October 9, 2016

A Persian soldier from Persepolis loses his second home

In February 2014 ARCA wrote about a sandstone bas-relief panel then-titled, "Head of a Guard" stolen in September 2011 from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) and found 2000 miles away in Edmonton in February 2014. The relief was recovered thanks to a collaborative criminal investigation by the Sûreté du Québec and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, in collaboration with a Loss Adjuster from AXA Art.

At the time of the recovery, Clare Dewey, then a Claims Manager with AXA art in Canada stated that AXA's "responsibility to our policy holders doesn’t end with a claims payment; we have a duty to work with law enforcement to recover cultural artefacts."
Achaemenid-era carving of Persian and Median soldiers in traditional
costume (Medians are wearing rounded hats and boots), in Persepolis, Iran
The Persian Achaemenid relief from Persepolis had been, at the time of its theft, part of the museum's permanent collection for decades. So imagine my disappointment when this photograph turned up on ARCA's Instagram feed.

A bit of follow-up research seems to indicate that the handsome soldier holding his weapon unfortunately is no longer part of the MMFA's collection and has entered the commercial art market as the piece is highlighted in an article by Royal Academy of Art's Charles Saumarez Smith and Sam Phillips titled What to see at Frieze 2016.   In the article, the pair pick out some of their favourite artwork at this year’s Frieze fairs in London and our little fella is one of them. 

The article opens with a high-resolution image of the Assyrian relief from Persepolis and goes on to state that it is located at the display stand of Sam Fogg near the show's entrance.  It mentions the relief being museum quality and that it was once part of the Montreal Museum of Art collection but makes no mention of its theft or why the piece apparently didn't return to the museum's collection after all. A guardian article states the piece is for sale for £2.2m. 

"As the curator who was responsible for organizing the exhibition hall from which the object was stolen over two years ago, I am obviously very happy to see this beautiful work of ancient sculpture return to the museum. It was one of our only pieces representative of Persian art of the Achaemenid period (2nd half 6th century BCE to 330 BCE). 

It represents in low relief the head and shoulder of an armed Persian guard and probably decorated the walls of one of the several Achaemenid palaces spread across the Persian empire. Similar pieces are found in various museums and most were looted from palace sites in the first part of the 19th century. This particular piece is very well preserved and had suffered no damage during its recent adventure. 

The work of the RCMP and the Sureté du Québec in recovering this artefact was remarkable and the officers in question are to be complimented for the quality of their work and its successful end. We all hope that this success will deter would-be thieves from attempting other such thefts. The investigation continues to try and recover the second object stolen from the museum also in the autumn of 2011." 

As can be seen by this artworks presence in the London sale venue at Regent's park, insurance claims can get complicated when it comes to magnificent art works held by museums.  This is especially true when high-value, high-portability and rapidly appreciating works of art are stolen and subsequently recovered years later.   

Who gets to keep an insured artwork usually depends on the policy-holder's "buy-back" rights; specifically written clauses contained in property insurance policies that insure against physical loss or damage of high-value tangible property. In many cases buy-back clauses give the insured, in this case a museum,  first rights when in comes to buying the object back from the insurance company.  The buy-back amount is usually the amount of the original physical loss payment plus, on some occasions, a loss adjustment fee. 

When things go missing, in-house counsel for museums and boards of trustees must manage the financial loss when these assets are stolen and then weigh if it is in the museum's best interests to buy the object back if and when they are found.  Sometimes museum's decline to do so, and sadly, as may be the case with this lovely example of Persian art of the Achaemenid period, sometimes a museum just doesn't choose to, or have the financial liquidity to do so, and the object then goes up for sale on the commercial art market. 

By Lynda Albertson


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