August 25, 2013

ARCA 2013 Conference: James Moore on the stolen Palermo Nativity by Caravaggio; James Bond on the book theft from the Biltmore House; and Judith Harris on the private collecting appetite for looted antiquities

James "Alex" Bond (left), Rene Du Terroil (rear),
 Judith Harris (center), and James Moore (right)
by Laura Fandino, ARCA Intern
In the second panel of ARCA’s  5th conference, presenters James Moore and James "Alex" Bond walked us through two events that made their way into the art crime world: The mysterious theft of Caravaggio’s masterpiece, The Nativity with Saint Francis and Saint Lawrence, and  the successful recovery of 90 books from the Biltmore’s House in Ashville, North Carolina. Following their presentations and discussions, journalist Judith Harris spoke on the continuing of private collecting of illicit art and archaeology, despite - and in part consequent to - today's more rigorous policies of provenance in acquisitions at auctions and by museums. The panel was moderated by Rene M. du Terroil who currently directs the internationalization initiative for the Italian and Spanish campuses of the Instituto Europeo di Design (IED).
James Moore opened up the panel with an illustrated discussion in which he narrated the events which led to the second most famous theft in the history of art crime, the theft of The Nativity with Saint Francis and Saint Lawrence in 1969 in Palermo, Sicily. He began his presentation speaking about Caravaggio, the artist who gave life to the stunning painting of the Nativity. Caravaggio is a well-known Italian artist who at very early age managed to achieve artistic success and fame. At the age of twenty Caravaggio began a career as an artist and then went on to produce many now-famous masterpieces.
Caravaggio’s successful artistic career, emphasized Moore, was the product of his refusal to follow the conventional artistic styles of the time, focusing rather on realistic, naturalistic and symbolist detail condensed into the most vivid biblical scenes.  His artistic fame, regrettably, was always accompanied by his “irascibility and an unpredictable and violent temper,” which eventually led to a homicide in Rome for which he was found guilty. Caravaggio escaped gaol, however, and fled to Naples, Malta and Sicily.  In 1609, while he was in Sicily he painted the Saint Lawrence Nativity for the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo.

The theft of the Nativity took place in October 1969. On the day of the heist, the thieves entered the oratory through what Moore called a “poorly locked side door” and then cut the painting out of its frame.  After 44 years of waiting for the return of one of Caravaggio’s greatest masterpieces, Moore wondered, “Is there any hope that the painting will be found?” Sadly, none of explanations for the crime have produced any significant information on the whereabouts of the painting that today is valued at more than $20 million, yet Moore remains hopeful as he invites us to recall the recovery of The Taking of Christ, another of Caravaggio’s master works, after 100 years of absence.

In the presentation, "Heritage Collecting: Image, Passion and the Law,"  Journalist Judith Harris described the act of collecting as an “innately human passion” initially performed as a  “sport of kings,” whose prestige later placed it on the agenda of merchants and bankers, among others. Such activity, say sociologists who have analyzed the passion for collecting, is shaped by the surrounding cultural processes, which increase the collectors' desire for the halo prestige which ownership brings.
The theft oft Bellini's 15th C. Madonna with Child  in 1993,  the purchase of important Italian antiquities by an unknown New York collector, and the recent mysterious discovery near Rome of an ancient Egyptian sphinx in an abandoned greenhouse, ready for shipment, exemplify the essential but problematic question of “Who is buying it?” According to Harris, the dark side of collecting is that the passion of the private collector continues to foster looting despite the security measures of museums and auction houses.

According to experts in the field, stated Harris, this continuing illegal traffic in antiquities for private collections reflects in part the lack of a census of minor pieces of art, including in many public collections. In addition, the mediocre and rather incomplete inventories of many libraries and public museum storage areas in Italy have contributed to the disappearance of valuable works. The Bibliotecadei Girolamini, an important library in Naples, was looted of some 4,000 books; its director is blamed for the theft. Altogether, circa 1,500 books - some dating from the Middle Ages - were sold or given to private collectors. Among them was an Italian politician, Marcello Dell’Utri.  

Finally, Harris directed us towards the Art Collecting Legal Handbook, a compendium of comparative legislation on collecting in twenty-eight different countries. Particularly interesting are the Handbook's comparisons of legal norms for “due diligence.” Authors Bruno Boesch and Massimo Sterpi underscore the importance of this today: “Collectors, private and public, need to know where they stand in law... Private collectors need to grapple with the complexity of the eventual transfer of collections of far greater financial value than ever before.”

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post. I’m going through a few of these issues as well.