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October 22, 2020

Thursday, October 22, 2020 - No comments

The sentencing of Congolese Activists Reignites the Sensitive Conversation of Colonial-Era Art Restitution

On June 13th Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza and a group of activists from the group Unité, dignité et courage (UDC) entered the Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac in Paris and after a brief stroll through the museum's galleries began a demonstration in the African art section where Diyabanza began by making a live-streamed speech denouncing colonial-era injustice and cultural theft. 

The demonstration then crossed the lines of legality when the Congo-born activist and another member of the group forcefully removed a 19th-century Chadian funerary pole from its display, which the activists have argued was originally stolen from Africa by French colonisers.  They then proceeded to carry the artefact through the museum while Diyabanza continued his speech on plundered African art. 

The activists were stopped before they could leave the museum, but charges were pressed for attempted theft of a registered artwork and the activists risked potential penalties of up to10 years in prison and a maximum of €150,000 in fines.

Screen Capture from a video of the activist Diyabanza, who has carried out similar actions in the museums of Marseille and Berg en Dal in the Netherlands. 
Image Credit: Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza-Facebook

The charges filed for the Paris incident did not stop the group from conducting other protests in other museums known to contain colonial works.  On July 30th the group entered the Musée Colonial de Marseille founded by Dr. Édouard Marie Heckel and removed an ivory artifact, repeating their march through the museum while live recording on Facebook, resulting in the group being arrested outside the museum.  

The third demonstration occurred in Holland at the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal on September 10th during which Diyabanza took a Congolese funerary statue from its’ stand and marched the statue out of the museum. The museum staff did not interfere with the demonstration in order to prevent any possible damage to the statue and allowed the group to leave the museum knowing that the police were waiting outside to apprehend the protestors.  The statue was subsequently safely returned to the museum.  

Screen Captures from the video of the demonstration
at the Afrika Museum In Holland
Image Credit: Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza-Facebook

The director of the Dutch museum spoke out against the group's claims for restitution saying, "these people claim the statue is theirs, but who are they themselves?"  The director went on to say that the museum has received and accepted formal requests for art to be returned in the past and stated "that is the normal way. Or through a government, but at the moment we have no claim whatsoever from the governments of Congo, Angola, or other African countries."  

The group faced trial in Paris early in October with tension high in the air and activist groups denied entry to the courthouse.  Diyabanza has defended his unorthodox form of protest, speaking of the artifacts,it is part of our history and of the inheritance our forefathers left us. This was not supposed to be on display here. We are not thieves who came to steal something. You don’t ask permission to take back what was taken from you, now do you?”  

Accused of “attempted theft” Diyabanza was fined €1,000 in the French Court for attempting to seize a funeral pole from the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac. Initially accused of attempted theft, he was convicted of aggravated theft, after describing his actions as a protest against colonial looting, not a theft, knowing he would be stopped.

Three other activists involved the French museum protest were given suspended fines of between €250-€1000 euro while a fifth activist was acquitted.   In meting out the sentences the judge hoped the fines would discourage similar actions informing the group that "you have other ways of drawing the attention of politicians and the public".  The group will also face trial in Marseille, France in November as well as in the Netherlands.

Authors of the 2018 report: Felwine Sarr (left) and Bénédicte Savoy (right)
Image Credit Alain Jocard

The topic of restitution of artwork acquired through colonialism has been discussed in France prior to these dramatic demonstrations.  In 2018 a report was commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron in order to assess and propose solutions for the restitution of pieces of African cultural heritage.  The report, entitled “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage.  Toward a New Relational Ethics”, details a three-step process on how best to move forward with restitution of objects obtained in an unethical manner.  Listed below is the report's recommendation for how to assess an objects’ eligibility for restitution:

Criteria for Restitutability 

The massive and continuous integration—over the past 150 years—of cultural heritage material from Africa into French collections leads us to a response in terms of the following schema in regard to the demands for restitutions coming from Africa: 

1. Restitution in a swift and thorough manner without any supplementary research regarding their provenance or origins, of any objects taken by force or presumed to be acquired through inequitable conditions: 
     A. through military aggressions (spoils, trophies), whether these pieces went on directly to France or whether passed through the international art market before then finding their way to being integrated into collections. 
     B. by way of military personnel or active administrators on the continent during the colonial period (1885-1960) or by their descendants. 
     C. through scientific expeditions prior to 1960. D. certain museums continue to house pieces of African origin which were initially loaned out to them by African institutions for exhibits or campaigns of restoration, but which were never given back. These objects should be swiftly returned to their institutions of origin. 

2. Complementary Research for pieces that entered into the museums after 1960 and those received as gifts or donations to the museum where we have a good reason to believe the pieces left African soil before 1960 (but which remained within families for several generations). In cases where research is not able to ascertain the initial circumstances around their acquisition during the colonial period, the pieces requested can be restituted based on justification of their interest by the country making the request. 

3. Preservation within the French collections of pieces of African art objects and cultural heritage where the following has been established:
     A. After confirmation that a freely consented to and documented transaction took place that was agreed upon and equitable. 
     B. That the pieces acquired conformed to the necessary rigor and careful monitoring of the apparatus in place on the art market after the application of the UNESCO Convention of 1970, in other words, without “taking any ethical risks”. Gifts from foreign Heads of State to French governments remain as acquisitions for France except in cases where the heads of state concerned have been ruled against for the misuse of public funds.”

The report identifies over 90,000 known pieces of African art in France, with 70,000 of them in the Quai Branly museum.  The report also gives a list of items that were recommended for an expedited restitution which should have occurred during the first phase of their recommended plan, which they state should have happened between November 2018-2019.  While 27 restitutions have been announced only one object has been returned, a saber once owned by Omar Saidou Tall, a 19th-century spiritual leader, and military commander was returned to Senegal on 17 November 2019. 

President Macky Sall of Senegal (right) received the sword of Omar Saidou Tall during a ceremony in Dakar
Image Credit: Seyllou/Agence France-Presse

The slow action of the French government regarding these restitutions has frustrated the authors of the report, with an estimate of 90-95% of African art being held in museums and institutions across the world Ms. Savoy has called it a “scandalous imbalance”.  The report ended with a poem by African poet Niyi Osundare, Africa’s Memory, stating that “It is at the heart of the subject that concerns us: the unequal distribution of African cultural heritage around the world, of its beautiful presence in Western museums, the gaps in memory as a result of its absence in Africa, and the responsibility of each and every one of us to assure the establishment of equity.”

I ask for Oluyenyetuye bronze of Ife
The moon says it is in Bonn
I ask for Ogidigbonyingbonyin mask of Benin
The moon says it is in London
I ask for Dinkowawa stool of Ashanti
The moon says it is in Paris
I ask for Togongorewa bust of Zimbabwe
The moon says it is in New York
I ask
I ask
I ask for the memory of Africa
The seasons say it is blowing in the wind
The hunchback cannot hide his burden

By: Lynette Turnblom


“Activists Released after Taking Statue from Museum in Colonialism Protest.” 2020. NL Times. September 14, 2020. 

BBC News. 2020. “France Fines Congo Activist for Seizing Paris Museum Artefact,” October 14, 2020, sec. Europe. Diyabanza, Mwazulu. 2020a. 

“Urgent Urgent en Direct de Paris Musée de Quai Brably Opération Récupération de Notre Patrimoine.” Facebook. June 12, 2020. ———. 

_____2020b. “En Direct du Musée Colobial de Marseille MAAOA, Récupération de Notre Patrimoine Culturel.” Facebook. August 1, 2020. ———. 

_____2020c. “Mwazulu Recupere le Patrimoine Africain en Hollande.” Facebook. September 10, 2020. 

Haynes, Suyin. 2020. “A French Court Fined Activists for Attempted Theft of a Museum Artifact. They Say It Belongs to Africans.” Time. October 14, 2020. 

Hokstam, Marvin. 2020. “Activist Who Removed Statue from Dutch Museum in Tireless Pursuit of Stolen African Art.” NL Times. September 28, 2020. 

Méheut, Constant, and Antonella Francini. 2020. “France’s Colonial Legacy Is Being Judged in Trial Over African Art.” The New York Times, September 30, 2020, sec. Arts. 

Nayeri, Farah. 2018. “Museums in France Should Return African Treasures, Report Says (Published 2018).” The New York Times, November 21, 2018, sec. Arts. 
_____. 2019. “France Vowed to Return Looted Treasures. But Few Are Heading Back.” The New York Times, November 22, 2019, sec. Arts. _____. 2020. “To Protest Colonialism, He Takes Artifacts From Museums.” The New York Times, September 30, 2020, sec. Arts. 

Niyi Osundare. 1998. “Africa’s Memory.” In Horses of Memory, Pg. 43. Ibadan Heinemann Educational Books. 

Reucher, Gabby. 2020. “Congolese Activist on Trial for Trying to Take Artworks from European Museums | DW | 02.10.2020.” Deutsche Welle. October 2, 2020. 

Savor, Benedicte, and Felwine Sarr. 2018. “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics.” November 2018.

October 19, 2020

5 looters have been arrested in Pella, Greece for conducting a clandestine excavation

Image Credit:  Greek Ministry of Culture

Five looters, aged 43 to 50, were arrested by law enforcement officers of the Department of Heritage and Antiquities Protection of the Thessaloniki Security Directorate after having been caught digging an eight-meter deep hole at an archeological site located within the prefecture of Pella.  Ancient Pella was the capital of the Macedonian state from the end of the 5th to the early 4th century BCE.

At the scene of the clandestine excavation, officers found tools which could be indicative of nighttime exploration as the team of looters were found to have in their possession, gloves, flashlights, batteries, disposable masks, and a variety of tools used to carry out their campaign. 

Later, during a search carried out at by law enforcement at the residence of one of the perpetrators, officers seized 28 ancient bronze coins from the Roman and Middle Byzantine periods, a bronze bead, and a ring, all items that fall under the country's laws on the protection of antiquities and cultural heritage.

Greece was the first nation to vest ownership of all of its antiquities within the state. In doing so, all cultural property, defined by its Antiquities Law is regulated by the government and must be registered on an official inventory that comprises objects of the Hellenistic, Early Christianity, and Medieval eras.  All cultural property, including objects in private collections or those belonging to a religious organisation are also the property of the State.  Lastly, the State maintains the rights to exhibit and exploit this cultural property, and thus any objects discovered, by accident or otherwise must be reported within 15 days to the nearest archaeological authority.

October 18, 2020

Regulatory Comparison: How is the 19th century merchant shipping scene similar to today's ancient art market.

East Indiamen Madagascar by Thomas Goldsworth Dutton (fl 1840)
National Maritime Museum Greenwich, London

A lesson from our regulatory past. 

The more ship you can see, the higher the vessel sits in the water.

The less ship you can see, the lower the vessel sits in the water.

If you own a ship, you make more money by transporting more goods. 

Logistically, ships sitting high in the water carry less cargo.  Those seen sitting low in the water carry more cargo. 

Either is ok when the ship is moored safely within a harbor and in most cases when the weather is calm. 

But when a large vessel sets out to sea, the heavier ship, sitting lower in the water, suffers from increasing drag as it moves. It is generally less responsive to steering making a heavily laden ship more difficult to manage in rough seas.  If an overly-laden vessel gets caught in a storm, it's easier for it to take on water and also to sink.

When ships sink, sailors and passengers drown and cargo is lost to the murky depths.  But the insurance fees paid out to the voyage's financers and ship owners were designed to cover such financial losses, so for the shipping industry, more cargo (still) equalled = more money.

That’s how it was in nineteenth-century Britain. 

A ship's crew and passengers might die, but the ship's backers and owners were still compensated financially through marine insurance.  Likewise, due to the booming trade market of the period, the demand for marine insurance created opportunities for profit for both the marine merchants and their voyage underwriters, who in turn profited from high premia which more than compensated the underwriters for the losses incurred when an insured merchant's vessel sunk. 

In 1871 alone 856 ships sank off the coast of Britain. Nearly 2000 sailors and an unknown number of passengers drowned at sea.  

Profit-driven, many shipping barons were unpulsed, more interested in how and when the merchandise got from point "A" to point "B".  More so, with the death of all hands on deck, it was sometimes impossible to verify or disprove events which had occurred in distant ports or on the rough open sea.  To them, the risk to human lives was not a particularly motivating factor to change the status quo of overloading.  Humans may have been drowning, but merchants and many of their underwriters were still making fortunes. 

Sailors often referred to these overly-laden vessels as coffin ships, a way to describe a ship that was overinsured and worth more to its owners sunk than afloat. To them, merchants turning a blind eye to the coffin ships represented the depths to which the merchants operating in the market could stoop.  

But despite their worries, it was an offense for a sailor to refuse to sail, and to do so could mean many months, or even years, in the gaols.  Such were the state of affairs that in 1871 alone, 1628 sailors, including two complete crews, were jailed for refusing to work on overladen merchant vessels.  For many, despite their reluctance and awareness of the awful toll on human life aboard such ships, desperation drove their decisions, forcing them to agree to work as the crew, making them part of an equation that valued commerce and merchandise over humanity. 

Despite the sometimes strident calls for help from worried seamen and the families of those lost at sea, the general consuming public seemed blindly unaware or disinterested in the problem.  That is apart from one man, Samuel Plimsoll, an English social reformer.

Plimsoll fought for a safe loading line on all ships to be passed into law on all English ships and asked for regulation to prevent the overloading of cargo encouraged by the ships' greedy owners.  Plimsoll's principle was based on one already known by seamen as far back as the Middle Ages.  Back then, ships from Genoa, Italy in the Venetian Republic, and the Hanseatic League, required ships to show a load line indicating how heavy the vessel was weighed down with merchandise. 

Yet Plimsoll's reasonable proposal met with powerful opposition and earned him the hatred of many shipowners.

Many of the most vocal members of parliament against reforms were these self-same shipowners and underwriters; men more intent on maximizing their profit than bowing to the expense of morally and ethical moderation.  From their point of view, shipping was a lucrative business couched in the notion of free trade. Their profits should not be bogged down under the weight of moral and ethical considerations.  

Fortunately, in 1876, after years of fighting, Plimsoll's calls for reforms succeeded and Britain's Parliament passed the Unseaworthy Ships Bill into law.  But while this Act required a series of 'lines' to be painted on the ship to show the maximum loading point it didn't specify where.  As a result, some unscrupulous shipowners chose to paint the load line in areas of the ship more convenient and continued this ruse, to disguise their overloaded vessels. 

It was not until 1890 that the country's Board of Trade officials finally applied the regulation that every ship must have a clearly visible Plimsoll linea line on a ship's hull, in a very specific place, which indicates the maximum safe draught, and therefore the minimum freeboard for the vessel in various operating conditions when loaded with cargo.

I suppose one could draw a few parallels between this maritime story and today’s art merchant climate, where the art market's focus seems to discourage regulatory oversight in favor of self-regulation, ensuring the free movement of merchandise. Likewise, many collectors seem oblivious to, or disinterested in, the problem of illicit trafficking. 

Despite cultural Plimsoll lines, like local legislation and international conventions such as the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, disreputable commercial actors in the art market continue to conduct commerce outside calculated ethical lines. 

And like the sailors on ships, desperation sometimes drives the decisions of subsistence looters in source countries who facilitate the supply chain, and remain as actors to the commerce equation, despite whatever harsh penalties they might face. 

It’s hard to envisage a non-legislative solution that will protect commerce and protect culture at risk.  For now, the foxes in charge of the art market hen house are woefully incapable of self-regulating, and are resistant to the idea that there is even a problem worthy of being addressed. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

h/t to Dave Trott for his details on shipping regulations and statistics. 

October 6, 2020

Rare Books in an Even Rarer Recovery

On 29 January 2017 an organized crime group from Romania targeted and robbed over 200 rare books from a warehouse in Feltham, West London.  The collection consisted of 15th and 16th-century books and included works by well-known historical figures Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Dante Alighieri, and Nicolas Copernicus.  The most valuable of these was the 1566 copy of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium by Nicolaus Copernicus but another lessor well known, and equally rare, texts, including a Muraqqa - album with Persian and Mughal miniatures were also taken in the heist

The books were owned by three collectors, two Italian and one based in Germany, and had been flown into the UK and stored in a climate-controlled warehouse while awaiting export to the United States for a scheduled book fair.  As the books were only intended to be at the warehouse for a short time period it is likely that the group involved in the theft had inside knowledge of the schedule of the books’ travel.  

When the theft was initially made public, many newspapers were more focused on the burglars' “mission-impossible" or "Ocean's Eleven-style" theatrics rather than on the cultural value of the rare books which were stolen, completely missing the value of Sir Isaac Newton’s 17th-century work “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy” or fantastic etchings of the Spanish painter Francisco Goya.

To achieve their goal, the thieve's drilled through the building's skylight and rappelled down into the warehouse in order to avoid security measures.  Once inside they set about placing the rare books in large bags that could be hoisted back onto the roof, allowing the suspects to leave the way they came.  While it was expected that the books were either pre-sold to a collector or bound for the black market, nothing was seen of the books for nearly 3 years.   

The investigation of the theft was a multi-national collaboration involving the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation and multiple law enforcement groups.   In a coordinated joint action day, in 2019 the Romanian, UK, and Italian authorities arrested 15 suspects, following 45 searches, in Romania and the UK, arresting a group of individuals believed to be responsible for a string of 12 highly-organised burglaries carried out across between December 2016 and April 2019.

Some of those taken into custody were linked to a number of prominent Romanian crime families who form part of the Clămparu crime group. This group has been known to be responsible for major heists, prostitution, and human trafficking offenses.   

According to released court records, forensic evidence and CCTV footage were both key to the investigation of the thefts and to the arrests of the co-conspirators.  Two days prior to the book theft CCTV footage captured images of three individuals involved in the heist:  Daniel David, Victor Opariuc, and Narcis Popescu, all three of whom are seen on footage arriving in the UK and driving to the warehouse in a blue Renault Megane. CCTV footage then shows David and Opariuc exit the van, leaving Popescu as a lookout while they cut through the warehouse's perimeter fencing.  

On the night of the theft itself, footage confirms that both Daniel David and Victor Opariuc returned, drilling through the skylight and entering the storage repository from above.  Once inside they are able to work undetected for five hours.  At 2:15 AM the pair exited back through the roof of the warehouse carrying large carryall bags, then loading up their cache into the Megane before driving away.  

To cover their tracks, the thieves quickly abandoned their get-away vehicle after wiping down the interior with cleaning products.  The stolen books were then transported to a house in Balham, rented temporarily to Narcis Popescu, where they remained for two days before being secreted out of the country.

Through examining cell phone records, the investigative teams were able to determine that the books were transported by a fourth accomplice, Marian Mamaliga to Romania, who left the UK through the Eurotunnel starting at Folkestone, Kent, and exited on the European mainland at Coquelles in Northern France. 

But even with that foresight to wipe down the car, forensic investigators were able to find a single hair on the drivers’ headrest which had escaped the burglar's clean-up.  This hair was later confirmed to be a match with Narcis Popescu.  DNA evidence inside the warehouse found on an escape ladder would also confirm the presence of Daniel David at the scene of the crime.   At other crime scenes, the members of the ring left drinks behind with traces of their DNA.

Perhaps the biggest break in the case though came from the evidence of a different theft conducted by the same group.  Some six months after the theft of the books, in July 2017, the group had moved on to target an electronics company, stealing some £150,000 worth of Lenovo laptops from another storage facility.   Similar to the book theft incident, the culprits of this later theft entered through the roof, this time using ladders both to scale and enter the building. This time transporting the hot merchandise proved their undoing.  Stopped by Romanian police Marian Mamalig could not provide proper proof of ownership for the laptops, and was arrested.   

Following resulting leads in 45 different locations in 3 separate countries, the books were recovered on Wednesday 16 September 16 2020 bringing the three-year joint investigation to an end.  Still wrapped in their original transport packaging, the rare books had been buried in a cement crawlspace under the floor tiles of a house in rural Romania in the historic region of Moldavia.  Once in law enforcement custody, the books were examined by conservators to assess for any moisture or mold damage and to carefully dehumidify the pages to prevent further damage. 

When speaking to the success of the investigation, Detective Inspector Andy Durham, from the Metropolitan Police's Specialist Crime South said: “These books are extremely valuable, but more importantly they are irreplaceable and are of great importance to international cultural heritage.”  Twelve of those involved in the thefts have pled guilty and received sentences  They are:  

  • Marian Albu received 4 years imprisonment  
  • Daniel David received 3 years 7 months imprisonment  
  • Liviu Leahu received 3 years 8 month' imprisonment  
  • Marian Mamaliga received 4 years and 1 month imprisonment.  
  • Traian Mihulca received 4 years imprisonment  
  • Victor Petrut Opariuc received 3 years 7 months imprisonment  
  • Vasille Ionel Paragina received 3 years 8 months imprisonment  
  • Paul Popeanu received 3 years 3 months imprisonment  
  • Gavril Popinciuc received 5 years 8 months imprisonment  
  • Narcis Popsecu received 4 years 2 months imprisonment  
  • Ilie Ungureanu received 3 years 8 month' imprisonment  
  • Christian Unrgureanu received 5 years and 1 month imprisonment   

A thirteenth is set to go to trial in March 2021. 

By: Lynette Turnblom and Lynda Albertson


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Bland, Archie. ‘Rare Books Stolen in London Heist Found under Floor in Romania’. The Guardian, 18 September 2020, sec. UK news.
Brunt, Martin. ‘Romanian Crime Gang Members Jailed After String of High-Value Burglaries’. Sky News, 5 October 2020.
Chesters, Laura. ‘Stolen Collection of Antiquarian Books Worth £2.5m Recovered from Underground Store in Romania’. Antiques Trade Gazette, 19 September 2020.
Eurojust. ‘15 Arrests in Theft of Galileo and Newton Original Books’. Eurojust, 19 June 2019.
Hamilton, Fiona. ‘Ladder Blunder Led Detectives to Gang Behind Heist of Rare Books’. The Times, 2 October 2020.
ILAB. ‘Warehouse Theft London 2017 - Stolen Books’. International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, 12 January 2018.
Krishna, Swampa. ‘Thieves Rappelled Into a London Warehouse in Rare Book Heist | Smart News | Smithsonian Magazine’. The Smithsonian, 14 February 2017.
‘Romanian Nationals “Stored 170 Stolen Books Worth More than £1.3 Million in a Tooting Warehouse”’. Wandsworth Times, 24 February 2020.
The Crown Prosecution Service. ‘Romanian Gang Jailed for Burglary Spree Including 200-plus Stolen Ancient Books’. The Crown Prosecution Service, 2 October 2020.
The Metropolitan Police. ‘Officers Recover “Irreplaceable” Books Stolen in Feltham Burglary’. The Metropolitan Police, 18 September 2020.
———. ‘Organised Crime Group Jailed for Book Thefts’. The Metropolitan Police, 2 October 2020.