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December 24, 2015

Thursday, December 24, 2015 - No comments

18th Century Artefacts Seized from a Bahamas Flagged Ship

The Odyssey Explorer (midground) in Falmouth Docks, UK.
The salvage vessel belongs to Odyssey Marine Exploration,
and is used in the exploration of underwater wreck sites. 
Authorities in Limassol, Cyprus have confiscated the cargo of a Bahamas-flagged ship which has been moored at Limassol harbour since December 17, after finding evidence of suspected illegal removal of antiquities.  Acting on information provided anonymously to both the Transport and Foreign Ministries of the Cypriot authorities, police on Wednesday secured a seizure warrant for the cargo of the ‘Odyssey Explorer’, a vessel owned by the deep-ocean exploration firm, Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc., (NasdaqCM: OMEX).  The Florida-based American private treasure hunting firm was founded in 1994 and is known for its underwater recovery of shipwrecks including the HMS Victory, the S Republic, the SS Gairsoppaand the SS Central America, as well as shipwreck salvage operations involving third-century BC Punic sites and recovery of WWII casualties.  

In 2012 Odyssey Marine Exploration set a record for the deepest and heaviest cargo recovery from a shipwreck to date involving the recovery of the SS Gairsoppa.  During that operation, its team retrieved 48 tons of silver from the vessel which sank in 1941 in waters more than 15,000 feet deep. 

Odyssey Marine Exploration currently has several shipwreck projects in various stages of development around the world, including the jurisdictionally disputed Black Swan Project a recovery operation purported to be the richest haul ever retrieved from a shipwreck to date.  Th e value of that recovery has been estimated to value of $500 million (£314 million).   However the rights to the finds of the wrecked 19th Century Spanish vessel, ‘Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes’, are being contested as the Spanish believe the wreck lays within Spanish territorial waters whereas Odyssey contends the shipwreck was recovered in “international waters” west of the Straits of Gibraltar. 

Assisted by the Cypriot antiquities authority and customs officials, Port and Marine police boarded the ‘Odyssey Explorer’ this week in Cyprus and searched the ship's locked hold finding 57 plastic containers, several which contained artefacts dating to approximately to the 18th century.  Some of the objects clearly appeared to have been recently retrieved from an underwater site.   

Many of the objects seized were found submerged in desalinated water, a technique common in the preservation of objects retrieved from underwater archaeological sites as once a submerged artifact leaves its sea water resting place and is exposed to the air, it must undergo an immediate stabilization process to prevent further deterioration.  

Artifacts found submerged in ocean water pose the greatest challenge to preserve and underwater conservators often utilize specially constructed vats for desalination and conservation, using a series of static water baths to lower the salt levels within the encrustation of the objects.   The fact that this technique was being used by the salvage team on the objects confiscated lends evidence that the material retrieved is quite recent. 

As the ship had been out to sea prior to birthing on December 17th, it is not known if any or all of the antiquities discovered on board were of Cypriot origin.   Reports suggest that the most consistent position of the vessel's recovery work was some 60 km due west of Beirut in the Lebanese Economic Zone.   Some have stated that the investigation was initiated by the Cypriot Government at the request of Lebanon authorities.   Some believe the sailing ship being recovered was the "Napreid", which sank to the bottom of the sea near Beirut and contained gold and silver coins, cylinders and sixty cases of other antiquities shipped on an ill-fated Austrian ship which caught fire and sunk 50 miles off of the coast of Syria.

The Eastern Mediterranean and Levant have long been an established maritime highway where ship wrecks of any period might contain cargoes which could be appealing to recovery operations.

As a result of the seizure Odyssey Marine Exploration has issued the following statement.
“Odyssey Marine Exploration has been conducting a deep -ocean archaeological project in the Eastern Mediterranean under contract. The project has been conducted legally and Odyssey has not conducted any operations in Cypriot waters. Any statements to the contrary are false.  The shipwreck on which the company has been conducting an archaeological operation appears to be a cargo vessel dating to the early to mid-17th century (1600-1650) with a primary cargo of agricultural goods, porcelain, glazed pottery and other trade cargo. The site is not identifiable by name nor country of origin. The project design anticipates full publication of the results of the operation and exhibit of the recovered artifacts. 
We understand the actions taken by the local authorities were based on a false report. Odyssey is fully cooperating and the company is confident the authorities will quickly confirm that Odyssey was neither working in Cypriot waters nor recovering ancient artefacts. 
On this project, Odyssey is subject to a non-disclosure agreement under the contract and cannot provide further details.”

December 16, 2015

Meet the 2015 Students of ARCA - Jess Kamphuis

How did you hear about ARCA? What were your motivations behind applying to the post-graduate program?

As an undergrad, I combined security studies and art history; it’s rare to find a program in which I can pursue both of these disciplines. I also spent last summer studying cultural protection in Malta, and visited Amelia to attend ARCA’s annual art crime conference. My experience at the conference this year was actually really different, having also attended the year before: instead of frantically trying to absorb all the knowledge and information being presented on, I found the content this year much more approachable, and could focus on networking.

How does your academic background correlate with the work you are doing in the program?

As a recent graduate, in school I studied cultural discourse and security studies with a minor in art history. After the program, I will leave for England to get my masters in transnational security. I approach cultural discourse as a theoretical construct, as a means of understanding how ideas and people move throughout the world and interact. Security studies is likewise a way of observing how power constructs are formed, how nations and resistance movements are established, and the ways in which people agreeing or not agreeing about things shapes culture, identity, and a subsequent need for varied approaches to security. A lot of my work focuses on subcultures and parallel political systems.

In the program, I have researched and studied cultural heritage trafficking and how the appropriation of someone else’s culture can create funding for criminal activity. This lack of regulation in the art market contributes to self regulation, where individuals or groups of individuals create their own policy. I find this fascinating in relation to resistance movements and the ways in which war and conflict influence art.

Can you briefly describe your understanding of the connection between art and war?

Well art has always been an integral part of war. War is used to define oneself against another, while art is valued reflection of history and culture. Art is at the basis of what war and conflict is aiming to disrupt through the destruction of people and their culture.

What has been your favorite thing about the program? About living in Amelia?

About the program? Definitely everyone that’s here. Professors and students alike are engaging in varied, interdisciplinary fields; not everyone comes from an art history background. I’m used to a competitive honors program, where people were worried about the theft of intellectual property and ensuring they were the most successful student in the course. There’s support here in the ARCA classroom; everyone is coming from different perspectives, wants everyone to succeed, and are happy to be resources in their respective fields.

I think Amelia is a small town that is intimate but dynamic, and definitely conducive to providing an ideal academic environment. It’s easy to slip by as an unnoticed foreigner in a big city, but here people get to know you and give you space to express your own originality.


ARCA is accepting applications for the 2016 Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection.  For more information on how to apply, please click here. 

December 15, 2015

Meet the 2015 Students of ARCA - Ashley Menante

Ashley joins us from the United States where she received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Nevada, Reno in Anthropology with a specialization in Archaeology. She later went on to complete her master’s degree in Biological Anthropology from Cambridge. Prior to starting the ARCA program, she was working as an archaeologist doing contract work in Nevada.

How did you first hear about ARCA and its certificate program?

I had just finished my master’s degree and was investigating different PhD programs in archaeology and cultural heritage management. I was living in Nevada at the time working as a contract archaeologist while interning at the Nevada Museum of Art. I decided that I wanted to gain more experience before started my PhD and I came across ARCA. I felt that the program would be beneficial in giving me experiences and training that would help me with my career and educational goals. I also believed that it would not just change me professionally, but personally as well.

How has the ARCA program measured up to your expectations?

The program has surpassed my expectations. The administrators are very helpful and I have made lifelong contacts and friends with those from the program as well as the conference. The other students come from a diversity of backgrounds, but we all share a common thread of passion for this subject. 

What has been your favorite part of the ARCA program?

My favorite aspect has been the opportunity to explore so many areas of study while in class.

What do you enjoy most about the city of Amelia?
My favorite aspect of Amelia is definitely the people, you feel like you’re home anytime you enter a shop. They know who you are and they are excited that you are here. It is also a good place to relax, be creative, and enjoy the outdoors. 

Where do you see yourself ten years from now?
I plan on exploring further the areas that we have covered during the program. I want to contribute to the field by tackling some of the difficult issues and becoming part of the network of people. I plan on speaking at conferences, becoming involved in underwater archaeology, and participating in international archaeology excavations (including projects here in Italy). I am also planning on earning my PhD in archaeology as well as my law degree.

If someone had one weekend in Amelia, what would you recommend they do?
Wander the city, get lost, grab a sandwich from the local shop, and visit the sunflower fields just outside of the city.


ARCA is accepting applications for the 2016 Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection.  For more information on how to apply, please click here. 

Meet the 2015 Students of ARCA - Samer Abdel Ghafour

Samer Abdel Ghafour is a Syrian cultural heritage specialist whose professional experience includes working both as a museum curator and a field director and chief conservator for archaeological missions in Syria. Samer is currently completing his PhD at Sapienza University of Rome in Philology and History of the Ancient World. 

What were your motivations behind enrolling in the ARCA post-graduate program? What do you value about the program as a whole? 

Each course offered by the ARCA program expands academic knowledge by tackling topics from different angles, while the experience as a whole opens gates and provides networking opportunities. Through the program, I have been introduced to a community of specialists whose work is interrelated with ARCA, its mission, program, academic publications, and journal of art crime. The specialized courses offered develop a platform for engagement that addresses ten different elements, ten domains, ten fields. The specificity of the program supports research and engagement with varied topics that otherwise receive little academic attention and range from sites management, to the conservation of mosaics. 

How does your academic and professional background correlate with the work you are doing in the program?

In 2011, Syria experienced a whirlwind of lawlessness on all levels, including irreversible damage to cultural heritage. Following the looting of open archaeological sites, the illicit trafficking of looted objects, and the destruction of historic monuments and museums, both Syrian and international experts organized several initiatives to mitigate damage to the best of our ability. Improving academic knowledge through participation in this and other programs is an essential part of our commitment to save and protect. In Dick Ellis’ course on Policing, I studied art in the black market and in organized crime, researching methods of tracing illicit trafficking. In Art and Heritage Law with Duncan Chappell, we became better equipped to apply both national and international law, and following Marc Balcells’ Criminology course, I now feel more comfortable addressing organised crime. As crime itself is getting stronger, it is important that we too strengthen ourselves and our knowledge. Amidst the chaos in Syria, we are preparing for the aftermath, trying to maintain stability through networking, documenting damage, and collecting data for analysis.

Networking is a vital component in your current work, correct?

Yes, I use social media as a platform that provides information for the public, not just academics. In July 2011, I attended an international symposium in Berlin in which archaeologists digging in Syria wanted to know whether or not they could continue their work.  Relationships can be ruined by the current inability to dig in Syria, but the loss of these connections can be avoided by communication through a free platform in which awareness is raised and accumulated knowledge is disseminated to whoever is interested. Founding the Archaeology Information Network has not only provided an opportunity to raise cultural heritage awareness, it has also created a space for the collection of data about current damage and has highlighted the good work of others who are invested in cultural heritage protection. I also maintain a Twitter account for those that want to follow my work at @SamAbdelGhafour

What has been your favorite thing about the program? About living in Amelia?

I value the conference itself being held in the middle of the program- it was like a shot of espresso in the middle of the day. The experience solidified and contextualized a lot of the work we were doing in the classroom, providing ARCA students with the opportunity to take the next steps in our respective fields, to network, and to build solid connections and foundations.

As far as Amelia goes, hosting the program here is like combining American academia with an Italian spirit. If our work here is the body and Amelia contributes to the spirit, the two form a living entity, imbued with a depth of historical value from the surrounding environment. The walls of Amelia do not separate it from the natural landscape and cultural heritage surrounding it. These walls, which historically served as means of defence for Amelia, now play the role of  connecting the program to the city and its vivid history. It is a striking example and experience of intercultural engagement. 

Since completing the ARCA summer coursework, what have you been doing this Autumn?

In addition to working on my ARCA thesis I am solidifying the research for my PhD on "Ideologies of the Destruction of Cultural Heritage in the Ancient and Modern Near East" at La Sapienza - Università di Roma with the Facoltà: Dipartimento di Scienze dell'antichità.

I also have a recently updated position with IIMAS – The International Institute for Mesopotamian Area Studies as an Associate Director for Institutional Communications.  Thirdly, I am also working to develop a project a little closer to my home, ARCA in the Levant, a program to bring ARCA's methodology closer to conflict zones.


ARCA is accepting applications for the 2016 Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection.  For more information on how to apply, please click here.

December 9, 2015

Christie's Withdraws Suspect Lot 45 from December 9th Antiquities Auction

ARCA has been informed that Christie's has withdrawn Lot 45: A Celtic bronze dagger and scabbard, 8th C. B.C. from its December 9, 2015 antiquities auction in New York later today.  The potentially looted piece had previously been identified by Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis and was elaborated upon in ARCA's blog here.   Photographs of the specific object, along with lined cards describing the piece as being from the 'Italic, Villanovan period', were found among the confiscated archival records of antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina. 

Lot 101, a Canaanite bronze enthroned deity dating between 1550 - 1200 B.C. remains on offer despite Dr. Tsirogiannis' having located 6 professionally taken images from the Symes-Michaelides archive, and despite the fact that neither Symes and Michaelides are not mentioned in the Christie's collecting history. 

Given its less than up to date collection history, it will be interesting to see if potential buyers will bid on the piece or if news notifications will render the piece publicly unsellable. 

December 7, 2015

New Auction House Identifications With Opaque Collection Histories and Image Matches in Known Trafficker Archives

Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis has identified three antiquities related to the upcoming December 9, 2015 Christie's antiquities auction in New York which match with images originating within either the Gianfranco Becchina or Symes-Michaelides confiscated archives.

1. Lot 36: A Canosan terracotta Zeus and Ganymede, from Apulia, 3rd-2nd C. B.C.

Image of 'A Canosan terracotta Zeus and Ganymede
from the Becchina archive (provided by Dr. Tsirogiannis)
This antiquity is depicted in the records of the Becchina archive. Although its collecting history - according to Christie's - starts before 1981 and Becchina is not mentioned, there is a document, in the archival record dated January 17, 1995, from a designer to Becchina, mentioning the object specifically.

The designer, Raoul Allaman, seems to have added the figure's current plexiglass base. This object has subsequently been withdrawn as of November 28, 2016 and the Carabinieri TPC in Italy have  been made aware of the identifying match.
Image of 'A Celtic Bronze Dagger and Scabbard'
from the Becchina archive 

(provided by Dr. Tsirogiannis)

2. Lot 45: A Celtic bronze dagger and scabbard, 8th C. B.C. 

This antiquity is also depicted in the Becchina archive, in two professional images. The Becchina file containing the images and the lined cards on which the images are stuck, state that the object is 'Italic, Villanovan period'. This object has not been previously detected by the Italian authorities and is presently still on offer.

A Canaanite bronze enthroned deity
from the Becchina archive
(provided by Dr. Tsirogiannis)

This object appears in 6 professionally taken images from the Symes-Michaelides archive, without its current base, placed on a white plasteline/clay ball, standing in front of a stone wall, which serves as a background.  This antiquity, too, is still on offer. Symes and Michaelides are not mentioned in the Christie's collecting history. Interpol, the Carabinieri, 2 ICE agents and the Embassy of Israel to the United States have been notified concerning lot nr. 101.

The theft and trafficking of cultural items deliberately stolen from archaeological sites is a practice that is older than history and remains the greatest threat to the global archaeological record. Investigating the looting of antiquities and returning pieces to their countries of origin is a long and often difficult process.   Few of the objects looted and illicitly trafficked from source countries are ever repatriated and those that are, often are a direct the result of the work of a limited number of art crime researchers and law enforcement officers who work with various cultural ministries and law enforcement authorities tracking leads when and where they find them.

Yet the ultimate culpability rests not solely with the auction houses but equally importantly with the illicitly trafficked object's purchaser.  If collectors were unwilling to acquire unprovenanced artefacts, the supply chain would have no demand client buying and the market for illicit antiquities would disintegrate.

But what is the auction house’s own internal investigation of an object’s provenance?  Should auction houses be required to inform the legal authorities when consignors present objects with questionable collection histories? In much the same way nurses and doctors are required by law to report suspect child abuse? And if so, what would the ramifications be if the auction houses started to work WITH law enforcement towards cleaning up the art market?

November 20, 2015

17 Artworks Stolen from Italian Museum

Shortly before its 8 pm closing time, on Thursday November 19, 2015 three darkly-dressed masked thieves entered the Verona Civic Museum of Castelvecchio near Verona in northern Italy.  Using a methodology reminiscent of that used during the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist, the culprits tied up and gagged a museum cashier and the sole private security guard on duty using adhesive tape shortly after the museum's employees had left for the evening.

One accomplice stayed with the cashier, holding her at gunpoint while the other two, one of whom was also armed, escorted the watchmen through the museum's exhibition rooms.  In total, the thieves made off with seventeen Italian and foreign artworks including rare pieces by Peter Paul Rubens, Bellini, Pisanello, Mategna, the Venetian artist Tintoretto and his son.  
“La Madonna della Quaglia” by Antonio Pisano also known as Pisanello
tempera su tavola, cm 54×32
Mayor Flavio Tosi has referred to the museum's robbery as a “theft to order” crime, a label that, absent further elaboration, has fallen out of favor among art crime investigators as it feeds the public's imagination and more often than not, results in over-generalised misperceptions about who commits art crime and for what underlying motive.

Conjuring up images of cat burglars that look and act like sexy Hollywood starlets, cinematic “theft to order” protagonists are typically technologically savvy art thieves who burgle museums by easily outsmarting complex alarm systems.  If the protagonist is female, she is usually sexily clad but the common denominator among all film art thieves is that they are usually never caught and go on to live happily ever after, having made bundles off the sale of the paintings.

The truth is, demystifying offender characteristics and the motives of art thieves from media hype is difficult.  There is no single set of common physical or mental characteristics or motives which would make profiling the art criminal easier.

In Thursday’s theft the Castelvecchio museum's alarm system was not even activated as the thieves timed their arrival to coincide with the museum’s closing hour, entering just before the nightly alarms were to to be turned on.  Timed to perfection, the culprits successfully made off with artwork Italian authorities are estimating as worth between 10 and 15 million euros. The city’s mayor also stated that authorities hadn’t ruled out the possibility that the paintings could have been stolen to fund “jihadisti”.

Some of the paintings, mostly those painted on wooden panels, were taken off the walls and carried away as is.  Others artworks were removed from their frames, with the canvases then being rolled-up for ease of carrying. Thirteen of the stolen paintings are considered to be masterpieces while the other four are reportedly of lessor value.

Authorities have described the stolen artworks as:

“Ritratto di Girolamo Pompei” by Giovanni Benini
olio su tela, cm 85×63, inv. 45793-1B4017 – Estimated Value: €5.000
“Ritratto di Giovane Monaco Benedettino” by Giovanni Francesco Caroto
olio su tela, cm 43×33, inv. 1407-1B0142 – Estimated Value: €200,000
“Ritratto di Giovane con Disegno Infantile” by Giovanni Francesco Caroto,
olio su tavola, cm 37×29, inv. 5519-1B0130 – Estimated Value: €2,000,000
“San Girolamo Penitente” by Jacopo Bellini
tempera su tavola, cm 95×65, inv. 876-1B0306 – Estimated Value: €2,000,000
“Paesaggio” by Hans de Jode
olio su tela, cm 70×99, inv. 6275-1B0685 – Estimated Value: €200.000
“Porto di mare” by Hans de Jode
olio su tela, cm 70×99, inv. 6273-1B0680– Estimated Value: €200.00
“Sacra Famiglia Con Una Santa” by Andrea Mantegna,
tempera su tela, cm 76×55,5 inv. 855-1B0087 – Estimated Value €4,000,000
“La Madonna della Quaglia” by Antonio Pisano also known as Pisanello,
tempera su tavola, cm 54×32, inv. 164-1B0090 – Estimated Value €4,000,000
“Dama delle licnidi” by Peter Paul Rubens
olio su tela, cm 76×60, inv. 1779-1B0166 – Estimated Value €1,500,000
“Ritratto di Marco Pasqualigo” by Domenico Tintoretto
olio su tela, cm 48×40, inv.6707-1B0158 – Estimated Value €500,000
“Ritratto di Ammiraglio Veneziano” by the school of Domenico Tintoretto
olio su tela, cm 110×89, inv. 1602-1B0710 – Estimated Value €100,000
“Banchetto di Baltassar” by Jacopo Tintoretto
 olio su tavola, cm 26,5×79, inv. 264-1B0229 – Estimated Value €100,000
“Giudizio di Salomone” by Jacopo Tintoretto,
olio su tavola, cm 26,5×79,5, inv. 266-1B0230 – Estimated Value €100,000
“Madonna Allattante” by Jacopo Tintoretto
olio su tela, cm 89×76, inv. 1285-1B1623– Estimated Value € 500,000
“Sansone” by Jacopo Tintoretto,
olio su tavola, cm 26,5×79, inv. 265-1B0228 – Estimated Value €100,000
“Trasporto dell’Arca dell’Alleanza” by Jacopo Tintoretto,
olio su tavola, cm 28×80, inv. 263-1B0227 – Estimated Value €100,000
“Ritratto Maschile” possibly by Jacopo Tintoretto
olio su tela, cm 54×44, inv. 44381-1B4013 – Estimated Value €150,000
4 other artworks by artists such as Hans de Jode and Giovanni Benini

In addition to the artwork stolen, the bandits also damaged a table by Giulio Licinio.

The culprits left the scene of the crime using the museum custodian's own car, likely switching vehicles at some distance from the museum.  Authorities are reviewing footage from the 48 museum CCTV cameras installed in and around the museum for possible clues as to their identities.

Photos of the 17 artworks taken are posted to this blog post.

Andrea Mantegna, Sacra Famiglia Con Una Santa
tempera su tela, cm 76×55,5
“Ritratto Maschile” possibly by Jacopo Tintoretto
olio su tela, cm 54×44 
“Ritratto di Marco Pasqualigo” by Domenico Tintoretto
olio su tela, cm 48×40
“Ritratto di Girolamo Pompei” by Giovanni Benini
olio su tela, cm 85×63
“Paesaggio” by Hans de Jode
olio su tela, cm 70×99
“Porto di mare” by Hans de Jode
olio su tela, cm 70×99
“Ritratto di Girolamo Pompei” by Giovanni Benini
olio su tela, cm 85×63
“Banchetto di Baltassar” by Jacopo Tintoretto
olio su tavola, cm 26,5×79
“Giudizio di Salomone” by Jacopo Tintoretto
olio su tavola, cm 26,5×79,5
“Trasporto dell’Arca dell’Alleanza” by Jacopo Tintoretto
olio su tavola, cm 28×80
“Sansone” by Jacopo Tintoretto
olio su tavola, cm 26,5×79
“Madonna Allattante” by Jacopo Tintoretto
olio su tela, cm 89×76
“Ritratto di Ammiraglio Veneziano” by the school of Domenico Tintoretto
olio su tela, cm 110×89
“Ritratto di Giovane con Disegno Infantile” by Giovanni Francesco Caroto
olio su tavola, cm 37×29
“Ritratto di Giovane Monaco Benedettino” by Giovanni Francesco Caroto
olio su tela, cm 43×33
“Dama delle Licnidi” by Peter Paul Rubens
olio su tela, cm 76×60

The Curious Cases of Six N.C. Wyeth Paintings: Stolen in 2013 and Recovered in 2015

Two Newell Convers Wyeth paintings, The Encounter on Freshwater Cliff” and “Go Dutton and That Right Speedily”, worth an estimated $500,000 each, are about to go on display at the Portland Museum of Art along with four of their other once-stolen brethren, thanks to the join efforts of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Portland Police Department and the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Maine.  The paintings, owned by Joseph Soley, were stolen from an unoccupied downtown Portland apartment sometime in 2013.   Four of the paintings, “At a touch from Michael’s knife,” “The Unwrit Dogma,” “The Duel,” and “John Brimlecombe,” were recovered in Los Angeles, California in December 2014 in an art crime caper that reads like an epic crime novella.

A break in the case came when Lawrence Estrella, a career criminal from New Hampshire with a long history of robberies and breaking and entering, was stopped for speeding by the Texas Highway Patrol on Nov. 21, 2014.  At that time, the Texas state trooper searched Estrella's car believing to have smelled marijuana and observed five individually wrapped artworks stored in the vehicle's trunk. 

Estrella would later plead guilty to interstate transportation of stolen property in April 2015. He was sentenced to seven years and eight months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release for his role as an accomplice in the case for having driven four of the six N.C. Wyeth paintings: “At a touch from Michael’s knife,” “The Unwrit Dogma,” “The Duel,” and “John Brimlecombe” to California.    While the California case got underway, the paintings The Encounter on Freshwater Cliff” and “Go Dutton and That Right Speedily” were still unaccounted for.   

“Go Dutton, and That Right Speedily,” oil on canvas,
by Newell Convers Wyeth, aka N.C. Wyeth* 

Oscar Roberts, a Los Angeles rapper was also implicated in the California case.  He was sentenced to 28 months in prison for pledging stolen property as security for a loan and for lying to federal agents about the location of the paintings.  Roberts had pawned four of the six Newell Convers Wyeth paintings to the Dina Collection, a high-end Beverly Hills pawn shop featured on cable television’s Reelz channel program “Beverly Hills Pawn” in order to obtain a $100,000 loan from Dina Collection owner Yossi Dina. 

A third accomplice in the California case, identified as 55-year-old Dean Coroniti, formerly of Massachusetts but more recently of North Hollywood, had reportedly served 19 years in prison for previous offenses. California court records indicated that Coroniti was issued a summons in the painting theft case to face a charge of possession of stolen goods but details on his involvement in the case were sealed. He eventually pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property on March 19, 2015 for his role in storing the paintings.  He was initially scheduled for sentencing in October however that sentencing has now been postponed until December. 

Court documents filed in the court case on the four earlier recovered paintings stated the artworks had a combined value of approximately one million US dollars. 

The Last 2 of 6 stolen N.C. Wyeth Paintings are Recovered

In a discreet handover, the final two missing paintings The Encounter on Freshwater Cliff” and “Go Dutton and That Right Speedily” were turned over to retired Boston FBI agent Jim Siracusa, by an unnamed party who had contacted the federal officer last summer in August.  After state and federal authorities granted the party immunity from prosecution, the undamaged artworks were handed over to Siracusa in Massachusetts, still in their original frames, on October 9, 2015.

No information has been released to the public regarding why more than one month has passed from the recovery of the artworks until the issuing of the announcement, but this delay may have been to allow authentication experts time to determine if the recovered oil paintings were the remaining two originals stolen in 2013.  While law enforcement authorities have withheld the name of the person who returned the art works on the East Coast, they did indicate that the person was not connected with the individuals who were prosecuted for their roles in trying to sell the four other N.C. Wyeth paintings taken during the burglary. 

Questions Remain

But despite the recovery of all six paintings, significant gaps in the story remain to be filled.

  • Where where the six paintings before four or five of them were driven to California?  
  • Were they on the East Coast where two of the convicted accomplices originate from?  
  • What is the connection, if any, between the East Coast accomplices and the uncharged individual who contacted the FBI to relinquish the last two paintings in Massachusetts? 
  • Is there any connection between the thieves in the Portland theft and Myles Connor, an East Coast art thief who stole art work from museums and private residences, including a million-dollar Rembrandt and who unwittingly tried to sell works by Andrew Wyeth and NC Wyeth to an undercover FBI agent?
  • Why is there so little information available in open records regarding Dean Coroniti and why has Coroniti's sentencing been delayed and does this delay have anything to do with the theft of the paintings or to ongoing organized crime cases involving art or otherwise?

While the answers to all of these questions are outstanding, all six paintings will be displayed in a brief exhibition which opens Saturday and will run through December 6th at the Portland Museum of Art titled “The Great N.C. Wyeth Caper: Paintings by America’s Storyteller.” The exhibition will also include a seventh N.C. Wyeth canvas painted in the same period as comparison and on loan from a separate owner.   

N.C. Wyeth is one of three famous Wyeth painters, often referred to as America's first family of art. His son, Andrew Wyeth is credited with being one of America finest mid-20th century artists.  His grandson, Jamie Wyeth, is a contemporary American realist painter with an excellent following in his own rights.  Two aunts and two uncles of Jamie’s also earned their livings as painters.


* Image Credit:“Go Dutton, and That Right Speedily,” oil on canvas, 39 1/2"x31 1/2", 1916 by Newell Convers Wyeth, aka N.C. Wyeth, Federal Bureau of Investigation Art Crime Database

*Image Credit: Exhibition Announcement Portland Museum of Art

November 18, 2015

Price and Provenance

Record prices were achieved at auctions last week with Chinese billionaires leading the way.

On the 11th of November, a Hong Kong tycoon Joseph Lau bought an exceptional 12 carat blue diamond, known as the Blue Moon for CHF 48.634 /US$ 48.5 million at Sotheby’s in Geneva, the highest price ever paid for a gemstone at auction, adding to his already large collection of art, jewellery and fine wines. 

On the 9th of November, Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu Couché was sold in New York for US$ 170.4 million, achieving a record for the hapless artist ranking in the top ten list of the most expensive paintings ever sold.  The name of the bidder from China was revealed to be Liu Yiqian, a Shanghai billionaire collector, who is already famous for his Ming Dynasty “Chicken Cup” bought for HK$ 281.24 million / US$36.05 million  in April 2014, the highest price ever paid for Chinese porcelain at an auction. 

Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), ‘Nu couché, painted in 1917-18

Modigliani was the artist of the week. Only a few days earlier on 4th November, another painting by Modigliani Paulette Jourdain was sold for US$ 42.8 million, well above its estimate, at Sotheby’s otherwise lacklustre sale of the collection of its former owner A. Alfred Taubman. Sotheby´s identified the buyer as a private Asian collector. 

Before these trophy items go behind the thick security doors, residents and visitors in Hong Kong had a chance to inspect them in person a month earlier together with other luxury collectables, exhibited as part of the auction houses’ highlight tours to stimulate the region’s increasingly eclectic taste in art. The costly campaign of the rivalling auction houses probably paid off. 

Anyone who fancies a Modigliani nude, yet are without the wherewithal needed, can still decorate their walls with a lookalike copy, skilfully handmade in Southern China. The chance that your friends may spot it as a reproduction is probably about 10%, as with the case of the fresh copy of the 18th century portrait Young Woman by Jean-Honoré Fragonard of bought online for GBP£ 70 for the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s project ‘Made in China’ project earlier this year. Even the Gallery’s curators were marvelled at the skill of the Chinese copyist although they insist that we should be able to easily spot the difference with closer scrutiny. 

But can we really?

It is a bitter fact that many large-scale conspiracies such as Beltracchi and Knoedler/Pei-Shen Quian were not uncovered for more than a decade. In China, it took nearly 10 years until someone eventually spotted at a Hong Kong auction house that a former librarian, Xiao Yuan, stole 143 Chinese master paintings from the library of the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts and replaced them with his copies. His copies were again substituted for further fakes. 

Living artists’ works can also be copied. Recently a Chinese auction house withdrew a living artist’s painting from its sale in Hong Kong after the artist himself challenged the authenticity of the work, which was presumed to be destroyed in 1989 and allegedly repainted in 1992, according to the very artist’s letter provided by the seller. As demonstrated in this case, it can be difficult to prove authenticity even for contemporary art in the Chinese art system, where credible documentation is often not in place. The distinction between a copy and a forgery is not fully recognised in the local culture, nor is the importance of a work's collection history, often referred to as an artwork's provenance. As demonstrated in the recently concluded exhibition “Copyleft Appropriation Art in China” at Power Station of Art in Shanghai, the concept of appropriation may be very different between China and the West. 

The free port that is Hong Kong has become one of the world’s largest art marketplaces and is consolidating its status as the region’s main art hub with the expected opening in 2019 of an iconic new public museum M+. Overshadowing the luminosity, Hong Kong also has a reputation as a playground for the illicit trading of counterfeits and smuggled artworks, many of which are transported in bulk from Mainland China. 

Recognising this growing issue, one which has been undermining the credibility and further development of the region’s art market, a group of experts with respective backgrounds in art, insurance, forensics, crime prevention, security and commercial risk management founded a local art risk consultancy TrackArt in 2011. Based in Hong Kong, it is the first and, currently, only provider of forensic DNA coding services for artworks in Asia. 

Together with cataloguing and recovery assistance services, TrackArt’s DNA coding secures the artwork’s onwards chain of provenance and validates future identification, which works most effectively in the primary market if applied in the artist’s studio. Using licenced technology from a UK technology partner, TrackArt offers more than one format of DNA suitable for various types of materials and surfaces of paintings, works on paper, antiquities, ceramics, etc. 

It’s high time the art market learnt the importance of securing the provenance of artworks, both now and in the future.

Here is a link to TrackArt’s website

(Selected information sources)

Dulwich Picture Gallery ‘Made in China’ Project

Chinese curator’s forgery

Geng Jianyi’s claim

Shanghai’s Power Station of Art’s current exhibition, Copyleft

Is it plagiarism or is it ‘shanzhai

November 6, 2015

The Good the Bad and the Ugly in Crowdfunding: How Two Museum Projects Measure Up Differently.... Featuring The Tesla Science Center and the Museum of the Bible

Abdul Halim Attar with daughter, Reem
Image Credit: Joshua Abu al-Homsi/Twitter
Most people who have spent any time surfing the web in the last few years have heard about crowdfunding.   Newspapers are full of feel-good stories of individuals raising thousands of dollars for uplifting causes.  Some, like last summer's campaign, which raised $130,000 for the family of Abdul Halim Attar -- a displaced pen-selling Palestinian-Syrian refugee from Yarmouk in Syria, help struggling families when life throws them a curve ball.  Others give inventors much-needed start-up capital to carry a drawing board concept through to market fruition. 

Donation-based crowdfunding is pretty self-explanatory. Almost anyone can post a cause or an idea on a relevant crowdfunding platform and ask for donations to help make something happen.  Sometimes, but not always, those who donate receive a special perk in exchange.  In the case of start-up companies, project backers sometimes receive beta-release versions of the product under development; an incentive that works well for cash-strapped technology-entrepreneurs. 

With the onset of internet based crowd funding its now easier and relatively hassle-free for anyone to ask a large number of people each for a small amount of money.  That in turn has made crowdsourcing an appealing tool for museum organizations.  Instead of writing a lengthy 100 page grant proposal or fronting the money for expensive charity dinners in the hopes of attracting wealthy philanthropists, art and museum administrators and fundraisers can now turn to crowdsourcing as a means of generating much-needed cash to carry out missions and projects. 

The Power of the Crowd

Turning to the internet, flamboyant cartoonist Matthew Inman launched a crowd-funding campaign via the Oatmeal to buy the property of Nikola Tesla’s former laboratory, located in Shoreham, New York.  His campaign needed $850,000 and raised $1.37 million in six days with the help of 33,000 Tesla-loving backers.   Further assisted by a grant approved by the state of New York for an additional $850,000 the fundraisers were able purchase the inventor's lab property, yet still needed more capital to accomplish their goal of building the museum in honor of the savvy engineer.

Not to be discouraged, Inman publicly asked Canadian-American business magnate Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla Motors, to donate one million dollars in a Tweet.  Accepting the gauntlet thrown down, Musk accepted and challenged Tesla-loving Oatmeal followers to again dig into their own pockets to raise the difference needed in order to make the museum a reality. 

Using the Indiegogo platform Inman started a Buy a Brick, Build a Museum campaign spurring internet-savvy donors to come up with the additional funds.  The result?  He raised a whopping $518,566 towards the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe, a sum more than two and a half times his original goal.

The power and value of crowdfunding, as these examples clearly illustrate, has changed the speed as well as the way individuals charitable contributions can be accessed.  

Organizations now have the ability to quickly and easily raise necessary funding in safe, secure crowdsourcing portals and at nominal costs to the fundraiser.   Some organizations have even gone so far as to build professional grade crowdfunding platforms into their own websites circumventing the overhead fees charged by most crowdsourcing portals.   

Anyone and virtually any cause, anywhere, can now tap into this type of funding.  No project is too big or too small.

But while giving small dollops of money to help someone who is less fortunate or to a good cause, like the development of a new museum, is commendable, people should carefully consider who they are funding and make sure that they donate responsibly to reputable persons and organizations so as not to fall prey to fraudulent or irresponsible fundraisers.

Just because a group is a bona fide charity doesn't always mean that a contributors' funding will be used wisely or in line with the donor's wishes or ethics. 

On October 7, 2015 the Museum of the Bible started its own in-house “One Million Names, Be One in a Million” campaign asking one million donors from around the globe to declare their belief that the bible should be celebrated by contributing to the funding of the yet-to-open Washington DC museum. With a crowdfunding campaign embedded into the Museum's own website with a matching video campaign on Youtube donors are being asked to contribute $20, $50, or $100 to the museum "where needed most."  

The Museum of the Bible's fundraising webpage states that donations "will become part of your personal legacy … a perpetual testimony of your commitment to this great Book." In appreciation, the fundraiser declares that the museum will permanently memorialize the donor's name on a wall in the museum, which is scheduled to open to the public in 2017. 

What is missing on the fundraising page though is a statement on just how the Museum of the Bible's "where needed most" funds might be utilized.   Will they go towards building the museum itself? Will they fund the employment of highly trained museum staff so that the MoB can avoid any more unpleasant surprises when importing antiquities without proper import documentation for the museum's collection?  Or will "One Million Names" donors contribute to sponsoring "hundreds of Christian student leaders to Israel" as part of the Covenant Journey project Tim Smith, the Museum of the Bible's Chief Development Officer, writes about here.    

Smith's blog post says, in part, that (the)

"Museum of the Bible is a founding sponsor of Covenant Journey because it furthers the Museum’s goal of inviting all people from across the world, from all backgrounds and religious affiliations, to engage with the Bible."    

What exactly does being a founding sponsorship entail?  

If one looks a little closely, Covenant Journey seems to be established and run through Liberty Counsel or at least the website URL registration and contact telephone numbers are the same for both groups.  Liberty Counsel is managed by Mathew Staver and the business in Florida is listed as "a legal organization that specializes in evangelical Christian litigation and public relations."  In contrast, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has listed Liberty Counsel as an anti-LGBT and hate group.  How does the Museum of the Bible relationship with the founders of Liberty Counsel support Covenant Journey's own mission?

In the last three years, the Museum of the Bible is reported to have received more than $230 million in tax-deductible donations.

The ethics of charitable giving in a time of crowdsourcing

The NonProfit Times, a business publication for nonprofit management has reported that crowdfunding has hit $5 billion US dollars annually, with close to a third of that funding going towards potentially worthy charitable causes.  According to their estimate, that's a substantial $1.5 billion per year, much of it managed through major portals like Causes, Kickstarter, Razoo and Indiegogo. 

As crowdsourcing gains traction the benefits of reaching individuals via the internet as a tool for funding in art and heritage projects are easy to see.  But before hitting the donate button, contributors should be sure that the organization they intend to contribute to actually does the things that it tells its supporters it does in its donation solicitation. 

By adopting a “truth in advertising” approach, potential donors who love science and modern alternating current electricity or religion and the bible should not be afraid to demand a breakout of how their donations will being put to use.  Charitable organizations have administrative costs, but those who subscribe to the basic tenet of ethical fundraising and accountability should be willing to provide their donors with a breakdown of how much of their donation will be used for the specific cause advertised and how much will be used for other ancillary things. 

Before giving even small sums, donors should start out with a healthy dose of skepticism and look for signs that the organization dedicates its funding in ways that are consistent not just with the museum's fiscal needs but with the donor's own ascribed ethics.  If a donation request comes from a group claiming to care about heritage or the world’s cultural history, a first and simple step might be to spend some time searching the internet to see what the group represents itself to be and who it is affiliated with.  

If your search turns up concerns or questionable ties, and if there is a chorus of people saying there are problems with the organization that need to be addressed then it's probably best for the donor to give his or her $10 to someone they know is truly needy and not just harnessing the potential of the web. 

November 4, 2015

Wednesday, November 04, 2015 - ,,, No comments

Recap: Erasing the Past: Da’esh and the Crisis of Antiquities Destruction

Mairead McAuliffe
Wellesley College
Class of 2016

On September 24, 2015, Wellesley College hosted a conference entitled, Erasing the Past: Da’esh and the Crisis of Antiquities Destruction. Jointly sponsored by the College’s History and Religious Studies departments, the conference hosted a group of international scholars, cultural heritage specialists and journalists who reflected on the scope of the continuing crisis in Iraq and Syria. The conference participants provided grounded and informative commentary on the Islamic State’s use of social media to circulate messages of violence, power and ruthlessness. The topics of the conference sessions provided attendees with a sense of the regions’ cultural devastation and ideas as to how the identities of these peoples can be protected and restored. 

I had the opportunity to attend two of the conference’s sessions. Professor Morag Kersel of DePaul University’s Anthropology Department presented on the topic of antiquity looting. She ultimately argued that preventing antiquity looting in the future would require behavioral change, as opposed to continued law enforcement. Kersel contended that advocacy campaigns have been successful in the past, such as the campaign to shame individuals who fashion animal skins and furs or collectors of ivory objects. She believes that society at large should render looting as antisocial behavior. According to Kersel, encouraging the general public to actively engage in this type of moral marketing would corrode the attractiveness of and participation in this trade. 

I also attended the presentation of Professor Patty Gerstenblith of DePaul University’s College of Law regarding the abilities and limitations of international law in the context of cultural heritage preservation  first multilateral treaties that addressed the conducts of warfare 

.  Professor Gerstenblith discussed the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907,  the first multilateral treaties that addressed the conducts of warfare negotiated at two international peace conferences at The Hague in the Netherlands.  The 1863 Lieber Code, signed by President Abraham Lincoln during the United States’ Civil War, guided these conventions and ultimately yielded regulations for wartime conduct that prohibited both the pillage, seizure and damage of cultural heritage and the requirement that sites be marked with a distinctive sign. 

Professor Gerstenblith highlighted, however, that the ratification of these treatises is voluntary, therefore many of these regulations are useless when not enforced, and war crime tribunals are only applied to the defeated – not to the victors. Professor Gerstenblith argued, therefore, that the most successful approaches to cultural heritage preservation involve the training of local people in the logistics of protection and the training of the military. 

I also had the opportunity to speak with some of the panelists during the conference lunch break. I asked the presenters what they believe to be missing from the mainline news outlets regarding the topic of cultural heritage protection in the Middle East. Professor Patty Gerstenblith and Charles Jones of Penn State University both agreed that accuracy and precision were missing from the discussion.  Jones lamented the fact that much of the looted material is undocumented, therefore the world will never know, nor will it see, objects that have been stolen or destroyed. He highlighted that such devastation negatively affects education and scholarship. 

Prof. Gerstenblith observed that the media is only interested if such devastation is linked to ISIS and its ruthless behavior. She stated that little emphasis is placed on art in times of war and oftentimes its destruction is excused for military purposes. She argued that the actions of ISIS in the Middle East constitute cultural genocide. The group’s leaders seek to “tear down reminders of the Assad Regime,” that is, their tangible national symbols. Dr. Salam al-Kuntar of the University of Pennsylvania’s Anthropology Department, offered similar sentiments saying that the media’s largest focus is on ISIS and its brutish behavior, as opposed to the state of Aleppo because its stories are “more of the same, there is nothing new to report.” 

I also asked what they would say if they had the ability to relay one thing about the Erasing the Past conference to the greater public. Professor Gerstenblith said that, if anything, this conference, with its abundance of panelists and sessions, highlights that this topic is “more complicated than we realize.” Charles Jones also commented on the variety of speakers saying that these events and discussions attract “new people each time” indicating a “raised consciousness” and the positive power of PR in escalating issues of cultural heritage protection. Finally, Dr. al-Kuntar said that this conference, among others, demonstrates the “efforts of academics and scholars in understanding the complexities of cultural heritage preservation.” 

Ultimately, the conference yielded productive conversation regarding all aspects of the intricacy of cultural heritage protection during times of crisis. The conference also exhibited the lack of clear protocol regarding actions that can be taken to achieve successful preservation. However, the passion, interest and intellect of the conference participants provide hope in the creation of such a protocol that would coordinate the protection not only of the material objects and symbols of a people, but also of the physical markers of culture, nation and identity.