neglected Witnesses: The Fate of Jewish Ceremonial Objects During the Second World War and After
edited by Julie-Marthe Cohen with Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek

Cultural Heritage Conventions and Other Instruments: A Compendium with Commentaries by Patrick O’Keefe and Lyndel Prott.

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