Showing posts with label cultural property crimes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label cultural property crimes. Show all posts

February 3, 2013

Cultural Property: Upcoming Conference on the Protection of Cultural Property in Asia

Here's a link to the Conference on the Protection of Cultural Property in Asia to be held February 15-18th in Thimpu Bhutan.  This conference, sponsored by INTERPOL and the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs,  will include a session on the issues of working with INTERPOL in protecting and recovering cultural property in Bhutan.  We'll amend this post to include the final agenda once posted online.

January 27, 2013

Recapping the Villa Giulia Symposium - Italy’s Archaeological Looting, Then and Now

By Lynda Albertson,  ARCA 's  CEO

Waking this morning and checking the news bureaus I came across the January 26th New York Times editorial piece The Great Giveback by Hugh Eakin.

Before proceeding further, let me state that despite the almost 2,000 words of commentary by the senior editor of the New York Review of Books of his personal opinion as to what the motives are in countries like Italy in seeking restitution of their looted art, Eakin doesn’t seem to be talking thoughtfully with anyone in Rome at the present time.   If he is, he certainly isn’t attentive to what people closely involved in these cases are saying.

Having just spent last Thursday, January 24th at the round table symposium at the Villa Giulia hosted by Alfonsina Russo, Superintendent Archaeologist for Southern Etruria, in reviewing the work conducted in these contentious cases over the last 15+ years I can assure you that extortion is not, nor has it ever been, a nefarious motive in seeking the return of Italy’s looted antiquities.

Italy’s motive, if it can be summed-up in a simple statement, is to preserve and protect the country’s antiquities for all its generations and in doing so, by recording objects in their discovered contexts, expanding upon our knowledge of the ancient world.

While not as intimately informed about the impetuses for reinstatement of looted art in Greece or Turkey, I think I can speak fairly knowledgeably that like Italy, their objectives are not to strip foreign museums bare of their collections but to protect what is legally defined as theirs.  While at times it can seem prosecutorial, these countries, like Italy, seek to right past wrongs, intentionally malicious or not, and to uphold current international law.  Ancillary to that is to examine preventative measures so that the illicit trade in antiquities doesn’t merely shift to alternate buying markets.

Last Thursday’s meeting in Rome was a chance for people directly involved in the Italian looting cases of which Mr. Eakin speaks to see how far their country has come in working for the return of works of art stolen or exported illegally.  Knowing that as recently as 3 weeks ago a tomborolo in Vulci,  Alberto Sorbera, from Montalto di Castro, suffocated while looting an Etruscan tomb, they are faced with daily evidence which starkly highlights that the country has a long way to go in eliminating its looting problem.

The Villa Giulia meeting was a solemn one.  Thursday’s talks started with an introduction by the Director General for Antiquities Luigi Malnati, who spoke of the continuing difficulties Italy has in terms of manpower and financial potency in securing cultural heritage sites, especially those in remote areas. His exact words were “Senza il controllo del territorio, non si fa nulla”.

Italy’s law enforcement also spoke.  I listened to the thoughtful words of retired General Roberto Conforti, former Commander of the Carabinieri TPC (Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale) who spoke  about the early days of the TPC.  He explained how Italy’s Ministry of Culture trained officers on the intricacies of the art world and how, during his tenure, the collaborative efforts of judges, consultants and museum personnel culminated in much of what we know today of the illegal trade dealings of the principal suppliers involved in these US and foreign museum related cases.

Major Massimiliano Quagliarella, Head of Operations Carabinieri Cultural Heritage Protection and Major Massimo Rossi, Commander of the Cultural Heritage Protection Group of the Guardia di Finanza each spoke about current and ongoing investigations involving recent incidents of plundered art.  Their statistics emphasized that despite growing public awareness, international focus from the archeaological world and cooperation between nations and museums in requesting the return of pillaged objects, the number of looting sites throughout Italian territories are still significant.  Their statistics and images of recent looting served to highlight that the problem with trafficking is ongoing, even if current buyers do not appear to be museum heads.

Maurizio Fiorilli, Attorney General of the State; Guglielmo Muntoni, President of the Court of Review of Rome; and Paolo Giorgio Ferri, former magistrate for the Getty and Met cases and now a judicial advisor to the Directorate General for Antiquities, also spoke of the complexity of Italy’s antiquities trafficking problem.  Fiorilli voiced his opinion that it is necessary for Italy to apply not just judicial pressure, but political pressure as well if Italy is to uphold seizure orders such as the one for The Getty Bronze.  This statue known in Italy as l’Atleta di Fano, the signature piece of The Getty's embattled antiquities collection, was, according to Italian court records, illegally exported before the museum purchased it for $4 million in 1976.

Muntoni spoke about the horror investigators felt when viewing the hundreds of polaroid photos Tomboroli took of Italy’s looted artwork, seen broken and stuffed into the trunks of cars with dirt still clinging to them. He also mentioned his personal disappointment that professional archaeologists and museum curators used U.S. tax laws to inflate the value of donated objects in a rush to have wealthy patrons collude with them to add to their collections.

Paolo Girogio Ferri listened to me thoughtfully as I talked about the continued need to find compromises that neither destroy US museum reputations nor allow them to indefinitely delay the return of objects they know should be returned.  We discussed the lock system of illicit trafficking, and how at the end of the day antiquities should be perceived not just as cultural heritage but as merchandise, and that as long as there are buyers and unprotected territories with objects the buyer wants, looting will continue to represent a problem for safeguarding Italy’s cultural patrimony.

Italian journalists Fabio Isman and Cecilia Todeschini spoke first-hand about current looting cases and the tireless archaeologists in small regional museums who try their best, despite limited funding, to protect what they can.  Daily though, these front-line soldiers take photos of their battle scarred regions as evidence that Italy’s battle against the theft of antiquities has not been won.

Isman highlighted the facts surrounding a very recent article he published in Il Messagero, I predatori dell'arte perduta:due leoni alla corte del Getty, where he brought Italy’s attention to two 1912 archive photographs from the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) taken of the front of the Palazzo Spaventa in Pretùro near Aquila. The photos show two lions, originating from the ancient Sabine city of Amiternum, which flank an entrance to the building as sentinels.  The fact that they are there is not surprising.   This area of the Abruzzo and surrounding territory are known to have been an important zone where Roman funerary lions were carved. What is puzzling is when they were removed and how and when they were trafficked out of Italy.

What we do know though is where they are at present.  Acquired by The Getty in 1958 through some of the same trafficking channels made famous by the more public cases Mr. Eakin has written about, the two statues languish in the museum’s storage.  Not even on display, the Getty's records attribute the lions' provenance to an old Parisian collection and place their origins as Asia Minor.

The topics of these speakers at Thursday’s symposium are just a selection of some of the vocal Italian voices heard at the Villa Giulia this past week.  Their focus is not strong-arm tactic or hostile threat but an honest effort on the part of those involved and who have spent thousands of hours pouring over more than 70,000 pages of evidence to locate the currently-known 1500 trafficked pieces at 40 identified museums.

Trophy hunting?  I think not.  I think Italy is trying to find the head of the snake when so far it had only just started to uncover its tail.

October 26, 2012

Theft Anniversary: Two artifacts (Assyrian and Roman) stolen from the Montreal Museum of Fine Art last year


by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

Last year on October 26, someone stole two ancient sculptures from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.  Three months later, the Montreal Gazette and AXA Art, the insurance company which insured the pieces, released a video on YouTube from the surveillance camera inside the museum showing a suspect wanted for questioning in the investigation.

AXA Art Insurance issued a press release dated February 13, 2012: "AXA Art Offering Substantial Reward for Safe Recovery of Rare Artifacts".  The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts issued no press release in 2011 or 2012 regarding the theft, a reward, or an ongoing investigation -- at least it's not listed on the museum's website.

The Sûreté du Québec's Art Alerte publicized the stolen works  and the poster in English and French offering the "Substantial Reward" also on February 14 (Alain Dumouchel responded in an email at that time that the Montreal police were in charge of the investigation).  The Art Alerte for Case File: 11-98 also included a picture of the suspect captured by the museum's surveillance cameras.

Reward Poster

The "Head of a guard" (fragment of a low relief) is estimated to as old as 5th century BCE from Persepolis (Persia), the capital of the Achaemenid dynasty (558-330 BC).

Assyrian low relief Sandstone, 21 x 20.5 x 3 cm
A marble head dating from the Roman
 Empire 20,2 x 13,3 x 8,5 cm
The second object, Head of a Man (Egypto-archaizing style) of yellow Numidian marble, is dated from the Roman Empire around 1st century A.D.

Neither of these objects was highlighted in the MMFA's museum guide.

In 1972, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts was the site of Canada's largest art theft when three thieves stole 18 paintings, including a painting attributed to Rembrandt.  The theft remains unsolved after an aborted ransom attempt and 17 of the paintings are still missing.

July 8, 2012

Ton Cremers on "Rise in Thefts from Museums: Due to Economic Crisis?" in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of The Journal of Art Crime

Columnist Ton Cremers speculates on the "Rise in Thefts from Museums: Due to Economic Crisis?" in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of The Journal of Art Crime.

Mr. Cremers is a security consultant and the founder of The Museum Security Network (MSN). He was awarded the 2003 Robert B. Burke Award for excellence in cultural property protection. Here's an excerpt:
The Museum Security Network (www.museum-security.org) has been on line since December 1996. In the past fifteen years over 40,000 reports have been disseminated about incidents with cultural property, such as thefts, fakes and forgeries, vandalism, and embezzlement. The number of thefts of sculptures from gardens and towns has grown tremendously, so much so that we have stopped trying to record all of them.
This year alone (and this is just a brief summary, far from complete) Stone Age axes were stolen from the Yorkshire Museum, a number of Lord Nelson artifacts were stolen from the Norwich Museum, as well as Buddhas from Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, artifacts worth £1.8m from Durham University’s Oriental Museum, watches from Silverton Country Historical Society museum, a lifeboat from RNLI’s museum; Museum Gouda (in The Netherlands) was robbed of a 17th century religious object, after the museum door was forced open using explosives; the National Gallery in Athens suffered a theft of Picasso and Mondrian paintings; and the Olympia Museum in Greece lost over 70 objects, after a early morning robbery. Thieves have wrenched the horns off stuffed rhinoceroses in European museums: Bamberg, Germany, Florence, Italy, Haslemere Educational Museum, Ritterhaus Museum Offenburg, Germany, Sworders Auctioneers, Stansted Mountfitchet, and more. Officials at Europol, the European Union’s criminal intelligence agency, claim the number of thefts of rhinoceros horns has increased sharply in Europe during the past year. Since 2011, the agency has recorded 56 successful, and 10 attempted, thefts.
According to a U.K. report 75,000 heritage crimes were committed in one year (experts warn that the “alarming” figures show that Britain’s history is being destroyed in an “insidious and often irreversible way” for future generations): the study found nearly a fifth of the country’s 31,000 Grade I or II* buildings were subject to criminal acts, while more than 63,000 Grade II buildings were targeted. The report, compiled by the Council for British Archaeology and Newcastle and Loughborough universities, found that crimes such as metal theft were more likely to occur in the north, while at least 750 sites were hit by “devastating” arson attacks.
All together an alarming development, or is this just business as usual?

The Journal of Art Crime is now available to subscribers.