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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. 

November 1, 2015

The National Parks Vandalism: The Case Against Casey Nocket a.k.a. Creepytings and Others

One year ago, October 21, 2014 to be precise, Casey Schreiner, founder and editor-in-chief at Modern Hiker, broke the news of a New York hiker who was the primary suspect in a string of vandalism cases defacing rock outcrops at national parks in the western United States.  The woman under investigation by the National Parks Service, Casey Nocket, went by the pseudonym tag "Creepytings" and had documented her travels in acrylic paint, creating what is known in street art terms as "a character".  

A character is a writer's signature or visual shorthand often used to immediately identify the creator of the image. Nocket memorialised her trip out west by applying her signature character on surfaces in many federally protected locations along with a bathroom toilet or two along the way.  She then shared photographs which depicted her handiwork to followers on her Instagram and Tumbler accounts. 

As word spread through the hiking community, activists began documenting the damages either at the historical sites themselves or through electronic traces Nocket had left behind on her social media accounts. According to the US Code of Federal Regulations, it is prohibited to destroy, injure, deface, or damage national park property. Vandalism of national parks in the United States is generally categorised as a federal misdemeanour, and is punishable by three to six months in prison and a modest fine of up to $500.

As Nocket became aware of the spreading community outrage against her, she quickly removed her incriminating photos from the social media sites, but not before numerous screen shots of her character or photos of herself in action defacing federal lands had been captured and published on Modern Hiker at numerous historic locations, including

From Creeptings Tumblr
Sept, 16, 2014
•Canyonlands National Park
•Colorado National Monument
•Crater Lake National Park
•Telescope Peak within Death Valley National Park
•Joshua Tree National Park
•Rocky Mountain National Park
•Yosemite National Park
•Zion National Park

Subsequent to initial reports more graffiti, likely attributed to Nocket, were also discovered at

•Bryce Canyon National Park
•The Grand Canyon National Park
•Carrizo Plain National Monument
•Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
•Sequoia National Park

On October 29, 2014 t
he US National Park Service released a press report citing that Nocket had been identified as the primary suspect in the vandalism cases involving the first eight sites. The park service also stressed that helpful citizens should not attempt to remove the acrylic graffiti as in doing so, they might inadvertently create further damages.  The Park Service also indicated that documenting some of the specific incidences of the vandalism was time consuming due in part to weather conditions at some of the more remote locations. In September National Parks Traveler confirmed via the Chief of Public Affairs and Chief Spokesperson for the National Parks Service, April Slayton, that an investigation was still ongoing in the Nocket case but failed to elaborate further on reasons for the protracted delay.

Why has Nocket's tagging history for posterity case been dragging along so slowly?

The answer may lie with the fact that Nocket chose to leave her indelible footprint on rocky outcrops in national parks, whose territories cover Utah, Colorado, Oregon, California and Nevada. The cost-benefit calculus of prosecuting a misbehaving tourist for misconduct on federal land is complicated by the multiple jurisdictions where her misdeeds occurred.  For the last decade, cases involving immigration, drugs, fraud, or firearms in the United States have been the dominant federal criminal cases and make up the vast majority of felonies and Class A misdemeanours prosecuted at the federal level.  It may not ultimately be worth an assistant US Attorney's time or the governments financial resources to scrutinise a single offender with a minimal likelihood of recidivism when the costs outweigh any punishment they could possibly impose given the limitations of existing laws.  If this case does prove to be worth pursuing, the government and US Park Service will likely need to rely on experts in multiple states who can quantify the damages to all the sites involved, including the remote ones.

Image Credit: Modern Hiker
And example of a faster moving case, perhaps because it was restricted to a single location, or in light of the tagger's notoriety, is the recent vandalism case of Andre Saraiva, a Swedish-Portuguese street artist once featured in Banksy's documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop.  Saraiva's signature character normally consists of a stick-figure with a top hat, known as Mr. "A". In February 2015 he tagged a boulder in Joshua Tree National Park with an “OX”, the street artist's shorthand, reprsenting his trademark “Mr. A's” eyes.  The tag, or signature, stood for his initials.  Two months later, the piece had been removed and to put the case behind him Saraiva quickly paid the government's $275 fine for defacing the geology of a national park.  

In another recent case former Boy Scout leaders, Glenn Tuck Taylor and David Benjamin Hall, known as Utah's goblin topplers, pushed over a 20 million year old rock formation in Goblin Valley State Park. Without considering the repercussions the two brazenly videotaped their antics and uploaded a copy of the film for posterity on Youtube.  

Caught red-handed, and again in one single jurisdiction, the muscle men were quickly charged and just as quickly agreed to pled guilty.  Ordered to pay $925 in court costs, $1,500 for the cost of the investigation and an undetermined amount to erect signs in Goblin Valley warning visitors not to abuse rock formations, Taylor and Hall's legal records will be expunged upon completion of their probation.  Too bad their video will remain in perpetuity.  

But has the publicity of cases such as these reduced this type of heritage crime? Apparently not. 

September 5, 2015 Julio Perez was charged with second degree felony and criminal mischief after starting to carve his name with a car key into a 250-year-old wall in the Monks' Burial Room at the Alamo, a recently designated World Heritage site. The tag is reported to be about three inches long and one inch wide and is likely to be costly to repair. The Alamo being just one of the many historic sites damaged by tourists annually who somehow feel adding their name to the property adds to the site's aesthetic. 

October 23, 2015 It was announced that Christopher James Harp was indicted by a federal grand jury for depredation of public lands and resources under 18 U.S.C. § 1361 for damages at Rabbit Island to a large rock outcropping in the Sequoia National Forest, once home to a large Tubatulabal Indian village. An archaeologist with the United States Forest Service detected Harp's handiwork, a graffiti sprayed with black asphalt sealer over a extensive area which in addition to defacing the physical terrain had also damaged a prehistoric petroglyph of a bighorn sheep.  In committing the offence, Harp told investigators that he wanted revenge against his boss, who had talked to him in a condescending manner. The graffiti, sprayed in drunken outrage, included a phone number inviting people to call his colleague for a sex act.   Native American rock art is protected by NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.  

The boundaries of street art: history or vandalism or when a tag becomes one or the other.

Street art is an ephemeral and amorphous form of art, usually in urban settings, that has developed a flourishing sub-culture all its own. Considered by some a nuisance or vandalism, for others it is a tool for communicating views, asking difficult questions or expressing one’s personality or political concerns.  

The legal distinction between destructive permanent graffiti and art is permission, something Creepyting didn't have when she defaced federal park lands, nor was she likely to get. The same for Saraiva, Perez, and Harp  But the topic becomes even more complex as contemporary unauthorised works of street art receive greater social approval and become prized in spite of, or in some cases because of, the unauthorised setting where the work is placed. Often, when the work is perceived as "not hurting anyone" or when the work in question is aesthetically pleasing, as is the case with street artists like Banksy, Blu,  or C215 the longstanding public approval of their artwork trumps arguments on legality or unconventional presentation. 

But by extension, both street artists or common graffiti doodlers do not necessarily believe what they are doing is wrong, even as they know that they are engaging in an illegal act of vandalism.   They may see or in many cases justify their expressions as explorations in identity, place and becoming and hope that they will be overlooked or with a little luck, be immortalised.

In other cases, those scratching their names into sites see merit in their graffiti comparing their added touches as something akin to the spirituality of rock art like the petroglyphs at places like Columbia River Gorge or the documentation of "being there" like the writing of early settlers at Willamette Valley who chronicled their time on the Oregon Trail by marking their passage on a hemlock stump in 1867.

Alamo historic tag
Image Credit:
The Alamo Shrine in San Antonio
Ironically, incised historic graffiti, was uncovered at the Alamo during restoration tests the theory of when tagging a building is perceived as damaging and a punishable offence versus when it is celebrated as providing us with a window into our historic past. In 2011, during an extensive cleaning, plaster and paint conservators found “1802,” “WVANCE,” “TEX” and either “54” or “SA” under layers of historic grime on a wall facing just above the main entrance to the site's church. Press conferences were held and academics researching the site used the markings to try and attribute who the tagger may have been and when he may have left the marks.  Was the date the time of his posting or the year of his birth?

Examples like these underscore how today's taggers draw similar comparison's, justifying rightly or wrongly, their similarity to, or borrowing from, the examples of public scribbling done by their forefathers. What often gives today's vandal's "permission" though, often is more simple; the low probability of being detected and therefore prosecuted and convicted.

The effects of copycats. 

But the fine line between street art and wrongdoing isn't always worthy of philosophical debate. Sometimes its fairly easy to judge when something should be avoided or is just plain wrong. A quick glimpse at the handiwork by Nocket, the goblin topplers or the hundreds of tourist names inscribed on the rockface below will demonstrate that some people just don't get the idea of leaving a place better than when you found it.

By: Lynda Albertson