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September 20, 2023

Seven World War II-era restitutions originating from the Collection Grünbaum

A total of seven artworks by Austrian Expressionist Egon Leo Adolf Ludwig Schiele once owned by Franz Friedrich 'Fritz' Grünbaum will be handed over in a public ceremony livestreamed today from  the office of the New York District Attorney's Office in Manhattan at 15:00 EST.

Each of the artworks were voluntarily relinquished by the Museum of Modern Art and the Morgan Library in New York, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (California) and the legal representatives for the private collections of Ronald Lauder and the estate of the late Serge Sabarsky.

The artworks being returned to the collector's heirs are:

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Edith, 1915 by Egon Schiele
Pencil on paper
Sold by Eberhard Kornfeld to Otto Kallir on September 18, 1956, and eventually gifted to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art by Wright Ludington

 Girl Putting on Shoe (Schuhe anziehendes Mädchen), 1910 by Egon Schiele
Watercolor and charcoal on paper
Sold via Eugene Thaw at the New Gallery and Bookshop in New York
Lastly with the Museum of Modern Art 

 Prostitute1912 by Egon Schiele
Watercolor and pencil on paper
Sold via Gutekunst & Klipstein, Bern to Galerie St. Etienne in New York
Lastly with the Museum of Modern Art 

 Portrait of a Boy (Herbert Reiner)1910 by Egon Schiele
Guache, watercolor, and pencil on paper
Sold as per Kallir: Gutekunst & Klipstein
Galerie St. Etienne, New York
as per S.S.G. records: John Herring Inc., New York, until February 1993 
Serge Sabarsky Gallery, New York since February 1993
Lastly on display at the Neue Galerie, from the estate of the late Serge Sabarsky

Self Portrait1910 by Egon Schiele
Black chalk and watercolor on brown paper
Sold via Gutekunst & Klipstein, Bern (by 1956); Viktor Fogarassy (1911-1989); Rudolf Leopold (b. 1925); Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd., London (by 1964); Lester Avnet (1912-1970); Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, New York; from which acquired by Fred Ebb, New York, ca. 1966.
Lastly with the Morgan Library & Museum

Seated Woman1910 by Egon Schiele
Gouache, watercolor, and pencil on paper
Sold via Gutekunst & Klipstein, Berne October 1956; as per S.S.G. files: Thomas Messer, New York, i.e. Amides Arts Ltd., until September 1978; Serge Sabarsky Gallery, New York
Lastly with Neue Galerie, from the estate of the late Serge Sabarsky

I Love Antitheses1912 by Egon Schiele
Watercolor and pencil on paper
Lastly from the private collection of Ronald Lauder

All seven of the artworks were relinquished following investigations by the Manhattan prosecutor's office.  A process to recover Grünbaum's art collection  began as early as 1998 when former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau seized “Dead City III”, an oil on wood painting by Schiele which Timothy Reif's, family claimed.  At the time, the Reif claim was weaker than Lea Bondi's claim for the Portrait of Wally, and Dead City III went back to Austria to the Leopold Museum.

Fast forward to 2018, and working from the basis of the civil court ruling by Judge Charles V. Ramos in the case of Reif v. Nagy in New York County Supreme Court, we finally have some justice for the family.  In his ruling Ramos concurred that the power of attorney signed on/around 20 July 1938 by the artworks' owner, Austrian Jewish cabaret artist, song writer, and actor, Franz Friedrich 'Fritz' Grünbaum, while imprisoned at Dachau Concentration Camp, and signed under extreme duress gunpoint did not represent a valid conveyance.

In making his 2018 ruling Judge Ramos also cited the introduction of the Holocaust Expropriated Recovery Act of 2016 and ruled that Grünbaum’s descendants rightfully owned two other Schiele works named in the civil proceedings, “Woman in a Black Pinafore” and “Woman Hiding Her Face.”

Grünbaum was murdered on 14 January 1941 at Dachau Concentration Camp.

As mentioned in an earlier article this month, much of Grünbaum’s extraordinary 449-piece art collection was sold through Eberhard Kornfeld, a Swiss auctioneer, and art dealer based in Bern.

Given that all seven of these Schiele artworks had been in circulation via New York  dealers, the New York District Attorney's Office held jurisdiction and could build a case for their (and other) restitutions on the basis that pursuant to a criminal investigation into Nazi looted art, by being the property of Fritz Grünbaum’s heirs: David Fraenkel, Timothy Reif, and Milos Vavra, the artworks from his collection, which have been sold onward, each constitute stolen property from the claimants according to New York state law.  

Remembering the artwork's original owner, it is said that Fritz Grünbaum never stopped entertaining people. Even as death approached at Dachau, he mocked the Nazis and found levity in the grim absurdities of life in a death camp. One former inmate remembered Fritz comforting the other inmates by arguing that absolute deprivation and systematic starvation were the best defence against diabetes.

By:  Lynda Albertson

September 18, 2023

Monday, September 18, 2023 - ,, No comments

Looters imperil unknown people's past, 37 years ago and still today.

"Looters imperil unknown people's past."  That was the title of an article written by Barbara Crossette, the Bangkok bureau chief of The New York Times on September 9th 1986.  Her report described the destruction to archeological sites caused by grave diggers operating in the densely forested mountains of western Thailand.  There, subsistence looters had been systematically plundering a wide variety of antiquities, hauling away various grave goods, including high-quality ceramics, some found at  hilltop ring-ditch burial sites that belonged to a then-unknown group of people that defied cataloguing.

Crossette told the New York Time's readership that the area's inhabitants, probably ethnic minorities, like the Karen and other minority groups, shared their remote terrain with smugglers, poachers and opium growers.  She also wrote that looters working the region sold the antiquities they found to foreign dealers who spirited them out of the country, selling the pieces onward to private collectors, including those in Japan. 

See Reference at the
end of this article
Like so many other plundered cultural sites in at-risk and remote locations, circular earthworks in and around Tak Maesot were scarred by extensively pitting. Sketched out on maps, some of the impacted burial sites had the appearance of buttons sewed onto the hillside.

But the damage done by plunderers didn't just strip away treasures.  In addition to the grave goods they stole, looters took with them many of the geological and cultural clues that could have lead us to better understand who left these graves here in the first place.  

What remained in their wake, was only a series of useless pits, scattered with broken and discarded ceramic fragments and the outline of the the graves themselves.  Archaeologists who later explored the sites have since documented that the inhabitants of the past had a vibrant trade in ceramics,  identifying pieces coming from Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese and Chinese production centres.

Unfortunately, so little remained after the thefts, that researchers still remained puzzled as to who the peoples were, who cremated their dead, placing their ashes in urns and interring them in the mountains, accompanied with valuable objects.   All that was known was that this population were likely not Burmese or Chinese, nor Khmer or Thai.  Perhaps even a transitional culture which eventually died out or merged with others from the area.

At the heart of the plunder in this area of Thailand were some 100 burial sites dating from the 12th or 13th century, up through the 16th century CE, scattered along a 60-mile swath of western Thailand between Umphang, on the Myanmar, (then-Burma) border south of Mae Sot, and north to Chiang Mai which contained the inexplicable mixture of Chinese, Thai, Burmese and Vietnamese ceramics, as well as other pottery never documented previously. 

Barbara Crossette, speaking with John Shaw MBE, an expert on Southeast Asian ceramics who lived in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, quoted British-born collector and Honorary Consul to Chiang Ma, John Shaw, who described the area of the new finds as ''beyond the writ of the law' who stated ''It would take the whole Thai Army to protect those hills.'' 

Illegal digging at Som Poi Burial Site, 1984.

Shaw's family website, which highlights artefacts from the region in his collection as well as photographs of local looters, mentions that by September 1984 thousands of ceramic wares believed to have been plundered from this area of Thailand, which then appeared in the antique shops of Bangkok, Sukothai and Chiang Mai.   Shaw recorded Chinese, Lan Na, Sawankalok, Mon and even Vietnamese ceramic objects as the type of material which flowed out of the region.  In an interview with Ray Hern, Shaw mentioned that many pristine examples of superb quality, went directly from the diggers into private hands, only to then be dispersed, largely undocumented, onward. 

This despite Thai antiquities legislation passed in 1961 and a government decree passed in July 1972 making it illegal to buy, sell or export bronze age Ban Chiang pottery.

In February 1985 Shaw states that another batch of freshly looted ceramics surged into the antique market, this time coming from the Mae Tun - Om Goi area further north, showing that as long as there was a demand, there would be regional people to supply the market. 

But why bring a pattern of looting and subsequent fossicking in Thailand that happened 37 years ago?

Earlier this September, Thailand's Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) reported on a collaborative investigation with the country's Department of Fine Arts, which apprehended three individuals involved in present-day illegal excavation and trade of antiquities. The suspects were identified after having advertised their plunder on Facebook.  In a multi-province operation, authorities eventually seized 11 metal detectors, excavation equipment, and nearly 970 items believed to be ancient artefacts during searches conducted this month at nine seperate sites, including, again, one of which was in Chiang Mai.  

Like almost 4 decades ago, authorities have seen a spate of robbery at archeological sites across Northern Thailand, from Sukhothai to Lampang, and from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai, this time also sold digitally. 

And while these recovered examples of ancient jewellery, coins, and tiny ornaments suitable for someone's mantelpiece may seem relatively harmless when compared to some of the higher profile Thai sculptures being returned from various museums, the cumulative process to seek, loot, and put these materials on the market for consumers is significantly more destructive towards our knowledge of the past than what individuals, and collectors, often perceive.

The times, they are (not) a-changin. 

By Lynda Albertson



Grave, Peter, The ring-ditch burials of Northwestern Thailand and the archaeology of resistance - Bulletin of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association, 3: 61-166, 1997.

Hearn, Ray,  Thai Ceramics, Lao Na and Sawankalok: An Interview with John Shaw, 2000/03.

The Shaw Collection. ‘Tak Hilltop Burial Sites Introduction’. Accessed 18 September 2023.

September 15, 2023

Three artworks by Austrian Expressionist Egon Leo Adolf Ludwig Schiele seized at Three US Museums

Fritz Grünbaum's prisoner registry card at Dachau Concentration Camp

On Wednesday, the New York District Attorney's Office in Manhattan executed  search warrants at three US museums, seizing three artworks by Austrian Expressionist Egon Leo Adolf Ludwig Schiele.

The Schiele works are: 

Russian War Prisoner, 1916, a watercolour and pencil on paper hand drawing seized at the Art Institute of Chicago; 

Portrait of a Man, 1917, a pencil on paper drawing seized at the Carnegie Museum of Art; 

Girl With Black Hair, 1911), a watercolor and graphite pencil on paper hand drawing seized at the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College.

According to the warrants and Manhattan prosecutors,  “there is reasonable cause to believe” that the works constitute stolen property taken from Franz Friedrich 'Fritz' Grünbaum, an Austrian Jewish cabaret artist, operetta and popular song writer, actor, killed during World War II.  Grünbaum’s extraordinary 449-piece art collection was stolen by the Nazis only to have much of it sold through Eberhard Kornfeld, a Swiss auctioneer, and art dealer based in Bern, without the collector's heir's consent. 

A World War II tragedy, like so many others. 

After the Anschluss, (the annexation of the Federal State of Austria into the German Reich forming a "Greater Germany"), Fritz Grünbaum and his wife Elisabeth "Lilly" (nee Herzl) Grünbaum try unsuccessfully to escape to Czechoslovakia. 

Apprehended and arrested Fritz Grünbaum remained imprisoned in various concentration camps until his murder. On 16 July 1938 while Fritz Grünbaum was imprisoned at Dachau, the Nazis forced him to execute a power of attorney in favour of his wife Lilly. 

Shortly thereafter, and acting pursuant to her husband's under duress power of attorney Elisabeth Grünbaum is compelled to permit Austrian art historian and art dealer Franz Kieslinger, who was a member of the Nazi party, to inventory Grünbaum's property, including his art collection of over 400 pieces to be valued at 5,791 Reichsmarks (RM).  In this collection were 81 pieces by Schiele. 

Kieslinger inventory documented Grünbaum's Schiele artworks: 

  • five oil paintings listed by name, 
  • 55 "large hand drawings," 
  • 20 pencil drawings, 
  • and 1 etching, 

Grünbaum's collection also included French watercolours and pieces by French Impressionist Edgar Degas, the German artist Albrecht Dürer, Dutch Golden Age artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, known as Rembrandt, and French sculptor François Auguste René Rodin.  All of the latter were identified by name in the Kieslinger inventory. 

Sometime following Kieslinger's inventorying, the Grünbaum's entire art collection was deposited with Schenker & Co., A.G., a Nazi-controlled shipping company, with the firm the applying for an export license on behalf of collector "Lilly Grünbaum" in November 1938.  Gruesomely, Lilly's address is listed as "formerly Vienna . . . now Buchenwalde," the Nazi concentration camp established on Ettersberg hill near Weimar, Germany.

On January 14, 1941 Fritz Grünbaum was murdered at Dachau in southern Germany. His wife then signed a declaration before an Austrian notary in connection with obtaining her husband's death certificate, stating: 

"[T]here is nothing left," in other words, there is no estate. Therefore, "[b]ecause of a lack of goods or property, there [was no] estate proceeding for inheritance" before the Dachau Probate Court.

She in turn, is murdered four months later, on October 5 1942 at Maly Trostenets death camp near Minsk in Belarus. 

By the early 1950s some 25% of the Grünbaum's collection, including the three seized artworks, was in circulation on the art market through Bern, Switzerland dealer Eberhard Kornfeld.

Seized in place, prosecutors say 3 seized artworks belong to the three living heirs of Fritz Grünbaum and will be transported to New York at a later date.

By:  Lynda Albertson

September 14, 2023

Museum theft at the Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst theft in Köln (Cologne), Germany

During the night, between September 12th and 13th, yet another museum theft involving Chinese objects of porcelain occurred at the Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst theft in Köln (Cologne), Germany.  Around midnight, two burglars, one carrying a grey backpack, accessed the museum and one of the exhibition rooms after prying open a glazed side window facing Universitätsstrasse.  Once inside, the culprits made off with a total of nine objects from the museum's display cases, including porcelain vases, plates and jars dating from the the 16th to 19th century.  The works are believed to be worth more than 1 million euros. 

The city of Cologne has published photos of the nine rare objects taken during the incident.  They are: 

A Qing-Dynastie, Yongzheng-Period (1723-1735) Chinese Fencai rose coral-ground bowl with a Jiaqing seal mark of the period;

A large dish with dragon and phoenix design, 1 of 2, China, Jingdezhen kiln, Qing dynasty, Yongzheng period, (1723-1735);

A rare Ming Dynasty (1573-1619) Wucai "Phoenix" Double Gourd form Wall Vase depicting a pair of phoenix in flight amid ruyi-shaped clouds below a band of downward plantain leaves;

A Fencai Imperial Qing Dynasty (1796-1820) vase with Jiaqing mark and period;

A very rare Ming Dynasty (1521-1567) yellow-ground and iron-red decorated 'Dragon' jar, mark and period of Jiajing;

A porcelain, enamel dish with dragons and clouds, China, Imperial Porcelain Factory, Jingdezhen, Qing dynasty, Kangxi period (1662-1722);

A Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period (1736-1795) lotus pot; (NB The lid was left behind. )

A Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period (1736-1795) yellow-glazed nine dragon vase;

and an early 16th century (1506-1521), Ming Dynasty porcelain plate with Zhengde mark and period.

One of an ongoing series of thefts of this type, another was reported on the 14th of February at the Keramiekmuseum Princessehof in Leeuwarden.  In that incident, which also occurred in the early morning hours, the burglar, or burglars, entered the museum through its roof and stole 11 rare Chinese ceramics from the first floor. 

Outside the museum, investigators recovered the shards of seven objects, apparent broken as the culprits, fled the scene. Four of these pieces remain missing.

September 12, 2023

Vincent Van Gogh's stolen painting, The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring, has been recovered.

After extensive work on the part of the Dutch National Police and a private investigator, authorities have announced that Vincent Van Gogh's “The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring” was recovered yesterday.  The painting, which is part of the Groninger Museum's collection was stolen on 30 March 2020 while on loan at the Singer Laren museum for its The Mirror of the Soul exhibition. To steal the painting, police indicated that the thief accessed the museum by brazenly smashing his way in through the reinforced glass front door with a sledgehammer. 

Once inside, he had obtained entry through the front door, then moved past the ticket desk and gift shop and smashed open a second locked door, cherry-picking this singular Van Gogh painting and quickly leaving the way he came in, with the artwork tucked under his right arm and carrying the sledgehammer in his left hand.

Long rumoured to be in the hands of the drug underworld, the Van Gogh painting's artnappers had previously tantalised law enforcement authorities by sending a  cheeky "proof of life photo to Arthur Brand, a private art crime investigator based in Amsterdam who's made headlines with a string of high-profile art recoveries.  

The hostage-like photograph, sent to Brand on June 18, 2020 showed Vincent's painting laying flat on a garbage bag, sandwiched between a New York Times newspaper and a Dutch copy of the autobiography "The Master Thief" written by Octave "Okkie" Durham, the thief who stole two other Vincent van Gogh paintings on the evening of 7 December 2002 from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. 

Later, Nils Menara, AKA Nils M., was sentenced to 8 years in prison by the Lelystad court in the Netherlands for the theft of this painting as well as the second theft of Dutch Golden Age master Frans Hals' 1626 painting  Two Laughing Boys taken from the Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden Museum in Leerdam on 26 August 2020.

During Menara's trial, Prosecutors noted his DNA presence at both crime scenes, and gave convincing testimony which detailed how the criminal underworld has an interest in stolen art as it can be used to demand ransom, or used as a medium of exchange for a penalty or as collateral for drug deals.  Menara was also convicted for possession of a firearm and a large amount of hard drugs and was described by the court as an "incorrigible, calculating criminal".

This week authorities announced that the painting was recovered Monday, after it was dropped off at Arthur Brand's home in Amsterdam, wrapped carefully in bubble wrap and placed in a blue IKEA bag following talks Brand held over the weekend with an informant on the Amstelveld, a square in the middle of the historical centre  in Amsterdam. 

In February 2021 Brand had already indicated that through indirect negotiations, that he had been told that the Van Gogh was in the hands of individuals affiliated with Peter Roy Kok, who was later convicted and is currently serving a 12 year prison sentence in a separate case involving the large-scale import and export of cocaine.  It is believed that the painting was to be used as collateral. 

Richard Bronswijk, head of Art Crime at the police, told Dutch Newspaper De Telegraaf  “The perpetrator is in custody and the job is back. That is a one hundred percent score that we are very happy with. Especially for the Groninger Museum. We have had an excellent collaboration with Arthur Brand.”

During his lifetime Van Gogh only sold one painting.  But when opportunity has knocked, art thieves have often had a preference for his works.  To learn more about the 37 Van Gogh works of art which have been stolen, 3 of them two times each, over the course of 15 separate art thefts, please check out my earlier reporting. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

September 1, 2023

Seizure: The Emperor as Philosopher, probably Marcus Aurelius ha seized by the New York District Attorney's Office

Pursuant to a seizure order signed by New York Judge Ruth Pickholz on August 14, 2023, following investigations conducted by the New York District Attorney's Office in Manhattan, a bronze draped figure believed to represent Marcus Aurelius, is seized from at Cleveland Museum of Art.  According to New York law, the statue of the Roman emperor, known for his philhellenism and Stoic writings, constitutes evidence of, and tends to demonstrate the commission of the crimes of, Criminal  Possession of Stolen Property in the First Degree, Penal Law § 165.54, and a Conspiracy to commit the same crime under Penal Law § 105.10(1). 

But how and why was this statue seized?

By the mid-1960s, a number of bronze figures, including portrait heads, never before seen in documented collections, began circulating on the ancient art market in the United States and Europe.  By May 1967, law enforcement authorities from the Republic of Türkiye had uncovered their first lead as to these objects eventual origins, after a large, ancient bronze statue was found hidden in a house in the village of Ibecik, located in the mountainous region of the Gölhisar district of the southern province of Burdur, less than 100 kilometers from the southwest Turkish coast.

Their investigation, coupled with studies by Turkish archaeologist Jale İnan on behalf of the museum in Burdur, as well as notes gathered and seized from a local treasure hunter during investigations, have helped establish the find spot for these sculptures which is believed to be the eastern Roman Empire city of Boubon, on the summit and slopes of Dikmen Tepe.

According to the ancient Greek geographer Strabo, the city of Boubon formed a tetrapolis with its neighbouring cities of Cibyra, Oenoanda and Balboura.  Culturally diverse, at its pinnacle its inhabitants are said to have spoken as many as four languages: Greek, Pisidian, Solymian and Lycian. 

Travellers to Bubon as late as the mid-19th century described finding a walled acropolis, a small theatre of local stone, and the remains of tombs, temples, and other large structures in what remained of the ancient city. Few of these survive today.  Decimated by at least one large-scale looting operation, the unprotected ancient city's movable cultural heritage became the victims of poverty and art market greed during the mid-20th century, with much of what had survived throughout history, being carried off for profit.

The Sebasteion at Boubon
In 1967, the archaeological museum of Burdur undertook the first legal excavation at what remained of Boubon. During these emergency excavations, where some of the explored sites were reburied after to afford more protection, archaeologists documented a Sebasteion near the centre of the terrace close to the agora.  This complex is believed to have been devoted to the worship of the imperial cult, honouring members of the Imperial family.  It is thought to have been in use for a period of over two centuries from the 1st to the middle of the 3rd century CE. 

Inside this Sebasteion, archaeologists discovered two inscribed podiums along the north and the east walls of the room, and four free-standing bases along the west wall where statues of emperors and members of the Imperial household would have been displayed.  The majority of the dedications found here date from the half century beginning with the joint reign of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus (161-168 CE) and ending with the sole reign of Caracalla (211-217 CE). Unsurprisingly, by the time archaeologists set about documenting the site, all but one single headless statue had been illicitly excavated and removed.  

As part of this documentation, Jale İnan assigned names to seven of the missing bronzes, based on seven of the 14 dedicatory inscriptions documented in situ inside the Sebasteion.  According to this researcher's reconstruction, patrons or visitors entering this room in the middle of the 3rd century CE, would have seen bronze statues of Nerva, Poppaea Sabina,  Lucius Verus, Commodus, Septimius Severus and lastly, Marcus Aurelius on the podium facing the entrance.

An inscription documented in İnan's 1990 excavation notes on stones forming the top course of the north podium reads:

[Μ.Αυρήλιο]ν Άντωνεϊνον

Over the subsequent years, it was determined that as many as nine, possibly ten, life-sized bronze statues originating from Bubon had been sold onward, first by the site's looters and middlemen, then onward to a dealer in Izmir, a city on Turkey’s Aegean coast.  From there, it has been established that some were smuggled out of the country and into Switzerland, passing through the hands of Robert Hecht in defiance of Turkish laws which vested ownership of antiquities with the state.  

The Emperor as Philosopher
Image Credit:
Cleveland Museum of Art
By the late half of 1987, four of these six feet and taller spectacular bronzes, all male, three nude and one wearing a philosopher’s tunic, were known to be in the possession of a Boston coin dealer named Charles S. Lipson.  Lipson maintained relationships with several problematic art market actors including Hecht but also George Zakos and others.  The bronzes from Turkey were circulated in temporary exhibitions in several North American museums before passing into museum and private collections. 

After a whirlwind of touring from 1967 to 1981 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Rutgers University, one of Lipson's bronzes, the draped figure, was purchased by the Cleveland museum in 1986.  It was quickly dubbed "The Emperor as Philosopher, probably Marcus Aurelius".   

At the time of sculpture's purchase, museum press releases and follow-up publications openly admitted that the bronze was part of a “group of Roman bronze figures and heads, believed to have come from Turkey” that represented various emperors and empresses, which had been created for a structure honouring the imperial cult in the mid-2nd century. All details which match the statues which likely once filled the Sebasteion.

In February and March of this year the New York District Attorney's Office in Manhattan seized and subsequently restituted another extremely important Boubon bronze statue from the same Sebasteion, this one representing the Roman emperor Septimius Severus.  In that instance, DANY's Antiquities Trafficking Unit, with the assistance of officials from the Republic of Türkiye, were able to locate and interview one of the individuals who actually looted and smuggled this statue and determined that the bronze had been smuggled into Switzerland by Robert Hecht.  Later this statue was circulated onward via Charles Lipson, first via an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and later loaned long term to the Metropolitan Museum of Art via a private collector.  

After proper packing, The Emperor as Philosopher, one of the finest Antonine imperial portraits in existence, will be transferred this month from the Cleveland Museum of Art to New York City.  There it will be held as evidence in an “ongoing criminal investigation into a smuggling network involving antiquities looted from Turkey and trafficked through Manhattan.”

To read more about this important and long plundered site, and its confirmatory details with respect to this antiquity, please see the publication Boubon. The Inscriptions and Archaeological Remains. A survey 2004 - 2006 by Christina Kokkinia

August 29, 2023

Insider threats in museums, not as rare as you think.


Many articles discussing the recently announced thefts at the British Museum in London have emphasised the rarity of insider threats at museums.  Those in the know though, know that it happens more frequently that museums would like the public to recall.  Must instances don't get wide press circulation, as it is not in the collections' best interests to go into incidences publicly, so for the sake of not taking the lid off of too many discreet pots, we will stick to some of those already in the public realm. 

Here are nine of the more spectacular and publicly announced insider threat thefts which have occurred in museums and libraries involving internal staff in positions of trust.

In the early 90s, and over a period of 20 years, John Feller used his position as a respected porcelain scholar and researcher with access to the collections at Winterthur, Harvard Peabody, & other museum institutions to pilfer from their respective collections.  He plead guilty for stealing more than 100 valuable ceramic and glass objects worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from at least eight known museums.  Some of whose records were so poor, that after his arrest and guilty plea, had the insider thief assist law enforcement and the museums with identifying which stolen objects came from their own institutions.

Also in the 1990s, Erik Anders Burius, a senior librarian, stole at least 56 rare 17th-century books worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, while employed at the National Library of Sweden. Dubbed the "Royal Library Man", Burius sold at least 13 of the books to Ketterer Kunst, a German auction house.  He committed suicide shortly after his arrest.

Keith Davies, a former soldier in the New Zealand army for 30 years, worked at the New Zealand’s National Army Museum situated in Waiouru, in the centre of New Zealand’s North Island from 1995 to 2002, after completing his military duty. 

As the museum's registrar, Davies was tasked, amongst other duties, with the storage and inventorying the museum’s medal collection, and corresponding with the families of donors.  Davies seniority and knowledge of the Museum’s systems enabled him to cover his thefts while employed at the museum, and for another eight years after his departure. He altered records and replaced medals with other similar medals, so as to maintain the illusion that sets of medals had not been broken up.  In total this museum insider is believed to have stolen some 750 medals, selling  at least 131 to buyers around the world.  270 objects were still in his possession when he was arrested in Australia in 2011. 

Over the course of several decades, between 1997 through 2012, now deceased museum director Kent Ian Bertil Wiséhn, who worked for the Royal Coin Cabinet (The National Museum of Coin, Medal and Monetary History) in Sweden is believed to have stolen some 1,200 coins from his own museum and the Gothenburg City Museum's coin vault.   He was undone when his sticky fingering was caught on CCTV footage stealing rare stamps from the auction company Philea on Södermalm in Stockholm.

In 19 May 1998 Rome's prestigious Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna was robbed just after the 10 pm closing time. Armed with guns, three thieves entered the museum in gloves and balaclavas to hide their identities.  Storming the control room, the gang gagged two of the three female guards and reportedly forced the third to disable the museum's security system, who was also ordered to hand over its accompanying CCTV footage.  All three museum employees were then locked in a bathroom. Once in the painting's gallery, the thieves bypassed paintings by Edgar Degas and Gustav Klimt and stole three specific paintings:

L'Arlésienne, 1889 (one of five versions)
by Vincent Van Gogh (unsigned)
oil on canvas, 60x50 cm
Completed in Saint-Rémy

Le Jardinier, October 1889
by Vincent Van Gogh (unsigned)
oil on canvas, 61 x 50 cm
Completed in Saint-Rémy


Cabanon de Jourdan, 1906
by Paul Cézanne
oil on canvas 65 x 81 cm
The last artwork completed by the artist before his death in Aix-en-Provence

From start to finish the art theft lasted only 15 minutes.  A complex heist, Stefania Viglongo, then head of the museums security control room, was ultimately implicated for being part of the team responsible for the thefts.  She received a sentence of 8 years imprisonment. Her husband, Alfonso Di Febio was sentenced to two years and 8 months. 

In 2003 while Alexander Polman was a curator at the Legermuseum Militaire, the Dutch Army Museum in Delft in the Netherlands, it was discovered that some books had been heavily vandalised and that other collection material were missing, including approximately 2000 prints and several paintings. Polman apparently stole most of this material by arriving earlier than the rest of his staff and secreting the materials in his car. 

On 24 May 2012 Marino Massimo de Caro was arrested for his astonishing role in the theft and embezzlement of thousands of rare volumes looted from one of Italy's oldest libraries, the Biblioteca dei Girolamini. While many of the books he pilfered have been recovered, a number of invaluable 15th and 16th Century books are still missing.

In March 2017 Denis Wilhelm was hired as a Bode Museum security guard in Berlin.  By February 2020 he had been convicted and sentenced of 40 months and  fined €100,000 for his associated role with cousins Ahmed and Wissam Remmo,  members of the Arabische Großfamilien who entered the museum island museum after closing hours.  On 27 March 2017 these two members of the Remmo clan accessed the museum's galleries through a window, and in 16 minutes broke through extremely heavy security glass case, and with the help of a strategically placed roller and wheelbarrow, carried away a giant solid gold coin, weighing 100 kilos from gallery room 243.  In finding Wilhelm an accomplice in the theft, prosecutors made a case that the newly hired security guard had fed the thieves inside information about the design of the alarm system and the timing of the guard's rounds, as well as having intentionally left the museum's window open.  Total theft loss = €3.75m (£3.3m) 

And let's not forget the still ongoing saga with Professor Dirk Obbink, who, since 2 March 2020 has been under investigation by the Thames Valley police for a complex series of thefts and sales of ancient Egyptian material belonging to The Egyptian Exploration Society. 

August 20, 2023

A London organised crime gang and a museum theft of £2 million of Chinese Porcelain

Fondation Baur, Musée des Arts d'Extrême-Orient

The lucrative market for stolen Chinese antiquities has led to several high-profile heists in recent years as well as a series of convictions.  In May 2022 the prosecutor's office in Geneva released the first-ever details about a daring heist committed on June 1, 2019 in the centre of Geneva.  On that date, two thieves, wearing masks and gloves, broke into the Fondation Baur, Musée des Arts d'Extrême-Orient, housed in an elegant, late-19th-century townhouse, by smashing a glass pane out from the front door.  The museum contains more than 9,000 Chinese and Japanese works amassed by Swiss collector Alfred Baur (1865-1951).  Once inside, the burglars, believed to be professional thieves, shattered one of the protective display cases and made off with a grouping of Chinese imperial ceramics, valued at 3,6 million francs.  

At the time of the incident, the Foundation elected, as is often the custom in the prestigious and discreet circles of art collections, to not publicly communicate the theft. 

The three stolen artefacts were recorded as:

  • A bowl valued at 80,000 pounds, 
  • An rare “Sweet White” 甜白 glazed Pomegranate bottle vase dating to the Yongle period (1400 – 1425), Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), 
  • A “doucai-style” wine cup with chicken decorations.

The primary burglary suspects in the case are subsequently determined to be two British nationals, brothers Stewart Ahearne (21.07.78) and Louis Ahearne (02.12.88) from south-east London.

In 2019, the stolen bowl, valued at 80,000 pounds, was returned to the Museum of Far Eastern Art after it was identified as having been sold at an auction in Hong Kong that same year.  By May 2020 Louis Ahearne would already be serving a five-year jail sentence for a separate residential burglary relating to a theft he carried out with Daniel Bowen and Daniel Kelly on 9 July 2019 at a Grade II-listed housing complex in Westerham, Kent, just one month after the museum break-in.  In that case, forensics teams detected bloodstains which provided a DNA match to Bowen.   Officers had recognised Ahearne and Kelly as two of the culprits after viewing CCTV at the time of the crime. 

In July 2020 the Metropolitan Police in London received an important tip from a yet unnamed auction house who advised them that an unknown individual had e-mailed them with knowledge of the whereabouts of a second item from the 2019 Museum of Far Eastern Art theft: the 5th-century CE  “Sweet White” Yongle period, Ming Dynasty Pomegranate bottle vase. 

To recover the rare vase, an operation was led by Trident officers in Specialist Crime, a police unit dedicated to investigating violent crime in London's communities.  Officers then traced the IP address for the email account to an address in Belmont Park Close, Lewisham which is determined to be the home of David Lamming (15.01.92).  In 2005, while still a juvenile, Lamming was given a two year Anti-Social Behaviour Order (Asbo) for his involvement in gang related activities.  This order banned him from entering a central Lewisham estate, unless he has permission from the council.   

As the result of the auction house tip, officers begin a Joint Investigation Team with their Swiss counterparts so that both law enforcement agencies can share information and build a case against the suspects and successfully recover the stolen vase. 

Preserved tianbai, or “sweet white” 甜白 specimens of the Yongle reign (1403-1424) are rarer than contemporary blue-and-white Imperial porcelains and are known for their thin and translucent white glaze, which is said to mimic white jade.  Less opaque than earlier shufu wares, to achieve this look tianbai vase production required a combination of a kaolin-rich paste, which when fired at a high fusion temperature, produces a naturally bright white color with very low iron and titanium content.  Matched with a glaze containing mainly glaze stone and no glaze ash it gives objects a similar appearance to that of white jade.   

The name for this type of Chinese porcelain was coined by Huang Yizheng, a writer from the Wanli period (1573-1620) in his Shiwu ganzhu, which was written in 1591. In that missive, he refers to this unique type of glaze that was produced only from the Royal Kiln of Yongle, and attributed to the Emperor’s personal fondness for white vessels.  

To ensure the safe recovery of the rare stolen vase, officers elected to not arrest Lamming immediately, and instead worked to set up an undercover sting operation where they would pose as would-be buyers.  To recover the vase, they negotiate a purchase price of £450,000 with the London intermediaries and arranged to meet in a Mayfair hotel to conclude the transaction.

On October 15, 2021, having met with the undercover sting officers, police arrest Mbaki Leslie Nkhwa (18.10.75) of The Heights, Charlton and Lamming at the arranged central London hotel and recover the stolen 5th-century CE  “Sweet White” Yongle period, Ming Dynasty vase. 

Image of Mbaki Leslie Nkhwa from his Facebook Profile

After being taken into custody for questioning, officers reviewed telephone data which shows that Nkhwa and Lamming had been in regular contact with a third intermediary accomplice, Kaine Wright (30.11.96), a former West Ham United footballer from Woolwich, who had driven the pair to the hotel for the potential sale.

Nkhwa and Lamming were held on suspicion of handling stolen goods until released on bail while their court cases progressed.  Officers conducting a search of a related house in Charlton, south-east London, recover counterfeit currency, class A drugs and two suspected tasers.

By early May 2022, as the investigation progressed, the Office Fédéral de la Justice in Bern, Switzerland sent extradition requesta for brothers Stewart Ahearne (21.07.78) and Louis Ahearne (02.12.88) to the British government, having been charged with  theft, damage to property and trespassing for their alleged role in the 1 June 2019 theft from the Baur Foundation, Museum of Far Eastern Art. 

Evidence gathered by the London and Swiss authorities demonstrated that both Ahearnes were in Switzerland on or before June 1, 2019 and that Stewart Ahearne's DNA was allegedly found at the scene.   CCTV images had also implicated his brother, Louis Ahearne as also being at the museum at the time of the break-in. 

Subsequent to the Swiss extradition request, District judge Nina Tempia, sitting at London's Westminster Magistrates' Court, ruled on 17 May 2022 that the extradition of Stewart and Louis Ahearne was not barred and that their case should be sent to the UK's Home Secretary, who then approved their extradition later that month.   It should be noted that by this period, the brothers were already facing another extradition request from Japan regarding another matter.

On March 23rd of this year David Lamming pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to convert criminal property in relation to his role as an accomplice to the thefts of the Chinese objects from the Museum of Far Eastern Art in Geneva. Upon conviction, he remains at liberty while on bail until his sentencing date. 

On Friday, August 18th, a jury at Southwark Crown Court returned unanimous guilty verdicts for Mbaki Nkhwa and Kaine Wright in relation to their roles as an accomplices to the thefts of the Chinese objects from the Museum of Far Eastern Art in Geneva.  Each were found guilty of one count of conspiracy to convert criminal property and ordered to remain in custody.  

From left to right: David Lamming, Mbaki Nkhwa and Kaine Wright
Image Credit: Metropolitan Police

Lamming, Nkhwa, and Wright are currently scheduled to be sentenced on October 13, 2023. 

This leaves just one unrecovered object from the 2019 theft.  

Officers from London's Metropolitan Police are appealing for the public’s help in locating the third and final item stolen from the Musée des Arts d'Extrême-Orient in 2019 and are offering up to £10,000 for information leading to the recovery of the Ming Dynasty, "chicken" cup.

This porcelain wine-cup, made in the Ch’eng-hua Reign of the Great Ming, is decorated in doucai style with an underglaze of blue washes with two blue bands at the top and one at the bottom. The cup depicts a rooster, hen and chicks with lilies and peony shrubs behind. 

Anyone with information about its whereabouts can contact police referencing Operation Funsea or to remain anonymous contact the independent charity Crimestoppers.

August 13, 2023

Thoughts on the confessions of Cosa Nostra boss Matteo Messina Denaro during his February interrogation

A man of many "pezzini"

As mentioned in an earlier ARCA blog post this week, Matteo Messina Denaro, the former fugutive Cosa Nostra boss, was interrogated on February 13, 2023 for almost two hours at a maximum security prison in Italy.  There, the crime boss fielded many  questions, and sometimes duelled with Palermo prosecutor Maurizio De Lucia and deputy prosecutor Paolo Guido when their questions struck too close to home.   

According to the official transcript of their exchange, which covers 69 printed pages and is marked in several places with the handwritten word “omissis”, (used to mark redactions in the interrogation), the Cosa Nostra boss, curated his words carefully.  In many cases he only only incriminated himself verbally in specific areas where there was already overwhelming evidence of specific and proven actions.  In other instances, he obliquely ignored questions he didn't want to answer, while seemingly going off on tangents, as if he wanted his say on key subjects to be memorialised so that others might read and interpret his statements later. 

Speaking to the two magistrates, Messino Denaro again distanced himself from the murder of Giuseppe Di Matteo.  Repeating what he had previously told investigating Judge Alfredo Montaldo, who had questioned him in relation to another trial in which he is accused of attempted extortion.  The boss admitted to prosecutors De Lucia and Guido that he played a role in the 12 year old's kidnapping on November 23, 1993 and made it clear that seizing the child was a volley designed to coerce the father, Cosa Nostra informant Santino Di Matteo, into retracting statements given to the Anti-Mafia District Directorate (DDA) of Palermo.

Giuseppe was escorted out of horse stables in Villabate by four mafiosi dressed as policemen.  His kidnappers had promised him that they were bringing him to see his father.  Once under their control, the child was held hostage for a total of 779 days in various locations between the provinces of Palermo, Trapani, and Agrigento.  

Ironically, at one point the boy was taken, hooded and locked in the trunk of a car, to a farmhouse in Campobello di Mazara, the same village where Messina Denaro was  found to be hiding at the time of his January 16, 2023 capture.  After years as a hostage, and increasingly becoming a liability to his captors, Giuseppe was strangled to death on January 11, 1996 in the Giambascio countryside outside Palermo. His body was then dissolved in acid. 

Matteo Messina Denaro was involved in the massacres of 1993,
including this one in Florence in via Georgofili

In July of this year, the Caltanissetta court of appeal confirmed Matteo Messina Denaro's life sentence for his role in dozens of murders including Giuseppe's.  The others include: 

  • The May 23, 1992 bombing which killed anti-Mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone, his wife, and three officers of their police escort as their cars passed near the small town of Capaci; 
  • The July 19, 1992 bombing in Via Mariano D'Amelio (Palermo) which killed Judge Paolo Borsellino and five members of his security detail; 
  • The 1993 bombings carried out at art and religious sites in Milan, Florence and Rome that killed 10 people and injured 40 others: 

During his interrogation Matteo Messina Denaro denied being involved in the trafficking in drugs, but openly admitted to prosecutors other things they already knew and had confirmed, such as having regularly passed pizzinu (small piece of paper, containing sometimes coded messages) with convicted Cosa Nostra “boss of bosses” Bernardo Provenzano, who once headed the Mafia's powerful Clan dei Corleonesi. 

In these messages, sent while both men were already fugitives from justice, Messina Denaro admitted that the pair asked one another for favours, but his admission of his relation with Provenzano during this interrogation wasn't revelatory.  Investigators already had undeniable proof of the pair's communication in the form of ten pizzini, sent between 2003 and 2006, which agents had recovered in Provenzano's hideout when he was captured in Montagna dei Cavalli near Corleone on April 11, 2006. 

The Farm Hideout of Bernardo Provenzano

One of those messages is practically a testament of fealty by Messina Denaro to Provenzano and spoke with deference to the crime boss saying:

"Lei è sempre nel mio cuore e nei miei pensieri, se ha bisogno di qualcosa da me è superfluo dire che sono a sua completa disposizione e sempre lo sarò. La prego di stare sempre molto attento, le voglio troppo bene".  

In another, writing as his nephew "Alessio," Messina Denaro wrote to his Uncle Bernardo saying:

"I know the rules and I respect them, the proof that I know the rules and that I'm respecting lies precisely in the fact that I'm turning to you to fix this unpleasant affair, this for me is respecting the rules.  You tells me that money in life isn't everything and that there are good things that money doesn't can buy. I totally agree with you, because I have always thought that one can be a man without a lira and one can be full of money and be mud." 

Offering both a mundane and fascinating image of himself on the lam, a substantial part of the Corleonese godfather's interrogation statements focus on the time period in his life immediately leading up to his capture.  Perhaps because by this period he understood that the clock was ticking and understanding that a) he couldn't hide forever and b) he needed help from others given his declining health.  

Some of his statements appear to be attempts to exonerate some of those individuals, who have been arrested on suspicion of having helped the Cosa Nostra boss during his illness, including statements in defence of Doctor Alfonso Tumbarello, whom Messina Denaro told the magistrates: 

"knows nothing."

Other individuals close to the boos faired less well during the Messina Denaro's ramblings.  

When speaking about undergoing medical care in Palermo under the false name of Andrea Bonafede, as an outpatient at the multi-specilaity hospital La Maddalena, Messina Denaro described several of the steps he needed in order to obtain false identity documents, knowing that he could not undergo chemotherapy and medical treatment in the state's medical institution directly under his own name. 

In this part of the interview Messina Denaro stated:

"I had a friendship with Andrea Bonafede, but a remote friendship because his father worked for us, for my father and then my father was a friend of his uncle, he had a another uncle suspected mafia convicted of mafia".

Investigators contend that in addition to lending his name, Bonafede received 20,000 euros from the Matteo Messina Denaro to buy a house in western Sicily that would serve as one of the fugitive's hideouts.

Messina Denaro also told the magistrates about a second assumed identity, used in the city of Campobello di Mazara, the Sicilian town that sheltered him.  Here he was known under the pseudonym “Francesco”, a Palermitan man who purportedly relocated from the city to the smaller town while caring for his ailing mother and two elderly aunts.  

Living dual identities while hiding in plain site within the Campobello community, Messina Denaro also admitted that in addition to travelling back and forth to the Palermo hospital for treatment, either alone or with an escort, he had openly visited Campobello's bakeries, greengrocers, and supermarkets.  He also played poker and eat in  local restaurants. Again, nothing extremely revelatory, as receipts and objects found in his hiding places confirm some of the his admitted activities. 

What is more of interest to readers of ARCA's Art Crime blog were the from-the-horse's-mouth affirmations made during this hour and forty minute interrogation that confirm directly from the source that Matteo Messina Denaro's family, and that of his father, Francesco Messina Denaro, capo mandamento in Castelvetrano and head of the mafia commission of the Trapani region, sustained their livelihoods, to some extent, by the proceeds of antiquities crimes.

Messina Denaro's verbal admissions concretise a written statement previously attributed to him, which was already mentioned in an article published in 2009 by Rino Giacalone for Antimafia Duemila.  In that article, the journalist refers to an intercepted "pizzini" written by Messina Denaro where the crime boss wrote almost word for word, what he admitted to during this interrogation.  

"With the trafficking of works of art we support our family."

Francesco Messina Denaro as readers of ARCA's blog may recall was already believed to have been behind the theft of the famous Efebo of Selinunte, a 5th century BCE statue of Dionysius Iachos, stolen on October 30, 1962 and recovered in 1968 through the help of Rodolfo Siviero. 

Matteo Messina Denaro was verbose when speaking to his dead father's and the family's involvement in the illicit antiquities trade.  He also mentions that his family bought from everyone and laundered antiquities illegally removed from Sicily via Switzerland, in an enterprise which supporting some 30 members of his family, including some who were incarcerated and others like himself who were on the run.  But the boss was far more laconic when asked directly if he knew Castelvetrano ancient art dealer Gianfranco Becchina.  In response to the PM's query in this regard, he answered: 

"lo conosco perché è un paesano mio, a prescindere, anche senza i beni... i pezzi archeologici, lo conosco lo stesso,  perché siamo paesani."

In October 2018, following a formal request by the Deputy Prosecutor for the District Anti-Mafia Directorate Carlo Marzella, preliminary reexamination judge of of the Court of Palermo, Antonella Consiglio, dismissed the charge of mafia association against Becchina citing in her decision that the accusations used for the basis of the charge, made originally via testimonies given by verbose mafia defector Vincenzo Calcara, had been deemed "unreliable". 

Back in 1992, Calcara, and now deceased former drug dealer Rosario Spatola,  incriminated Gianfranco Becchina for alleged association with the Campobello di Mazara and Castelvetrano clans, implying that there was a gang affiliate active in Switzerland whose role it was to sell ancient artefacts originating from the mab's black market.  At the time of his testimony, much of Calcara's information was discounted as many were skeptical that he had actual knowledge of the facts he represented or whether he invented things for his own benefit.

Matteo Messina Denaro's statements during his February interrogation however confirm that a network of criminals funnelled numerous illicit antiquities from Sicily through the art market in Switzerland, which flowed onward, into world museums.  But the mafia boss stopped short however, on confirming, by name, whose hands, these works of ancient art passed through. 

Like Provenzano before him, Matteo Messina Denaro, at least for now, seems to be determined to be his own custodian of many secrets, especially those which might openly implicate living individuals, who have direct or indirect relationships with the Cosa boss and result in their arrest and/or convictions.  Facing a terminal illness, Messina Denaro's statements are well-guarded, and for the most part his scant confessions during the interrogation seem wholly performative.  

Like so many mobsters before him, it seems that he plans to carry most of the Cosa Nostra's bloody business dealings with him to his grave. 

By:  Lynda Albertson