December 19, 2020

Unsolved string of incidents at multiple museums, vandalising more than 100 objects, in Germany

Last October the museum world was shocked by mysterious vandalism of sixty objects in four hours at three prominent German museums on Berlin's Museumsinsel (Museum Island), the Pergamon Museum, Alte Nationalgalerie, and the Neues Museum.  On October 3rd of this year, the artefacts were splashed with an oily liquid.  Nothing more about the substance of the liquid has been shared with the media and it is unknown at what time the widespread vandalisation occurred. 

News of the attacks was not made public for more than two weeks after the damage was identified and a police report on the incidents was not published until October 21st, the results of which were brief and gave few little details:

“Unknown perpetrators attacked numerous works of art and artifacts in several museums on Berlin's Museum Island from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on October 3. The strangers applied a liquid to the objects and thus caused damage that cannot yet be quantified. The responsible commissioner for art offences in the Berlin State Criminal Police Office has taken over the investigation. In order not to jeopardize the investigations and research, the investigators decided, in coordination with the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, not to comment publicly on the event for reasons of tactical investigations and only now to address the public with a call to witnesses.” 

The vandalism occurred on German Unity Day, a public holiday which commemorates German reunification in 1990 when the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic were unified. It is, however, unclear whether the motivation behind the attack was political, as the incidents are believed to have occurred on the first day that the Pergamon and other museums reopened following a shutdown related to the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions earlier this year. 

Image Credit: Markus Schreiber-AP.  Friederike Seyfried, director of Antique Egyptian Department of the Neues Museum in Berlin, shows media a stain from the liquid on the Sarcophagus of the prophet Ahmose on Wednesday.

The criminal director at the State Criminal Police Office, Carsten Pfohl, has commented that they would not “engage in speculation” about motives behind these incidents as they have not been able to identify any of the perpetrators on the security footage.  No link has been found between the damaged artefacts at the three museums, and a full accounting of which objects were affected has not been made public, although it is believed to include an Egyptian sarcophagi, some stone sculptures, and painting frames.  

Image Credit: Markus Schreiber-AP News

The lack of concrete information regarding the motivations of the perpetrator(s) has led some in the German media to speculate about why the museums' artworks were targeted.  While the true motives of the culprit(s) remain to be determined, one theory proffered places blame for the damage on having been inspired by conspiracy theorist Attila Klaus Peter Hildmann.

Hildmann, a best-selling cookbook author, turned QAnon follower, has been wildly outspoken regarding Covid-19 who sees the coronavirus in connection with the planned introduction of a so-called “ New World Order. ”  He has also been vocal in his criticism of the Pergamon museum, launching protests and accusations denouncing it as “the throne of Satan.”  Hildmann has also made wild claims about night-time practices surrounding the use of the museum's reconstructed Pergamon altar, a Hellenistic Period (c. 200-150 BCE) altar to the Greek gods Zeus and Athena which was created in Pergamon, Turkey.

Calling the museum a "centre of global satanists and Corona criminals" he has implied that the alter (currently closed for restorations, has been used for human sacrifice.   In one of his accusations he referenced Revelations 2:12-13 which reads:

“To the angel of the church in Pergamum write:  These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.  I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.” 

While Hildmann has made no comment regarding his involvement in the museums' vandalism, he has tweeted links to articles which reference his potential involvement.  Hildmann has also made comments in the past encouraging his supporters to take action against the museum, encouraging them to storm the museum in August.  The deputy director of the museum, Christina Haak, commented that there had been many acts of vandalism over the summer, mostly limited to the exterior of the museum and involving either graffiti or torn posters.  

On October 21st the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation held a press conference and questions were asked regarding the potential involvement of Hildmann or his supporters.  Pfohl commented that the police suspect a single perpetrator but could not rule out the involvement of multiple people at this time.  He also commented that the participation of Hildmann supporters could neither be excluded, nor confirmed, at the moment.  

Image Credit: Markus Mayer, Flickr

As a result of the vandalism, an offer of aid in the restoration of the objects has come in from the Ernst von Siemens Art Foundation which has said that it will provide €100,000 to assist the museums. A spokesperson for the Berlin State Museums, who spoke with Artnet News  said that they were “very pleased about the fast and unbureaucratic support.”  The costs of the damage have not been assessed, but the funds will undoubtedly be needed. 

In November the German daily newspaper, Frankfurter Rundschau, based in Frankfurt am Main reported additional attacks at the Wewelsburg district museum in North Rhine-Westphalia and an attack in the Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam, as well as an earlier Mid July attack at the Wewelsburg district museum over the summer.  In the latter incident and similar to the attack in Berlin, employees discovered 50 objects which had also been damaged by an oily substance.  According to that newspaper, the liquid used in Potsdam and Berlin tested as being vegetable-based. 


By:  Lynnette Turnblom


Bibliography

Brown, Kate. 2020. “An Art Foundation Has Pledged €100,000 in Aid to a Group of German Museums Attacked by Vandals.” Artnet News. October 22, 2020. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/berlin-museum-vandalism-security-1917316.

Eddy, Melissa. 2020. “Vandals Deface Dozens of Artworks in Berlin Museums.” The New York Times, October 21, 2020, sec. Arts. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/21/arts/design/berlin-museums-vandalism.html.

Koldehoff, Stefan, and Tobias Timm. 2020. “ZEIT ONLINE | Lesen Sie Zeit.de Mit Werbung Oder Im PUR-Abo. Sie Haben Die Wahl.” Www.Zeit.De. October 20, 2020. https://www.zeit.de/kultur/2020-10/kunst-vandalismus-berlin-museumsinsel-recherche.

Kurianowicz, Tomasz. 2020. “Attila Hildmann: Pergamonmuseum Beherbergt „Thron Satans“.” Berliner Zeitung. October 21, 2020. https://www.berliner-zeitung.de/kultur-vergnuegen/attila-hildmann-pergamonmuseum-beherbergt-thron-des-satans-zerstoerung-museumsinsel-berlin-li.112933.

Morris, Loveday, and Luisa Beck. 2020. “Dozens of Artifacts Vandalized in Three Berlin Museums.” Washington Post, October 21, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/berlin-museum-vandalism-germany/2020/10/21/2cb1e194-1383-11eb-a258-614acf2b906d_story.html.

Nicholson, Esme. 2020. “Dozens Of Artifacts Apparently Vandalized At Berlin’s Museums.” NPR.Org. October 21, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/10/21/926200421/nearly-70-artifacts-apparently-vandalized-at-berlins-museums?t=1603358606430.

Oltermann, Philip. 2020. “Berlin: Vandalism of Museum Artefacts ‘Linked to Conspiracy Theorists.’” The Guardian, October 20, 2020, sec. World news. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/21/berlin-vandalism-of-museum-artefacts-linked-to-conspiracy-theorists.

“Weiteres Museum von Attacken betroffen” The Frankfurter Rundschau, November 20, 2020. https://www.fr.de/ratgeber/medien/weiteres-museum-von-attacken-betroffen-zr-90107022.html

“Zahlreiche Kunstwerke Mit Flüssigkeit Angegriffen – Zeugen Gesucht.” 2020. Www.Berlin.De. October 21, 2020. https://www.berlin.de/polizei/polizeimeldungen/pressemitteilung.1006830.php.


December 14, 2020

Voluntary Restitution of Indian Annapurna, the Hindu Goddess of food and nourishment, by University of Regina in Canada.

Image Credit:  Dona Hall, courtesy of MacKenzie Art Gallery
Figure of Annapoorna (Benares, India, 18th century),
artist unknown, stone, 17.30 x 9.90 x 4.90 cm.

An 18th-century murti of the Hindu goddess Annapurna, which was stolen from India over a century ago, will be returning home soon from Canada. Upon the discovery that one of the idols in their collection had been stolen from a shrine in Varanasi, India, the Mackenzie Art Gallery at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan reached out to officials in India to discuss restitution. 

The statue has been in the university’s possession since 1936 when it was donated by Norman MacKenzie, the namesake of the university's gallery. The sculpture remained unquestioned until 2019 when artist Divya Mehra was invited to host a solo exhibition at the Gallery. 

While doing research for her exhibition at the MacKenzie Art Gallery at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Divya Mehra discovered the statue’s illicit origin. Her exhibition, entitled, From India to Canada and Back to India (There Is Nothing I Can Possess Which You Cannot Take Away), "unravels the West’s obsession with simultaneously defining and consuming the histories and identities of other cultures. In this collection of reproduced, misclassified, staged, and stolen cultural property, Mehra deftly and playfully navigates complex networks of colonial entitlement, popular culture, art history, sacred objects, exotic adventurism, and novelty."

It was through her research in the university archives that she discovered the notes from Norman MacKenzie’s trip to India in 1913 which revealed that the idol had been stolen from a small sanctuary along the Ganges, procured indirectly at the behest of MacKenzie. At the time the sculpture was accessioned into the museum's art collection the idol was misclassified as a representation of the god Vishnu and continued to be labelled as such until Mehra began her research. 

When  Mehra recognized that the clearly female sculpture was not Vishnu, she consulted with Dr. Siddhartha V. Shah, curator of South Asian Art at the Peabody Essex Museum who revealed that the deity depicted was in fact Annapurna, also known as the Queen of Benares and Hindu goddess of food and nourishment. Upon the discovery of the illicit origins of the artefact the artist approached John Hampton, interim CEO and Executive Director of the MacKenzie Art Gallery, regarding restitution.  The university then took the steps to reach out to the High Commission of India to discuss the sacred object's return. 

The proactive and voluntary repatriation of an artefact is quite unusual in the museum world, with repatriation often taking years of legal discussions and cultural diplomacy between the cultural institution and the aggrieved nation. Mr. Ajay Bisaria, High Commissioner of India commented that "the move to voluntarily repatriate such cultural treasures shows the maturity and depth of India-Canada relations".

The repatriation ceremony was held virtually on November 19th, with attendees from the High Commission of India, Global Affairs Canada, Canada Border Services Agency, the University of Regina, and the MacKenzie Art Gallery. Dr. Thomas Chase, Interim President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Regina stated during the ceremony that "as a university we have a responsibility to right historical wrongs and help overcome the damaging legacy of colonialism wherever possible...repatriating this statue does not atone for the wrong that was done a century ago, but it is an appropriate and important act today. I am thankful to the MacKenzie Art Gallery, the Indian High Commission, and the Department of Canadian Heritage for their roles in making it possible."

Image Credit: University of Regina
Screenshot from Repatriation Ceremony

The university and gallery have affirmed that as a result of the discovery of the illicit provenance of the Annapurna idol they will be conducting a full review of the rest of their collection.  Alex King, the Curator for the University’s art collection commented that "the repatriation of the Annapurna is part of a global, long-overdue conversation in which museums seek to address harmful and continuing imperial legacies built into, sometimes, the very foundations of their collections. As stewards of cultural heritage, our responsibility to act respectfully and ethically is fundamental, as is the willingness to look critically at our own institutional histories."

This is undoubtably a step in the right direction for cultural restitution, but it is also a reflection of how little is known about museum collections.  Founder of the India Pride Project S. Vijay Kumar commented that "while the recent restitution is a welcome move it is pertinent to point out that a very distinct feminine sculpture holding a ladle and a bowl was displayed in an academic Institution since the mid-1930’s as a Vishnu. It shows how little of displaced Indian art in Canada has been properly studied. Further that the paperwork attested to its dodgy provenance was within the University archives shows the importance of reviewing provenance and due diligence not just for current acquisitions but for the past as well.  Museums in Canada have in general a very poor record in displaying collections let alone disclosing provenance publicly on their web sites and this is despite high profile cases linked to Subhash Kapoor and even prior that to the Pathur nataraja in 1980s.  We hope this good trend catches on and other public museums engage experts into researching provenance or as a start put the available provenance online."

Image Credit: Sarah Fuller
Courtesy the artist and Georgia Scherman Projects

As this Annapurna returns to India her space in the museum collection will be filled by a new piece by Mehra titled 'There is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away (Not Vishnu: New ways of Darsána)'. She spoke with ARCA about the new piece explaining that "the work is a small bag of sand — purchased at a Hollywood prop store (rich in Indiana Jones memorabilia) and artificially aged with coffee, and dye —weighing the equivalent (2.4 lbs.) of the stolen stone goddess of Annapurna that is no longer a part of the collection. The bag sits upon an altar constructed as if for a film set, in front of a ‘Jungle Vine’ painted backdrop. The work is based on a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark — where Indian Jones steals an idol off of a pedestal from an ancient temple. He leaves a bag of sand with what he guesses to be the weight of the stolen idol." The new piece is a reversal of the gap left in the cultural heritage by the antiquarians of the past, the bag of sand now being left at the museums as the statue returns to the place it was stolen. It can also be seen as a commentary on the idolization in the modern world for characters such as Indiana Jones, who treated the cultural heritage of other countries as prized objects to acquire, careless of the value it held to the people it was stolen from. 


By: Lynette Turnblom 

Bibliography 

Annapoorna Virtual Repatriation Ceremony. 2020. “Annapoorna Virtual Repatriation Ceremony.” YouTube. November 20, 2020. https://youtu.be/q769-baqiaA.

Hampton, John G. 2020. “Divya Mehra: From India to Canada and Back to India (There Is Nothing I Can Possess Which You Cannot Take Away).” MacKenzie Art Gallery. 2020. https://mackenzie.art/experience/exhibition/divya-mehra-from-india-to-canada-and-back-to-india-there-is-nothing-i-can-possess-which-you-cannot-take-away/.

“Statue from the University of Regina’s Art Collection Officially Repatriated to India in Virtual Repatriation Ceremony | Communications and Marketing, University of Regina.” 2020. Uregina.Ca. November 19, 2020. https://www.uregina.ca/external/communications/feature-stories/current/2020/11-19.html. 

“Statue from the University of Regina’s Art Collection to Be Returned to India Following Virtual Repatriation Ceremony.” 2020. MacKenzie Art Gallery. November 24, 2020. https://mackenzie.art/statue-from-the-university-of-reginas-art-collection-to-be-returned-to-india-following-virtual-repatriation-ceremony/.

December 11, 2020

Restitution: Cybele, the Anatolia goddess of Phrygia, finally goes home

Image Credit: Turkish Consulate General in New York

After a four and a half year stalemate in an international custody battle between a collector and the Turkish government, a marble statue representing the Anatolian goddess Cybele is finally flying home. 

Just before the start of the first intifada collector Eliezer Levin purchased the Cybele sculpture on 3 November 1987 during a public auction held by Matsa Co. Ltd (“Matsa”), run by the Archeological Center in Old Jaffa and its head, antiquities dealer Robert Deutsch.  Founded in 1979, the center on Mazal Dagim street was established by Deutsch to conduct auctions of archaeological material and other activities.

The provenance listed in the Matsa/Deutsch auction catalogue for the Cybele states that the artefact is: 

“From the collection of the late general Moshe Dayan, sold to a private collector.”
 
Moshe Dayan was an influential and controversial military leader and politician, whose influence over Israel was considerable.  Between 1951-1981, Dayan bought, exchanged, and sold antiquities, establishing a vast private collection, many of which were acquired through illicit excavations.  Known for his insatiable thirst for material, Dayan was hospitalised for three weeks in 1968 after being badly injured in a landslide while robbing a burial cave at Azur near Tel Aviv. 

Image Credit: The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures,
Volume 4: Article 5, 2003

Disbursed for the most part after the deceased general's death, suspect antiquities acquired by and through Dayan have found their way problematically into both private and public collections, most with little in the way of substantiated legal and ethical provenance. 

By 2016, Eliezer Levin had decided to sell the Cybele, and consigned her indirectly to Christie's.  In relation to its sale and eventual transport for auction in New York, the collector filed for the issuance of an export license which he received on 23 February 2016 from the Israel Antiquities Authority, the governmental authority responsible for enforcing the 1978 Law of Antiquities.  One day later, his designate shipped the sculpture to the auction house in Rockefeller Center. 

By the first of March, the IAA was notified by Interpol that Turkey suspected that the Cybele sculpture had likely been taken out of Turkey illegally.  Once it was determined that the statue had left Israel,  the IAA contacted the United States Department of Homeland Security - HSI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and advised them that the artefact was en route to the United States and that Turkey might be moving forward with a claim.

On April 18, 2016, the Turkish Consulate General in New York sent a letter to the auction house informing them that the Turkish authorities had reason to believe that  Cybele was “of Turkish [Anatolian] origin” and had been “taken out of the country illegally.”   In their request, Turkey rightfully claimed that Cybele is the only known goddess of Phrygia, the first kingdom in the west-central part of Anatolia, the territory at the heart of modern Turkey.  Pending a thorough investigation, the auction firm pulled the Cybele from its upcoming auction.

Eliezer Levin, through is attorney, filed a lawsuit on 21 February 2018 for declaratory judgment on the basis that the collector had acquired the sculpture and had maintained good title to the Cybele under Section 34 of Israeli Sale Law 1968.  His attorney at that time, Sharon Cohen Levin, with Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP argued that there was no basis for the forfeiture of the antiquity under the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, the United States Act of Congress that became federal law in 1983 which implemented the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.  

This in turn lead to the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Turkish Consulate General in New York to file counterclaims that the statue should be returned to Turkey.  Christie's in turn agreed to serve as, and is appointed by the court as, substitute custodian for the antiquity, holding it in their custody and control pending resolution of any outstanding legal claim of ownership.

While the story drug on, and legal claims worked their way through the court system, the Turkish authorities gathered expert and witness testimony building their case that the sculpture had similarities to other antiquities discovered during roadwork in the western Afyonkarahisar province in 1964.  This lead the Afyonkarahisar Museum Directorate to consult with residents of the area in which these similar objects were thought to be found who reported illicit digging at around the same time period.  

Turkish law enforcement, in turn, identified an individual with a criminal record for antiquities smuggling who had lived in the area of the illicit digging in the 1960s while one of the villagers questioned gave a sworn statement describing an artefact he/she had seen that matched the description of the Cybele statue.  Later, when shown a series of similar artefact images, this same individual was able to correctly pick the exported statue of Cybele from series of similar photographs. 

Image Credits: Turkish Consulate General in New York

Predicated on the preponderance of the evidence gathered by the Turkish authorities, Eliezer Levin stipulated to voluntary dismissal on 11 December 2020, withdrawing his claim for the Cybele concluding all cases in the US District Court in the Southern District of New York.  Packed up and placed in cargo for her return flight to Turkey,  once she is home, the Cybele is scheduled to be returned to Afyonkarahisar once the new museum in the area has been completed. 

The life of a trafficked slave as seen through the eyes of his trafficked funerary portrait.


Earlier this week ARCA talked about two suspect funerary portraits tied to the ancient city of Ostia identified in the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Tampa Museum of Art and a campaign by Italian Senator Margherita Corrado (5-star Movement) to revitalize Italy's attempts to return looted artworks back to their proper contexts. 

Given that a funerary relief should be seen not just for its aesthetics as an ancient art object but as a memorial for the person it was carved for, we thought to add a bit more detail to the man behind the plundered portrait, L. Caltilius Diadumenus, who lived the mid to the late century CE. 

Our portrait sitter was a Greek freedman. As a freed slave his epitaph reads: 

D.M / L. CALTILIO / VIXIR ANNIS XXXV /L. CALTILIUS EUHODUS / SENIOR LIBERTO / OPTIMO FECIT / L CALTILIUS DIADVMENVS HIC CONDITVS E ST 

‘To the souls of the dead, for Lucius Caltilius Diadumenus. 

He lived 35 years.  

Lucius Caltilius Euhodus Senior made it for his best freedman’.

But while the inscription directed by his wealthy patrician informs us about the passage of this slave's 35 year long life, from chattel to independence, during the reigns of the emperors Antoninus Pius or Marcus Aurelius, it is his portrait that shows the real evolution Lucius Caltilius Diadumenus' life underwent.

In ancient Rome inequality was an accepted part of life. Unlike Roman citizens, slaves could be subjected to corporal punishment, sexual exploitation, torture and summary execution.  Their status was so low that even a freed criminal had more rights.   

A male slave who had acquired libertas (freedom) was known as a libertus.  To achieve this status, Lucius would likely have been freed by his owner either in return for services rendered or by buying his freedom from his own earnings, if his owner had allowed him to keep money.  Given the grandeur of this monument, it is reasonable to assume that the two maintained a relationship after Lucius was set free. 

Why Lucius Caltilius Euhodus Senior considered him to be his "best" freedman, implying he had more than one, is unclear.  What is known is that he chose to honour his former slave by having the artisan depict him wearing a toga, the one-piece outer garment worn in public by male citizens in ancient Rome, remembering him as a citizen of society, who apparently lived out his free life in Roman society until his death in Ostia. 

Ostia Antica, the harbour city of ancient Rome,
from its early Republic days to the late Empire period.

Just think about that for a moment...  

Likely captured in some foreign war, and the subject of human trafficking, Lucius Caltilius Diadumenus lived his life, treated as property, during the Pax Romana in Ostia until he was able to claw his way out of the lowest social strata to freedom,  choosing to live out the remainder of his days (we don't know when his freedom was granted), alongside his former "owner" only to, again in death, be trafficked as property for a second time, offered for sale, first to the Kelsey Museum in Michigan and then to the Tampa Museum. 

December 8, 2020

Italian Senator Margherita Corrado commenting on two suspect Roman altars at the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Tampa Museum of Art

Last week Italian Senator Margherita Corrado (5-star Movement) signed a motion to create an organization to recover works of art that have left the national territory of Italy.  Signed by many senators of the Movimento 5 Stelle, the motion undertakes to create "a special independent body that has, as its institutional purpose, the recovery of works of art illegally removed from the national territory, activating all remedies and the legal instruments that the legal system makes available for this purpose". 

Her motion calls for Italy to look more broadly into utilizing a pool of experts with knowledge and experience concerning art and antiquities identified in circulation in the art market, as well as in private and public museum collections in order to establish strategies, both legal and diplomatic, to facilitate claims for art and artefacts whose origins are proven to be illicit. 

On December 4th Senator Corrado publicised a pointed press release via Facebook, calling out the J. Paul Getty Museum in California and the Tampa Museum of Art in Florida for having two altars of suspect origin. 

Screenshot cache: Tampa Museum of Art 

Although the find spots of these Rome artefacts are uncertain, they can be linked to the Caltilii of Ostia who built a temple and kept the status of cultores of an international religion involving Isis and Serapis in the port city outside of Rome.  At least one of the two antiquities the senator mentioned is known to have passed through the hands of Gianfranco Becchina who was accused by Italian prosecutors of being part of an antiquities trafficking network that involved tombaroli (tomb raiders) in southern Italy and suspect antiquities dealers and buyers around the globe. 

ARCA has printed Senator Margherita Corrado's statement in its entirety in Italian here as well as with an English translation of her statement below. 

COMUNICATO STAMPA

Due musei privati alle opposte estremità degli Stati Uniti, il Paul Getty Museum di Los Angeles (California) ed il Tampa Museum of Art (Florida), espongono altrettanti altari funerari in marmo risalenti alla prima metà del II secolo. Relativi entrambi a membri della gens Caltilia e allocati forse allo stesso sepolcro di famiglia, sono il frutto di scavi clandestini condotti ad Ostia negli anni ’70 del Novecento per essere poi esportati illegalmente all’estero. 

Nel merito, a proposito dell’ara oggi a Malibù, che reca i busti-ritratto dei coniugi L. Caltilius Stephanus e Caltilia Moschis, nell’archivio di Gianfranco Becchina è stata trovata la proposta di vendita (1980) ad un terzo museo statunitense fatta dalla sua Antike Kunst Palladion per conto di un collezionista svizzero, verosimilmente lo stesso che nel 1983 avrebbe poi ‘donato’ l’altare al Getty.

Quanto all’ara oggi a Tampa, che menziona L. Caltilius Diadumenus, riconoscibile nel busto-ritratto associato, e il suo liberto Euhodus, il portale ufficiale del museo asserisce trattarsi di un acquisto fatto con denaro messo a disposizione "dai collezionisti" nel 1991, dunque ben dopo la ratifica USA (1983) della Convenzione UNESCO di Parigi 1970 ma prima di adottare, nel 2011, una nuova "Collections Managment Policy", e rivederla ulteriormente nel 2013: una presa di distanza dell’attuale governance del museo dalla precedente strategia di incremento delle collezioni, evidentemente poco rispettosa della legalità. 

Con apposita interrogazione, pubblicata dal Senato in questi giorni, ho chiesto a Franceschini se sia a conoscenza “di indagini, eseguite o in corso, tese ad accertare modalità e tempi di acquisizione degli altari dei Caltili da parte dei musei di Los Angeles e Tampa”; nonché, “se intenda riferire quali iniziative il suo dicastero abbia assunto o intenda assumere per dimostrare ai due musei statunitensi, che oggi li espongono, l’origine ostiense dei manufatti e chiederne la restituzione sia sulla base della mancanza di prove attestanti la liceità dell’esportazione, mentre ne esistono per affermare che almeno una delle due arae fu immessa sul mercato statunitense da una società implicata nel traffico internazionale di reperti archeologici, sia, soprattutto, in considerazione della possibilità di acquisire meriti sul piano culturale restituendole al loro contesto d’origine, unico modo per accrescerne sensibilmente il valore documentale.”

[English Translation]

Statement to the Press

Two private museums at opposite ends of the United States, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California, and the Tampa Museum of Art, Florida, exhibit marble funerary altars dating back to the first half of the 2nd century CE. Relative to both institutions, two of these artefacts relate to two members of the Caltilian family, linked to the Caltilii of Ostia, perhaps taken from the same family tomb, as the result of illegal excavations conducted in Ostia in the 1970s and then illegally exported abroad. 

[Documents] regarding the altar on display in Malibu, which depicts the funerary portrait busts of L(ucius) Caltilius G(aiae) Libertus Hilarus and Caltilia L(ucii) L(iberta) Felicula can be found in the archive of Gianfranco Bacchina and include a proposal made out by his company, Antike Kunst Palladion, to sell the artefact in 1980 to a third U.S. museum on behalf of a Swiss collector, probably the same individual who, in 1983, then 'donated' the funerary altar to the Getty

As for the altar to be found in Tampa, which mentions L. Caltilius Diadumenus as the person who commissioned the funerary altar for his freedman, Euhodus, the museum's official portal claims that the artefact was purchased with money made available "by the collectors" in 1991, well after the US ratification (1983) of the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property in Paris but before adopting a new Collections Management Policy in 2011 and further revising it in 2013: distancing the current governance of the museum from its previous strategy of increasing the collections, which evidently was not very respectful of legalities.

With a specific question, published by the [Italian]  Senate in recent days, I have asked [Dario] Franceschini [serving as Minister of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism] if he is aware of "investigations, carried out or in progress, aimed at ascertaining the methods and times for the acquisition of the Caltili altars by the museums in Los Angeles and Tampa"; as well as, "if he intends to report what initiatives his cultural administration has taken or intends to take to demonstrate to the two US museums, which today exhibit them, the Ostiense origin of the artifacts and request their return both on the basis of the lack of evidence attesting to the lawfulness of the export, while evidence exists to affirm that at least one of the two altars was placed on the US market by a company involved in the international traffic of archaeological finds, and, above all, in consideration of the spirit of cultural diplomacy, returning them to their original context, whereby they can be studied in their rightful context."

November 19, 2020

Unpacking what has been made public in the investigation into the recently restituted Egyptian stela in the name of the Head of the Elders of the Portal of Hathor-Lady-of-Mefket, Pa-di-séna

Image Credit:  Facebook user "Art of Ancient"

This week a 2600-year-old looted stela in the name of the Head of the Elders of the Portal of Hathor-Lady-of-Mefket, Pa-di-Séna (French spelling) was formally restituted to the Arab Republic of Egypt.  The plundered Late Period antiquity had been seized in New York in route to the December 5 – 8, 2019 TEFAF art fair, which proudly holds up its vetting process as one of the main pillars of its success. Their process allows its buyers to acquire art with confidence, though this apparently wasn't the case in this instance, as this $180,000 dodgy Egyptian limestone carving somehow slipped through the nuanced hands of the vetting experts, not just in the United States but also in Europe in Maastricht.  

But let's start at the beginning. 

Somewhere around 600 BCE the Stela of Pa-di-Séna was crafted in Egypt during the Late Period, which began with the rule of Psamtek I of the 26th Dynasty. Psamtek I is credited with shaking off foreign control by the Assyrians in the north and the Kushites in the south, reuniting Upper and Lower Egypt following a long period of political fragmentation.


The artisan who carefully sculpted the 110 cm honorary stela so many centuries ago did so in painstaking sunk relief.  With careful strokes his design depicts the owner, Pa-Di-Séna, wearing only a kilt and standing expectantly on one side of a full table he has filled with offerings to three deities  On the opposite side, the most prominent god is Osiris, accompanied by the falcon-headed Horus, and the goddess Hathor, who wears her traditional headdress of cow horns and a sun disk. 

The Stela of Pa-di-Sena would remain where it belonged, at Padisena’s tomb, back in Egypt, as a monument to the tomb's deceased, until after Egypt's Arab Spring, when a series of anti-government protests, uprisings, and armed rebellions spread across the country, and later to other parts of the Arab world.  During this period Egyptian authorities reported a significant uptick in heritage looting.

In 2012, the Manhattan D.A.’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit first got a whiff that the illicitly excavated Stela of Pa-di-Séna was being shopped by the same international smuggling network that had also trafficked the ancient gold mummiform coffin, inscribed in the name of Nedjemankh.  That spectacular trafficked antiquity was sold with fraudulent provenance documentation and export licenses to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was restituted to Egypt thanks to the work at the DA's office in October 2019.   

Shaaban Abdel-Gawad - Head of the Egyptian Department of Repatriation
Image Credit: Egyptian Department of Repatriation,
Ministry of Antiquities-Arab Republic of Egypt

Conversations between the smugglers involved in the trafficking network discussed the potential sale of a stela, but it was not until 2015 that the traffickers began exchanging photos.  In these, the artefact appears freshly looted, cracked and unrestored, with chip marks along the edge of the break, which strongly suggest that the looting was not only AFTER Egypt's antiquities laws, but that the break was intentional, perhaps to ease the transport from the looting site or when smuggling the piece abroad, dividing it into smaller sections that might be harder to detect. 

But in 2015, the Stela of Pa-di-Séna's location was outside the Manhattan office's jurisdiction. 

By 2016, far from its Egyptian tomb, the Stela of Pa-di-Séna surfaced on the antiquities market for the first time in the hands of Christophe Kunicki who published the stela on his website.  The stela then made its first appearance on the public stage in Paris, with La Gazette de l'Hôtel Drouot announcing the offering on May 25th with Pierre Bergé & Associés and Christophe Kunicki listing the estimated sale price at €50,000-60,000.  

Along with this relatively low figure for an ancient and rare Egyptian object, the provenance presented by the sellers was the same as that used for the looted Golden Coffin in the name of Nedjemankh:

"Old Habib Tawadros collection. German collection, acquired in 1970."  

Not to worry, despite the vague provenance, the Stela of Pa-di-Séna was snapped up anyway.  More importantly, it brought its middlemen almost three times the auctioneer's presale estimate.  This despite the fact that the object came with fabricated ownership records and falsified export documents attributed to the Egyptian authorities dating back to the 1970s.  Documents, it should be said, the seasoned purchaser who purchased the stela also readily accepted, despite marked incongruencies and factual errors which, as a purported expert, he should have easily recognized.

Screetshot: Sales results 25 May 2016
Pierre Bergé & Associés 

The 1970 provenance date on the falsified records is important as Egypt only enacted Law No. 117 "on the Protection of Antiquities" on 06 August 1983.  Article 1 defines an antiquity as "any movable or immovable property that is a product of any of the various civilizations...to a point one hundred years before the present and that has archaeological or historical value or significance as a relic of one of the various civilizations that have been established in the land of Egypt." Article 6 vests ownership of such property in the Egyptian state: "All antiquities...shall be deemed public property, and the ownership, possession and disposition of them shall be subject to the terms and conditions set forth in this law and regulations made thereunder." Article 7 states that "[a]ll trade in antiquities shall be prohibited as from the date of coming into force of this law." Finally, Article 9 prohibits the export of any antiquities: "no antiquity is to be taken outside the country."

So by 1970, had the paperwork been authentic, the new owner would have been in the clear.  

After its first purchase and by 2017, the Stela of Pa-di-Sena was being offered by C.E.C.O.A., I.A.D.A.A., and S.N.A member Galerie Cybèle in Paris, who apparently took the antiquity's made-up provenance, as supplied to Pierre Bergé by Christophe Kunicki, as the gospel truth.  All it would have taken for this gallery owner to have himself unmasked the deception, is to have done his due diligence. Had he inspected the export documents provided with any reasonable level of inquiry, he would have immediately understood the documentation accompanying the artifact was clearly and demonstrably fraudulent.  

But buyers looking to purchase the stela at TEFAF from Galerie Cybèle could rely on the calming statement provided by the president of one of the gallery's dealer associations, who says: the members of IADAA trade in ancient objects from private collections that have been on the market for decades, or even centuries.  Mr. Geerling also reassures potential collectors, saying: 

Our organisation, established in 1993, represents the top international dealers in Classical, Egyptian and Near Eastern ancient art. Our prime function is to facilitate good relations between the trade and museums, collectors, archaeologists and government agencies. We work with law enforcement and others to prevent crime and campaign vigorously for an open, legitimate trade operating under fair regulations. We firmly believe that the preservation of the relics of man’s ancient past is the responsibility of all.

Our members adhere to the highest professional standards as set out in our stringent code of ethics. They have therefore been well placed to understand and tackle issues of provenance that have become prevalent in recent years. Our members undertake due diligence as a matter of course and are obliged to check every object with a sales value over €5,000 with INTERPOL Database of Stolen Art or the the Art Loss Register. Your dealings with any member of the association can be made with the utmost confidence.

By utmost confidence, I assume President Geerling meant plausible deniability. One really doesn't have to dig very deeply to determine the stela's documentation was fraudulent, something the Manhattan D.A.'s office, with the help of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities easily substantiated.

Despite all this, the owner of Galerie Cybèle took the stela to New York twice.  The first time in 2018 when it was highlighted by TEFAF in their "meet the expert" video complete, it seems, with small amounts of dirt incrustations left from recent excavation still visible in this close-up video of the artefact. 

It also was exhibited at TEFAF Maastricht in 2019 when forensic antiquities researchers noted again that the he suspect provenance, mentioned the same suspicious Luxor dealer, Tawadros (sometimes spelled Todrous and Tadross)associated with the Manhattan D.A.'s office's earlier seizure of the golden coffin. 

Despite this, the antiquity still didn't seem to arouse the suspicions of either its vendor or the vetters at Europe's premier art fair, both of whom are supposed to have their client's interests at heart, and both of whom appeared to be more focused on the object's authenticity, than the fact that it was ripped out of the ground at some point following the civil unrest in Egypt.  

Image Credit:
MasterArt Directory
2017

Flash forward to Autumn 2019, when the stela was scheduled to come back to Manhattan for the last time. On 19 October 2019 the Manhattan District Attorney's Office formally initiated a grand-jury investigation into this specific artefact and asked the Honorable Althea Drysdale to issue a seizure order providing her with evidence based upon their exhaustive multi-year investigation.  It was once this seizure order was signed that the process of returning the ancient object to its lawful owner, the Arab Republic of Egypt could truly begin.  

As a result of the identification of the Stela of Pa-di-Séna, as well as the identification of the ancient gold mummiform coffin, inscribed in the name of Nedjemankh, two important artefacts, both handled by the same chain of coinvolved, go home to Egypt. 

But who, if anyone has been charged? 

In relation to this case, law enforcement authorities in France detained five individuals in June 2020, based on investigative evidence related to both the Stela of Pa-di-Séna and the golden coffin of Nedjemankh.  All were brought in for questioning in relation to the network law enforcement in France and New York had identified as having trafficked in antiquities from conflict, and post-conflict, countries which were then laundered through the French ancient art market.  In August, a sixth individual, Roben Dib, who is connected to both sales, was also arrested in Hamburg, Germany.

Back in France, Galerie Cybèle, who has cooperated with the Manhattan D.A.'s office, has filed a lawsuit in the Paris courts to recoup the losses incurred in the purchase of the Stela of Pa-di-Sena. In it, they name the consignor, Nassifa el-Khoury, the mother of Roben Dib.  Dib is a manager of Dyonisos Gallery in Hamburg, Germany, an ancient art gallery owned by Serop Simonian. Both Dib and Serop Simonian have previously been the subject of criminal investigations in multiple countries, resulting in the seizure of hundreds of pieces of stolen cultural property

In light of all that, on 18 November the Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr. and his team lead by Matthew Bogdanos, formally handed over Stela of Pa-di-Séna to the people of Egypt during a repatriation ceremony attended by Ambassador Dr. Hesham Al-Naqib, Egyptian Consul General in New York and U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (“HSI”) Deputy Special Agent-in-Charge Erik Rosenblatt.  Shaaban Abdel-Gawad, Director General of the Department of Repatriated Antiquities at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, said that the stela is scheduled to return to Egypt soon.

Unfortunately, we may never know where the plundered tomb of Pa-di-Séna was.  But at least the Egyptians and its Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities can take comfort that investigations into the objects moved by this trafficking ring continue, in Manhattan, in Egypt, and elsewhere.

By:  Lynda Albertson

"Provenance Research Today" book release to debut at the International Catalogue Raisonné Association conference


On December 3rd a new book called Provenance Research Today: Principles, Practice, Problems is being released by Lund Humphries, an independent imprint which publishes books on art, architecture, and design.  The book is divided into five sections with articles written by 20 contributors including book editor Judge Arthur Tompkins.  Judge Tompkins is a District Court Judge based in Wellington, New Zealand.  This is the third book he has worked on with Lund Humphries, the first being Art Crime and Its Prevention: A Handbook for Collectors which he also edited, and his own book, Plundering Beauty all of which deal with the subjects of art, crime, and plunder.  

Judge Tompkins was nice enough to talk with us about this upcoming book, giving us some further insight into the topic of provenance research.  We first asked what brought about the desire to develop a book on the topic of provenance; he stated that the idea first began during the process of writing his book Plundering Beauty saying that his research “triggered a realisation that the 'social life' of an artwork - where it had been, who had had it, how it got to where it now is, and all the twists and turns along the way - is always an unavoidably intrinsic part of a work of art, and cannot properly be ignored or overlooked when looking at or discussing or researching a work.”  

The first two sections of the book will delve into the ‘History, Purpose, and Challenges of Provenance Research’ and ‘Best Practices in Provenance Research’.  One of the challenges of provenance research today is that in the past it was often unnecessary, or even undesired, to ask for provenance details in the art world, and as such large institutions and collectors have many pieces with no known history.  

Building a provenance from nothing is a daunting prospect and the advice Judge Tompkins gives to institutions wishing to fill in the blanks in their collections is simply to “do the work!  Go down into the basements and the storage rooms and the off-site warehouses and blow the dust off and open the files, open the cupboards, pull out the drawers to see what's there, and then sit down and work out how it got there ... But I understand entirely that limited and stretched budgets, and limited time, conspire to make that difficult. Good provenance work is careful, detailed, painstaking, and time-consuming, and diverts resources of all kinds from other compelling demands on those same scarce resources.”  The difficulties of solving the mystery behind long-held pieces of art often fall secondary to the more pressing concerns of new acquisitions.   

The third section of the book discusses ‘Provenance Research, Museums, and the Art Market’.  The topic of proper provenance research and the art market is still a controversial issue.  Many auction houses do not require provenance history for their pieces.  We asked Judge Tompkins what he felt could be done to encourage better practice from institutions in this field.  His advice was directed towards buyers and collectors as he asks them to “ignore pieces offered for sale without a full and proper provenance.  If such offerings are publicly highlighted and appropriately criticized, and then remain unsold (if not pulled from sale before being offered), then gradually vendors will be compelled both to research their own holdings and to make provenances public.”  At the end of the day, the disapproval of the academic community will not mean as much to them as the loss of income from suspect pieces with no previous collection history, that buyers walk away from. 

The final two sections deal with two of the areas which are most complex to deal with in the world of provenance research today: ‘Nazi-era Provenance Research’ and ‘Provenance Research and the Illicit Antiquities Trade’.  We asked Judge Tompkins to elaborate on the issues faced with provenance research in these areas.  He explained that “with respect to Nazi-era issues, the relentless march of times inevitably obscures or conceals a lot of evidence, and institutional inertia (or an unwillingness substantively to confront and acknowledge a tragic past, although that is slowly changing) often compounds the problems.”  

The issues faced with the illicit antiquities trade are very different, he explained that “with respect to antiquities, any form of provenance is often completely missing, especially for plundered and smuggled antiquities deriving from looted archaeological sites, including graves, in war zones or areas of conflict.”  The end goal of provenance research in these two scenarios is often the restitution of the items to their proper owners, heirs, or country of origin.  

Because of Judge Tompkins’ legal expertise, we asked him what he felt was the biggest legal gap needed to overcome with regards to restitution.  He responded that “the irreconcilable inconsistency between how (to adopt a very broad generalisation) the common law and civil law worlds treat prior ownership and/or possession of a stolen work.  The common law world (including the USA, the UK, and Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) generally rule that a thief cannot convey good title, no matter what happens after the theft, whereas the civil law world (most of Europe and other Napoleonic Code countries) say that a genuine and honest subsequent buyer can get good title, despite an original theft.  Given that most legal issues involving an artwork have to be resolved in the national courts of the place where that artwork ends up, that can often be an insurmountable legal hurdle for a claimant to overcome - even if they know an artwork has ended up there, in the first place, which is often down to sheer luck.”  The process of restitution of artworks is long and complicated and continues to be an important topic of discussion in the art world.  

This book release coincides with the International Catalogue Raisonné Association’s annual conference on the 3rd of December which will feature a series of lectures on the topic of Provenance and the Catalogue Raisonné.  Given the current pandemic, the conference will be held virtually this year and includes presentations from twenty-one leading scholars and experts from around the world.  


The program will run from 10:30 AM to 6:30 PM CET with sessions on various topics including: A How-to Guide to Research Techniques, Restitution: Research Questions and Perspectives, the Legal, Moral and Ethical Implications of Provenance Research, Provenance in Museums, Artists’ Estates and their Approach to Provenance, and the Future of Provenance and the Catalogue Raisonné.  Tickets for the event are available through Eventbrite for £100, this fee is waived for ICRA members, students, and the unemployed.


Link to purchase book: Provenance Research Today.
 

Link to the book's Table of Contents.

Link to the ICRA Event info for: Provenance and the Catalogue Raisonné.

By: Lynette Turnblom

November 17, 2020

Three suspects in the burglary theft at the Green Vault have been arrested in Berlin.

Image Credit: Saxony Police

One year ago, on 25 November 2019, burglars entered the Green Vault (Grünes Gewölbe in German) museum within Dresden Castle in Saxony, Germany and smashed open exhibition cases using an axe. In only a few minutes, the precision coordinated team of thieves slipped away, having made off with an outstanding cache of jewellery, including the 49-carat Dresden White Diamond, the diamond-laden breast star of the Polish Order of the White Eagle, a 16-carat diamond hat clasp, a diamond epaulet, and a diamond-studded hilt containing nine large and 770 smaller diamonds, as well as its jewel-encrusted scabbard.  The thieves then fled by car, torching the motor vehicle used in the getaway to any destroy evidence they may have theft behind in its interior. 

Nine months after the burglary, clues surrounding the spectacular art theft, lead German authorities to investigate the purchase of SIM cards by members of a clan known to have been involved in a series of criminal offenses.  This week, authorities announced the arrest of three individuals from the Remmo clan, as law enforcement from  Saxony, as well as special forces from the federal government and the states of Baden-Württemberg, Berlin, Brandenburg, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia spread out to search some 18 properties in several districts. Officers focused much of their search in and around Neukölln, Kreuzberg and Gesundbrunnen, areas which are home to the fourth-largest ethnic minority group in Berlin. 

The Remmo Clan is made up of members of one of the grandfamilies of Lebanese-Kurdish descent who immigrated to Germany during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. Many moved to immigrant neighborhoods in Kreuzberg, Wedding, and Neukölln where this week's raids took place.  Some of these families originate with the Mhallami community, a cultural community with origins in the Mardin Province of Southeastern Turkey which had previously lived in Beirut, Tripoli, and the Beqaa Valley.

Members of this clan have been criminally conspicuous, gaining reputations for trafficking, racketeering and robbery, some of which have been spectacular in their execution. Their complicated family ties and property ownership structures, have made it possible for the tightly knit groups to launder money - and sometimes, but not in this case, have made it considerably more difficult for investigators to entangle who is involved and in what capacity. 

Previously, members of the Remmo clan were charged and sentenced in another audacious heist, which took place at the Bode Museum.  In that theft, the thieves made off with a 100 kilo gold coin on 27 March 2017 which has never been recovered and is believed to have been melted down

In July 2018 the Berlin public prosecutor's office and the state criminal police provisionally seized 77 properties, including apartments, houses and land belonging to members of the "Lebanese" Kurdish extended family "Remmo" worth an estimated 9.3 million euros.  These seizures were based on evidence that the properties was likely purchased with proceeds from crime using new rules under the German Criminal Code (StGB) and Criminal Procedural Order (StPO) enacted 1 July 2017.  Modelled after Italy's own organised crime laws on property seizure,  where the state may order the seizure of property that a person of interest is able to dispose of when the value of the property is disproportionate to the person’s declared income or economic activity, Germany's new law regulates the recovery of criminal proceeds and serves to effectively confiscate illegal proceeds from offenders or third beneficiaries who can be tied to proceeds from criminal transactions. 

According to an earlier article by Der Spiegel it is estimated that while that clans make up just four percent of Berlin's inhabitants, 20 percent of suspects in organized crime cases belong to one of the city's well-known clan groups.  The trio arrested this week have been charged with serious gang theft and arson.  

To learn more about the structure of the Berlin clan groups, German readers can read Ralph Ghadban's Arabische Clans: Die unterschätzte Gefahr.  Ghadban, who has spoken out about the criminal machinations of the Arabische Großfamilie clans which dominate Berlin's underworld, is now under permanent police protection, for his criticism of the clans and the power of the Lebanese mafia in Europe. 

For the moment Saxony police have not named the individuals arrested, nor indicated that any of the stolen jewelry, pictured below, has been recovered.  


Update: 

Newspaper Bild has named 23-year-old Wissam Remmo as one of the arrestees in  connection to the Green Vault burglary.  Well known to the authorities, he has already been convicted of robbery twice. Most recently in February 2020 in relation to the Bode Museum theft.  In that offense Wissam Remmo and his brother Ahmad were sentenced to four and a half years in prison for theft.  In that investigation, a search of Wissam Remmo's smart phone showed an app used to calculate gold prices as well as recent searches on how to melt down chunks of gold. Given this, authorities have surmised that the €3.75 million coin was hacked up into smaller bits, melted down, and the proceeds distributed among an unknown or unnamed number of affiliates. 

Der Spiegal lists the other arrestees as Rabih Remmo and Bashir Remmo.






By:  Lynda Albertson

November 13, 2020

Exhibiting Absence: Introducing Samsung’s Missing Masterpieces

Bringing the wider public's attention to works of art that have been stolen or lost has been a long-standing goal of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art.  But when Samsung reached out to us earlier this Autumn to curate a group of missing masterpieces, to be exhibited on The Frame TV, we combed through more than a hundred of the world’s most iconic and intriguing lost and stolen artworks before narrowing our selection down to a choice and meaningful handful.  

Some of these paintings, despite wide press coverage, have been missing for years, others were stolen in extraordinary heists. Sometimes the works were stolen in more banal circumstances and the fact that they may never be seen again makes their loss all the more poignant.   One painting was the art world's first victim of the Covid Pandemic, stolen on the artist’s birthday.   Others are artworks we selected because we know they are cherished locally, but lessor known to communities outside the artists' home countries.  In whittling down our selection, we knew our list would not have been complete, had we not addressed the subject of precious works of art which are lost to the world's eyes forever, artistic casualties lost to mankind's wars. 


Harnessing Samsung's power of technology to connect people in the search to find lost art from the comfort of their living rooms was a key goal of the Missing Masterpieces exhibition.  Scheduled to run from 12 November until 10 February, during the holiday season, our combined objective is to keep the global community searching for these missing masterpieces while scrolling through films and programs.  It only takes one valid clue to change the course of an investigation and return a fabulous work of art to its rightful owner placing it back on the wall, in its proper setting. 

Museums normally tell stories through the objects they have in their collections.  Samsung's initiative will allow everyone to step into ARCA's empty museum, to engage and reflect, to see and to learn, not looking at the art we have, but rather, exploring the precious art we haven’t, in the hopes that they might be found.

To learn more about The Frame TV which functions both as a TV and a multi-media art platform blending into home décor please visit the Missing Masterpieces website here.

If you have tips on where any of these artworks might be you can share them on social media using #MissingMasterpieces, or please write to us at: 

missingmasterpieces@artcrimeresearch.org

All leads will be forwarded to the appropriate law enforcement authority.

November 9, 2020

Monday, November 09, 2020 - ,, No comments

Biggest Theft in Hong Kong History from Stamp Collector

Homes in Hong Kong, sitting empty this year as a result of the pandemic, have become a target for opportunistic thieves. According to statistics household thefts rose from 786 cases in 2019 to 1,156 cases in the first half of 2020 with unoccupied homes in the Chinese territory being particularly at risk.  In early September an apartment on Nathan Road in Yau Ma Te belonging to Fu Chunxiao was one of those targeted.   

The theft in the Yau Tsim Mong District in the south of the Kowloon Peninsula in Hong Kong was reported on September 10th when the building security guard observed that an iron gate to the residence had been pried open and the wood door to Fu's apartment left ajar.  Inside there were signs of ransacking.  Police found evidence of a forced break-in and security video footage of three men who appeared in their 30’s leaving the building.  According to police the theft did not seem to be the work of professionals and could possibly have been a crime of chance by someone who knew that the owner was out of town and that there were valuables inside the apartment.   

Fu mainly used the flat for storage of his vast collection of stamps and revolutionary art and was at his home in mainland China at the time his home in Hong Kong was hit.  The full extent of the items stolen and their value didn’t come to light until after Fu sent his daughter to assist in the investigation and provided documentation relating to the objects stolen.  

Fu is a well-known stamp collector as well as a member of the Hong Kong Philatelic Society.  In 2018 he loaned more than 200 of his collection to an exhibition of Mao related stamps held in Hong Kong.  In total, it is estimated that the thieves took 24,000 vintage stamps, 10 bronze coins, and 30 to 50 artworks including works of calligraphy, paintings and even seven scrolls attributed to the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong.  

The estimated loss of these items is between HK4-5 billion (€440-550 million), which would make this the biggest theft in Hong Kong history.  One of the most valuable of the stolen stamps is a 1968 Chinese postage stamp known as “the whole country is red”.  It is a very rare stamp and is one of only nine believed to remain today.  Another was auctioned off in 2018 for KH$15.8 million (€1.7 million).  It is one of the most expensive stamps in the world.  The stamp represents the political revolution of communism in China and shows a crowd of smiling citizens carrying ‘Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung’, known also as Mao’s “Little Red Book”.  The stamp also shows the entirety of mainland China filled with red, while Taiwan is only bordered with red and filled with white; this created a controversy at the time as China claims Taiwan as territory.  The stamp was immediately recalled from use and production, leaving only a few of them in existence. 

Image Credit: South China Morning Post

The first lead in the case came on September 22nd when an individual with the surname of Lin (Lam in Cantonese) surrendered himself to the police after learning of the theft and was arrested for the handling of stolen goods.  After searching his apartment Hong Kong police recovered two bronze coins and a calligraphy scroll, which had been cut into two pieces.  The scroll is said to contain poetry by Mao Zedong and was estimated to be worth HK$2.3 billion (€253 million) prior to the theft.  

Image Credit: Hong Kong Police Force

According to the investigation Lin had thought the scroll was a fake at the time he purchased it for HK$500 (€55).  The scroll was originally about 2 meters tall but had been cut in half in order to be better displayed. Fu commented that “It was heartbreaking to see it torn into two pieces,” and that “it will definitely affect its value, but the impact remains to be seen.”  

The recovered scroll was one of seven in Fu’s collection credited to Mao Zedong who was known to be a poet as well as a calligrapher.  Mao’s extensive calligraphic works inspired a new style of calligraphy known as “Mao style” which has gained popularity since his death in 1976.  The first work by Mao to appear in an international auction was a letter from Mao to the journalist Yang Yi which was auctioned by Sotheby’s in 2019 and sold for £519,000 (€574,000).  

On October 6th two further arrests were made in relation to the case based upon information given to the police by the taxi driver who picked the thieves up from the crime scene.  Two suspects were arrested in Yau Ma Tei, one known as Wu, age 44, has been charged with burglary and another known as Tan, age 47, has been arrested for harboring an offender.  It was only after these arrests were made that the police made the announcement about the recovery of the scroll, although the police are still looking for two further suspects.   No other items from the theft have been recovered.  

By: Lynette Turnblom