Showing posts with label Italy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Italy. Show all posts

April 3, 2020

Revisiting the clues of a theft: the case of the theft at the Pinacoteca Comunale di Faenza


Sometimes it is good to go back and review old blog posts and provide updates as it is not always possible to track every case of theft when not widely publicised, and sometimes the clues left behind by one set of thieves can be useful in examining the methods of detecting criminal actors in other thefts.  Such is the case of the theft of a small panel painting "Crucifixion and Descent into Limbo" stolen from the Italian city of Faenza.

Vestibule, Maestro of Faenza Sec. XIII
"Crucifixion and descent into limbo"
35x28 cm.  + frame 15 cm., N. inv. 98
Image Credit: Pinacoteca Comunale
di Faenza
Two years ago, on Thursday morning, March 01, 2018, a small panel painting, dating back to the 1200s attributed to the Maestro of Faenza was reported stolen from the Pinacoteca Comunale di Faenza.  The oldest museum in the city, the museum's collection was established in 1797, when the municipality purchased the private collection of Giuseppe Zauli, much of which centered on paintings and sculptures from the 13th to the 18th century.

The stolen panel painting, attributed to the Maestro of Faenza, depicts two scenes, the crucifixion of Christ with the cross in the center on the top portion of the panel followed by Christ's descent into limbo with angels and saints on the bottom.  The framed panel, which dates back to the thirteenth century, had been on public display in the Pinacoteca's Hall of the Vestibule, where it was hung just to the left of the Crocefisso del Maestro Francescano in Gallery 6. 

According to a televised report given at the time by Claudio Casadio, the director of the Pinacoteca, the theft was discovered during a morning walkthrough by personnel who discovered the empty frame and backboard mounting discarded in the gallery where the artwork had been hung.  Given the panel painting's small size, the artwork may have been hidden under the thief's winter clothing and snatched at some point during the museum's opening hours though the date of the theft itself and the potential methodology used by the criminal was not defined publicly at the time the city announced the theft.

Recovered Sant'Ambrogio
di Giusto de' Menabuoi
Sometimes in investigative work, silence is golden. 

Fast forward to just a few months later, and the Faenza artwork was recovered, found in the home of an individual in Bologna, hidden in a piece of furniture, along with two other recently stolen paintings: a Sant'Ambrogio di Giusto de' Menabuoi stolen from the Pinacoteca di Bologna just a few days after the Faenza theft and a 17th century Portrait of a Woman stolen in mid March from the Museo Civico di San Domenico in Imola.

Reconstructing the methodology of the thefts lead to the subject being identified. 

At the time of the thefts, police kept some of the clues regarding the thief's modus operandi to themselves.  The thief which targeted the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna, where a work by the artist Giusto de 'Menabuoi had been removed, stole the artwork during the museum's opening hours.  Likewise, the timing of the thefts from the Museo Civico di San Domenico and the Pinacoteca Comunale di Faenza had strong similarities, details, investigators preferred not to disclose to protect their investigations.

During their investigations the Carabinieri of the Cultural Heritage Protection Unit of Bologna, in collaboration with the Investigative Unit of the Provincial Command and with the Companies of Faenza and Imola spent time comparing and contrasting the security footage looking for clues and similarities and were subsequently able to identify a single individual in the footage with the same physiognomy, immortalised by CCTV security cameras in the museums and in the nearby civic spaces.

Shortly after the suspect's description was identified, an individual with the same distinct physical profile was identified visiting another museum in the city of  Bologna and acting suspiciously, perhaps either casing the museum for a future theft or with the intent of stealing another painting that very day.  Interrupted from his activity, law enforcement then followed the individual back through the streets of Bologna watching him until he returned to his place of residence.

With the house identified, and with the CCTV footage to back up their hunch, a search warrant was issued by the judicial authorities and the man's house was searched.  Inside, the officers recovered not only the three historic works of art, but most importantly, the incriminating clothing worn during one of the three heists.

All the artworks were returned to their respective institutions in just under two months. Not bad.  Let's hope the recent Van Gogh theft in the Netherlands at the Singer Laren Museum has an equally expedient, and happy, ending.




February 26, 2020

Valerie Higgins returns to Amelia this summer to teach “Antiquities and Identity” at ARCA's Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection

By Edgar Tijhuis 

This year, the ARCA Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection will be held from May 28 through August 12, 2020 in the beautiful heart of Umbria in Amelia, Italy. In the months leading up to the start of the program, this year’s lecturers will be interviewed. 

Valerie Higgins
Can you tell us something about your background and work?

I am the Program Director for the Master’s program in Sustainable Cultural Heritage and Associate Professor in Archaeology at The American University of Rome. I am an archaeologist by training, and I began my professional career as an archaeologist working in local government before returning to university to complete a Ph.D., studying human remains from a medieval Italian monastery site.

After completing a visiting university appointment in New Zealand, I returned to work in Rome where I was lucky enough to get a tenured position at the American University. Being based in Rome, a lot of my teaching has been outside at the monuments themselves, rather than in the classroom, and it was this that first sparked my interest in cultural heritage. The daily contact with the monuments and witnessing the issues of caring for such a massive patrimony, gradually led to me becoming more and more involved in that side of archaeology. Looting of antiquities is a huge problem in Italy and it has deep historical roots. An important part of tackling looting is to understand the societal context in which it takes place.

What do you feel is the most relevant aspect of your course?

The course incorporates discussion of contentious issues that are currently in the news, such as the role of museums and their obligation (or not) to reflect social issues, decolonization of heritage and museums, issues of identity politics relating to ownership, etc. Those of us who are engaged in protecting heritage need to get involved in these debates and we need to ensure that the discussion are well informed. This is increasingly difficult in an era of fake news and short soundbites.

What do you hope participants will get out of the courses?

I hope participants will understand the broader context behind art crime and will feel a greater engagement with topical issues. I hope that they will have a more profound understanding of the background to current disputes. Increasingly, journalistic sources present arguments in a very one-sided way and reduce complex arguments to emotive headlines. I hope that participants will appreciate more the complexity and long history that underlies many current issues.

What would a typical day be like in your classroom?

My classes are very interactive. I like everyone to contribute to class discussions from their own experiences. Every year at ARCA we get participants from all over the world, with diverse professional and personal backgrounds so when we are discussing issues we can get many different viewpoints, and this is very stimulating.

While each year participants are very enthusiastic about your courses, is there anything you learn from them in class?

A huge amount! I encourage everybody to take the topics we cover in the class and apply them to situations they face in their professional lives back home. As a result, I get to hear about new places, new disputes, new heritage sites, new groups and it is always fascinating to me. I regularly incorporate in my teaching at the American University information I have gained from ARCA participants and in that way I hope that I spread the knowledge.

In anticipation of your courses, what book, article, or movie would you recommend to participants?

I enjoyed the book ‘Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum’ by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino. It is written by two journalists, not academics, but it conveys very well the attitudes that were current in the museum world in the last part of the twentieth century and the first decade of this century and the almost total disregard for ethics that should have governed museum acquisitions. I would also recommend the BBC podcasts in the series the Museum of Lost Objects. This series looked at antiquities that were lost or looted in Iraq, Syria, India and Pakistan. I like the series because it focuses on the human cost of looting not the economic cost.

What makes the yearly ARCA program so unique?

The people! Every year we get an incredible mix of people taking and teaching the courses in the program and then, of course, during the conference this number increases dramatically. The setting in Amelia also makes the program special. Amelia is a small intimate setting where it is easy to meet people outside of class, over a coffee.

Which other course in the program would you love to follow yourself and why?

I am very interested in Marc Balcells course because he studies art crime as a sociological phenomenon rather than on an individual case by case basis. I believe this aspect is very underdeveloped. Although we will always need law enforcement as a backstop, the greatest impact on reducing art crime is to have a greater understanding of the underlying social forces. Very few people do this and Marc does it so well.

Is there anything you can recommend for future participants to do in Amelia or Umbria?

Amelia is set in beautiful countryside and there are some great walks and picnic spots in the countryside outside the walls. Don’t think that you always have to get on a bus or train to have a great day out!

Are there any funny or interesting things you experienced in Italy, outside class?

Italians certainly have their own ways of doing things which often seem incomprehensible to foreigners. It is not uncommon to go to see something that is supposed to be open and you find it isn’t. However, if you ask around there may be someone who can help you to get in or you might find something else to see that you did not even know existed. Italy is full of fantastic sites that are not in any guidebook or on any website, you may end up having an even better day out. It pays to be flexible and laid back.

What is your experience with the yearly ARCA conference in June? 

I find the conference a very useful way to catch up with what is going on in the field and also people working in the field. The refreshments breaks are almost as valuable as the presentations. To my knowledge, no other conference has such an eclectic mix of people from museums, law enforcement and academia.

Anything else…. The most important thing is to enjoy yourself in Amelia!


For a detailed prospectus and application materials or for general questions about this postgraduate program please contact us at education@artcrimeresearch.org 

-----------

Edgar Tijhuis serves as the Academic Director at ARCA and is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Criminology in Ljubljana. He is responsible for the postgraduate certificate program in the study of art crime and cultural heritage protection and since 2009, has taught criminology modules within the ARCA program.

January 21, 2020

Cairo Criminal Court in Abdin convicts former Italian diplomat for antiquities smuggling

Image Credit Left: https://www.radiolfc.net/tag/m-skakal/
Image Credit Right:  Italian Carabiniri
Today the Cairo Criminal Court in Abdin convicted Cav. Ladislav Otakar Skakal, the former honorary consul of Italy in Luxor, in absentia.  In doing so the courts sentenced the former diplomat to 15 years imprisonment for the smuggling of Egyptian antiquities out of Egypt.  

The Egyptian authorities had previously requested that Skakal's name be placed on INTERPOL's Red notice in connection with his involvement in the smuggling of some 21,855 artifacts from the port of Alexandria.  These objects had been discovered inside a diplomatic shipping container, of the type used to transport household goods, sent through the port of Salerno in May 2017.  

Prosecutors in Egypt had produced evidence in the court case that Skakal was actively involved in the smuggling of the artifacts, which had been seized from inside a diplomatic container shipped in his own name.  The court also found cause to believe that Skakal had worked in agreement with an official of the shipping and packaging company responsible for shipping his container, specifically with a view of exploiting the privileges of his honorary office to illegally export artefacts from the country of Egypt, without informing the government and with the help of accomplices working inside Egypt.

Cav. Ladislav Otakar Skakal's whereabouts are currently not known. He was last known to have returned to Rome.  The mandate of the former honorary consul expired in 2014 and since then, Skakal has no longer had ties to the Italian embassy in Cairo. 

January 20, 2020

Trial begins with the testimony of witnesses in the case against Raouf Boutros Ghali, while Egypt continues to seek the arrest of Italy’s former honorary consul in Luxor, Ladislav Otakar Skakal

Image Credit Al Dostor News
During a court hearing on Sunday, January 19, the Cairo Criminal Court of Abdin, headed by Counselor Mohamed Ali Mostafa El-Feky, began hearing the first of witness testimony in the trial against Raouf Boutros Ghali and others on various charges related to the smuggling of Egyptian antiquities into Europe.  During that hearing the Egyptian prosecution layed out its investigation into the case into the smuggling of 21,855 Egyptian artifacts which had earlier been seized by Italian authorities. 

Holding passports for Italy and San Marino, the defendant, Raouf Boutros Ghali, has been held in custody as a flight risk since his original arrest, February 14, 2019 and was seen held in a caged dock during throughout sunday's proceedings.  While his trial is underway, the Egypt's Prosecutor General, Nabil Sadek had previously requested precautionary custody pending the conclusion of his trial for his alleged involvement in the the scheme to illegally export Egyptian heritage in contradiction of the country's laws.  

In total some 21,660 coins along with 195 artifacts were seized, some of which include 151 miniature figurines made of faience, 11 pottery vessels, 5 mummy masks, some gold-plated, 3 islamic era ceramic tiles, 2 canopic jar heads, two wooden decorative objects, and a wooden sarcophagus. 



In statements given to the court via council the defendant Mr. Raouf Boutros Ghali confirmed he would be fighting the charges against him and represented that he had inherited the exported pieces from his grandfather, Boutros Ghali Pasha, the first Coptic Prime Minister from 1908 to 1910.  It should be noted that the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) is the institution entrusted with the protection of the Egyptian heritage in accordance with article 8 of the Antiquities Protection Act of Law No. 117 of 1983 which states:

Anyone owns any archaeological object in accordance with the provisions of this Law must notify the Council of such object within six months starting from the beginning of March 2010 provided that such persons are required to preserve such objects until the Council registers it.
Early, on May 25, 2018, Shaaban Abdel Gawad, who heads up Egypt's antiquities repatriation department within the Ministry of Antiquities, confirmed that while the Egyptian authorities had deemed the artifacts to be authentic but the objects did not appear in any of the country's antiquities registries. 

On Saturday, the prosecution also underlined its September 17, 2019 demand for the rapid arrest of Italy’s former honorary consul in Luxor,  Ladislav Otakar Skakal. Egyptian authorities had requested that Skakal be placed on INTERPOL's Red notice in connection with his involvement in this case as the ancient objects were discovered inside a diplomatic shipping container, of the type used to transport household goods, when it came through the port of Salerno in May 2017.  

January 17, 2020

Marc Balcells comes to Amelia this summer to teach on the criminology of art crimes at ARCA's Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection


By Edgar Tijhuis

This year, the ARCA Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection will be held from May 28 through August 12, 2020 in the beautiful heart of Umbria in Amelia, Italy.

In the months leading up to the start of the program, this year’s lecturers will be interviewed. This week I meet professor Marc Balcells, one of the world’s leading scholars on art crime.

Can you tell us something about your background and work?

I am a professor at the Open University of Catalonia (UOC) and an associate professor at Pompeu Fabra University (UPF). I teach criminology and criminal law. I hold degrees in Criminology, Law and Human Sciences, as well as a Masters in Criminal Law and Criminal Justice. I also hold a PhD in Criminal Justice. My research focuses mostly around transnational and organized crime, mostly related to cultural heritage crime, among other topics in criminology that I am researching as we speak, such as sexual abuse in the church and cybercrime.

What do you feel is most relevant about your course? 

The course changed drastically last edition. Before, it was all about criminological theory applied to cultural heritage crime. But I felt a responsibility with my students regarding teaching them how to design and conduct good research in this field, always within a criminological angle.  That is, instead of piling up information on any given art crime that will probably be collected from books and newspapers, the course gives participants tools to conduct serious quantitative or qualitative research and learn how to design a research project within the field of cultural heritage crime. Challenging participants to see what serious research they are able to conduct in order to improve our knowledge on this field is essential! And of course, in the meantime participants not only learn about cultural heritage crime but also about criminology and criminological theory, using other crimes as examples of crime in general, as it is one of our everyday realities that we must live with. Last edition we worked with seminal articles and books that explored cultural heritage crime: in 2020 we have more new articles and academic books exploring forgeries, art theft or looting (to name a few) which are important as they can be used by students to see how research is being conducted in this field.

The 2019 class with Marc Balcells..
What do you hope participants will get out of the courses? 

A fascination for a criminological point of view when analyzing cultural heritage crime, as well as an enchantment with the field of criminology and a fascination for the craft of research. Again, it is very important to have a knowledge not only about the existing literature but also on how to produce more research like the one that is being disseminated in conferences and academic journals and books. I do hope to train more and more serious and disciplined researchers in this fascinating field.

What would a typical day be like in your classroom?

A dialogue between myself and the students. I do ask a lot of questions in order to prompt debate: getting to know what participants think about on different topics is very enriching. But I also like to challenge them and to see how they research art theft, or looting, to name two crimes, by giving them research examples and seeing how they would improve them or simply do things differently. Gathering data on cultural heritage crime is not always easy (on the contrary!) and we researchers struggle finding them: the opinion of the students is always valuable.
The Palgrave Handbook on Art Crime..
While each year participants are very enthusiastic about your course, is there anything that you learn from them in class?

So many things! Go figure: as I said, over the years I gather brilliant insights from students that are original and intelligent. Participants must know that before I became a professor in this degree, I was a student in it: I have sat on both sides of the classroom and, therefore, I do know what is to be a student and what I wanted from a professor when I was studying. I am not only a professor on the ARCA Program but I am a graduate of it! 

I am inquisitive by nature, but much more in class. I love to ask questions and see their points of view. Also, I do love to meet with the participants after classes and enjoy a tea with them while chatting about art crime in general or helping them with their projects.

In anticipation of your course, what book, article, or movie would you recommend to the participants? 

In my case, I would recommend that they read academic research produced by scholars in whichever field of cultural heritage crime they are interested in. I can assure you that they are as fascinating as any other art crime book that is being written by journalists, for example. Therefore, I would recommend they read everything that interests them, but mainly within academia. Right now I am reading the Trafficking Culture’s book Trafficking Culture: New Directions in Researching the Global Market in Illicit  Antiquities, and Hufnagel and Chappell’s The Palgrave Handbook on Art Crime, both new additions to academic literature published in 2019.

Field trips..
What makes the annual ARCA program so unique?

Let’s say it like this: it is the intensity. Where else can you learn so much, working with top experts in this field? It is intensive and complete and, at the same time, it immerses you in the local culture of Amelia! Field trips organized by the program gives participants the in-depth experience needed to grasp most of the subjects discussed in the courses. It is the perfect setting!

Which other course in the program would you love to follow yourself and why? 

So many. Since I was once an ARCA participant myself, new courses have developed, and I would love, especially, to attend Professor Christos Tsirogiannis’ course on the hidden market of illicit antiquities. I admire his work and he is a great colleague. He was a great help with my earlier research and I could not be more grateful. He is widely acknowledged as an expert in the field and his media attention and the scope of his work is simply amazing! Again, it is the living proof of what I mentioned in my previous answer. Learning all about antiquities trafficking with Professor Tsirogiannis in Italy is an opportunity not to be missed!

Amelia...
Is there anything you can recommend to future participants of things to do in Amelia or Umbria? 

Come with an open and ready mind. Learn the culture of the place in which you will be living during your summer there. And be ready to learn a lot: work hard and there can be fantastic rewards afterwards. It is a fantastic field and it requires more and more trained minds to work in it!

Are there any funny or interesting things you experienced in Italy, outside class? 

Indeed! We are still good friends after all these years, with my colleagues. We have so many good memories with the locals, the professors, etc: after all, it is a summer-long experience. The food, the setting, the people... everything counts!

What is your experience with the annual ARCA conference in June? 

Sadly, I am always immersed teaching courses at that time and I cannot attend as much as I would like to, but I hope to change this in the near future. I have presented and attended years ago, and it is overwhelming being able to meet colleagues in this field and getting to know their research and the latest advances. These are very intense days: it is not only the conference, but the networking involved, in every single meeting. And of course, some fun to be had too, as the dinners and lunches are always fantastic!

Anything last thoughts? 

I would like to end this interview by saying that I am looking forward, as every year, to meeting our new cohort. I always come back to Amelia and ARCA with a fluttering heart, knowing I will get to meet and get to know new participants, see again some old friends, and spend days teaching and talking about cultural heritage crime.

For a detailed prospectus and application materials or for general questions about this postgraduate program please contact us at education@artcrimeresearch.org



Edgar Tijhuis serves as the Academic Director at ARCA and is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Criminology in Ljubljana. He is responsible for the postgraduate certificate program in the study of art crime and cultural heritage protection and since 2009, has taught criminology modules within the ARCA program.

Recovered 'Portrait of a Lady' by Gustav Klimt deemed authentic by Italian Experts.


The painting known as 'Portrait of a Lady' by Gustav Klimt, which was recovered last December, after being discovered hidden in a utilities box attached to the Galleria d'Arte Moderna Ricci Oddi in Piacenza, has been deemed authentic by Italian experts.  During a press conference held today Prosecutor Ornella Chicca told reporters: "It is with no small emotion that I can tell you the work is authentic." 

The painting had been stolen in February 1997. Yet, despite many leads, as well as talks with a local art thief who claimed he had stolen the original while it still hung in the gallery, replacing it with a duplicate, the artwork remained missing for nearly 23 years.   That is until it was found on the very same grounds from which it disappeared.

January 8, 2020

27 individuals investigated in Italy involved in online transactions of illicit objects plus a curious research method for identifying illicit antiquities


Those who purchase illicit art works come in all walks of life.  Some buyers are medical professionals, some are lawyers, and some are wealthy entrepreneurs.  These are just a few of the profiles of the 27 individuals from Bari and Foggia under investigation following an operation carried out by the Carabinieri Cultural Heritage Protection Unit in Bari.



Some of the objects recovered included:

140 archaeological finds datable from 300-400 B.C.E. 
200 fragments largely attributable to the area of ​​Magna Grecia 
30 ancient weapons including one supplied to the Bourbon army and another to the papal troops 
and a 16th century bronze cannon cast in Ljubljana, Slovenia

Yet, searching for those co-involved, did not just include the monitoring of commercial websites dedicated to the sale of ancient and historic objects.  During a six month long investigation, led by Major Giovanni Di Bella, Carabinieri TPC officers used an interesting and creative approach.  

While monitoring websites used for the buying and selling of art, officers from the TPC also turned their eyes to websites advertising tony residential property for sale in Italy. By studying real estate photos of the interiors of these properties, the carabinieri were able to identify houses that contain works of art, photographed in their pride of place locations, inside some of southern Italy's luxurious homes.

Giving it a try myself, within a few clicks I too, easily found photos depicting ancient art, displayed and photographed in plain view within residential settings while randomly checking advertisements for villas within the Rome market. Keeping in mind that a photo alone does not define an object's legitimacy or illegitimacy, these types of reviews can provide an interesting starting point for investigators.  

Image screengrab saved from a Rome property weblisting  
As a simple hypothetical illustration of the methodology, I identified a photo of the villa interior inside a 20-room estate for sale within the Parco Regionale dell'Appia Antica, along the main Roman road that started in 312 B.C.E.  This property dates to the 1800s, so the ancient objects photographed would most likely have been uncovered during the establishment of the structure and should therefore have a proper pedigree.  But how to know for sure?

A further search about the history of the property reveals that the house was built on the remains of an ancient basalt quarry which provided material for the Regina Viarum and was once owned by Carlo Ponti, an Italian film producer and husband of the actress Sophia Loren.  Sitting just 300 meters from the tomb of Cecilia Metella and a 10 minute drive away from the Colosseum, it isn't possible to understand which, if any, of the objects shown on the property listings are part of the original holdings of the property and which might have been purchased on the ancient art market by the filmmaking couple, or it's subsequent owner, Giorgio Greco.  If the 100 Roman artifacts and sculptures documented in this sale form the collection of the original property owner, they would/should have been duly reported to the Superintendency.

That said, tweezing out what is licit vs possibly licit is where the expertise of the Carabinieri is required and their novel approach to identifying ancient art perhaps purchased unawares by individuals who may or may not have failed to do their due diligence, is an interesting one.  One thing is for sure, monitoring photographs like these on real estate sites can give law enforcement a greater understanding of who has legitimate works of ancient art, and on occasion, as the Bari investigation demonstrates, may also provide leads in who is dealing in or purchasing illicit material.  This in turn can help lead law enforcement to dealers and middlemen suppliers transacting in illicit art.

Food for thought. A beautiful photo can mean different things to different people. 

December 21, 2019

Mysterious Museum Theft Recovery. The long-missing shield gifted to Italy's General Garibaldi has been recovered in Rome.


This week, officers from the operational department of Italy's Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale and the Rome Gianicolense Station have recovered an important ornamental bronze shield.  The object,  gifted as a sign of gratitude to Giuseppe Garibaldi by the citizens of Sicily in May 1878 was donated to Rome by Garibaldi and first kept in the Capitoline Museum.  Later it was transferred to the National Museum of the Risorgimento located inside the Palazzo del Vittoriano (the Victor Emmanuel II National Monument) complex, where at some point, it disappeared from the collection approximately twenty years ago. 

Giuseppe Garibaldi
Spanning some 118 centimeters in diameter, the shield was no small thing for a thief or disgruntled employee to have walked off with undetected.  Crafted by Antonio Ximenes, the shield weighs in at close to 50 kilograms.  Intricately decorated, it  illustrates eight engraved allegorical groups which bear the coat of arms of Italy's most important cities.  At the shield's center, the easily recognizable shield boss, or umbo, depicts a likeness of Garibaldi himself. Even more identifiable, the entire shield was etched with a laurel wreath where the names of all 1089 "Mille di Marsala" were engraved.

Given how recognizable this Italian patriot and soldier of the Risorgimento was, and how well published the shield is, having been the subject  of engravings and detailed in various exhibition documents, fencing the historic object after its theft
from the museum would have likely drawn considerable attention.  Instead, the shield simply vanished without a trace, only to resurface in the news as having been located in the private residence of a yet unnamed "Rome architect".  

Given that the squad is usually quick to name individuals involved in theft or in receiving stolen goods when it comes to thefts of Italy's cultural patrimony, it will be interesting to see if the public prosecutors name who this Rome architect is.   Moreover it is really very difficult to believe that whoever "owned" the object, they were not aware of its illegal origin.  




December 12, 2019

The mysteries of the mysteriously appearing Klimt


Painted by the Austrian secessionist Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), the only known “double” artwork created by the artist, "Portrait of a Lady," was discovered missing from the Galleria d'Arte Moderna Ricci Oddi, on February 22, 1997.  The painting's disappearance was strange, the frame for the artwork was found on the roof of the building, along with a potential fingerprint from one of the culprits, and yet, the Carabinieri estimated that the artwork was too large to have been pushed or pulled through the gallery roof skylight, so why was it found there?

Despite many leads, and talks with a local art thief who claimed he had stolen the original painting while it still hung in the gallery, replacing it with a duplicate,  the painting remained missing for almost 23 years. That is until it was found on the same grounds from which it disappeared.  

During routine gardening, the artwork was found nestled inside a small metal cubby, attached the side of the gallery, in a location previously covered with ivy.  The fact that the painting appears to be in good condition, despite the humid environment makes in unlikely that it remained stashed in this hidden location for the duration the artwork has been missing. 



Once part of a large collection of artworks, amassed and donated to the city of Piacenza by a local noble, and art aficionado Giuseppe Ricci Oddi (1868-1937) in the early 20th century, the Klimt had been on display at the former Convent of San Siro in Piacenza and was in preparation for a temporary move to a new location near Piacenza’s City Hall while its home gallery underwent renovations.  It was during this period of movement that the original, or if the purported thief is to be believed, his copy of the artwork went missing.  

Adding possible credibility to the informant's statements regarding a faked version of the artwork, on 1 April 1997, border police working on the Italian/French border at Ventimiglia intercepted a package addressed to the former Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi which contained a high quality forgery of the artwork. Why someone would be sending the disgraced former PM, a fugitive since 1994 in Tunisia, protected by Ben Ali's government was unclear. 

Prior to its removal from the Galleria d'arte moderna Ricci Oddi the artwork had drawn considerable attention thanks to the sharp eyes of a young Italian woman named Claudia Maga.  She was the first to notice that the Piacenza artwork bore a close similarity to a second known Klimt artwork depicting an almost identical woman glancing over her left shoulder. That matching painting had not been seen since 1912 and the similarity of the two subjects portrayed, led scholars to consider whether or not "Portrait of a Young Lady" and "Portrait of a Lady" might in fact be one and the same.  

Yet, the Piacenza painting has some marked differences. The missing 1912 portrait depicted the woman with a hat and scarf, while the Italian-based portrait did not.  Proffering that perhaps the artist had reworked the first in favor of the latter, analytical studies were made using x-radiography at a local hospital which made it possible to examine the layers beneath the surface and to reveal more information about the composition beneath the portrait. These tests proved Maga's hunch was correct, yet why Klimt chose to rework the painting remained subject to speculation. 

For now, the recovered artwork will undergo authentication, to determine of the painting found in the outer walls of the gallery is the missing artwork stolen more than two decades ago.  If it is, the next question will be where and with whom it really was for the bulk of the almost twenty-three years it was missing. 

November 17, 2019

Culprits Identified in the theft at the Museo Civico Archeologico in Castiglion Fiorentino


Proving that museum theft is a bad idea, the Carabinieri and the local municipal police force have identified two culprits, aged 20 and 23 responsible for breaking in the Museo Civico Archeologico in Castiglion Fiorentino with a crow bar during the early morning hours of November 9th.  

Analyzing CCTV surveillance footage, which captured the culprits lighting their way to the stash using their cell phones, as well as images in the city's historic center, investigators were able to hone in on two individuals responsible for the burglary in just four days.  After that, they questioned the suspects about their whereabouts at the time of the theft.

After contradicting one another, and eventually breaking under the stress, the 23 year old, listed only by his initials as "SM" quickly confessed, soon after followed by his accomplice.   Later, the pair led the authorities to the spot in Valle di Chio, a valley in the municipality of Castiglion Fiorentino, where the 61 mostly bronze and silver objects had been buried at the foot of a tree, along the banks of a stream for later retrieval. 

As is sometimes the predictable case in thefts of this nature, one of the two accomplices had once worked at the museum. A second irrefutable bit of evidence, the GPS location data from the cell phones they carried at the time of the theft.  With this law enforcement can conclusively pinpoint their locations at the time the alarm system sounded.  

In the famous words of Forrest Gump:  "Stupid is as stupid does."


By:  Vittoria Ricci

November 15, 2019

Revisiting the case of the marble head of Alexander the Great as Helios, the Sun God

Sotheby's Website Screen Capture
taken 24 July 2018
This week journalist John Russell, of Courthouse News Service, reported that the attorney representing Safani Gallery Inc., in New York has filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to block the application for turnover request for a marble antiquity seized by the Manhattan District Attorney.  In their complaint Safani Gallery Inc., wholly owned by Alan Safani, is seeking a trial by jury for the return of an Augustan Age marble head of Alexander the Great as Helios, the Sun God, or damages for the losses it believes it has incurred, from the Italian Republic.  On page 15 of that complaint, Safani through their council asks for a ruling by jury for either the return of the marble sculpture or the full fair-market value of the Head of Alexander, plus legal expenses and interest.

In its complaint Safani Gallery also represents that it was given express representations and warranties of the authenticity, ownership, export licensing, and other attributes of the provenance for the marble head from Foundation, Classical Galleries. Ltd., which sold the New York gallery the antiquity. The complaint also states that by seizing the sculpture, Italy seeks to receive a benefit, including the expropriation of the gallery's property for Italy's own use and gain, to which the country has no claim, interest, or right.

To provide background on this case, Matthew Bogdanos, Senior Trial Counsel in the Office of New York County District, through Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr., submitted an Application for Turnover on 23 July 2018 in support of an order pursuant to N.Y. Penal Law §450.10 (Consol. 2017) and N.Y. Criminal Procedure Law §690.55 (Consol. 2017) requesting the transfer of this antiquity, seized pursuant to a previously executed search warrant, from the custody of the court, to the custody of Italy.

Under order of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of New York, the marble head of Alexander the Great had been seized at Safani Gallery  on 22 February 2018.  As a result of that seizure, the object was taken into evidence as part of a state investigation seeking to demonstrate the crime of Criminal Possession of Stolen Property in the Second Degree.  That seizure was carried out based on evidence provided by the Italian authorities that the object had been stolen and illegally exported from the country of origin in contravention of Italy’s cultural heritage law (No 364/1909).

Looking across the remains of the Basilica Aemilia
towards the Severan Arch,
the Tabularium, and the Modern Senate House
Image Credit: B. Dolan
In terms of its history, the NY District Attorney court documents set out that the head was discovered during excavations of the Basilica Aemilia, located on the Via Sacra.  This is the ancient road between the Capitoline Hill and Rome's Colosseum, located within the Roman Forum. While little remains of the Basilica Aemilia today, its presence in the form is documented by Rome historian Pliny the Elder as being one of the three most beautiful elements on the site alongside the Forum of Augustus and the Temple of Peace.


The contested marble head was discovered at some point during Italian research excavations carried out by Professor Giacomo Boni and later by Professor Alfonso Bartoli, who conducted archaeological surveys of the Palatine Hill in Rome between 1899 and 1939.  Written documentation from these explorations suggest that the head was once part of the “Statues of Parthian Barbarians” which are believed to have adorned the Basilica Aemilia.  As such, these objects represent a valuable testimony to the art and architecture decorating buildings in the Forum during the Augustan Age.

After 20 BCE Roman art often portrayed the people of the Empire and during its restoration in 14 BCE, Augustus chose to line the Basilica with a series of Parthian figurines, perhaps to humiliate the ancient foreign enemy of Rome.  Representing individuals from the Parthian Empire (also known as the Arsacid Empire), these human likenesses depicted the conquered Parthians as representatives of the Orbis Alter, subjects of Rome not considered to be part of the “civilised” world.  Stylistically, they differ from representations we have from the same time period of people from the Orbis Romanus which makes this statue grouping particularly identifiable.

Correlating statue from the Basilica Aemilia
According to New York court documents, the Italian Soprintendenza alle Antichità Palatino e Foro Romano began keeping archival ambrotype photographic documentation of the objects it discovered during these excavations beginning in 1908.  This method of documentation most likely came about as a result of the country having instituted regional "Superintendencies" in 1907 on the basis of law no 386 dated 27 June 1907.   Prior to that, Italy lacked a strong national framework to encompass cultural heritage laws and regulations, and the area's cultural heritage was protected by the individual laws and decrees inherited from the many states and kingdoms that formerly made up Italy prior to it unification.

To archive the excavation finds from the Roman Forum, the city's cultural authorities placed the smaller antiquities discovered during this excavation upon a table in the Museo Forense cloister for cataloging.   The objects were then photographed against a dark background to aid in their identification and documentation.

Italy's archival records from this period document an image of the Head of Alexander, taken after its initial excavation, resting alone on this table in the aforementioned cloister.  The location where this image was taken is confirmed via a second image photographed in the same cloister of additional excavation finds from the Basilica Aemilia excavation which depicts objects photographed on the same table, but taken from a wider angle which allows the viewer to see the architectural elements from the cloister.  Based on these photographic records, the contested head of Alexander the Great is believed to have been discovered during the second phase of excavations which began after 1909, one year after the superintendency began using this type of photographic imagery for this excavation.

An ambrotype is an early form of photography dating to the 1850s which, in many ways, is a more cumbersome antique equivalent to the modern day slide, with the exception being the photograph was created by way of a fragile glass negative.  To preserve them, ambrotypes are generally stored in cases called a casket or union case and in single envelopes which require special care given their fragility. 

Sample ambrotype photo in its union case.
To date the find period for this object it must be remembered that the Italian authorities also have no contradicting written entries or alternative photographic archival documentation of any marble head finds, Alexander the Great or otherwise, from the Basilica Aemilia excavations related to the Barbarian statues prior to 1909.  All records of this marble head date from 1909 and points thereafter.

It is important to note that Professors Bartoli and Boni began their explorations in the zone of the Basilica Aemilia, where the head has been reported to have been excavated, in September 1909.  This time period, discussed at length in the State of New York's Application for Turnover, is documented in the archaeological record and demonstrates that in all likelihood, the marble head was found after September 1909 when excavations at the Basilica resumed.  Possibly more precisely, the first written documentation of marble sculptural heads of this type being found at the Basilica Aemilia were documented in  Bartoli's excavation journal in March and June 1910.  

This dating is critical to this restitution case in so much as Italy's Code of the Cultural and Landscape Heritage (No 364/1909) was made into law less than three months earlier, on 20 June 1909.  According to that law, there is a presumption of State ownership for all archaeological objects discovered after the law's implementation, unless the Italian cultural ministry acknowledges that the object does not have a cultural interest.  Given the importance of the Roman Forum excavations, it is not likely that the newly established Superintendency responsible for Rome would have categorized the symbolic head of Alexander the Great, from a site as important as the Basilica Aemilia, within the Forum Romanum,  as insignificant.

History tells us though that records for the marble head notated "perduta" (Italian for the word "lost") in November of 1960, when a review of the photographic negative of the Head of Alexander, inventory number 5862, no longer could be matched with a correlating object within the state's collection inventories.  Yet, at the time of this notation, there was no evidence to indicate that the object, or a second, also notated missing antiquity, had been stolen.  It is for this reason perhaps that the object was not archived within Italy's Leonardo database, the Italian state's archive for stolen art and antiquities.

But where was the object bought and sold before ultimately being located by the Italians? 

While the documentation of this object's collection history is spartan, we know that on 22 November 1974 the head of Alexander sold for a mere $650, having been consigned by the Hagop Kevorkian fund to Sotheby Parke Bernet. Sotheby’s Auction House acquired Parke Bernet Galleries in 1964 and adopted the name Sotheby Parke Bernet throughout the 1970s.  Today, that auction house is now known simply as Sotheby’s.  The buyer at this time was listed only as "Altertum Ltd."

Sometime after that date, the object was then purportedly purchased by Professor Oikonomides who indicated to others that he purchased the object while vacationing in Cairo, Egypt sometime between 1984 and 1986.  The object was then bequeathed to Dr. Miller by Oikonomides when he passed away in 1988.

Sotheby's Website Screen Capture
taken 24 July 2018
On 08 December 2011 the object then sold at Sotheby's for a second time, during Sotheby’s Egyptian, Classical and Western Asiatic Antiquities sale .

At the time of this second auction, the purported provenance for the object was listed as:

Hagop Kevorkian (1872-1962), New York, most likely acquired prior to World War II
The Hagop Kevorkian Fund (Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, November 22nd, 1974, no. 317, illus.)
A.N. Oikonomides, Chicago

At the time of this transaction, there was very little in the way of documentation to confirm the provenance narrative.  Despite this, the marble head sold to a then unidentified buyer for $92,500 USD.

In May 2017, the head of Alexander surfaced once again, but on the other side of the Atlantic.  This time the ancient marble head went up for sale in the United Kingdom, having once been in the possession of former Qatari culture minister and cousin of the current ruler of the oil-rich Arab country, Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed Ali Al-Thani.  Before his death in 2014 Sheikh Saud Al-Thani was believed to have been the world's richest art collector.

Through Classical Galleries Limited, UK the Sheikh’s foundation in turn sold the head of Alexander to Alan Safani of Safani Gallery for $152,625 on 20 June 2017.

Object Identified by the Italians

Safani Gallery Booth - TEFAF 2018
Image Credit: L. Albertson
By an amazing bit of serendipity, on 19 February 2018, Dr. Patrizia Fortini, Director and Coordinator of the Archaeological Site of the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill chanced upon an art fair advertisement which featured a photo of the stolen head in a publication for the upcoming 2018 fine arts fair known as TEFAF.  In the dealer's documentation, a photograph of the head had been included highlighting Safani Gallery's offerings for the upcoming Maastricht sale due to be held in the Netherlands, 10-18 March 2018.  Fortini determined that the photo in the advertisement and the old archival documentation photo of the head in the Museo Forense’s cloister were of the same object.

That same day, 19 February 2018, Fortini contacted the Carabinieri Headquarters for the Protection of Cultural Heritage a informed them of her suspicions.  On February 20, 2018, the Carabinieri likewise notified the New York authorities of Dr. Fortini's concerns.  Two days later, on February 22, 2019, a formal theft report had been filed with the Italian authorities and Lieutenant Colonel Nicola Candido, Commander of the Italian Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage in Rome, formally notified Matthew Bogdanos at the New York District Attorney's office that the Head of Alexander was “stolen from the L'Antiquarium Forense in Rome (Italy) - an Archaeological Site that belongs to the Italian State,” and that “the Italian Republic has never issued a state-approved license for the exportation of the [Head] from Italy; and has never transferred the ownership of the [Head] from Italy to any third party.”  These statements and the accompanying evidence gathered in relation to the assertion resulted in the seizure of the sculpture from Safani Gallery.

Statute of Limitations and Clear Title

Under New York law, barring the expiration of the statute of limitations or application of the laches doctrine, one cannot obtain title from a thief unless the present-day possessor's title can be traced to someone with whom the original owner voluntarily entrusted the art.  As clear title is not possible in the case of this marble head, this leaves Safani and his counsel, David Schoen, to see if they can make their case based on the laches defense.  The purpose of the doctrine of laches is to safeguard the interests of good faith purchasers, in this case of lost/stolen art, by weighing in the balance of competing interest against the owner's diligence in pursuing their claim.   

While delay in pursuing a claim for the head could be considered in the context of laches under New York law, given that the theft occurred at an unknown time so many years ago, it has long been the law of the state of New York that a property owner, having discovered the location of its lost property, cannot unreasonably delay in making their demand upon the person in possession of that property.  As Italy acted within days of its identification that its "lost" item was in fact stolen, this course of legal action doesn't seem to be a viable route for retaining the object in question.

Likewise, as of this date, Safani Gallery hasn't produced any records or bill of sale for any pre-1974 transaction for the Head of Alexander.  Nor are there any records or invoices for the 1974 sale by Sotheby’s to Altertum Ltd., or any export visas or stamp authorizing the Head’s legitimate removal from Italy. Nor are there any records which would confirm a date for which the object was shipped out of the source country, such as a bill of lading or a customs declaration.  This leaves Safani with little tangible evidence to disprove the NYDA's stance that the object was stolen and then illegally removed from Italy.

Despite this, on 14 November 2018 Safani's attorney reported that the New York courts denied the NY DA's Turnover Application

To clarify on the aforementioned tweet by David Schoen, which only presents a portion of the facts,  the judge in this complicated case has stayed the proceeding pending the outcome of the federal case, and ruled that New York does have jurisdiction to resolve ownership disputes of antiquities under PL 450.10, and that he will do so in appropriate cases.

So for now, the court wrangling continues to drag on.

To view the 22 February 2018 Seizure Order, please see here.
To view the 23 July 2018 Application for Turnover, please see here.
To view the 12 November 2019 Safani Complaint, please see here.

By:  Lynda Albertson