February 6, 2013

Belgian Police Searching for Snuffboxes Stolen from Residence before New Year's Eve

INTERPOL has issued an alert that Belgian Police are searching for 18th and 19th century snuffboxes and boxes stolen December 30 from a Namur residence in the south of Belgium (INTERPOL added 56 stolen items to its  Works of Art Database).

One of the snuffboxes (dated 1795-1797), pictured to the left, is made of gold, diamonds, and translucent blue enamel.  On the lid is a portrait of Napoleon painted on ivory.  It is signed 'AUGUSTIN'.  The jeweller is identified as Adrien Jean Maximilien Vachette, the French goldsmith.  The snuffbox is engraved with "No. 35.E", the same number handwritten on a sticker inside the case that bears the coat of arms of the emperor.

In September 1979, the Smithsonian Institute reported the theft of a $125,000 gold snuffbox, a gift from the Russian Empress Catherine the Great to one of her lovers, Prince Gregory Orlov.  Three years later, the FBI revealed that the gold box had been stripped of its diamonds and melted down.

February 5, 2013

Leila Amineddoleh Quoted in NYTimes Article "Lawyers Fight to Keep Auction Sellers Anonymous"

In the Feb. 3 New York Times article ("Lawyers Fight to Keep Auction Sellers Anonymous") by investigative journalist Tom Mashberg (co-author of Stealing Rembrandts), art lawyer Leila Amineddoleh (ARCA Alum 2010) notes that disclosing the identity of the seller could 'aid with provenance questions and enhance the future value of an item.'

Mashberg reports that an appellate court ruled last October to uphold a state law that requires the names of sellers be given to buyers in post-auction paperwork in order to close the sale.

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.

February 1, 2013

Art Crime in the Media: "Art Cops" Highlights theft of Stradivarius, The Romanoff Heist, and the Art Loss Register's Most Wanted

Here's a link to Art Cops, "A new series dealing with the theft of works of art, antiquities, books and maps from major museums, cultural institutions and collectors" (Twitter), hosted by Burt Wolf, a public television host of Travels & Traditions.

This episode, which aired on September 1, 2012 on Iowa Public Television, tells the story of "The Missing Stradivarius", the 1995 theft of a $3.5 million Stradivarius violin stolen from the New York City Apartment of Erica Morini while the 91-year-old Viennese violinist was dying in the hospital. The rare violin remains missing today.  (You can read more about stolen Stradivarius violins on the website of violinist Joshua Bell in an article by David J. Krajicek for The New York Daily News.  Mr. Wolf interviews Mr. Bell; Christopher Marinello of The Art Loss Register (and a frequent speaker at ARCA's art crime conferences); Dorit Straus, world-wide fine arts manager at Chubb Insurance Company (and an ARCA Lecturer); Bob Wittman, former FBI agent; and Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, head of the FBI's Art Crime Team.

The same episode discusses "The Romanoff Heist" when thieves stole twelve art works by Pop Artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtensteins from the residence of Robert Romanoff in Manhattan's Meat Packing District on Thanksgiving weekend in 2010.

Mr. Wolf also identifies three artworks Marinello and The Art Loss Register are "particularly interested in recovering": Pablo Picasso's Portrait of Dona Maar stolen in 1999 from the yacht of a Saudi Prince while anchored for repairs in the harbor at Antibes on the French Riviera; a portrait of Francis Bacon by Lucian Freud stolen when the Tate Gallery of London lent the painting to the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin; and the theft of a painting by Gustav Klimt in 1997 from a gallery under renovation in Italy (someone opened the skylight).

January 31, 2013

Danny Boyle's 2013 "Trance" to Continue the Rakish Image of the Art Thief

"Anyone can steal a painting, all it takes is a bit of muscle, but no piece of art is worth a human life" says the (fictional) thief in the trailer for Danny Boyle's new movie, Trance, set to open in theaters in the United Kingdom on March 27 and in the United States on April 5.

Leah Rozen for BBC America reports that Danny (Slumdog Millionaire) Boyle's psychological thriller involving the theft of a Goya painting by an amnesiac thief (photogenically played by the Scottish actor James McAvoy) was filmed on location at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  McAvoy's character Simon is an employee at an auction house who grabs a painting off the wall during a diversion, bumps his head, and then allegedly requires a hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson) to recovery the memory of where he hid the stolen painting before his violent associate (Vincent Cassel) tortures the recollection out of him.

Gundlach Art Theft: Case against suspected art thieves slowly working its way through the court appearances

Last September thieves broke into the Santa Monica home of financier Jeffrey Gundlach and stole, amongst his possessions, some very valuable paintings.  Two weeks later, on the other side of Los Angeles County, with the cooperation of various law enforcement agencies, the paintings were recovered and the arrests began.  By early January, six people had been charged in the theft and appeared in court to plead "not guilty" (this is called an arraignment).  A preliminary hearing is scheduled for February 6 at 9 a.m. in Department 142 at the Airport Branch of the Los Angeles Superior Court.  This appearance in court is a just a proceeding to determine if there is sufficient evidence to require a trial.

This theft and recovery of these multimillion dollar paintings seem less glamorous than art thieves  portrayed in the media.  You can read all about art thieves and the media in a piece by Katie Ogden (ARCA 2009) on the ARCA blog here.

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.

January 26, 2013

January 25, 2013

Kunsthal Rotterdam Art Theft: Speculation Abounds Regarding Recovery of Looted Paintings

When Romanian police arrested three men in Bucharest Tuesday, Rotterdam police confirmed that none of the paintings by Picasso, Freud, Matisse or Gauguin stolen on October 16 had been found yet rumors in the media and declarations by Interpol fuel recovery speculations.

According to an Associated Press article published yesterday by The Huffington Post, Interpol Secretary General Ronald K. Noble has declared that he is confident that the paintings will be recovered.

Romanian-Insider.com ran the headline "Stolen Matisse painting offered to Romanian businessman".

But then Rotterdam police announced no paintings have been recovered.

Portrait of a Museum Robbery: The 1998 Theft of Tissot's "Still on Top" from the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki

At ten minutes past 11 o'clock in the morning on Sunday, August 9th, 1998, a man with a shotgun entered the Auckland Art Gallery, threatened nearby visitors, then went directly to one of the collections most valuable paintings, James Tissot's "Still on Top" (c 1873).  The thief ripped the painting from the wall, smashed its glass into the painting, and used a crowbar to pry the canvas out of its frame.  He then ran outside the gallery into a nearby park and escaped on a motorcycle.  The robbery took less than four minutes.

Here in this YouTube video, Auckland Art Gallery - Restoring Tissot, is surveillance footage of the crime, the story of the damaged painting recovery nine days later, and the long process of restoration for public display.

James Tissot's "Still on Top"
Many of the original newspaper stories published in The New Zealand Herald can be ordered via email through the Auckland City Council Library here.

The man arrested eight days later had demanded a ransom of more than $260,000 from the Auckland Art Gallery and hidden the damaged work underneath a bed.  One year later, Anthony Sannd was found guilty and sentenced to nearly 17 years in jail, including charges related to two armed robberies of a security van and a bank branch.

The New Zealand art museum accepted $500,000 for the loss in value for the damaged Tissot painting and was able to repair the work and return it for public display three years later.

On February 1, 2005, the thief, Anthony Sannd (also known as Ricardo Genovese), escaped from a prison farm and eluded recapture for almost four weeks (during which time he was alleged to have stolen a BMW and burgled a home).  Two more years was added to his sentence.  Sannd was released from jail in March 2012.  Then Sannd filed a claim that the government owed him $100,000 for keeping him in jail six months longer than he had been sentenced.