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January 31, 2012

Antiques Trade Gazette Reports that "iPhone Raid" Involved the Use of a Smartphone to Select Artwork in Heist in Northern Ireland

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, Editor-in-Chief

Recently art thieves used a presumed iPhone in a robbery in Northern Ireland to select art during a robbery, and one art recovery expert expects more use of technology with even the release of the iPad 3.

Museum Security Network distributed an article yesterday from the Antiques Trade Gazette that reported "Violent Raid saw art expert direct gang by smart phone" in Northern Ireland on January 3:
"In what is being dubbed the iPhone raid, the two men with Irish accents used a third party to assist them with the robbery after forcing their way into a Co Armagh home. Beaten, bound and gagged, the victim watched as a 'smart' phone was used to film his collection. The videos were immediately sent to an apparently knowledgeable accomplice who then advised the thieves on what to steal and what to leave behind."
The unnamed victim "a retired vicar and well known at major art sales", according to the Antiques Trade Gazette, "Among the stolen items from what has been called a world-class art collection were two paintings by Canaletto, exceptional antique furniture and other chattels."

I emailed Christopher Marinello at the Art Loss Register and asked him what was the same or different about this theft. This is his response:
While it is interesting from the viewpoint of the i Phone technology used, it is, in my opinion, nothing more than the time honored practice of low level crooks doing the dirty work for a more sophisticated criminal. 
Many of the major art thefts that took place in the late 1960's and 1970's were committed by drug addicts paid by others to smash and grab their way through various galleries. The low level criminal would be paid small amounts of cash or drugs and would turn over the stolen art to a small gang leader who would then attempt to sell the items or demand a ransom for their return.

While this is the first published case of an iPhone being used, I have no doubt that the practice will continue or even expand after the release of the anticipated iPad 3. But let's not forget that any images sent via the internet or by a mobile device are traceable. Clearly, these crooks are not thinking about the big picture.

Istanbul Archaeological Museum: Sculptural Reliefs Portray the Deceased on the 2,000 year old Tombs of Palmyra, Syria

Funerary art from Palmyra, Syria/
Photo by C. Sezgin
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

Today's afternoon story in The New York Times, "Fighting in Syria Escalates as Opposition Rejects Russian Plan" reminds me of the beautiful funeral monuments I saw earlier this month on display from Palmyra, Syria, at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.

Palmyra, located more than 200 kilometers northeast of Damascus, was a thriving Roman city in the First, Second and Third Centuries AD, a midpoint for caravan traders between Persia and the Mediterranean.

In 108 AD, a rich Palmyrene named Yarhai, used limestone blocks to construct tombs for 219 people. More than 100 people were interned in this one kilometer long necropolis called the Valley of the Tombs over 130 years.

Burial slots were designed as drawers stacked in up to six rows, similar to the Panthéon in Paris or even the mausoleum at Our Lady of Angels, the contemporary Roman Catholic Cathedral in Los Angeles. The exciting feature is that the deceased were represented by sculptural portraits projecting from the surface of the graves, giving "the impression of looking out of a window" (Istanbul Archaeological Museum placard).

'ABD' Astor and his son Maqqai/
Photo by C. Sezgin
Inscriptions in Ancient Greek and the language of Palmyra (Aramaean and Arabic) on one-third of the tombs reveal "the identity of the person who has ordered the tomb to be built; the common tombs shared by the family or the relatives; and the distribution of the tombs in the 1st-3rd centuries AD" (Istanbul Archaeological Museum placard).

Merchants, army commanders and high ranking officials and priests of Palmyra were buried in these tombs (Istanbul Archaeological Museum placard).

The original reliefs on display at Istanbul's Archaeological Museum were separated from their tombs and are arranged according to their style and chronologically (Istanbul Archaeological Museum placard).

Salmat and her daughter Hagge/Photo by C. Sezgin
Two of the reliefs are related, one is of "ABD' Astor and his son Maqqai and the other is of his daughter Salmat and her daughter Hagge. As with many of the objects in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, I am humbled by their beauty and have an increased awareness of the tenacity of the Syrian people.

You may read more about Palmyra and its history here at UNESCO's World Heritage Site page.  The city thrived until the 16th century.  Other funerary art from Palmyra may be found at the British Museum.

Here's the page on the website of the Istabul Archaeological Museum on the Palmyran Tomb Chamber.

January 25, 2012

Wednesday, January 25, 2012 - ,, 1 comment

National Press Club event: "Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum" - Jan. 24, 2012

Jason Felch and Tanya Lervik (ARCA Alum)
by Tanya K. Lervik, ARCA Alum

WASHINGTON DC - Tonight the National Press Club hosted a lively panel discussion on the topic of looted antiquities as exemplified by the J. Paul Getty Museum debacle. The panel, which was moderated by the congenial James Grimaldi, investigative reporter for the Washington Post, featured Jason Felch (in person) and Ralph Frammolino (phoning in from Bangladesh) - the two authors of "Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum." The book is the culmination of five years of investigative reporting inspired by a Los Angeles Times series for which Felch and Frammolino were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. They were joined on the panel by Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum and Arthur Houghton, a former curator at the Getty Museum who spoke passionately on behalf of museums.

The discussion covered a wide range of topics – from the basics of international law and the ethical responsibility of museums to the specifics of various transgressions that occurred at the Getty. Felch and Frammolino described the scope of the problem and how they came upon the antiquities story while researching the lavish spending of a Getty executive, Barry Munitz. In the course of their investigation, they were approached by a “Greek chorus of Deep Throats” who informed them that the executive’s indiscretions paled in comparison.

Arthur Houghton commented on his experience at the Getty and recruited members of the audience (including yours truly) to illustrate the donation tax fraud scheme that he discovered was being perpetrated by one-time curator, Jiri Frel. Houghton was instrumental in putting an end to that practice, but he was also the author of the “smoking gun” memo often cited as evidence that the Getty Museum management was aware they were acquiring looted works in contravention of the 1970 UNESCO convention. Houghton also suffered some uncomfortable moments when the conversation turned to his role as the originator of the Getty’s controversial policy of “optical due diligence” wherein they would generally accept an antiquity’s provenance as provided by dealers without stringently investigating its validity.

Before entertaining questions from the packed Press Club Ballroom, the session closed with thoughts for the future. Gary Vikan of the Walters Art Museum proposed that perhaps the best way to address the perennial tug-of-war between art-rich/cash-poor source countries and art-poor/cash rich consumer countries would be to encourage a system of long-term loans. In the wake of the Italian government’s prosecution of former Getty Museum curator, Marion True, the Getty returned a number of important items, but the Italian government also agreed to lend the museum significant items to help fill the void.

Such a model could be used to perpetuate the objectives of “universal museums” aiming to display the breadth of human creativity without swelling the demand for looted antiquities. It would also encourage sharing of knowledge and expertise. Aggressively pursuing a series of long-term loans rather than permanent acquisitions certainly honors the value of our shared human heritage without the potential ethical pitfalls of purchase. Though long-terms loans address neither the issue of private collectors nor their museum bequests, it does give hope for the future. Tonight's discussion served to highlight the pivotal, complex nature of the debate and the far-reaching effects of the Italian efforts to repatriate looted antiquities.

January 23, 2012

January 19, 2012

January 17, 2012

Tuesday, January 17, 2012 - , No comments

Why do thieves steal paintings by Picasso?

Picasso's "Nude, Green Leaves
 and Bust"/Estate of Pablo Picasso
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-chief

After international headlines reported the theft of a Picasso painting from Greece last week, a Spanish journalist inquired with ARCA as to why paintings by Pablo Picasso were the target of so many art heists? Was it because the artist was so productive? Or because he was so famous? In response, I said that headlines also typically reported record sales or 'the most expensive paintings' and that in the past two decades, paintings by Picasso had been sold publicly through auction houses and dubbed as "most expensive painting") (Wikipedia)

Here's the list of Picasso paintings as sold from 1989 through 2010 with links to a sample headline heralding the sale (Year of sale, title of painting, reported sales price in millions of US dollars, and the auction house):

1989, Au Lapin Agile, $40.7MM, Sotheby’s New York;

1989, Yo, Picasso, $47.85MM, Sotheby’s, New York;
1989, Les Noces de Pierrette, $49.3MM, Binoche et Godeau, Paris;
1997, Le Rêve, $48.4MM, Christie’s, New York;

1999, Femme assise dans un jardin, $49.6MM, Sotheby’s, New York;
2000, Femme aux Bras Croisés, $55.0MM, Christie’s, New York;
2006, Dora Maar au Chat, $95.2MM, Sotheby’s New York;
2004, Garçon à la pipe, $104.2MM, 2004 Sotheby’s New York; and
2010, Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, $106.5MM, Christie’s New York.

The publicity of record sales for Picasso paintings creates an awareness amongst thieves that the artworks by Picasso are valuable to both art collectors and the public.  A thief wouldn't need expert knowledge to determine which paintings on display are valuable, only access to the newspaper headlines reporting public sales of expensive art.

January 14, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 12, 2012

Thursday, January 12, 2012 - No comments

Italian Journal Reports Etruscan Artifacts Returned to Italy for Permanent Display

Etruscan jewelry to be returned to Italy
Etruscan Jewelry will be added to Museo archeologico "G.Allevi". collection in Offida

Reported by Claudia Palmira,
Editor-in-Chief, Italian Journal

This blog's customary content has to do with crime, theft and fraud, but this is a case with a happy ending that took place recently at the Consulate of Italy in New York.

Some years ago, artist Edward Giobbi, also a cook book author and resident of Westchester County, New York, came upon what appeared to be jewelry and other artifacts that were brought to America from the region of Le Marche, the town of Offida in particular, by his father in the 1950s when he travelled to the US to take up residence. Giobbi kept the priceless artifacts, preserved in a box in his sculpture studio in the converted barn where he works and stores his paintings and sculpture, in Katonah.

Giobbi sustained a friendship for 35 plus years with Steve Acunto, a classical scholar and publisher, who was appointed Hon. Vice Consul for Italy in New York State in 2003. On one of their many dinners together, the artist alluded to the artifacts and artwork and expressed his interest in having them returned to their rightful location to be displayed and prized in the very point where they were excavated. Acunto went right to work and pulled together his contacts in the Italian Government and was able, with the help of Vice Consul Lucia Pasqualini to set the way for a return of these artifacts to their home on December 27th 2011.

The result will be a permanent display at the museum in Offida.

During the ceremony held at the Italian Consulate on Park Avenue, the consignment was formalized by Mr. Giobbi together with family members, the Consul General of Italy in New York, Natalia Quintavalle, Vice Consul, Lucia Pasqualini, Hon. Vice Consul Stefano Acunto and members of the Carabinieri and the Ministry of Beni Culturale.

This was called a great act of generosity and an example for the community, according to Consul General Quintavalle who noted the priceless value of the ancient artifacts.

Mr. Acunto, who facilitated the arrangement, thanked Vice Consul Pasqualini for her assistance in the matter and stated: “Mr. Giobbi is a renowned artist who respects our shared heritage so greatly that he returned these artifacts brought here by his relatives some years ago to its rightful historic home as part of Italy’s archaeological patrimony and legacy. The artifacts are priceless in value and priceless inasmuch as they reflect an important part of the local heritage in the Marches where they were originally discovered. It is rare that excavations today turn up such a treasure trove of fine art including these Etruscan era necklaces, pins and clasps in extraordinarily good condition, from approximately 2,800 years ago. It is a great joy for us all to see these returned in such an honorable manner.”

January 11, 2012

Wednesday, January 11, 2012 - No comments

Admissions Deadline Extended to Feb 29 for ARCA's 2012 Postgraduate Certificate Program in International Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection Studies

Germanicus at Amelia's Archaeological Museum
The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA) 2012 Postgraduate Certificate Program in International Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection Studies has extended its admissions application deadline from January 15 to February 29, 2012.

This interdisciplinary program offers substantive study for art police and security professionals, lawyers, insurers, curators, conservators, members of the art trade, and post-graduate students of criminology, law, security studies, sociology, art history, archaeology and history.

In its fourth year, this program provides students with in-depth, post-graduate level instruction in a wide variety of theoretical and practical elements of art and heritage crime: its history, its nature, its impact, and what is currently being done to mitigate it. Students completing the program earn a professional certificate under the guidance of internationally renowned cultural property protection professionals.

Instructors for 2012 include ARCA founder Noah Charney; Insurer Dorit Straus; transnational expert Dr. Edgar Tijhuis; retired Scotland Yard Detective Sergeant Richard Ellis now with The Art Management Group; art historian Dr. Thomas Flynn; New Zealand’s Judge Arthur Tompkins; Dick Drent, Director of Security, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; archaeology professor Dr. Valerie Higgins and Dr. Erik Nemeth, Adjunct Staff at RAND Corporation and Founder and Researcher at Cultural Security.

A prospectus and application may be obtained by writing to admissions at

January 9, 2012

Bonne Année: Museum Theft in Greece Ends Holiday Weekend

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

Reports from Istanbul bumped by museum theft in Greece.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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