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August 28, 2020

When a work of art is particularly popular among thieves. "Two Laughing Boys" has been stolen three times.

On 26 August 2020 the beautiful Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden Museum in Leerdam, which houses a unique collection of 17th-century paintings, was struck by thieves.  As if three times is the charm, for the third time in a span of thirty-five years, an enterprising thief made his way into the Dutch museum and made off with the same painting.

The culprit(s) entered the museum by forcing open the back door of the museum at around half past 3 in the morning.  This, in turn, triggered the site's security system which automatically notified the local police authorities.  Unfortunately, by the time the dispatched officers arrived on the scene, the art thief was long gone. 

After a sweep of the Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden with the museum's manager, it was determined that the 1626 painting "Two Laughing Boys" by Dutch Golden Age master Frans Hals was the only work of art taken...again. 

Stolen the first time in 1988 and recovered in 1991.  The Frans Hals artwork depicts two boys, one of whom is glancing longingly into his beer-mug.  The painting was then filched for a second time on 27 April 2011 and recovered on 28 October 2011 after the group of accomplices tried to sell it.  

This week's third theft occurred strategically on the anniversary of the artist's death and makes it the second painting stolen from a Dutch museum this year.  The first being Van Gogh's "Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring" taken from the Singer Laren Museum on Vincent's birthday.

Dutch police are looking for witnesses to the break-in. If you or someone you know has seen or heard anything please contact the police on 0900-8844 or their anonymous tipline at 0800-7000 (free of charge).

August 25, 2020

Tuesday, August 25, 2020 - , No comments

3.4 million LiveAuctioneers users suffer at the hands of a data breach

On July 12 New York-based art, antiques, and collectibles online marketplace LiveAuctioneers gave their online auction users some bad news.  Their cybersecurity team confirmed, one month after the incident occured, that a recent cyber-attack on 19 June 2020 had allowed hackers to access data contained in the company's records.  That data included personal information from 3.4 million buyers and sellers including names, email addresses, mailing addresses, phone numbers, visit history, and users' encrypted passwords stored as unsalted MD5 hashes.  Thankfully sensitive credit card details were apparently not exposed to the data thieves this time around. 

While LiveAuctioneers disabled passwords on all its bidder accounts and advised users to follow the necessary steps to change any matching email/passwords on other sites, the time delay between the attack and the actual acknowledgment of the breach left many site users, on and offsite, at further risk for fraudulent transactions, identity theft and phishing via other platforms.  ARCA has learned of at least one purchaser, paying for an item purchased on LiveAuctioneers via Paypal, who inadvertently sent funds, later reimbursed via Paypal, to a third-party who was not the actual seller they assumed they were buying the item from.

The attack was apparently orchestrated by a hacker who offered the user data on a surface web hacker forum who apparently goes by the screen name Megadimarus and who listed his work title humbly as "God." Megadimarus is the same culprit responsible for the data breaches of dozens of other user data-rich websites and for those of you who want to delve further just google the pseudonym of this in-your-face-and-up-your-left-nostril attacker.

Yet, while it looks like LiveAuctioneers may have, like so many others, failed to adequately protect their user's data, the shocking truth is that oftentimes an individual's password in and of itself can be easily cracked even with salting if the salt is kept with the hashed password, as most systems do.  This is why, as a general rule people are prompted by more security-minded websites to not use weak passwords like ISolemnlySwearImUpToNoGood or FBISurveillanceVan or any combination of characters that comes straight from a dictionary and are more easily cracked.  It's also wise not to use the same passwords over and over again on multiple sites as breaches like these are far too common. 

In closing, I feel your pain.  Especially whenever I sign up for a new website with enhanced password protection protocols as my experience inevitably goes something like this:

WEBSITE: Please create your preferred password.
ME: klimt
WEBSITE: Sorry, your password must be more than 8 characters.
ME: gustav klimt
WEBSITE: Sorry, your password cannot have blank spaces.
ME: gustavklimt
WEBSITE: Sorry, your password must contain 1 numerical character.
ME: gustavklimtdiedin1918
WEBSITE: Sorry, your password must contain at least one uppercase character.
ME: gustavKLIMTdiedin1918
WEBSITE: Sorry, your password cannot use more than one uppercase character consecutively.
ME: GustavKlimtdiedin1918StupidContraryWebsite
WEBSITE: Sorry, your password must contain a special character
ME: GustavKlimtdiedin1918StupidContraryWebsiteGiveMeAccessNow$£%&!
WEBSITE: Sorry, that password is already in use.

By:  Lynda Albertson

August 11, 2020

Dying to get away with it: How one defendant's death may thwart justice for the people of Cambodia, Thailand, and India

Douglas Latchford's Facebook page photo
on 9 November 2017, two years
before he was indicted in the USA
Wire fraud,
conspiracy to commit wire fraud,
conspiracy to commit offenses against the United States,
and entry of goods by means of false statements.

These were the five related charges pertaining to the trafficking in stolen and looted antiquities that art expert Douglas A. J. Latchford, a/k/a “Pakpong Kriangsak” had been charged with in the 26-page indictment unsealed by the Department of Justice's U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York last November.  But since deceased persons cannot be prosecuted, the charges against Latchford will likely be dismissed by the court, once his death certificate, attesting to his demise on 2 August 2020, has been submitted to the court through his defense counsel.

Before the investigation into the smuggling and illicit sale of priceless antiquities from Cambodia, Thailand and India cast a long shadow over Latchford's activities, he was once considered a highly respected sponsor in museum circles, a person above reproach.  As such, his donations to the National Museum of Phnom Penh earned him a knighthood with the Royal Order of Saha Metrey Thnak Thib Badin, by the government of the Kingdom of Cambodia, an honor conferred with an award brooch, pinned primarily on foreigners who have rendered distinguished services to the King and to the people of Cambodia.

Apparently unaware of Latchford's role in plundering, Hab Touch, then Director General of the Department General of Cultural Affairs, now Secretary of State and high representative of Phoeurng Sackona, Minister of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts in Cambodia once said of Latchford:

“His gifts are very important because these artifacts teach the Cambodian people about their history...We hope his generosity will set a good example for others.”

Other pieces acquired directly or indirectly through Latchford's network also dotted collections at many important art institutions, where, at the time of their acquisitions, questions of provenance didn't seem to bother the museum's renowned curators.

Latchford is known to have donated at least seven objects to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York including the Kneeling Attendants (restituted), the stone head of a Buddha, and the bronze head of a Shiva, both from the 10th-century Khmer Angkor period.  He also donated four statues to the Denver Art Museum.

Other Latchford pieces found their way through direct or indirect sales and donations to US collections at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, the Denver Art Museum and the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth.  Yet, Latchford's purported acts of generosity were not just for USA museums' benefit.  His hands also touched objects lent to the Berlin Museum for Ancient Art and to the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam.

By 2012, the tracks of the looters of the tenth-century site of Koh Ker lead repeatedly to Latchford.  Identified in a civil lawsuit as a middleman in the trafficking of looted Khmer sculptures from “an organized looting network,” he was alleged to have conspired with the London auction house Spink & Son Ltd., to obtain false export permits for the temple antiquities he brokered.

Some of the incriminating evidence against the dealer relates to a series of brazenly written emails.  One sent on 23 April 2007,  which left little to no doubt about Latchford's level of direct involvement and knowledge in transnational criminal activity against cultural artifacts.

Douglas Latchford's Facebook
photo on 28 October 2017,
two years before he was
indicted in the USA
In that email, Latchford is reported to have written:

"Hold on to your hat, just been offered this 56 cm Angkor Borei Buddha, just excavated, which looks fantastic. It’s still across the border, but WOW.”

Attached to the same brazen email was a photograph.  It depicted a freshly (and clandestinely) excavated standing Buddha statue, still freshly covered in dirt. 

A Manhattan DA's complaint also asserted that Latchford contrived to traffic in antiquities that coinvolved another ancient art dealer under investigation, Nancy Wiener. Citing another email seized by investigators, Latchford reportedly told Weiner that he would give bronze statues to his colleague Emma C. Bunker, in exchange for false provenance.  Sadly, and as if facilitating the plunder of Cambodia and Thailand were not enough, Latchford is known to have purchased, a Chandrasekara Shiva, a Chola bronze idol, stolen from the Sripuranthan temple in Ariyalur district of Tamil Nadu through another bad actor in the art market, dealer Subash Kapoor,

The same Emma C. Bunker worked closely with Latchford writing three seminal volumes on the art of the Khmer people: “Adoration and Glory: The Golden Age of Khmer Art,” “Khmer Gold,” and “Khmer Bronzes.”  Flipping through each of these image-heavy books one can easily understand the pathway to profit involving the plundered and missing cultural patrimony of Cambodia.

Asked in a 2014 interview, who held most of the orphan artworks depicted in the books, Latchford was cagey.  He answered saying they were held by collectors who trusted him to keep their identities confidential, leaving many unanswered questions that this dealer now takes to his grave, as sadly, dead men tell no tales.

By:  Lynda Albertson

August 7, 2020

Friday, August 07, 2020 - , No comments

A thanks to our readership on Twitter and Facebook

Five days ago, ARCA's art crime and cultural heritage protection blog began experiencing problems on the Facebook Platform posting to a few key heritage groups where our blog posts were sometimes being censored as spam.  While it took us a while to realize that this was not a technical glitch on the platform itself, by Thursday our blog's URL was totally banned, even from our own Facebook page despite us not having violated the site's Terms of Service.  

This total ban eliminated years of previous post links and information related to the issues surrounding art crimes that we have covered and published on the platform in an effort to increase awareness and build capacity on combatting art and heritage crime. 

Finding it difficult to find a way to engage directly with any sort of "help" department within the social media powerhouse's platform, we sent inquiries through about twenty different channels, each of which gave bot replies thanking us for our concerns but in no way indicating that our messages would be read by a human.   We also reached out to our readership asking our followers to help us get the lights turned back on by echoing our concerns with retweets and by contacting Facebook directly on our behalf.   Hoping that perhaps with external voices of support they would realize we were ok. 

This morning at 09:45 Italy time our access was restored.

In the end, we have no idea what changed Facebook's mind.  We have never received any communication from the social media platform as to why we were censored in the first place, nor did anyone contact us to tell us that our access had been restored but for now it seems we have been white-listed. 

We would like to thank everyone who helped our voice be heard and who banged the drums loud enough that we regained our posting capabilities on the platform. ARCA has been writing articles on art crime and cultural heritage protection for more than 10 years and while we still do not fully understand why we were suddenly censured on Facebook, it seems that everyone's notifications helped get the situation reversed relatively quickly. 

Without your group voice, ARCA's art crime blog would likely still be banned. 

August 6, 2020

Thursday, August 06, 2020 - , 1 comment

An intimate snapshot of Beirut's devastation through a look at the Sursock Palace and Museum

The Sursock Palace ravaged by the double explosion at
the port of Beirut on Tuesday
Image Credit: Basel Dalloul
For fifteen years, museums in Beirut suffered during a war that divided the city, as more than a dozen warring militias fought over the division of political power in a society with eighteen recognized sects.  Located on the front line separating the fighting factions, the Beirut National Museum was one of the first victims of war.  

Image overlooking the National Museum of Beirut,
November 22, 1992.

Yet, in 2020, it was not factional violence between Christians and Muslims, Isreali or Hezbollah forces, or even Islamist terrorists which dealt a harsh blow to the city's museums.  It was a perfect storm of bureaucratic incompetence, as those in positions of authority apparently failed to address the bomb-in-waiting, left for 6 years in one of the city's portside warehouses.

When the 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate detonated, the Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum and the Sursock Palace, located a half-mile away in the Achrafieh district of Beirut, were right in its path, two of many historic buildings impacted by the explosion's spherical blast wave.  Once a fixture of Beirut’s art scene, the Sursock Mansion had once been home to Nicolas Sursock, the Lebanese philanthropist and art collector, who bestowed his property to the city of Beirut upon his death, with instructions to open his mansion as a public museum.

Well on the east side of the Green Line, the Sursock Museum stoically never closed throughout the country's civil war, remaining open until 2008 when in closed for much-needed renovations and expansion.  Reopening in 2015, after a $15 million makeover, the museum is home to the Fouad Debbas photographic collection and a large collection of modern and contemporary paintings, comprised of works by predominantly Lebanese artists, from the late 1800s to the early 2000s.  With a restaurant on its grounds, rotating art exhibitions, and concerts, the museum stood at the heart of the city's art scene, and was a prominent hub for the dissemination of modern and contemporary Arab art.

When the world lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Sursock Museum, with fresh curatorial vision, was keen to keep culture in the forefront.  Even while its doors were closed due to the virus, the museum remained relevant, releasing a virtual tour of one of its exhibitions, Baalbek, Archives of an Eternity, curated by Vali Mahlouji.  In this way, its patrons could remain safe and still engage with the museum's collections in the age of social distancing.

Having tentatively reopened in mid-June only to have to reclose due to the second wave of health-related restrictions, the museum's marvelous collection now lays in shambles, thanks to the port authority's excruciating and improper management. When the combustible agricultural fertilizer exploded, the museum's paintings and drawings were blown from their walls or left hanging in tatters, some pierced by the flying glass shards from the windows that once protected them.

The Sursock Palace 
There is no way, in one single blog post to adequately cover the devastation of the massive explosion in the Beirut port just after 6pm on August 4 which killed more than 135 people, injured thousands, and left 300,000 people homeless.

This is just one snapshot, of the damages inflicted on one cultural institution, which is suffering in its aftermath.

The Sursock Palace
Sursock Museum
Image credit: Marie Nour Hechaime, curator
If the museum and palace are to survive the Friends of the Sursock Museum will likely play a pivotal role in supporting its continued existence, and ensuring that the museum and palace collections can be conserved and eventually be accessible once again.

Framed painting at the Sursock Palace
For more information on how to become a friend of the Sursock Museum they can be reached here.

Sursock Museum
Image credit: Marie Nour Hechaime, curator

The Sursock Palace
For more information on how to donate to relief efforts via the Lebanese Red Cross, contact them here.

Maybe together we can help Beirut's citizens pick up the pieces.