by Noah Charney, Founder of ARCA
The fourth annual ARCA Conference on the Study of Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection was held June 23-24 in Amelia, Umbria, the seat of ARCA’s Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection, a program held in Italy every summer that is the first academic program in the interdisciplinary study of art crime. Among the many important speakers were winners of the annual awards presented by ARCA, including George Abungu, the leading spokesperson for the protection of cultural heritage in Africa; Joris Kila, a co-winner with Karl von Habsburg, who is a specialist in the protection of art and monuments during military operations; and Jason Felch, co-winner with Ralph Frammolino, for his investigative work in the , about the Getty art scandals.
HRH Ravivaddhana Sisowath, Prince of Cambodia
A surprise addition to the roster of speakers at the conference was His Royal Highness, Ravivaddhana Sisowath, Prince of Cambodia. His Highness spoke about the recent seizure from Sotheby’s of the Koh Kher statue by US authorities.
Isman, Italy’s leading investigative journalist on the black market in antiquities, and winner of a 2011 ARCA award, spoke of the continued problem of looted Italian antiquities, and the extent of the problem as a whole, which is far greater than most realize. An estimated 7% of all works looted from Italy since the Napoleonic era have been returned—the rest remains abroad. That said, Italy has had more art repatriated than any other country, in any period in history, aside from the immediate repatriation of post-World War Two Nazi-looted art. A Princeton University study estimates that, since 1970 alone, approximately 1.5 million items were looted from Italy. Isman’s research found around 25,000 items that had been identified and returned. What is still out there is staggering. Isman discussed cases within the last six months that show the continued willingness for museums to trade in illicit antiquities.
The Writer in Residence on the ARCA Program for 2012, Dr Rush is an archaeologist with the US Army who is charged with training US soldiers and officers about the importance of respecting and protecting local cultural heritage and traditions in combat zones. Conflict offers opportunity for theft, but also and far more frequent the inadvertent damage of cultural property. Rush noted the Italian antiques market magazine Antiquariato, in 2011, wrote that this was the best time to collect Egyptian antiquities, referring to the social turmoil in Egypt, which would surely turn up more antiques smuggled out of the country. Dr Rush is preparing the US Field Commander’s Guide to Cultural Heritage Protection, and is an advocate of paying local families in conflict zones like Afghanistan, who have lost their livelihood, to protect and supervise local cultural heritage sites—they are empowered, paid a small amount that is large to them, and are best situated to respectfully function as long-term protector of a site.
Dr Wei, of the Netherlands Institute of Cultural Heritage, is an engineer and conservator who spoke of a new system for “fingerprinting” artworks that he has helped to develop. The system is called Fing-Art-Print, and is a non-contact method for the three-dimensional identification of unique art objects.
Dr Kila, who accepted the award on behalf of both winners, discussed his adventures investigating accusations of looting in Libya, and found no such evidence, aside from the now-renowned Ben Ghazzi coin heist, in which thieves elaborately drilled through a thick cement bank vault floor during bombings. Dr Kila also emphasized the tremendous success of precision bombing during the Libya conflict: Ghaddafi had situated key military targets on or next to archaeological sites, to dissuade bombings. And yet the precision bombing was so successful that no archaeological items were damaged, and yet the targets were destroyed, even when they were situated beside the archaeological site. Dr Kila showed photographs of destroyed military transports and radar machinery that stood within meters of a Roman ruin, and yet the ruin was entirely unharmed.
Felch accepted the award on behalf of both parties. He discussed his immersion in the world of illicit antiquities and major museums, and how he slowly uncovered a vast cache of tens of thousands of documents and images of looted art, many of the documents explicitly proving that insiders at the Getty had knowingly purchased looted antiquities over many years, and were making secret plans to cover up their actions. While the Getty has returned 60 objects looted from Italy, a secret Getty memo uncovered by Felch and Frammolino noted around 350 total looted objects that Getty officials were concerned could be targeted by Italy because they were looted. Felch also described his WikiLoot project, a new endeavor in its infant stages which Felch envisions as a crowd-sourcing online platform to publish documents and photographs related to the illicit trade in antiquities. He intends to publically publish these tens of thousands of documents and photos in the future. The ARCA Conference, and Jason’s activities, were covered recently in The Guardian.
The final award of the day was for Lifetime Achievement in Defense of Art, and when to George H. O. Abungu. Dr. Abungu, a native of Kenya, has served on multiple chairs and committees related to protection world and African cultural heritage. He was Director-General of the National Museums of Kenya, and is now Vice-President of ICOM, serves on the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, among his many distinguished titles and activities. Dr Abungu discussed the protection and preservation of rock art throughout Africa. Rock carvings and paintings dating to thousands of years BC are found throughout Africa, from South Africa to Morocco—and yet they are largely at exposed, though remote, sites and are therefore at risk of the elements, looting, and occasional vandalism.
Paolo Giorgio Ferri
The renowned Italian prosecutor, winner of an ARCA award in 2011, returned to give a keynote speech, discussing his discovery of a forged Euphronios kylix that had been mixed in with authentic looted antiquities and passed off by tomb raiders as original, demonstrating the alarming link between forgeries and the illicit antiquities trade. While artist foundations preserve the legacy of modern painters, there are no organizations charged with preserving the legacy of the ancients. Dr Ferri discussed the importance of enforcing the well-meaning, but not always effective customs laws put in place by UNESCO and the Palermo Convention. He also was asked why the infamous art dealer Robin Symes has not been indicted by Italy. He responded that there were many factors, including the non-cooperation of the UK, the end of the statute of limitations for the main case Italy had built against Symes (the crime took place in 1982 but the evidence was only complete in 2004), and the face that Symes had cooperated with Italian authorities in the recovery of some looted antiquities taken by other dealers, including an ivory mask that was recovered thanks to Symes, and for information about the Fleischman collection laundering operation.