December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas from the ARCA Staff


A very merry Christmas and a happy New Year. We at ARCA thank all of our volunteers, supporters, and friends and wish you all the best during the holidays.

December 24, 2009

Report on the IFCPP Art and Book Theft Conference at Ohio State


by Doug McGrew

Perhaps when you recall incidents of cultural property theft your mind dwells on incidents in Europe or major institutions within the United States. Along this same process you remember priceless works of art created from oil and canvass missing from those institutions. Your thought process would only be partially correct.

On November 10th 2009, the Heartland Chapter of the International Foundation for Cultural Property Protection organized a daylong seminar titled: Cultural Heritage at Risk, Art and Book Theft: Past, Present, Future. Nearly 100 attendees from the cultural property community around the state of Ohio and beyond attended this event organized by Douglas McGrew and hosted at The Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the Arts.

The mission for this seminar was simple and unique. Change the perception on what others view as cultural property and change your personal networks. Invitations were sent to a wide base of professionals in the cultural property community. This was an intentional casting according to Doug McGrew and one he believes made this event a successful venture. “We deliberately invited curators, registrars, librarians, archivist, collectors and law enforcement professionals. We wanted them in the same room, sharing observations, meeting new folks outside of their traditional networks. At the end of the day, hopefully, the attendees gained a new understanding of what cultural property is and how to protect our heritage.”

To accomplish this mission featured speakers Noah Charney and Travis McDade were enlisted to share their research and efforts to protecting cultural assets. Professor Travis McDade with the University of Illinois shared findings with the group focusing on thefts of rare books and manuscripts. Thoughtfully Prof. McDade covered cases with connection to the Ohio area and particularly touching on individuals with ties to Columbus the host city for this seminar. Mr. Charney continued the event covering some well known cases but also provided valuable information on prevention and recommendations for improving current procedures within the attendee’s institutions.

The speaking portion of the day was concluded with a roundtable discussion with McDade and Charney. Joining this discussion were:

· Patrick Maughan – former director of security the Ohio State University

· John Kleberg – former director of the Department of Public Safety, the Ohio State University

· Paul Denton – current chief of police, the Ohio State University

The roundtable provided expertise from all sides of the cultural property community, demonstrating the need to have a diverse professional network. After sharing their professional experiences creating, administering and protecting cultural property the entire panel received questions from the guest. The event concluded with the screening of the documentary The Rape of Europa.

Post mortem discussions have been very fruitful and the positive feedback received from participants has been overwhelming. Planning is currently underway for the next installment of what will become a series of events under the Cultural Heritage at Risk banner.

December 18, 2009

Breaking News on the Stolen Caravaggio Nativity

Caravaggio, Nativity with Saint Lawrence and Saint Francis, 268 x 197 cm

by Judith Harris


ROME - No U.S. post office has displayed the Holy Family in its rogues’ gallery of most wanted, but a Nativity scene painted by Caravaggio has had FBI star billing on its list of the “Top Ten Art Crimes” longer than any other work of art in history.

Caravaggio’s large altarpiece, the Nativity with Saint Lawrence and Saint Francis, valued at $20 million, was stolen forty years ago from the unguarded Oratory of San Lorenzo, a confraternity hall in Palermo. Persistent rumors had the paintings in the hands of the Mafia, and not long ago the former chief of the Carabinieri crack art squad hypothesized that it was “still somewhere in an attic.”

In mid-2009, so-called pentiti, or “repentant” mafiosi, began making fresh revelations to Sicilian magistrates who were investigating other crimes, and one convicted mobster admitted physically removing the painting from above the altar. This December a second turncoat named Gaspare Spatuzza told investigators that during meetings of the Cupola the Caravaggio Nativity would be propped up against a wall.

Now Spatuzza has also admitted learning in 1999 that the Caravaggio Nativity had been hidden at some point in the 1980’s in a barn where it was “ruined, eaten by rats and hogs, and therefore burned.” Spatuzza said he learned this in a prison conversation with the boss of his own murderous Palermo Mafia clan, Filippo Graviano. Spatuzza’s testimony is part of an ongoing trial in Florence where a court is trying to unravel the possible connections between government officials and the Mafia in 1993, when a bomb killed six near the Uffizi Gallery. The testimony is technically hearsay. Although Graviano, like Spatuzza in prison, has been ordered to give testimony before the Florentine court December 16, he is unlikely to confirm the story because the Caravaggio theft is not part of that inquiry. However, Palermo chief prosecutor Antonino Gatto has requested the transfer of Spatuzza’s testimony, signifying that a fresh inquiry has opened there. This would put any inquiry there under official state secrecy.

How reliable is Spatuzza? For the moment, no one is talking, in part because of the presumed new inquiry in Palermo, but also because, as the head of the DEA told this reporter many years ago, “We are not dealing with choir boys.” Spatuzza’s motives are obviously being questioned, as are his ongoing relations with the former bosses he still considers dear friends, the Graviano brothers. one hypothesis is that the Mafia bosses (at least some of them) in Sicily consider the Premier Silvio Berlusconi a burned out case—he is not by any means--, and are casting about for political patrons in Sicily. For this reason interest in the destiny of the Caravaggio has taken very much of a back seat.

Now, a backward view. In 1992 the supposedly pentito Mafia killer Giovanni Brusco told a judge that he had personally tried to negotiate with the Italian State over the return of the Caravaggio Nativity in a swap for more lenient conditions for convicted mafiosi. Several years ago yet another pentito, Salvatore Cangemi, alleged that the Mafia still possessed the Caravaggio, which was put on view as a trophy at meetings of the top bosses of Cosa Nostra, the Cupola.

On the basis of other statements by pentiti, at least a partial reconstruction can be made. The first to speak of the stolen painting was Francesco Marino Mannoia, a particularly cruel Mafia boss who confessed in 1996 to having been among those who stole the painting in 1969. Mannoia said that he had used a razor blade to remove it from its frame and had then rolled it up (or perhaps had folded it), and had taken it to the unnamed individual who had ordered the theft. But when consignment was to be made, Mannoia said, the sponsor refused it because the painting had been damaged during transport. At that point, according to Mannoia, he destroyed the painting. Mannoia now lives in the US as a protected witness.

Investigative reporter Peter Watson then said that in late 1980 he received an offer for the painting from an individual at Laviano, near Salerno, but that the earthquake in the Irpinia interrupted the contact and that he presumed the painting was destroyed.

However, in 2001, according to General Roberto Conforti, who at that time still headed the crack Carabinieri art squad he had founded, “We were searching a farm near Palermo after we were given a ‘tip’ that the work was hidden under a cement cover—but then nothing,” he told Paolo Conti of Corriere della Sera in an interview published on August 24 2004.

A Sicilian press report also alleged that Carabinieri there reported at least three attempts made after the Irpinia earthquake to sell the painting. This might explain why the now retired General Conforti told the reporter from Corriere della Sera in 2004 that he believed the Caravaggio still existed in or near Palermo, perhaps “forgotten in the attic of some old lady who doesn’t know its worth.”

In 2005 the Australian reporter Peter Robb alleged that Mannoia had made a mistake, and that the canvas Mannois was referring to was not the Caravaggio at all.

According to Spatuzza, the canvas had been given to the clan of Gianbattista Pullara and his brothers in Palermo, who hid it in the barn where it was damaged and finally burned as a result.

This is unlikely to be the last such theft. Although top-flight works by Old Masters are hard to place on the international market, thefts of both works of art and archaeology (and especially the latter) are on the rise: the crackdown on international financial transactions following the Twin Towers tragedy has made works of art the material for hostage-like barter in cross-border swaps of arms and drugs, in place of cash, according to investigators here.

The brilliant, temperamental artist was born as Michelangelo Merisi in the town of Caravaggio near Milan in 1571 and studied art under Titian. After his vile temper led him into a brawl with a police officer, he fled, penniless, from Milan for Rome. By then in his early twenties, he continued as a maverick in both art and life. On the one hand his theatrical paintings, precursors of the Baroque style that would become the hallmark of the Rome we see today, literally revolutionized the art world, and he was befriended by an aristocratic Venetian cardinal who became his patron, Francesco Del Monte, who also introduced Caravaggio to Galileo.

In 1606 the ever truculent Caravaggio got into yet another tavern brawl and ran his sword through a man. A warrant for his arrest and execution was pending, and so he fled from Rome. While hiding out in Malta in 1608, he painted the grisly Beheading of John the Baptist but then, after another move that same year, this time to Sicily, he softened, painting two large, touching Nativity scenes. These are a far cry from the glorified Nativity scenes of the Venetian artists. The lost Palermo Nativity shows a somewhat forlorn Madonna with Baby Jesus laid upon a kerchief on straw on the rough ground surrounded by barnyard animals and saints in the guise of shepherds. On the lightly sketched ceiling beams of the barn the wing of a floating angel cast in an ominous shadow hints at the future in the form of a cross.


Caravaggio, Nativity with Saint Lawrence and Saint Francis, 268 x 197 cm

Art and archaeological thefts are on the rise, according to investigators here, who say that the crackdown on international financial transactions following the Twin Towers tragedy has made works of art the material for hostage-like barter in cross-border swaps of arms and drugs, in place of cash.

Most fortunately the second Nativity scene Caravaggio painted in Sicily for a church in Messina is still intact and indeed has just been placed under restoration, visible to the public through a street-front window, inside a building attached to the Italian Parliament in Rome.

December 8, 2009

US Justice Department & Central Bureau of Interpol Rate Art Crime Third Highest-Grossing Criminal Trade and Links It To Organized Crime

Statistics on art crime are unfortunately few and generally inaccurate. The reasons for this are detailed in ARCA's book, Art & Crime, and come down to a variety of factors.
  1. At a local level, most police are told to file stolen art with general stolen goods. This means that art thefts are lost among stolen property files and only those unusual or far-sighted police who set art thefts aside for filing, or choose to send files on to Interpol or national art police will be filed as art thefts, and can therefore be studied and constitute a portion of the national statistics.
  2. The legitimate market dollar value of artworks is a nebulous concept. One day a painting could be worth one million, another day two, another day seven-hundred thousand. It all depends on the stock market, the perceived demand of the art market for the object in question, the whims of a handful of individual collectors and museums. So to say that an artwork is worth X amount of money is untrue--it can only be stated that at one time this artwork, or a similar one, sold for X amount of money, and that this is the current best guess as to its value. Therefore it is useful only in terms of situating art crime at a general hierarchical level, and getting people to take it seriously.
  3. We know that reported art crimes represent only a fraction of the total number, the tip of the iceberg. Antiquities looted from the earth or the sea will only be discovered by happenstance, should an archaeologist or policeman happen upon a looted tomb in the wilderness, for instance. Even then, there is no way of knowing what was in the tomb to begin with, which is now stolen. Much fine art theft goes unreported, by museums which do not want to show their insecurity, by collectors who did not declare all of their collection to avoid luxury tax, by libraries or churches or archives that might not realize what is missing.
While the study of art crime is, necessarily, at this point more anecdotal than scientific, due to the poor, incomplete, and often inaccessible statistics, the major police forces agree on the extent and severity of art crime, and its links to Organized Crime, which make it a crime to take very seriously, indeed.

In ARCA's many projects and conferences, those with whom we have worked have conveyed the fact that art crime is the third-highest-grossing criminal trade, behind only drugs and arms, and have underlined with countless examples the links with Organized Crime since 1960. Organized Crime, which includes but is not limited to major Mafias (it also includes any group of three or more individuals working together in a diverse array of criminal enterprises for long-term collective goals), is responsible for some activity in the life of the crime. This is least often the theft or looting itself, which is done by mercenary burglars or local tomb raiders. But syndicates have the international networks necessary to take stolen objects off the hands of the thieves, smuggle them abroad, launder them, and sell them on. Because of this, art crime funds all of Organized Crime's other activities, from the drug and arms trade to terrorism.

Individuals from the major world art police have quoted these facts repeatedly, as have art criminals, lawyers, security staff, criminologists and more. But it is difficult to find published, publicly available statements to back this up. For anyone looking for a good, reliable source to cite when quoting information about art crime as the third-highest-grossing criminal trade, and the involvement of Organized Crime, need look no further than the US Department of Justice and the US Central Bureau of Interpol:


Cultural Property Crimes Program
The annual dollar value of art and cultural property theft is exceeded only by the trafficking in illicit narcotics and arms. The illegal trade of works of art and cultural property is as dangerous as these crimes. The criminal networks that traffic in the illicit sale of Works of Art and Cultural Property are often times the same circles that deal in illegal drug, arms dealing, and other illegal transactions. It has also been found recently that many insurgent and terrorist groups fund their operations through the sales and trade of stolen Works of Art and Cultural Property.

December 4, 2009

Lecture by Met Chief Security Officer John Barelli at University of Richmond


Interested in hearing more about art theft investigation and security at the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Check out "The Myths of Art Thefts & Art Theft Investigations" above delivered by University of Richmond graduate John Barelli '71 at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in the School of Continuing Studies.*

*The ISGM theft occurred March 1990 rather than 1989 for clarification; Rembrandt's "The Night Watch" is located in Amsterdam and was slashed in 1975

December 3, 2009

Rave Review of "Art and Crime"

"Art & Crime: Exploring the Dark Side of the Art World" is the first book edited by ARCA. It contains a wide variety of essays by world-renowned scholars, police, security directors, lawyers, art historians, criminologists, and more, detailing the realities of art crime, and showing the unite front, working together to curb it. "Art & Crime" is published by Praeger, and is available through Amazon. All profits go to support ARCA's non-profit activities.