Showing posts with label Sotheby's Auction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sotheby's Auction. Show all posts

November 23, 2014

Essay: Do you think art collectors might be tempted to buy Syrian antiquities (looted or otherwise?). We say resoundingly, yes.

By Lynda Albertson

On November 22, 2014 the Syrian Arabic Republic - Ministry of Culture's Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) published two striking photos of three confiscated artifacts removed from the Taibul Tomb in the Southeast Necropolis at Palmrya.  Taibul (TYBL in his native Palmyrene) was a rich Palmyran merchant who commissioned a tomb for himself and his family in 113 CE in a necropolis five kilometres southeast of Palmyra.

The tombs in this ancient graveyard are subterranean.  To the untrained eye, the zone where Taibul's tomb and others are located originally looked like just another tract of stony Syrian desert. But with the combined work of Syrian and Japanese archaeologists who documented the site between 2001 and 2005 we have learned much about Palmyrene funerary practices, couches, sepulchres and loculi.   

Unfortunately, the finely-sculpted figures of
men and women where of interest not only to archaeologists and historians documenting the site but more recently also to tomb raiders. But were these thieves savvy enough to understand what will sell on the antiquities art market or were they simply opportunists, taking advantage of what they could easily access?  

Are funerary busts of interest to collectors?

And are they willing to pay large sums for them?

A quick search on the internet would lead one to believe so.  In a few clicks I found one relief listed on eBay through Aphrodite Ancient Art LLC with little identifying where the object originated from.  The auction page states only that it was part of an “Early American private collection, 1960’s”.  eBay lists this one for a steal.  Its auction price is an eye-popping $13,500. 
Aphrodite eBay Auction Item

In 2011 an uglier Syrian limestone relief also went on auction.  Listed as Lot 69 in Sotheby’s June 8, 2011 auction, the object's provenance was listed as Sarkis and Haddad, Beirut, early 1970s.  Despite its humbler appearance, it still managed to find a buyer and fetched a modest sum of $8,125.

Going back to the Aphrodite website, I found a second, Syrian funerary relief of two brothers.  This one listed the object as coming from Palmyra with a provenance of having been purchased from Sotheby's New York in June 2011.  Buy it while it still lasts and collectors can get two funerary figures for a whopping $22,500.

Given the fragility of the Palmyra tombs and the many heritage sites damaged, at risk, or already looted as a result of the Syrian conflict, I wonder if it would be wiser if the experts shifted their focus away from statistical analysis to something more concrete.  Instead of trying to quantifying how much money ISIS/ISIL may, or may not, be making off of blood antiquities perhaps we should be stressing that more attention and funding is needed to trace who the individual traffickers are, both upstream and down.  If we do, Syria's cultural heritage might have a less grim outcome.   As for journalists in search of catchy headlines; vandalized tombs make just as dramatic a statement as vague value estimates and they can be substantiated with actual witnesses and imagery confirmation.

Aphrodite Website Auction Item
Given the gargantuan task of protecting antiquities in the midst of a civil war,  I think its pretty remarkable that DGAM had photo images matched so quickly to identify these pieces and to inform the public of their findings.  And while I am not prepared to go out on a brittle limb and assume any of these reliefs on sale or recently sold have dirty provenance, I do think their presence in the fine arts marketplace makes a pretty strong case that Syrian heritage objects are of interest to collectors.  The fact that they garner hefty sums further underscores that we have only seen the tip of the Syrian antiquities iceberg. 

Petty subsistence looters may fence objects for paltry amounts, middlemen fighters may take their cut, and end traffickers may make a bundle selling to auction houses and galleries, but all this useless faffing about of trying to put an unquantifiable dollar sign on how much its making which opponent in this war is doing nothing to stop the flow whatsoever.

In the end percentages are less relevant than simply understanding that collection-worthy pieces like these seen at auction or those stripped from Palmrya will surely find their way into the world's antiquities art market.  Maybe not immediately, but with the lack of market transparency and self policing, surely in the future.

Traffickers are patient.  So are collectors.

June 1, 2014

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Python bell-krater acquired in 1989 matches object documented in confiscated Medici archive, according to forensic archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis: "The evidence suggests that the vase has most likely been unlawfully removed from Italian soil"

Medici polaroid of Python's bell-krater 
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

The Classic Greek mixing-bowl attributed to the artist Python (active ca. 350 – 325 BC) of Poseidonia (Paestan) on display in Gallery 161 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City should be returned to Italy because it has no collecting history before 1989 and has been matched with photographs in the possession of a convicted art dealer, according to the work of University of Cambridge’s Christos Tsirogiannis. (You can see The Met’s description of the object online here ). 

This terracotta bell-krater, described in detail in Dr. Tsirogiannis’ column "Nekyia" in the Spring 2014 issue of The Journal of Art Crime, appears with soil/salt encrustations in five photographs from the confiscated Medici archive – including one Polaroid image. Then, “The object was auctioned by Sotheby’s in New York in June 1989 and the same year appeared as part of The Met’s antiquities collection,” Dr. Tsirogiannis reports.

Medici photograph of Python bell-krater
Art dealer Giacomo Medici was convicted in 2005 of participating in the sale of looted antiquities. The story of how illicit antiquities were sold to art galleries and museums in Europe and North America was told in the 2006 book by Peter Watson & Cecilia Todeschini, The Medici Conspiracy: the illicit journey of looted antiquities, from Italy’s tomb raiders to the world’s greatest museums (Public Affairs). The Medici archives (or “Medici Dossier”)  were described as “thirty albums of Polaroids, fifteen envelopes with photographs, and twelve envelopes with rolls of film … [along with] 100 full rolls of exposed film … [for] a total of 3,600 images” found in Medici’s warehouse of antiquities in Geneva in 1995.

Christos Tsirogiannis and archaeologist David Gill have written in The Journal of Art Crime (and elsewhere) about ancient objects for sale at auction houses with dubious collecting histories, focusing on information from this “Medici Dossier”. In 2009, Gill wrote in his column “Context Matters” that the raid on Medici’s warehouse drew attention to the scale of looting of archaeological sites in Italy.

Medici close up of Python's bell-krater on display at The Met
In this current case of identification, photographs of The Met’s Python bell-krater in the archive of the convicted art dealer Giacomo Medici suggest – as pointed out in The Medici Conspiracy – along with the lack of earlier documented collecting history that this vase was very likely illegally excavated after 1970 (the date of the UNESCO Convention against illicit trade antiquities), Dr. Tsirogiannis writes in “A South Italian Bell-Krater by Python in the Metropolitan Museum of Art” (Spring 2014, The Journal of Art Crime). He explains:
The bell-krater is photographed using Polaroid technology not commercially available until after 1972; the krater is situated not in its archaeological context with a measuring tool, but with soil encrustations, on an armchair; in the regular photographs, the vase appears against a background whose brick-red colour seems clumsily matched with the dark red velvet surface, the same surface on which Medici photographed several other antiquities which later proved to be illicit and were repatriated to Italy (e.g. the 20 red-figure plates attributed to the Bryn Mawr Painter, once offered to the Getty Museum; see Watson & Todeschini 2007:95-98, 205; Silver 2010:138-139, 143). It is profoundly clear that the bell-krater was not in a professional environment or treated in a professional way.
Fourth photo of Medici's bell-krater
Dr. Tsirogiannis, a Greek forensic archaeologist, studied archaeology and history of art in the University of Athens, then worked for the Greek Ministry of Culture from 1994 to 2008, excavating throughout Greece and recording antiquities in private hands. He voluntarily cooperated with the Greek police Art Squad on a daily basis (August 2004 – December 2008) and was a member of the Greek Task Force Team that repatriated looted, smuggled and stolen antiquities from the Getty Museum, the Shelby White/Leon Levy collection, the Jean-David Cahn AG galleries, and others. Since 2007, he has been identifying antiquities in museums, galleries, auction houses, private collections and museums, depicted in the confiscated Medici, Becchina and Symes-Michaelides archives, notifying public prosecutor Dr. Paolo Giorgio Ferri and the Greek authorities. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge on the international illicit antiquities network viewed through the Robin Symes–Christos Michaelides archive.

In this case of The Met's Python bell-krater, Dr. Tsirogiannis questions how the ancient mixing bowl reached Sotheby’s in 1989 (Sotheby’s has a policy of not disclosing the name of the consigners or the buyers of objects). Dr. Tsirogiannis writes:
The Met has a long history of acquiring looted and smuggled antiquities after the 1970 UNESCO Convention. The two most prominent cases were the Euphronios krater acquired in 1972 from the notorious dealer Robert Hecht during the directorship of Thomas Hoving, and the Morgantina treasure acquired in 1981, again from Hecht, during the directorship of Philippe de Montebello. On February 21, 2006, de Montebello signed an agreement in Rome to return both krater and treasure to Italy among 21 antiquities in total (Provoledo 2006). In January 2012, Italy announced the repatriation of c. 40 vase fragments from The Met; Fabio Isman revealed that the fragments matched vases already repatriated to Italy from North American museums, and noted that these fragments previously belonged to the private collection, kept in The Met, of the museum’s antiquities curator Dietrich von Bothmer (Italian Ministry of Culture 2012; Isman 2012).
Fifth Medici photo of Python bell-krater
Dietrich van Bothmer, who had a 60-year career at The Met as a curator and an expert in ancient Greek vases, died in 2009 (here’s his obituary in The New York Times).

Dr. Tsirogiannis points out in his column the need for further academic research on the Python bell-krater acquired in 1989:
The identification of the vase in the Medici archive, with the handwritten note below the Polaroid image, not only suggests that the vase has most likely been unlawfully removed from Italian soil, but also highlights discrepancies between published interpretations of the main scene depicted on the vase.
In conclusion, Dr. Tsirogiannis writes in his column:
The Met has several questions to answer. What is the ‘Bothmer Purchase Fund’? It has been proved that Dietrich von Bothmer played a crucial role in the acquisition of archaeological material, looted and smuggled after 1970, both on behalf of The Met and for his personal collection formed during the same period (Gill 2012:64; this obvious conflict of interest was overlooked by the museum; see Felch 2012, Tsirogiannis & Gill forthcoming 2014). My email to The Met (February 7, 2014) querying this point and requesting the full collecting history of the krater, remains unanswered, although it was sent to three different offices. No contact details for the Department of Greek and Roman Art are available on the museum website. In a wider perspective, the Python bell-krater at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is one of many similar cases. North American museums, recently found to have acquired illicit antiquities, and forced to return those objects, still have in their possession many more. The very museums which advertise their case for transparency, in practice continue to conceal the full collecting history of tainted objects they own, and wait for them to be discovered. In this regard, the story of the Python bell-krater case is obviously typical.
In an email to the ARCA blog, Dr. Tsirogiannis wrote that American and Italian authorities have been informed about this identification, and added:
It seems that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, after the identification of the Bothmer kylix fragments and their repatriation to Italy last year, has to do much more work to present all the antiquities that lack a pre-1970 collecting history in its collection, rather than waiting to be confronted with more cases in the future. This will be honest due diligence, not just meaningless words in official statements.
You may read Dr. Tsirogiannis’ column in the Spring 2014 issue of The Journal of Art Crime by subscribing via the ARCA website or ordering the issue through Amazon.com.

Included in this post are the five photographs of the Python bell-krater in the Medici archive.

The Met owns another terracotta bell-krater (mixing bowl) attributed to Python that it purchased in 1976 and has on view in Gallery 171.

Here's a link to a video showing the three Greek temples at Paestum in Southern Italy and another link to a video showing how ancient Greek vases were made out of refined baked clay.

April 22, 2014

Looted Artifacts from Peru: A story of grave robbing from the 1970s

by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

The story of how a woman in the 70s supported her traveling in South America by smuggling pre-Columbian artifacts is presented in True Crime: Real-Life Stories of Abduction, Addiction, Obsession, Murder, Grave-Robbing and More (InFACT Books, 2013) edited by Lee Gutkind, founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine.

Joyce Marcel describes herself in "Grave Robber: A Love Story" as a woman in her early 30s in the 1970s on an adventure in Ecuador that involved "a bit of grave robbing":
I'm not too proud of that now, but in 1976, I didn't believe in ghosts or national treasure. I just wanted to keep traveling. I bought pre-Columbian ceramics, textiles, jewelry and artifacts from a secret village tucked away in the Atacama Desert, far outside of Lima, Peru; I wrapped the stuff in newspaper and bought it to the United States. I kept everything but the ceramics, which I dropped off at Sotheby's Parke-Bernet in New York. Back then, they didn't care about ghosts or national treasures, either. They auctioned off everything I gave them and sent the checks to me in Lima, and I'd be back on the road again.
Ms. Marcel tells of meeting someone who "knew his way around South America because he'd been thrown out of the Peace Corps for smuggling" who had a "perfect scam" that involved a town in the Peruvian desert, mummies from the Chancay civilization, and selling artifacts to an art dealer he'd met in a bar in San Francisco, and how she dealt with her paranoia about smuggling:
At that point, I formulated "Joyce's Law": After you've decided to do something illegal or weird, give up on the worrying. No matter what nightmares you imagine, reality will be different. And anyway, it's out of your control. At the border, nothing happened -- except that the immigration man said, "I won't let you through; you're too pretty. I want you to stay with me."
According to Ms. Marcel, for five years she followed a routine of trading American goods to locals in this Peruvian village until "the United States suddenly recognized Peru's national treasures act" [and] "in 1980, instead of being passed through U.S. customs by bored inspectors, I was stopped." She writes:
My baggage was searched, and I was taken into a small room and given a harsh lesson about the harm I was doing by robbing a country of its archaeological treasures. I was such a small-time operator that they let me go with my last shipment intact. Later, when the big exporters came through, they were busted and their shipments confiscated. And when the really big operators arrived, customs not only confiscated their shipments but went to their homes and took their personal collections.
For a broader view on looting in South America, you may read Karl E. Meyer's The Plundered Past : The Story of the Illegal International Traffic in Works of Art (Antheneum 1977) recommended by Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis for his ARCA 2014 course on "Unravelling The Hidden Market of Illicit Antiquities: Lessons from Greece and Italy".

February 1, 2014

Libération's Vincent Noce Reports on Belgian Heiress' Claim Against Sotheby's for Alleged Fraud Regarding Sale of Stamp Collection

Libération: Among the missing items,
the original design of the envelope
 "BelgianArctic Expedition" of 1957. (Photo CD)
by Isabel Abislaiman

Last December, the newspaper Libération revealed that French authorities are conducting an investigation into a claim brought by a Belgian heiress against Sotheby’s for alleged fraud (Vincent Noce, Libération, Sotheby's et la philatéliste estampée, December 26, 2013). According to Libération, the woman inherited a significant stamp collection from her father in 2009 and contacted Sotheby’s who put her in touch with Sotheby's France Vice President, Alain Renner. According to the claim, Noce reports, Renner, accompanied by expert Grégory Russel, visited the potential client and offered to put the collection up for auction at Sotheby's in Paris, estimating the revenue from sale at auction at 600,000 Euros, which piqued the lady’s interest.

The claimant alleges, according to Noce, that a month later, the two men came back and took the entire collection with them, without doing an inventory. According to the woman, they hurriedly fetched boxes from a grocery store and said it would be best for them to send the inventory once they returned to Paris. Mr. Renner sent her a certificate of deposit describing the lot in a general manner "48 stamp albums Belgium 1892-1970" and "a lot of philately bulk" estimated "500,000 to 750,000 Euros." A sale date was set "after thorough assessment, for December 10, 2009 in Paris.”

According to the claim, Noce reports, time passed and there was no sale because it had never been put on Sotheby’s auction calendar. After further inquiry, Mr. Renner informed the lady that Sotheby's did not have the collection in its custody, but that Mr. Russel was holding possession of the collection, all this allegedly without the lady's knowledge or consent. Likewise, the owner allegedly discovered that the collection had toured to a philatelic exhibit in Monaco and ended up at an auctioneer’s in Toulouse, Marc Labarbe, with whom Mr. Renner was allegedly associated. Turns out, Sotheby's does not auction stamps in Paris, Noce reports.

About a year and a half after the collection had been taken from the lady’s house without an inventory, Mr. Russel allegedly had the lady sign an inventory for the sale to take place in Toulouse. The sale yielded less than expected. Disappointed, the lady discussed it with her son, a philatelist, who asserts rare pieces had disappeared; while on some pages stamps were repositioned to hide the absence of missing stamps.

Sotheby’s position is that the lady had agreed to sell the collection with the auctioneer in Toulouse, and signed all the papers knowingly. The owner claims at all times she relied on Sotheby’s reputation and that by entrusting the collection to Mr. Russel, a third party, Sotheby’s willfully or negligently jeopardized the integrity of her collection. In another case, Mr. Russel is implied in the diversion of a stamp collection belonging to an elderly couple in eastern France. According to Vincent Noce's article published in Libération, Gregory Russel is being investigated for embezzlement, abuse of weakness and concealment in both cases.

Ms. Abislaiman is an attorney and Personal Property Appraiser.

December 30, 2013

Was the repatriation of a footless 10th century statue to Cambodia this month related to Sotheby's history of selling Khmer pieces with "no published provenance" or "weak" collecting histories?

This month's repatriation of a 10th century footless sandstone statue looted from an archaeological site in Cambodia has a backstory going back a few years. In an academic article published in July 2011, Tess Davis, then assistant director of Heritage Watch, wrote that Sotheby's Auction House had listed 377 Khmer pieces for sale between 1988 and 2010:
Seventy-one percent of the antiquities had no published provenance, or ownership history, meaning they could not be traced to previous collections, exhibitions, sales, or publications. Most of the provenances were weak, such as anonymous private collections, or even prior Sotheby’s sales. None established that any of the artifacts had entered the market legally, that is, that they initially came from archaeological excavations, colonial collections, or the Cambodian state and its institutions. While these statistics are alarming, in and of themselves, fluctuations in the sale of the unprovenanced pieces can also be linked to events that would affect the number of looted antiquities exiting Cambodia and entering the United States. This correlation suggests an illegal origin for much of the Khmer material put on the auction block by Sotheby’s
In the summer of 2011, Jane Levine of Sotheby's objected to Ms. Davis' article and demanded a retraction. About six months later, Cambodia asked that Ms. Levine be removed from a cultural panel based on perceived ethical conflicts.

At the end of February 2012, Tom Mashberg and Ralph Blumenthal wrote in The New York Times ("Mythic Warrior is Captive in Global Art Theft", February 28, 2012) that the Cambodian government had asked the U.S. for help to stop the sale of a reputedly looted 10th century Khmer Koh Ker footless sandstone statue Sotheby's intended to sell in March. This month, almost two years later, an agreement was reached to return the disputed statue, now described as a Duryodhana statue, to Cambodia ("Duryodhana statue from Prasat Chen, Cambodia: "Voluntary" Repatriation by Sotheby's and consigner").

Ms. Davis is now a Researcher in the Scottish Center for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow.

December 13, 2013

Duryodhana statue from Prasat Chen, Cambodia: "Voluntary" Repatriation by Sotheby's and consigner


By Lynda Albertson, ARCA's CEO



Located 120 kilometres (75 mi) away from Siem Reap and the ancient site of Angkor, Chok Gargyar is often referred to in legal proceedings by its modern name, Koh Ker. The site and its temple complexes once made up the 10th century capital of the Angkorian empire.  It is also one of the most remote and inaccessible temple sites in Cambodia.

The decision to repatriate the Duryodhana Hindu warrior follows the Metropolitan Museum of Art's June 2013 restitution of two life-size sandstone masterworks from the same temple complex.   The two "Kneeling Attendants" had graced the the entrance to the Met’s South East Asian galleries since they opened in 1994.

Throughout the investigation Ms. Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa has maintained that she inherited the statue via her husband’s estate and that he had purchased the statue in good faith in London in 1975.  A copy of the the United States legal complaint can be viewed here.

As part of the Stipulation and Order of Settlement accord signed on Thursday December 12, 2013 by Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa, Sotheby's and U.S. federal attorneys, comes the statement that the plaintiffs “voluntarily determined, in the interests of promoting cooperation and collaboration with respect to cultural heritage,” that the object should be returned to Cambodia. Sotheby’s Spokesman, Andrew Gully went on the record to add that “the agreement confirms that Sotheby’s and its client acted properly at all times.”

It is interesting to speculate if this accord was in any way influenced by Aaron M. Freedman who pled guilty this month to six counts of criminal possession of stolen property valued at $35 million.  He was the long term manager of Subhash Kapoor’s art gallery on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. As part of his plea agreement, Freedman has agreed to work with New York and US investigators with their investigation and prosecution of Kapoor who is currently being held in a Chennai jail awaiting trial.

Sotheby's sells Symes marble matched by Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis in the Schinousa archives for more than $4.6 million today; Sotheby's withdraws The Medici Pan; and Christie's in NY aims to sell Symes Pan tomorrow

Looting Matters: Hermes-Thoth
Image: Schinousa Archive
Today Sotheby's auction house in New York sold an ancient marble head for more than $4.6 million even after Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis pointed out that the piece, owned by Robin Symes, matched an image in the Schinousa archives. 

On December 5, Professor David Gills wrote on his blog "Looting Matters" under the post Symes and Hermes-Thoth about a 2,000 year old marble head for sale at a New York auction house today:
I am grateful to my Cambridge colleague Dr Christos Tsirogiannis for pointing out that the head of Hermes-Thoth due to be auctioned at Sotheby's New York next week had once passed through the hands of Robin Symes (December 12, 2013, lot 39). The estimate is $2.5-3.5 million.... Colour images of the head feature in the Schinousa archive where they were identified by Tsirogiannis.


In 2006, Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini published The Medici Conspiracy: the illicit journey of looted antiquities, from Italy's tomb raiders to the world's greatest museums, an expose about the network of tombaroli and art dealers who funneled looted antiquities into private and public collections from the 1960s through the 1990s. Peter Watson wrote Mr. Symes legal problems in "The fall of Robin Symes" in 2005. On Trafficking Culture, archaeologist Neil Brodie summarizes the illegal activities of Giacomo Medici, convicted in 2005 of receiving stolen goods, illegal export of goods, and conspiracy to traffic. Here's how Symes is believed to have been involved:
By the late 1980s, Medici had developed commercial relations with other major antiquities dealers including Robin Symes, Frieda Tchacos, Nikolas Koutoulakis, Robert Hecht, and the brothers Ali and Hischam Aboutaam (Watson and Todeschini 2007: 73-4). He was the ultimate source of artefacts that would subsequently be sold through dealers or auction houses to private collectors, including Lawrence and Barbara Fleischman, Maurice Tempelsman, Shelby White and Leon Levy, the Hunt brothers, George Ortiz, and José Luis Várez Fisa (Watson and Todeschini 2007: 112-34; Isman 2010), and to museums including the J. Paul Getty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Sotheby's Hermes-Thoth
Neil Brodie explained in September 2012:
Investigative reporter Nikolas Zirganos took a special interest in the activities of British antiquities dealer Robin Symes, and was present in April 2006 when Greek police raided a villa on the island of Schinoussa belonging to Symes and his deceased partner Christos Michaelides. Zirganos described how the villa on Schinoussa was used for what he described as the ‘preparation and closing of deals’ (Zirganos 2007: 318). The villa was in effect a social and commercial hub, where Symes and Michaelides would entertain archaeologists, museum curators, conservators and wealthy collectors to gossip about the market and what was available for purchase, and to arrange sales. Thus, it was possible for a customer to purchase an illicit artefact on Schinoussa without actually coming into contact with it. The artefact would be smuggled separately to Switzerland, where the customer could take possession of it.
Jason Felch, author of Chasing Aphrodite and an investigative journalist for The Los Angeles Times, wrote of Symes in January 2013:
Last year, the Getty quietly returned 150 marble fragments in the collection (88.AA.140 - 88.AA.144) to Italy after evidence emerged that they joined objects found in the same looted tombs of Ascoli Satriano that produced the Getty's Griffins and statue of Apollo, which were returned to Italy in 2007. The objects and fragments were acquired in the 1980s from London dealer Robin Symes.
Dr. Gill described the Schinousa archive last June on "Looting Matters":
This photographic archive records the material that passed through the hands of a London-based dealer. If material from this archive resurfaces on the market, it would be reasonable to see the full collecting history indicated. But such information would no doubt be provided by rigorous due diligence searches.
December 12, 20013, Sotheby's sold the late Hellenistic marble head of Hermes-Toth for $4,645,000 (Hammer's Price with Buyer's Premium)."

The Medici Pan withdrawn from sale at Sotheby's New York

Professor Gill also noted in "Looting Matters" that Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis identified "The Medici Pan" that was later withdrawn from the sale:
Sotheby's New York are due to auction a giallo antico marble bust of Pan next week (December 12, 2013, lot 51). The estimate is $10,000-$15,000. Dr Christos Tsirogiannis has pointed out to me that a polaroid image of the sculpture was found on the Geneva Freeport premises of Giacomo Medici.
The Symes Pan for sale Dec. 13 at Christie's Rockefeller Plaza

Again, on the blog "Looting Matters", Dr. Gill writes about another item for sale that caught the eye of forensic archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis:
Tsirogiannis has now identified a terracotta Pan from the Schinousa archive that is due to be auctioned at Christie's Rockefeller Plaza (December 13, 2013, lot 114, estimate $8000 - $12000). Christie's have offered the following collecting history:
with Edward H. Merrin Gallery, New York, 1968.
Private Collection, New York, 1968-2011.
So when was the Pan in the possession of Robin Symes? What is the identity of the private collection? Is the collecting history presented by Christie's robust? What authenticated documentation was supplied to Christie's?
The Edward H. Merrin Gallery has been linked to the bronze Zeus returned to Italy, material in the collection of Dr Elie Borowski, as well as the marble Castor and Pollux on loan to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Artemagazine

The Italian Artemagazine  in "Pezzi di Medici e Symes all'asta: fino a quando?" (authored by Fabio Isman and his team) asks why illegally excavated antiquities from Italy are being offered for sale in New York City after Cambridge's Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis has identified the items to archives collected in police raids.

November 22, 2013

Museum van Bommel van Dam Theft: Art Investigator Arthur Brand provides an update

From the Netherlands, Art investigator Arthur Brand has an update in the case in which he helped return two of the paintings stolen in March 2013 from the Museum van Bommel van Dam (reported in the ARCAblog in August). In an email dated Nov. 21, Mr. Brand wrote:
The man who walked into the police station with me on the 15th of August, delivering two works by Schoonhoven, is still imprisoned, waiting trial. The other day he called me to give me an update. 
According to him, he bought the two works in an official shop. The police went to the shop and interrogated the owner, who denies having sold the artworks. The shop owner stated that this particular kind of receipt was not even used by him. But, in the pretrial, the defense attorney noted that the receipt was signed with a signature that was identical with the shop owner's signature on his statement. 
The defense attorney also asked the judge to hear the director of Sotheby's, the Netherlands, which was granted. Sotheby's had auctioned one of the stolen artworks. Why did Sotheby's not withdraw the artwork after a warning from the ALR that it might be a work stolen three months before, a theft that made headlines? If, according to the lawyer, even the experts at Sotheby's missed it, how could his own client possibly have known that the works were stolen? 
And maybe the most interesting question of all: Why did Sotheby's turn the work 90 degrees before depicting it in their catalogue? 
Anyway, the plot thickens and there might be some surprises left.
Here in September Jacobiene Kuijpers provided a perspective on the case.

August 21, 2013

Museum van Bommel van Dam Theft: Arthur Brand on recovering paintings and how one stolen painting reached Sotheby's in London

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

Last night art investigator Arthur Brand sent me a link to the story in Dutch News.nl ('Sotheby's London sold stolen Dutch art despite warnings') charging that Sotheby's in London had sold a painting stolen in March from the Museum van Bommel van Dam.

DutchNews.nl quotes NRC, another Dutch media agency, on the story that the Art Loss Register warned Sotheby's that the painting by Shoonhoven that eventually sold in June for 182,500 pounds had been stolen three months earlier.

Here's the brief report of the theft by DutchNews.nl on March 22 ("Thieves steal four works from modern art museum in Venlo"):
Thieves have stolen four works of art from the Museum van Bommel van Dam in Venlo forcing the front door in the early hours of Friday morning. Three of the works are by Jan Schoonhoven and one by Tomas Rajlich and they have a combined value of €1.1m, museum officials said.
Venlo is located about 180 km southeast of Amsterdam. The modern art museum opened in the province of Limburg in 1971 with 1,100 artworks collected by Maarten and Reina van Bommel-van Dam.

Via email, I asked Mr. Brand to explain how he became involved in recovering the paintings and this was his response:
As you might know, I specialize in solving museum thefts, discovering fakes, and illicitly traded antiquities. In the case of museum thefts, my main goal is to return the stolen artworks. Catching the thieves is not a priority, unless somebody was murdered or hurt during the robbery. In fact, a museum theft is a regular burglary but with a valuable loot. People like me, or Dick Ellis and Charley Hill (both former Scotland Yard), specialize in bringing these artworks back home where they belong. People who are in the possession of stolen art - mostly not the original thieves - prefer to contact us instead of going to the police. 
A few weeks ago I was contacted by someone who needed to talk to me. He had read about me in the media and knew that I had returned stolen objects to the police in various countries. I arranged a few meetings with him in Amsterdam. After I had gained his confidence, he told me that he had discovered that three works of art in his possession had been stolen from a museum in Venlo in The Netherlands. He told me that he had quite a criminal record but that he was an art lover too. He just could not burn the paintings in order to get rid of them. But, if he himself would turn them in, they would arrest him anyway, he said, although he had bought these pieces legally in some shop. He showed me a receipt.
I answered that I don’t mind what, who and when: nobody was hurt during the robbery and the main goal was to bring the pieces back. After all, the paintings from the recent Kunsthal Rotterdam theft, also in the Netherlands, might have been burned after the thieves panicked. I told him that my work is to prevent people from panicking. I also explained to him that in cases like this, recovering the pieces is the main goal. I offered to return the two works and to keep his name out which he appreciated because “that option is far better than burning the art…” 
He told me that there was one more secret. According to him, he had auctioned one of the four stolen artworks at Sotheby’s, London, before finding out that the two others in his possession were stolen. He checked the painting-numbers from the four stolen ones with the ones auctioned at Sotheby’s but they did not correspond. But he still could not believe that that one was not stolen too. So he gave me the paperwork of the auction and told me to deliver that too to the police. And then he said: “Arthur, I will go with you…” 
So he went without me to get the two stolen works, came back and we went to the police station. We smoked a cigarette outside, gave each other a hug and then went in."
Now it turns out that the Art Loss Register had warned Sotheby’s that their lot might be a stolen one but after Sotheby’s checked the numbers on the back – which did not correspond – they decided to sell it anyway. The buyer – an expert in the work of Schoonhoven, the artist – discovered that it indeed was stolen from the museum in Venlo, only three months before the auction.  How on earth could this have happened? What a shame.

February 17, 2013

Cambodia Says Sotheby's Jane A. Levine Should Leave Culture Panel

Cambodia's minister of culture and fine arts protested the inclusion of Jane A. Levine, senior vice president and worldwide compliance director for Sotheby's, on the U.S. Cultural Property Advisor Committee, according to a letter written to the U. S. State Department last fall (Tom Mashberg, "Cambodia See Ethical Conflict in Import Panel", New York Times, Feb. 15).

The panel is scheduled to discuss the regulation of Cambodian and Khmer Empire cultural artifacts, Mashberg reports, but Sotheby's says that due to a scheduling conflict Levine will not attend the meeting next month. Mashberg re-accounts the current legal dispute:

Sotheby’s and the office of the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York are currently awaiting a judge’s ruling on whether to permit a lawsuit over a 10th-century Khmer statue, valued at $3 million, to go to trial. 
At Cambodia’s request, the American government sought last April to seize the hulking sandstone sculpture, depicting a mythic Hindu warrior, from Sotheby’s. Cambodia said the statue was looted in the 1970s from a crumbling temple in an ancient complex called Koh Ker. 
Sotheby’s has said that there is no proof that the statue was removed from Cambodia after 1970, and that its Belgian consignor’s husband, now deceased, had bought it in good faith from a London antiquities dealer in 1975.

Here's a blog post from October 2011 regarding Sotheby's sales history of objects from Cambodia based upon the work of Tess Davis of Heritage Watch.

May 3, 2012

Sotheby's Sells Munch's "The Scream" for $119.9 in New York City -- the most expensive artwork sold at auction -- over the objections of the descendants of the Jewish collector Hugo Simon who owned it from 1926 to 1937

Sotheby's sold Evard Munch's "The Scream" for $119.9 million in New York City tonight.

Lot #20, identified from the 'Property of the Olsen Collection', a pastel on board in the original frame, measures 32 by 23 1/4 inches, executed in 1895, and signed 'E. Munch' and dated in the lower left corner.  It is one of four versions of an man with an open mouth, his hands clasped to the side of his head, recognizable to even middle school children.  The artist lived from 1863 and to 1944.

According to Sotheby's provenance information, Arthur von Franquet purchased the work in 1895.  The Berlin banker and Jewish art collector Hugo Simon had acquired it by 1926 and by October, 1993, Mr. Simon had left the painting on consignment with the art dealer Jacques Goudstikker in Amsterdam.  Simon left it with the Kunsthaus Zürich by December 1936.  Then it was on consignment for sale by Simon in January 1937 with M. Molvidson, Konst & Antikvitetshandel in Stockholm where Thomas Olsen, the current owner's father, purchased it.

Jori Finkel for The Los Angeles Times reported that the price of $119.9 million set the record for the most expensive artwork sold at auction:
The identity of the buyer, who was bidding by phone during the 12-minute auction, has not been confirmed.  Bidding started at $40 million, with at least five bidders.
Today the Holocaust Restitution Project posted a link on its Facebook page to an article in a German newspaper that the great grandson of Hugo Simon, now living in Brazil, told the newspaper "Die Welt" that the painting had been sold "out of necessity" when his family fled from Germany during the Nazi era. the Holocaust Restitution Project documents property losses at the hands of the National Socialists and their allies across Europe from 1933 to 1945.

March 1, 2012

Cambodia's Antiquities: Objects on hold pending legal status

A recent article in The New York Times again focused attention on the status of antiquities coming out of Cambodia, a country that changed statehood in the 20th century. Many countries, such as Turkey and Italy just to name two, wrote laws forbidding the export of art or cultural property beginning in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. Turkey, like Cambodia, went from an imperialistic reign to a republic and rules were restated to be reapplied to the new sovereignty.

Tom Mashberg (co-author of Stealing Rembrandts and a veteran reporter on the theft of the 1990 theft of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum) and Ralph Blumenthal write in the NYT about the current status of an object from Ankor Wat in "Mythic Warrior is Captive in Global Art Theft" (subtitled "Sotheby's Caught in Dispute Over Prized Cambodian Statue"). Of particular note is research conducted by Cambodian scholar Tess Davis, executive director of the Lawyer's Committee for Cultural Heritage, who believes that a 1925 law that nationalizes Cambodian cultural property. International cooperation and agreement has been sought for more than four decades under UNESCO's 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

As the NYT reports:
If international legal authorities and American civil courts agree, the law could establish 1925, rather than 1993, as the dividing point after which Cambodian artifacts taken without government permits can be treated as stolen property. Cambodia would still have to prove that the statue was looted after 1925, “a high burden but not an impossible one,” according to Mr. Bogdanos, who agrees the 1925 law “appears to be valid.”
Further information about the sale of Cambodian cultural property through Sotheby's was covered last October on the ARCA blog here.

A recent email from Tess Davis sent to "Friends of Cambodia" requested the assistance for His Excellency Hab Touch, Director General of the Department of Heritage in the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (MOCFA) to attend the Tulane-Siena summer abroad law school courses in Cultural Heritage and the Arts in Italy this June. The purpose of the trip, according to Ms. Davis, is to "strengthen Cambodia's understanding of its legal options for protecting its patrimony within the country and repatriating those antiquities already looted and stolen from the country."

ARCA has offered material support to the Cambodian contingent, and has offered studentships to interested individuals from the Cambodian Department of Heritage.

The MOCFA does not have a lawyer or other legal expert on staff, nor is there a single Cambodian attorney working in this subject area, according to Ms. Davis: "This is greatly hindering the country's ability to legally safeguard and recover its cultural heritage." Anyone who would like to provide assistance, is welcome to contact Tess Davis at terressadavis@mac.com.

October 5, 2011

What does lack of provenance indicate in sales catalogues? Tess Davis of Heritage Watch writes that Sotheby's lack of provenance information from 1988-2010 indicates sale of looted antiquities; Compliance Officer Jane Levine of Sotheby's Disagrees

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-chief

The Getty Center's exhibit in 2011, Gods of Angkor, displayed masterpieces from the National Museum of Cambodia in a small room at the Brentwood complex from February through August. But throughout the 1990s, Sotheby's sold Cambodian art through various auctions. Where did these pieces originate from and were they looted or legally traded?

Tess Davis, assistant director of Heritage Watch, a nonprofit group dedicated to the preservation of cultural property in Southeast Asia, published an article, "Supply and demand: exposing the illicit trade in Cambodian antiquities through a study of Sotheby's auction house" in the July issue of Crime, Law and Social Change (Springer Science+Business Media BV 2011). This is the abstract:
"Looters are reducing countless ancient sites to rubble in their search for buried treasures to sell on the international market. The trafficking of these and other stolen cultural objects has developed into a criminal industry that spans the globe. For numerous reasons, the small Southeast Asian nation of Cambodia presents an opportunity to ground this illicit trade in reality. This paper supplements previous studies that have detailed the pillaging of the country’s archaeological sites, and aims to better comprehend the trafficking of its artifacts, through an investigation of their final destination: the international art market. Of course, the global market for Cambodian art is wide, but Sotheby’s Auction House provides an excellent sample. For over 20 years, its Department of Indian and Southeast Asian Art in New York City has held regular sales of Cambodian antiquities, which have been well published in print catalogues and on the web. These records indicate that Sotheby’s has placed 377 Khmer pieces on the block since 1988—when those auctions began—and 2010. An analysis of these sales presents two major findings. Seventy-one percent of the antiquities had no published provenance, or ownership history, meaning they could not be traced to previous collections, exhibitions, sales, or publications. Most of the provenances were weak, such as anonymous private collections, or even prior Sotheby’s sales. None established that any of the artifacts had entered the market legally, that is, that they initially came from archaeological excavations, colonial collections, or the Cambodian state and its institutions. While these statistics are alarming, in and of themselves, fluctuations in the sale of the unprovenanced pieces can also be linked to events that would affect the number of looted antiquities exiting Cambodia and entering the United States. This correlation suggests an illegal origin for much of the Khmer material put on the auction block by Sotheby’s."
According to journalists Riah Pryor and Melanie Gerlis of The Art Newspaper (October 2011) in their article "Sotheby's calls on author to retract looted art report", Jane Levine, Sotheby's world-wide director of compliance, wrote a letter dated August 26 to Davis requesting that her published article be retracted. According to the journalists: 
Levine objects principally to the report's view that that auction house routinely sold Khmer antiquities that were illegally removed or transported out of Cambodia and says 'the paper is devoid of any credible factual support for such serious and damaging allegations.'
Levine, who spoke on a panel at the meeting commemorating the 40th anniversary of the 1970 Convention in March in Paris at UNESCO about Sotheby's stricter compliance regulations in selling antiquities, 'says a lack of provenance, particularly when limited to a catalogue entry, does not necessarily mean the origin is illegal,' Pryor and Gerlis quoted.

In her article, Davis wrote:
"Sotheby’s has repeatedly been caught auctioning stolen art and looted antiquities, including pieces from Cambodia. For example, Sotheby’s repatriated two sandstone heads and a statuette to Cambodia after they were published by Looting in Angkor: One Hundred Missing Objects, a 1993 report of UNESCO’s International Council of Museums (ICOM), which pleaded for the return of 100 valuable antiquities stolen from the Conservation d’Angkor in the 1980s and early 1990s. In his exposé Sotheby’s: The Inside Story (1997), journalist Peter Watson uncovered that sculptures from Angkor Wat had been smuggled into Sotheby’s London offices disguised as “dolls” and “stone torsos,” on at least two separate occasions."
This history at Sotheby's prompted Davis to look at Sotheby's auction catalogues from 1988 to 2010 in regards to the sale of Cambodian art. The absence of the information about the provenance or the history of the objects prompted Davis to ask about the legality of the sale of these objects, a question raised for the past 40 years since the international UNESCO treaty began the dialogue that only cooperation between countries could stem the looting and sale of looted cultural property. In 2006, a PBS show, Illicit Antiquities, featured Heritage Watch discussing the loss of cultural property from Cambodia.

Davis' survey of Sotheby catalogues over more than 20 years found that almost 70% of the objects for sale omitted information about the history of sale of the objects. Levine objects to Davis' observations and the conclusion that such an omission facilitates the sale of potentially looted objects. Levine and Sotheby's could continue the discussion about the auction house's sale of Cambodian art by now providing the information to document the legal or illegal trade of these objects.

ARCA blog caught up via email with Heritage Watch's founder and director, Dr. Dougald O'Reilly, and asked him about the extent of looting in Cambodia:
Dr. O'Reilly: Looting is still a major problem in Cambodia, yes. The type of looting has evolved from targeting temple sites for sculpture and relief (although this still occurs) to looting prehistoric sites, digging up graves for beads and other artefacts.
Is it important that provenance information be published in an auction house's sales catalogue?
Dr. O'Reilly: Publishing provenance is crucial. If there is no provenance, it is rather suspicious.  It should be part of the auction houses' codes of conduct.
Would I want to know this information before purchasing an object from Cambodia?
Dr. O'Reilly: If you were a buyer, yes you should want to know this unless you care little for the preservation of cultural heritage. One of the problems is that collectors often see themselves as protectors of the past, 'it is safer with me than in the developing country it came from' attitude. Clearly this is a neo-colonialist, out-dated and arrogant point of view but it is always the argument brought to bear. The British government have used it for decades in regard to the Parthenon marbles. Why have they not been returned when there is a state-of-the-art facility in Athens to house them?