Showing posts with label Greece. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Greece. Show all posts

August 27, 2015

Thursday, August 27, 2015 - , No comments

The Demise of the Petrified Mermaid of Chalkidiki

By Angelina Giovani, ARCA 2014 Alumna

Don’t blame the mermaid.

In some places of the world, art is always welcome. Greece used to be one of those places. We must still want to think it is, but between news outlets reporting that illicit antiquities are being sold by the hundreds every day and local artists being ‘fined’ for creating public art, makes it pretty impossible to argue for that statement.

Greek artists, Dionysus Karipidis, created his reclining mermaid in 1997 long rocky coastline on the east side of Sithonia, by orange beach in Chalkidiki. The sculpture, carved into the shoreline, made the specific beach and the area surrounding it very popular.  Since its creation it has enjoyed the love and attention of the locals as well as visitors who sometimes travelled to there mainly to see the beautiful sandstone mermaid.

But unfortunately, the people visiting next time, won’t be able to enjoy the same pleasure, as the artist was fined by the tourist police for the “destruction of the natural landscape” for his rendering of the natural stone and who in frustration has destroyed it. 

The reclining mermaid was 6.6 meters long and took Karipidis over three months to carve. The artist used the rocks already existing along the shoreline, but the government claims that in doing so he has harmed the natural habitat and has therefore fined the artist 533.61 euros. After several protest letters and refusing to pay the fine, the artist stripped naked, since this is a nudist beach, and destroyed the the mermaid little by little, until there was no longer trace of it.

Photo Credit: Video Capture Antenna News, Greece
There’s a competition in this story about which could potentially be the worst part? The fact that a beautiful piece of sculpture in the sea is considered ‘dangerous’? The fact that the artist is cornered and almost forced to destroy his work? That fact that paying the fine once, doesn’t necessarily mean you never have to pay it again? What about the amount? To some 533 euros might seem like a pretty insignificant amount to pay when there are works navigating the art market every day that reach stratospheric prices in the thousands and even millions of dollars. 

Personally, I doubt this particular case had to do with the fine. It was a matter of principle and of common sense. Allowing a piece of art as non invasive and encompassed in nature as this one live would have ‘harmed’ the natural habitat much less than its absence will harm the local people and the visitors.

Now we are left with an heart broken artist, heart broken people and the government is 500 euros short.  How will we ever survive that?

January 26, 2015

Policeman, Antiquities Smuggler, Black Market Cigarette Bootlegger, Arms Trafficker, Terrorist: A Snapshot of the Many Faces of One, Greek, Organized Crime Cell


Investigating organized crime links with art crimes components is complicated. Sometimes researchers are able to draw detailed maps of criminal enterprise that fuels the illicit art and antiquities trade and other times investigations lead us down windy roads to nowhere, or at least to places where gathering further evidence is not likely and possibly dangerous.

Earlier this month Greek news bureaus hit the wires reporting on a series of startling arrests, some involving suspects who liked to mix a little art and culture with their organized crime activities.

Image Credit - Yahoo News
On Saturday, January 3, 2015 Greece’s anti-terrorism unit captured Christodoulos Xiros; an on-the-run associate of the once-powerful and ultra-violent 17N group (Greek: Επαναστατική Οργάνωση 17 Νοέμβρη ).  Xiros had walked away from his prison sentence in January 2014 while on furlough visiting his family during the Christmas holidays.

Tracked to the town of Anavyssos in southeast of Athens, Christodoulos Xiros had changed his appearance, let his hair grow out and dyed it blonde.  But instead of lying low and enjoying his freedom while on the lam, the escapee chose to taunt Greek authorities; releasing ominous statements that implied he intended to pick up where he left off before his original incarceration for murder began.

Less than one month into his escape, Xiros submitted a long-winded manifesto along with a four-minute video to the website Independent Media Center. His untraceable statements, posted online at Indymedia/IMC were laced with violent innuendo alongside governmental and civil rights complaints. 

Speaking in front of images of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, two heroes of Greece's war of independence and a communist World War II resistance fighter, Xiros promised to wage war against those he believed were responsible for the destruction of Greece.  He vowed to “fight to the bitter end" and went so far as to dedicate lyrics from a song by V. Papakostantinou called 'Karaiskakis' emphasizing the phrase “When I return I will f**k you up.”

Image Credit: protothema.gr
Police Chief Dimitris Tsaknakis informed the press that Greek authorities had been searching for Christodoulos Xiros in and around the Athens’ suburbs for three months.  Investigators traced him via informant tips relayed to police, possibly in hopes of receiving part of the reward money being offered for information leading to his capture and arrest.

These tips, along with information gleaned from intercepted phone calls and solid gumshoe policing helped track the fugitive and set the stage for his organized apprehension.  Xiros had been hiding in relatively plain sight, going by the name “Manolis”.

At the time of his recapture, he was armed with a fully loaded Belgian or Hungarian-constructed Browning P35 9mm pistol.  News agencies reported that the gun’s serial number and make were scratched out, an action that impeded its traceability.

Image Credit: http://mikrometoxos.gr
A search of the house where he had been holed up contained an extensive cache of weaponry.  Law enforcement authorities inventoried assault rifles, Magtech 9mm ammunition, a rocket-propelled launcher, RPGs, grenades, six kilograms of explosive-making materials and a plethora of parts used for the manufacture of explosive devices including fuse wire, detonators and ignition wicks.

For a complete list of the evidence seized, please click here.
Image Credit: http://mikrometoxos.gr

After examining the evidence confiscated from the house in Anavyssos, Public Safety Minister, Vassilis Kikilias told reporters "Greek police prevented a major attack against the heart of the Greek prison system."  It seems that alongside the weaponry, police had found a well-developed diagram of the Korydallos prison complex.  Authorities believe that in stockpiling arms, Christodoulos Xiros was preparing for an armed assault and possible break-out on the western Athens prison, most likely to occur during Greece’s recent lead-up to the election that was held this weekend.

As a maximum-security facility, Korydallos Prison Complex has a notorious reputation.  In addition to housing other 17N convicts, it’s also has had its share of movie-worthy prison escapes.  Not only did Christodoulos Xiros vanish while on furlough but inmate/kidnapper Vasilis Paleokostas escaped twice, each time using a hijacked helicopter, first in June 2006 and again in February 2009.  During the second breakout a nearby resident captured the get-away chopper on amateur video. The grainy footage on this film shows the helicopter rising from the prison grounds and shots can be heard firing in the background while the amateur video maker comments.


Korydallos prison is also an over-crowded penal facility that has had substantial civil rights issues, many of which Christodoulos Xiros written manifesto outlined in Robin Hood-esque detail. Plagued by riots, overcrowding, poor health and sanitation conditions and a purported thriving black economy, the prison facility has been criticized not only by its convicts, but by Amnesty International and human rights bodies such as the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture. On occasion things have been so bad that inmates have staged hunger and medicine strikes to demand better living conditions and more immediate access to medical care.

But before Christodoulos Xiros, became a murdering guerrilla anarchist he was once a musical instrument maker and lived on the Aegean island of Ikaria.  Born to a retired priest, Triantafyllos Xiros, and his wife Moschoula, three of their ten children would later be condemned for participation in the 17 November group: Christodoulos, Savvas, and Vasilis.

Savvas Xiros was a painter of Greek religious icons.  He came to the attention of police following a botched bombing attack on June 29, 2002.  Whether from faulty fusing or poor execution, the IED he was handling detonated prematurely.  The explosion blinded him in one eye and caused partial vision loss in the other, blew off three fingers from his right hand, burst an eardrum and collapsed one of his lungs.  In total, he would spend 65 days at the Evangelismos Hospital in Athens recuperating from his debilitating injuries.
Savvas (L) and Vasilis (R) Xiros - Image Credit http://www.tovima.gr

Unconscious for four days, when Savvas Xiros came to he started cooperating with authorities, possibly encouraged by Greece’s rulings that enabled terrorists to receive lighter prison sentences in return for cooperation.  Later he would recant his statements and imply that his confession was made under extreme duress, while under the influence of psychotropic drugs or "truth serums" administered without his consent.  No evidence has been presented which collaborates this allegation, nor his later claims that prison inmates at Korydallos are routinely administered chemical restraints for non-therapeutic reasons.

Whether or not his confessions were self-preserving or influenced by state persuasion, Savvas Xiros’ testimony proved pivotal in Greece’s case against 17N and in dismantling the organized crime group. His testimony detailed the history of the cell from its nascent birth in 1975 as a Marxist-leaning domestic terrorism organization to its fateful decision to murder British defense attaché, Brigadier Stephen Saunders June 8, 2000.

As a result of Savvas Xiros’ testimony and the testimony of others, including his own brother, Christodoulos Xiros, ten members of 17N would be convicted for their rolls in 23 murders and sent to prison.   Prior to his escape from justice, Christodoulos Xiros was serving six life terms, plus 25 years. Savvas received five life sentences plus 25 years for his own role in 5 assassinations and Vasilis Xiros, the youngest of the three siblings, was condemned to 25 years for simple collusion to assassinate.

But this article’s publication in in ARCA’s blog is not solely to outline the life-cycle of one of Greece’s grimmest terrorist groups. Its purpose is to illustrate that organized criminal enterprise has many diverse elements and sometimes significantly and sometimes casually art crime plays its own part.

Theocharis Chrysakis -Image Credit - http://www.telegrafi.com
Following Christodoulos Xiros capture, on January 3, 2015 police have begun identifying additional co-conspirators.  One has been listed as a 37-year-old Albanian who posed as a Coast Guard officer using the pseudonym “Theocharis Chrysakis” or "Hari Koka". Police have indicated that this accomplice had prior arrest records for gun and narcotics possession.  There has also been speculation that Xiros’ stash of weapons and explosives may have been acquired via Greek criminals with Albanian supplier connections, possibly affiliated with this ally.

Christos Patoucheas - Image Credit - http://www.ethnos.gr
A second accomplice has been reported to be a 54-year-old former law enforcement officer.  Greek news wire reports have separately listed the individual as “unnamed” “Christos P” and “Christos Patoucheas” describing him as an ex police officer, dismissed from the EKAM, Special Counter-Terrorist Unit of the Hellenic Police twelve years ago.

The reason for his dismissal: involvement in antiquities smuggling and links to extortion rackets.  Patoucheas also seems to be involved in a functioning extortion ring operating from within the 6th wing of Korydallos prison which allegedly orchestrated additional bombings.

As abettors to Christodoulos Xiros these men now face graver charges than simple gun possession and antiquities trafficking.   Each can be charged as a member of a terrorist organization, as well as with contributing to the manufacturing, supply and possession of common explosives and bombs.  All of these offenses can be tried under Greece’s Anti-Terrorism Act.

But despite the successes of preventing further armed attacks and the recapture of a fugitive from justice, many questions remain regarding this organized crime group.

How is it that prison authorities felt it appropriate to grant furlough to a convicted terrorist despite his direct and indirect involvement in the deaths of 23 people?  How long has Christodoulos Xiros had this relationship with the former officer of Greece’s EKAM?  What are the details of this accomplice’s prior involvement in antiquities smuggling and extortion and is there any correlation between Accomplice One's Albanian arms channels and Accomplice Two's earlier involvement in art trafficking?

But before any of our readers jumps to premature conclusions, I am not implying that Christodoulos Xiros’ organization was in any way funded by antiquities smuggling.  None of my research, in looking for antiquities smuggling connections to this escapee or his associates has uncovered evidence that would substantiate such a claim. Given the more lucrative profitability of extortion and arms and cigarette trafficking, it would also seem superfluous at best as a potential revenue stream to fund Greek terrorism.

My point is merely to underscore, in a thought provoking way, the complexity of criminal behavior and that traffickers, especially art traffickers, are not always tie-wearing antiquities dealers with glossy Geneva free ports and warehouses.

Some art criminals are simply opportunistic criminals. They are incentivized to smuggle whatever illicit commodity has a willing buyer.  The type of “merchandise” isn’t important.  The contraband could be art and antiquities, or drugs and weaponry.  The sole criterion is that the enterprising criminal has access to a willing buyer and a steady supply stream of merchandise that supports his market’s demand.

I mention this because I think it is important, when examining organized crime and terrorism and its potential connection to antiquities smuggling, that researchers not to fall into the trap of feeding the media’s insatiable desire to see actuarial percentages that calculate the risk, size, percentage, threat, motivation or impact of a specific subset of organized crime, be it terrorism, arms trafficking, cigarette bootlegging or antiquities looting.  When we do, we allow the media to skim over the complexity of the subject in exchange for scary headlines that superficially skim the surface and are often based on estimates.

By the same toke art crime researchers should be more comfortable with admitting to journalists “I can’t answer that” or "there is not enough evidence to confirm links between art smuggling and terrorism" in cases like the Xiros investigation, when there is not enough proof available to satisfy the hypothesis.   In most cases, the mere mention of the words ‘organized crime’ and the circumstances of real life cases, as complex as this Greek terrorism cell, already have sufficiently powerful details on which journalists can draw readership without the need for supposition.

For those that want to take a closer look at organized crime and the difficult problem of assessing its scope, I suggest starting with this 2004 academic article.  Produced by criminologists, it gives readers a far greater understanding of the complexity of quantifying organized criminal behavior than I can within the scope of this already overly-long blog post.   The article also sadly underscores that despite having been written more than ten years ago, we are still wrestling with the same problems where organized crime information gathering is concerned.

The sad truth is that even today conclusions are too-often drawn based on too few cases and estimates rather than harder-to-actually-substantiate data giving the media tantalizing conjecture rather than providing much in the way of concrete evidence regarding a specific subset of criminal enterprise.

Part of the reason for this is that researching the mechanisms behind organized crime and any illicit trafficking market is a potentially risky endeavor. Global Initiative estimates that 35% of the journalists killed in the last ten years were reporting on organized crime or corruption.  And no matter how firmly experts researching organized crime disclaim unrealistic estimates or over-reaching assumptions it will always be, at best, an imprecise science by its very nature.

Measuring something as complex and elusive as organized crime, or specifically organized crime with art-related offenses would require law enforcement to develop a conceptual and theoretical framework that permits the police to gather data on and then measure the types of art crimes in a more meaningful way.

Unfortunately we aren't there yet, despite what some media headlines tell you.

By Lynda Albertson, ARCA


References used in this article: 
http://www.amnesty.org/en/region/greece?page=14
https://athens.indymedia.org/post/1512022/
http://www.cpt.coe.int/documents/grc/2011-10-inf-eng.htm
http://en.protothema.gr/counter-terrorism-police-investigates-more-suspected-accomplices-of-xiros/
http://en.protothema.gr/public-order-minister-v-kikilias-gives-details-on-the-capture-of-terrorist-c-xiros-photos/
http://www.ethnos.gr/article.asp?catid=22768&subid=2&pubid=63369134
http://www.globalinitiative.net/programs/drugs/reporting-on-organized-crime/
http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1683&dat=20020720&id=ZqkaAAAAIBAJ&sjid=PUUEAAAAIBAJ&pg=6721,6856359
http://www.grreporter.info/en/police_expect_largescale_terrorist_attack/10589
Inside Greek Terrorism, by George Kassimeris, Oxford University Press (October 1, 2013)
http://www.kathimerini.gr/799330/article/epikairothta/ellada/plhroforiodoths-edwse-ton-3hro
http://mikrometoxos.gr/?p=4991
http://www.newsweek.com/christodoulos-xiros-greek-marxist-guerrilla-arrested-296458
Organized Crime, Corruption and Crime Prevention, Editors: Stefano Caneppele and Francesco Calderoni
Race Against Terror, By Nicholas Gage, Vanity Fair, Jan 2007 Issue 557, p64, 9p
http://www.telegrafi.com/lajme/ky-eshte-shqiptari-qe-bashkepunonte-me-terroristin-grek-foto-80-8897.html
The Faces of Terrorism: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, edited by David Canter
http://www.thetoc.gr/eng/news/article/the-terrorists-next-door
‘Threats and Phantoms of Organised Crime, Corruption and Terrorism’ (Critical European Perspectives), June 1, 2004 by Petrus C. Van Duyne (Author, Editor), Matjaz Jager (Editor), Klaus Von Lampe (Editor), James L. Newell (Editor)
http://www.tovima.gr/en/article/?aid=664944
http://www.tovima.gr/relatedarticles/article/?aid=155710
http://www.veth.gov.gr/index.php?MDL=pages&Branch=N_N0000000100_N0000002123_N0000002173_S0851703103






July 28, 2014

Monday, July 28, 2014 - ,,, No comments

Police officer with Greece's antiquities protection department arrested in smuggling ring

by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

In "Million-euro Marble Statue Seized in Greece", Sotiria Nikolouli reported for the Associated Press on Jul 24, 2014 about the arrest of a police officer from Greece's antiquities protection department "accused of being part of a smuggling ring that was trying to sell an ancient marble statue worth an estimated 1 million euros ($1.35 million)":
Greek Police said on Thursday that the 49-year-old officer was arrested with eight other suspects, following raids and searches at 11 areas in greater Athens and two others in towns in central and northern Greece. The almost intact 1,900-year-old Greco-Roman era statue of a male figure measures 65 centimeters (25.5 inches) from head-to-knee, and is being kept at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Police did not say whether the statue had been stolen or illegally excavated but added that a “large number” of less valuable ancient artifacts had also been seized.
In "Greek policeman, 8 others charged with smuggling antiquities" (Tengri News relaying an AFP article) the 49-year-old police officer was arrested along with a 52-year-old Athens antique dealer:
A police statement said the more than 2,000-year-old statue, which measures 65 centimetres (two feet) was the work of renowned fourth-century BC sculptor Praxiteles. Six other suspects in the smuggling ring are still on the run.
This article in a Greek newspaper (http://www.tovima.gr/society/article/?aid=618124) said the arrests were the result of a two-month investigation; five of the six people not in custody have been identified as allegedly taking part in the smuggling ring (one Albanian and 8 Greeks are involved, including the 49-year-old policeman; a 50-year-old middleman; a 52-year-old antiquities dealer with a gallery in the center of Athens, who is represented as the mastermind of the team; and a 70-year-old collector, the former owner of a famous hotel in Syntagma Square in Athens). According to the article, the police office identified is the head of the service that conducted the raids (the Internal Affairs service of the Greek police). The article claims that the statue is by Praxiteles but it may also be just a later Roman copy. The article says that police confiscated many antiquities from the dealer's shop, some from the house of the dealer's daughter, along with two metal detectors, photographic films and photographs depicting antiquities, a computer hard drive and USB stick, and a special machine or digger capable of excavating antiquities.

November 22, 2013

Museum of the History of the Olympic Games: Seven men sentenced in Patras for theft

The ARCAblog asked Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis, who accepted an award at ARCA's Conference last June, for Greek accounts of the conviction of seven men for the robbery of the Museum of the History of the Olympic Games. Dr. Tsirogiannis recommended this link: Anthi Koutsoubou at News 247 and provided a correct translation:
The conviction of seven people, accused of robbery in the museum of Ancient Olympia in February 2012, was decided by a three-member Criminal Court in Patras on Wednesday, November 20. More specifically,  five of the seven who faced charges [each one of them faced different charges] of robbery, theft of antiquities,  attempted sale of stolen antiquities and attempted murder, were jailed. The man who had entered the museum and grabbed the artifacts received 17 years imprisonment, two were sentenced to six years and two others to seven years. Two Bulgarian defendants, were also found guilty, but were given 2 years suspended sentence and were released. 
The ARCAblog asked Dr. Tsirogiannis if this crime was related to any organized crime.
"I think that it was proved that the hit at the museum was an amateurs' job, as it was the way they tried to sell the gold ring [to undercover police in a hotel in Patras]. Although seven of them (two Bulgarians got two years each, suspended), the group can hardly be named as "organised". It seems that they took advantage of the extremely poor guarding of the museum, for financial reasons. Plus, they were heading to a different museum, the main Archaological Museum of Olympia, aiming to steal ancient gold wreaths and a collection of stamps, but were mistaken and hit another museum nearby, a smaller one! How "organised" is that?"
In February, Elinda Labropoulou for CNN reported on the theft and described the Museum of the History of the Olympics as a smaller building located near the main Archaeological Museum of Olympia.

The mastermind of the theft had intended to sell the gold ring for 1.5 million but the price fell to 300,000 euros. 

From this article (translated here from Greek to English): The gold signet ring dating back to the period of the 16th century BC was the most valuable object of the stolen loot. The ring belonged to a ruler of Anthia and was found in the famous royal tomb "Chang 4" at "Rachi" ara in Antheia Greek Kalamata. The ring shows two male athletes about to participate in an event bull-leaping. The ring had been loaned by the Archaeological Museum of Messenia. In the investigation, scientists of the Division of Criminal Investigation sought information on the DNA of two thieves. Security cameras recorded images from the theft, showing inexperienced looters, furiously grabbing at anything of value.

Dr. Tsirogiannis added in an email:
From the very beginning, immediately after the theft, I pointed out that it would be difficult for the thieves to sell these antiquities because they were very well recorded (http://www.channel4.com/news/armed-robbers-loot-ancient-greek-museum), another clue that the thieves did not belong to an "organised" group. Some did not agree with this view at the time (http://paul-barford.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/olympia-theft-getting-rid-of-stuff.html Paul is a good friend), but the arrest of the thieves, the way it took place, the interrogation and the discovery of all the objects, proved my point.
For another source, MSN distributed the article Agence France-Press, "Seven Sentenced over Olympia Robbery in Greece".

February 18, 2012

Museum of the History of the Olympic Games: England's Channel 4 News 'Armed robbers loot ancient Greek museum'

Follow this link "Armed robbers loot ancient Greek museum" to view a video about the theft of the Museum of the History of the Olympic Games on February 17, 2012. ARCA Instructor Dick Ellis is quoted in the accompanying article (excerpts here):
As a pair of armed robbers bound and gag a security guard to steal dozens of ancient artifacts from the Olympia museum in Greece, Channel 4 News goes hot on the trail of the illicit antiquities trade. "It has become an organised crime business," said Richard Ellis. A former Scotland Yard detective who set up the Metropolitan Police's Art and Antiques Squad, the specialist art and antiquities crime investigator has worked on the recovery of some of the world's most famous paintings, including Edvard Munch's The Scream. 
The latest known theft to have taken place only happened this morning, when two armed robbers broke into an Olympia Museum and made off with between 60 to 70 bronze and clay pottery objects. They tied up and gagged the female security guard before using hammers to smash display cases and grab the loot. That followed the theft last month of a Picasso and a Mondrian from the capital's National Gallery. Today's incident prompted the culture minister, Pavlos Geroulanos, to tender his resignation, amid outcry that the nation's priceless treasures were no longer safe in state hands. Now, Mr Ellis told Channel 4 News, "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," Mr Ellis said. "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." 
According to Mr Ellis, many are looted or excavated by poorer local people looking to make some fast yet small amounts of cash, before being sold on to intermediaries. The real mark up, he says, comes in the stage after that, after they have been passed on to dealers. From here they can end up in auction houses or with private collectors, having changed hands for millions of dollars. In some cases, Mr Ellis said, collectors are aware they are trading in illegal goods, despite a rise in 'due dilligence' to establish the provenance of items.
The article also includes a perspective from Christos Tsirogiannis, [a contributor (along with David Gill) to ARCA's Journal of Art Crime] a researcher in illicit antiquities and repatriation cases at Cambridge University, and a former archeologist with the Greek police squad.
"All the countries that are in decline, with financial problems, and yet hosted ancient civilisations, such as Greece, Italy and Egypt - they are going to see big problems. In Greece, this is connected with the financial situation. We will have more of such things coming up in the next few months. The people who stole this are uneducated people with no money, who are not aware it will be difficult to give these objects to the market as they are recorded, and there are pictures of them. They do it for money, but they are not aware it will be really difficult to get rid of them." It may be the case that some of them end up in refrigeration trucks transporting food in order to be smuggled across borders, through Turkey and the former Yugoslavia, before reaching Europe where they are likely to fetch up a higher price. Another popular route for other goods illegally seized or excavated from Asia, Mr Tsirogiannis said, is aboard ships to Italy. From there they may make their way to Switzerland, and from there, he said, they may be laundered in auctions in London and New York before being sold to private museums and collectors.

January 14, 2012

CBC Radio's "Day 6" Interviews ARCA Instructor Richard Ellis in "To catch an art thief" about the use of art as collateral or currency "in criminal enterprises such as drugs or arms or people trafficking"

Brent Bambury, host of the show Day 6 on CBC Radio, "talks" with art crime expert Richard Ellis, founder of the Art and Antiquities Squad at The New Scotland Yard.

Bambury begins his show discussing this week's theft of paintings by Picasso and Mondrian from the National Gallery in Athens when thieves prompted security guards to turn off their security system by setting off a series of alarms that made the guards think the system wasn't working and shut the alarm system down. As Bambury recounts, the thieves then entered the museum in Greece and stripped three paintings from their frames; "everything was going according to plan" Bambury says until one of the thieves set off a motion sensor attracting attention of the security staff who watched them flee. [Officially the number of thieves has not been released.) One of the paintings was recovered when a thief dropped it during the escape, according to international reports.

Bambury asks Ellis what happens after a thief pulls off a successful heist that draws international attention.
Ellis: In one particular Picasso theft the chap got into a taxi in London and drove around and delivered it to the person who had asked him to steal it, so it depends entirely who you are and what your intentions are. Looking at the Greek experience recently, it was a well orchestrated theft, so they may have well have gone beyond planning the actual theft and have already worked out what they could do with the pictures. 
Bambury: How does a thief monetize a painting? What is the value of something that is so very difficult to sell? 
Ellis: Value is established unfortunately through the media. I say unfortunately because there is a tendency of following an art theft to try and arrive at the highest possible value because it makes for a better story. Criminals will take the highest published value and they will work anywhere between 3 to 7 or even 10% of that reported value as its black market value. Clearly if it’s a valuable painting it can still be a significant sum of money and they’ll use that as collateral or as a form of currency and it will then just be used as a way to pay for other criminal enterprises such as drugs or arms or people trafficking. 
Bambury: So a painting then becomes a token of value in the larger world of organized crime? 
Ellis: Exactly that. Last year … in October I recovered two Picassos in Serbia that had been stolen in Switzerland in February 2007. Now what I learned from that experience is that art is actually being used as a currency because it is easier to travel across international borders carrying a painting than it is to travel across international borders carrying a lot of money. If you’ve got money on you, the authorities are alert to money laundering and you will be questioned and you will have to justify your possession of that money. With paintings, unfortunately a lot of law enforcement are not to so familiar with the art scene, they don’t have easy access to databases of stolen art and antiques. The chances are that the criminals will be able to travel across international boundaries with a stolen work of art.
In the discussion on Day 6, Mr. Ellis goes on to dispel the myth of “Dr. No” the evil art collector hiring thieves to steal art masterpieces for his personal enjoyment. He then describes the operation to recover Munch’s The Scream, which had been stolen from the National Gallery of Norway in 1994 while authorities were distracted with securing the opening day of the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. He also describes Canada’s role in the global market for stolen art.

When Bambury asks Ellis to speculate on the whereabouts of the two paintings recently stolen from the National Gallery in Greece, Ellis guesses that the "porous" borders of Greece with the Balkan countries may have provided an escape route to Montenegro or Serbia.

You can read a summary of the interview on CBC Radio’s website here “To catch an art thief” and listen here to the interview between Brent Bambury and Dick Ellis on the show “Day 6: Inside The World of International Art Theft.”

January 9, 2012

Bonne Année: Museum Theft in Greece Ends Holiday Weekend

Picasso's Woman's Head
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

Reports from Istanbul bumped by museum theft in Greece.

A few kind and loyal readers have emailed me as to the lack of posts on this blog for the past month. I truly had intended to post from either Ankara or Istanbul but between preparing for a Christmas in a Muslim country (easier than you would think) and re-exploring the cultural institutions of both cities, I fell victim to the charms of Turkish life.

In Istanbul I feasted on roasted chestnuts from street vendors and dreamed of Constantinople and the Ottoman Empire as I traveled daily on the municipal ferry which carried me from Asia where I lodged to Europe where I wandered the narrow streets of Pera near the Galata Tower, perfecting the pedestrian survival skills needed to dodge the fearless drivers of this 8,000 year old city of 13 million people.

Sketch by Caccia
Back in my sunny garden in Pasadena, with my back to the dried squirrel blood left by the hawk who had moved into our yard during our absence, I had planned to start this week with a series of posts about Anakara's Anatolian Civilizations Museum and Istanbul's Archaeology Museum; however, the news coming in from The Museum Security Network this morning featured a robbery at Greece's National Gallery.

According to Reuters: After setting a series of false alarms, thieves broke into the National Gallery in Athens and stole two paintings, Pablo Picasso's 1939 painting "Woman's Head" donated by the artist to the Greeks in 1949 and Piet Mondrian's 1905 "Mill", and one sketch by Italian painter Guglielmo Caccia:
"It all happened in seven minutes," said a police official who declined to be named.

To mislead the guard, the thieves activated the gallery's alarm system several times before breaking into the building at 4:30 a.m. (0230 GMT). The guard turned off the alarm only to later spot one of the thieves through the motion detector.

Before escaping, the thief dropped another 1905 Mondrian painting, the "Landscape," police said. [Reporting by Renee Maltezou, editing by Paul Casciato]
Piet Mondrian's "Mill"
(Photo provided by National Gallery/AP)
Reuters reported that the number of thieves is unknown.

CBC News reported that the stolen artworks were "stripped from their frames":
The museum, which features mostly 19th and 20th century Greek paintings, had just concluded the exhibition Unknown Treasures.  On Monday, it has been scheduled to shut down for an expansion and restoration project. [CBC]
BBC News reported that Picasso donated "Woman's Head" to Greece for "the country's resistance to Nazi Germany." According to BBC, the gallery has not established the value for the stolen artwork but closed its doors on Monday as a result of the burglary.

Mark Durney writes today in Art Theft Central that budget cuts may have affected the effectiveness of museum security.  Mr. Durney has also written of the pattern of museum thefts during the holiday season -- and last Friday, January 6, on the Greek Orthodox calendar was the Theophany, or the Epiphany, the celebration of the Three Kings or Wise Men bearing gifts to the Baby Jesus.

In another example of the vulnerability of a cultural institution, the aging National Gallery in Greece was scheduled for an expansion and renovation, just as the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts was in 1972 before it was robbed (also on a holiday weekend, Labor Day in September in that case).

We can only hope that the thieves will be unable to sell the paintings on the black market and will return the artworks as in the case reported recently by Lee Moran of The Daily Mail when thieves contacted an art expert to return René Magritte's Olympia stolen from Musée Magritte in Brussels in September 2009.

September 23, 2011

Getty to Return More Items to Greece - The Aftermath of "Chasing Aphrodite"

Los Angeles - The Associate Press is reporting today that the J. Paul Getty Museum will return three Greek marbles to Greece. The "5th century B.C. works [are] two pieces of a relief sculpture from a grave marker — a third fragment of which is in a Greek museum — and a slab with an inscription related to a religious festival". It's part of the continued story of Chasing Aphrodite as reported by journalists Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino about the collection of antiquities at the "world's richest museum." The book is not just an indictment against the Getty but also the narrative of the types of pressures involved in the trade of antiquities and the changing perception of what is and isn't acceptable after the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Since writing their book, Felch and Frammolino also continue posting additional stories on their website, Chasing Aphrodite, such as the curator who was under surveillance by the FBI for alleged spying activities. Felch and Frammolino spent more than five years investigating the story then condensed the information in an easy to read and informative volume.

Here's a link to more on the story in The Los Angeles Times.

February 4, 2011

The Journal of Art Crime: Columnist David Gill on 'Context Matters'

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin

In his column “Context Matters,” archaeologist David Gill writes of “Greece and the U. S.: Reviewing Cultural Property Agreements” of Greece’s 2010 formal request to the United States to impose “import restrictions on archaeological and ethnological material from Greece dating to the Neolithic Period through the mid-eighteenth century”.

Gill’s column also covers international looting news from the period from March 2010 through August 2010 in Egypt, Greece, Italy, Japan, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

David Gill is Reader in Mediterranean Archaeology at Swansea University, Wales, UK. He is a former Rome Scholar at the British School at Rome and was a member of the Department of Antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge. He has published widely on archaeological ethics with Christopher Chippindale. His Sifting the Soil of Greece: The Early Years of the British School at Athens (1886-1919) is due to be published in March by the Institute of Classical Studies in London. He is a member of the editorial board for the Journal of Art Crime.

ARCA blog: Dr. Gill, some of our readers are not schooled in cultural property law, how would you explain to them the lay meaning of Greece's request to the U. S. to impose "import restrictions in archaeological and ethnological material from Greece"?
Dr. Gill: The US has been a signatory to the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970) since 1983. However this seems to have made little significant impact on the acquisition policies of public museums and private collectors (as the impact of the “Medici Conspiracy” has shown all too clearly). In the last few years the J. Paul Getty Museum returned a gold funerary wreath that appears to have been removed from an archaeological context in Macedonia, and the New York collector Shelby White handed back a bronze calyx-krater that also appears to come from northern Greece. There are reports in the Greek press that there is a claim on a number of Greek antiquities in a major U. S. university museum. The case of the Aidonia Treasure that appeared on the North American market drew attention to concerns about recent illicit activity on archaeological sites in Greece. The Greek authorities feel that a formal Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) would have an impact on the movement of recently-surfaced cultural objects.
ARCA blog: Why do you think that the agreement stops "through the mid-eighteenth century"? What was the political compromise here?
Dr. Gill: The requested agreement covers material from prehistoric times (Neolithic) right through to the period of the Turkokratia. The MOU statement made it clear that Greek authorities wished to protect post-Byzantine art and materials.
ARCA blog: Would you expect to see any practical changes in how museums or private individuals collect items from Greece? And what kind of items would be included in this agreement?
Dr. Gill: The “Medici Conspiracy” has delivered a wake-up call to major museums and private collectors in North America (and beyond). Museum curators, dealers and collectors can no longer turn a blind eye to the issue. The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) has re-formulated its policy towards the acquisition of archaeological material, and established an online object registry. There needs to be a more rigorous due diligence process by those selling antiquities as well as those making purchases. Collecting histories (I prefer this to the misleading term “provenance” that is so carelessly used in art history circles—but that is another story) need to be carefully documented. The proposed MOU with Greece covers a range of works from Neolithic figurines to ecclesiastical icons.
To seek out this piece, and many others, consider a subscription to the Journal of Art Crime—the first peer-reviewed academic journal covering art and heritage crime. ARCA publishes two volumes annually in the Spring and Fall. Individual, Institutional, electronic and printed versions are all available, with subscriptions as low as 30 Euros. All proceeds go to ARCA's nonprofit research and education initiatives. Please see the publications page for more information.

Photo: Dr. Gill at Rhamnous in eastern Attica, Greece