March 12, 2013

Nominations for ARCA's 2013 Art Policing and Recovery Award

Here are this year's three nominees for ARCA's 2013 Art Policing and Recovery Award which usually goes to a police officer, investigator, or lawyer.  Past winners have included: Vernon Rapley (2009), Charlie Hill (2010), Paolo Giorgio Ferri (2011), and Ernst Schöller (2012). 

Colonel Mathew Bogdanos, United States Marine Corps Reserves, Senior Investigative Counsel, Assistant District Attorney New York, investigated the looting from the Baghdad Museum and organized the security of it during the Iraq conflict. Colonel Bogdanos left active duty in the Marines in 1988 to join the New York County District Attorney's Office. Remaining in the Marine Corps Reserves in the 1990s, he led a counter-narcotics operation on the Mexican border and served in Desert Storm, South Korea, Lithuania, Guyana, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kosovo.
Losing his apartment near the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, he joined a counter-terrorism task force in Afghanistan, where he received a Bronze Star for actions against al-Qaeda. He then served in the Horn of Africa and three tours in Iraq—leading the investigation into the looting of Iraq’s National Museum—before deploying again to Afghanistan in 2009. Exposing the link between antiquities trafficking and terrorist financing, and presenting those findings to the United Nations, Interpol, British Parliament, and the Peace Palace in The Hague, he received a National Humanities Medal from President Bush for his work recovering more than 6,000 of Iraq's treasures in eight countries.  He holds a classics degree from Bucknell University; law degree and master’s in Classics from Columbia University; and master’s in Strategic Studies from the Army War College. Returning to the DA’s Office in October 2010, he continues the hunt for stolen antiquities. All royalties from his book, Thieves of Baghdad, are donated to The Iraq Museum.
Sharon Cohen Levin, Chief of the Asset Forfeiture Unit in the United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, has been instrumental in securing the return of innumerable antiquities and other cultural property to foreign governments, and artworks and other cultural property to the families of Holocaust victims from whom they had been looted or subjected to forced sale by the Nazis.  In 2010, Ms. Levin's office resolved the case of United States v. Portrait of Wally with the Leopold Museum in Vienna.  This case, involved the Estate of Lea Bondi Jaray and lasted over ten years that resulted in: payment of 19 million dollars to the Estate (reflecting at least the full value of the painting); an exhibit of the painting at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, before it returned to the Leopold Museum, and permanent signage to accompany the painting at the Leopold Museum and anywhere else in the world where it is exhibited, which sets forth in both English and German the true provenance of the painting and the legacy of Lea Bondi Jaray. The Wally case is credited with focusing the world's attention on the problem of Nazi-looted art.
In the past six years, the Southern District of New York has forfeited nearly $6 billion in crime proceeds. Ms. Levin pioneered the use of federal forfeiture laws to recover and return stolen art and cultural heritage property. The SDNY Asset Forfeiture Unit has initiated dozens of proceedings under the forfeiture laws -- seizing and returning artwork and cultural property to the persons and nations who rightfully own them.  Notable examples include the forfeiture and repatriation of stolen paintings by Lavinia Fontana, Jean Michel Basquiat, Roy Lichtenstein, Serge Poliakoff, Anton Graff and Winslow Homer; drawings by Rembrandt and Duhrer; an Etruscan bronze statute dated circa 490 B.C.; an antique gold platter dated circa 450 B.C.; a rare Mexican manuscript; a medieval carved wood panel which was originally inside the historic Great Mosque in Dvrigi; an Ancient Hebrew Bible owned by the Jewish Community of Vienna and stolen during the Holocaust and most recently, a Tyrannosaurus Bataar skeleton looted from the Gobi desert in Mongolia.
Christos Tsirogiannis is a forensic archaeologist at the University of Cambridge, completing his Ph.D thesis on the International Illicit Antiquities Network (“Unravelling the International Illicit Antiquities Network through the Robin Symes-Christos Michaelides archive and its international implications”). As a Reserve Officer of the Greek Army, he discovered two Archaic period settlements and a Classical period cemetery, for which he has been decorated with the Army Commendation Award (2003). For several years Tsirogiannis was the only archaeologist working for the Greek Police Art Squad in his native Athens and he remains actively involved in tracing stolen antiquities from both his native country and Italy. Roughly three times a year he will spot an object, perhaps a vase or a sculpture , that has come on to the art market with something about its provenance which serves to make him suspicious. Once alerted to the possibility that an illegally traded item may be about to change hands, he has used his experience to investigate auction houses and galleries, museums and private collections around the world making comparisons between evidence included in confiscated archives by police and judicial authorities. If, at that point, he reveals a trail that suggests the illicit origin of an antiquity, he contacts the relevant authorities of the robbed country.
Tsirogiannis, took his first degree in Archaeology and History of Art at the University of Athens and began his career as an archaeologist working for the Greek Ministry of Culture.  One morning in August 2004 he reported that his world changed when he got a phone call from the headquarters of the Athens police asking him to accompany them on a raid of a monastery where antiquities without any collecting history had been found. The Greek judicial system found the monks innocent – but it was a clearly problematic case that opened his eyes to the problems of trafficking. While in Greece, Tsirogiannis continued to work for the police as an unpaid volunteer, frequently escorting authorities on raids throughout Greece and identifying looted antiquities, while keeping his day job at the Ministry of Culture.  When his work with the police grew, he was offered a post with the Ministry of Justice. As an expert trusted by the authorities, he was directly involved in a series of high-profile investigations by specialist teams from the Greek and Italian police, researching archives of looted objects that had made their way along a clandestine network of looters, middlemen, famous auction houses and high-profile dealers working closely with top collectors.  The most notorious of these raids was that on the Robin Symes-Christos Michaelides summer residence in the Cyclades, where the authorities found an archive of professional photographs that recorded numerous looted and smuggled antiquities from nearly all the world’s ancient civilizations.

March 10, 2013

Jonathan Keat's FORGED: What Is Culture? Tom Keating (1917-1984)

The artist who copyrighted his mind in 2003, Jonathan Keats, questions the concept of originality in his new book, FORGED: Why Fakes Are the Great Art of Our Age (December 2012, Oxford University Press).

What is Culture? Tom Keating (1917-1984)

In 1982, British national television showed Tom Keating demonstrating how he painted in the style of masters such as Titian and Rembrandt. In his 1977 autobiography The Fake’s Progress, Keating, a former housepainter who had worked for art restorers, declared the use of inferior materials (“recklessness”) such as acrylics in ‘oil paintings’ indicated that his pictures in the style of great masters were never meant to fool the serious art market.

Rather than scraping down the old potboilers he bought in junk shops, he simply cleaned them with alcohol and reprimed them with a layer of rabbit-skin glue. He painted directly onto this surface, often in acrylics, sometimes brushing on a layer of darkening varnish before the paint cured. The results were predictably catastrophic. Even if his synthetic pigments were never detected by scientific testing, the paint would start to peel in a few decades, betraying his ruse.

Keating allegedly forged the work of Cornelius Krieghoff, a Dutch artist of the 19th century famous for his Canadian landscapes. Keats writes:

A Dutch artist working in Quebec City in the 1850s, Krieghoff produced thousands of diminutive farm and tavern scenes, many of which were bought as souvenirs by British soldiers. Historians came to value them for their detailed documentation of Canadian customs. Collectors coveted them for their decorative charm. Dealers delighted in their escalating prices, reaching into the thousands of pounds by the 1950s. Keating appreciated them for Krieghoff’s skillful depiction of “jolly little Brueghelesque figures” and for the fact that Krieghoff “did so many versions of the same picture” – to which hundreds more could and would be added over the following decade.

In the early 1950s, Keating sold forgeries through junk shops in south London, then through country auctions in Scotland where he worked ‘restoring the trifling art collections of minor Highlands castles’, then on to counterfeiting paintings by artists such as Degas, Goya and Samuel Palmer whom he claimed possessed him and used him to create more artworks long after their deaths. A Times of London correspondent, Geraldine Norman, began unraveling the forgeries of Keating in 1970 but didn’t publish until 1976. Once confronted, Keating immediately confessed:

Alluding to the full scope of his forgery, he declared that money was not his incentive.  “I flooded the market with the ‘work’ of Palmer and many others, not for gain (I hope I am no materialist) but simply as a protest against the merchants who make capital out of those I am proud to call my brother artists, both living and dead.”

International headlines followed Keating, along with a book-deal to be ‘ghost-written’ by Norman’s husband, Frank, a petty-thief-turned-playwright. However, at Keating’s three-week trial ended when he fell ill and the prosecutor dropped the case. Keating recovered and became a celebrity after forging works for more than two decades in 12 television episodes before he died of heart failure.

March 9, 2013

Jonathan Keats' FORGED: Elmyr de Hory (1906(?)-1976, What Is Identity?

The artist who copyrighted his mind in 2003, Jonathan Keats, questions the concept of originality in his new book, FORGED: Why Fakes Are the Great Art of Our Age (December 2012, Oxford University Press). He writes a section on art forger Elmyr de Hory.

The forger most commonly known as Elmyr de Hory fabricated his name, his life story, and had so little credibility that quantifying the number of oil paintings faked is unknown even decades after his suicide in Ibiza in 1976. Keats writes:

Elmyr’s plagiarism of authentic works only served to obfuscate, confounding the identification of work he really faked. In the catalogue for a 2010 de Hory retrospective at the Hillstrom Art Museum, Irving estimated that up to 90 percent of Elmyr’s forgeries remained undetected. “Elmyr’s illegitimate masterpieces in public and private collections under the names of a number of the great Modernists may continue resting undisturbed, perhaps forever,” mused museum director Donald Myers, inadvertently echoing de Hory. (“If you hang them in a museum and if they hang long enough,” said Elmyr in F is for Fake, “then they become real.”)

Orson Welles’ film F is for Fake (1975) and the fictional biography Fake (1969) by Clifford Irving (of the Howard Hughes autobiography hoax) provided no further biographical clarity about de Hory.  But what of the effect in the art world of de Hory’s fakes? In 1952, when Beverly Hills gallery owner Frank Perls decided drawings presented by Louis Raynal (de Hory) ‘were fraudulent, he evicted Raynal from his gallery and – as he later recalled – threatened to call the police if Raynal didn’t leave town'.  Three years later, a curator at Boston’s Fogg Art Museum also returned drawings represented as by Modigliani and Renoir to Raynal and relegated an Elmyr ‘Matisse’ to storage. ‘Lest he (de Hory) sue for defamation, Elmyr was never told what happened.’ In 1966, Texan oil tycoon Algur Hurtle Meadows bargained hard to purchase 58 modern masterpieces in oils, watercolors and gouache pictures by Elmyr de Hory through a pair of art dealers, Legros and Lessard, alleged to have manufactured the authentication of these works. Keats writes:

They bribed the experts or had their official stamps counterfeited. When the artists were still alive, the duo gambled on poor memory and failing eyesight, a ruse known to have worked at least once on an eighty-nine-year-old Kees van Dongen, who authenticated an Elmyr ostensibly painted when van Dongen was in his forties. The extensive documentation allowed Legros and Lessard to circumvent galleries, retailing directly to the nouveau riche of Europe and the United States.

De Hory spent the last years of his life selling paintings in the manner of master artists under his own name until he killed himself ‘with a cocktail of sleeping pills and cognac to avoid extradition to France, where he was to be tried for fraud in the long-drawn-out [Algur Hurtle] Meadows case.'

March 8, 2013

ARCA Lecturer Judge Arthur Tompkins Interviewed on New Zealand's Public Radio

Here's the link to last week's interview of art crime lecturer Judge Arthur Tompkins on New Zealand's public radio. Judge Tompkins teaches a unit on the subject of art crime in war for ARCA's Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection in Umbria.

In this 21-minute interview on Nine to Noon by journalist Kathryn Ryan on Radio New Zealand, Judge Tompkins discusses cases from the history of art theft from "Ancient Greek and Roman times to modern day Iraq and Afghanistan".  

March 7, 2013

Wall Street Journal article highlights work of textile conservator Julia Brennan (ARCA Alum 2009)

An article in The Wall Street Journal by freelance writer Joanne Lee-Young, "A Guardian of Rare, Exotic Fabrics", highlights the work of textile conservator Julia Brennan who attended ARCA's Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection in 2009.

Ms. Brennan's professional highlights include conservation work on Abraham Lincoln's coat, Babe Ruth's kimono; a 19th century Thai robe gifted by the King of Siam to the only foreign naval officer charged with leading the Royal Thai Navy; and teaching textile conservation techniques to monks in Bhutan. 

March 6, 2013

Do art forgers prey on our treasure hunt instinct?

Here are two videos published in the last week that can be tied together to explain the art market's vulnerability to forgeries:

From Ljublijana, Slovenia, ARCA founder Noah Charney discusses "Leonardo da Vinci and the Treasure Hunt Instinct" where he discusses how art satisfies our desire to find what is hidden, to solve puzzles, riddles and mysteries (toward the end of his lecture he mentions that 2/3 of known art produced by old master painters is considered lost).

On CBS Sunday Morning News, Ken Perenyi confessed that he brought newly created paintings aged to fool art experts with the intent of obtaining a more lucrative attribution on more than 1,000 art pieces -- his contribution to the art market. Note that the FBI has never filed charges against Perenyi (according to CBS) and that the 'statue of limitation on his misdeeds as run out' despite Perenyi's admission that he 'lied to the agents' because in Perenyi's world 'it's survival, part of the game'. In this video, appraiser Brenda Simonson-Mohle calls Perenyi a "thief on the loose" and calls forgery "pretty much bank robbery with paintbrush."

Ken Perenyi, in the tradition of art forgers Elmyr de Hory (Clifford Irving wrote Fake! The Story of Elmyr De Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time in 1969) and Eric Hebborn (Drawn to Trouble in 1991), has written the confessional Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of An American Art Forger (reviewed last summer by Jonathan Lopez in the Wall Street Journal last summer).

March 5, 2013

Dutch Police Arrest 19-year-old Romanian woman in connection with the Rotterdam Kunsthal Art Heist

Matisse painting stolen from Kunsthal Rotterdam
Monday March 4 Dutch police arrested a 19-year-old Romanian woman, the girlfriend of one of the suspected thieves responsible for robbing the Rotterdam's Kunsthal on October 16. 

In January, Romanian police arrested three men in Bucharest suspected of stealing seven paintings attributed to brand name artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Lucian Freud, and Paul Gauguin.

According to Reuter's Thomas Escritt reporting from Amsterdam yesterday, Dutch police's review of the art gallery's surveillance tapes of led authorities to two Romanian men, age 25 and 28, based upon 'their behavior and the frequency of their visits'. Escritt wrote:
Police believe the unnamed woman, the girlfriend of the 28-year-old, was living in the flat where the canvases were stored until they had been removed from their frames and transported to Romania.

ARCA Trustee Erik Nemeth on the Political Economy of Cultural Property and A Gap in Cultural Intelligence

ARCA Trustee Erik Nemeth (and a lecturer on Cultural Security during the summer program in Amelia) published two articles on the political economics of cultural property and cultural intelligence last month.

"Alternative Power: Political Economy of Cultural Property" in Columbia's Journal of International Affairs begins:
Last May, The Scream by Edvard Munch set a record for the most expensive painting sold at auction. The $120 million sale at Sotheby’s in New York illustrated a trend in record prices for artworks at auction and in private sales. At the same time, members of the al Qaeda-linked group Ansar Dine started to target mausoleums of Sufi saints in Timbuktu, Mali, and conflict in Syria continued to compromise cultural heritage with the looting of the well preserved Crusader castle, Krak des Chevaliers. The purchase of The Scream and the destruction of the historic monuments represent extremes that derive from the perceived value of art and the strategic value of cultural heritage.
"A gap in cultural intelligence" in The Providence Journal begins:
What the heck happened to cultural sensibilities last year?
While collectors bid up record prices for artworks at auction--Edvard Munch's "The Scream" went for $120 million in May--they were criticized for a lack of aesthetic judgment, especially at the premier U.S. fair, Art Basel Miami Beach. And cultural heritage took a turn for the worse as well. Cooperation on repatriation of antiquities was overshadowed by grim reports of wanton destruction of historic sites in Mali and Syria. With both contemporary and ancient art, the desire to collect and possess seemed to outstrip cultural appreciation.
High-end collectors and cultural-heritage abusers alike would benefit from a boost in cultural intelligence, or "CQ," to grasp the interrelation of art, culture, economic development, and human rights..
You may follow his studies on the blog Art World Intelligence through the online newspaper Cultural Security News.

March 2, 2013

Continued coverage of the Conference on Protection of Cultural Property in Asia

Textile conservator Julia M. Brennan continues coverage of last month's conference.

The conference was structured into 3 thematic working sessions: Policy and Institutional Framework and Capacity Building (Session 1);  Technical Aspects of Protecting Cultural Heritage Property: Networking with INTERPOL and the International Community (Session 2); and Recovery of Cultural Property, post Theft or Disaster (Session 3).  Here are highlights of a few of the talks: 

Session 1 presentations dovetailed, making a strong case for the use of preventative measures to protect cultural heritage.

Mr. Etienne Clement, Deputy Director of UNESCO, Bangkok gave the opening talk for Session 1 covering national and international laws, international conventions such as the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict1970 UNESCO Convention on Illicit Trafficking, and the UNIDROIT. He made a compelling argument for nation states to adopt and use these conventions; teach cultural heritage personnel and police about them; and use them as a foundation tool for combatting the illicit trade in antiquities and art.

Mr. Tshewang Gyalpo, Chief of Bhutan’s Department of Culture, spoke about the country’s national database of heritage; defined Bhutanese heritage; outlined the role of the conservation department and regional cultural officers and the trainings in place to better secure sacred sites.

Mr. Karl-Heinz Kind, INTERPOL, provided an overview of the important and active role that his agency performs, advocating member states to join and participate. The effectiveness of  INTERPOL's stolen works of art database and Project PSCHE (designed to utilize the Italian Carabinieri for the Protection of Cultural Heritage's help in modernizing the database). He emphasized that investigations and recovery are only supported by nations’ involvement and called for greater involvement by nations to make protection of cultural heritage a priority.

Julia Brennan (left) and Fiona MacAlister (right) with
 Dasho Dorjee Tshering, Secretary of Home and Culture
Ms. Fiona Macalister, a disaster preparedness expert from the UK, and I, a textile conservator and consultant for preventative conservation, made the case for employing preventative measures at the front end to protect cultural heritage. Fiona provided a clear blueprint for risk management and disaster planning, outlining different disaster scenarios in the event of  fire, flood, earthquake, and theft and provided standards, checklists, and constructive methods of training. I outlined methods adopted from conservation including secure storage, good protective housings, training of local caretakers and cultural heritage staffs, the importance of detailed and updated documentation, analysis, collaborating with and training of law enforcement, raising public awareness and ownership through media outlets, and engagement of community based groups and tourist infrastructure.

Session 2 featured talks specifically focused on law enforcement efforts to combat the illicit trade. Among the presentators were:

Mr. Gaspare Cilluffo, Customs, Italy, provided an introduction to the law enforcement real time platforms of ARCHEO and COLOSSEUM. He provided clear how-to-use steps for these programs, for both customs and police, in an effort to broaden the international communications and work in real time. He emphasized the goals of sharing information about seizures and new trends, background profiles, best practices, and official consulting experts.

Ms. Silvilie Karfeld, from the German Police, provided extremely useful and creative methods to combat the illicit trade across uncontrolled borders. From the macro of international law enforcement efforts, collaboration between nations, to micro solutions such as neighborhood watch programs, physically marking artifacts as ID, registration of artifacts with cut off dates, pressuring and working with major online sales sites and insurance industry. Like Clement and Brennan, she advocated enhancing the awareness by common people, utilizing the media, and encouraging source countries to take action and monitor the art markets themselves.

Both Mr. Martin Finkelberg, Art Crime Police, The Netherlands, and Mr. Iain Shearer, formerly with the UK Police, gave inspirational and personal talks about investigations and seizures, and the importance of networking. Iain outlined some British successes in seizing illicit Afghan antiquities since 2006. Both an archeologist and police officer, his talk was a lively history of ancient sites and their importance, how they are pillaged, and arrive in the end market. Martin used several case studies to show the success of having informants, a strong prosecutor, utilizing databases, to solve heritage thefts.

Session 3 focused on recovery and methods employed.

Professor Duncan Chappell from Australia outlined several recovery cases in the market country Australia of SEA artifacts and human remains blatantly for sale by BC Gallery:  While some artifacts were recovered or pressure was brought to bear to remove artifacts from sale, the Australian laws are toothless and do not support timely prosecution or seizure. As with many countries, the little slap of the hand does nothing to stem the trade, Professor Chappell said, and called for greater funding for research, investigation and cross border collaboration in the Asian Pacific region.

Major Guy Tubiana, Chief of Security for France’s Museums and Cultural Sites, provided some sound and simple tips for securing sites and training staff. He emphasized the sixth sense of police and security experts, and the constantly changing landscape of theft and trafficking.

Brigadier Kipchu Namgyel, Chief of Royal Bhutan Police, gave an excellent talk about the state of cultural heritage protection in Bhutan, the locations of highest thefts, the incentives and investigation methods employed, and some creative, if not controversial solutions to the problem of chorten vandalism.

The conference concluded with strategic working sessions on each of the three themes. Each group provided a set of recommendations for improving nation’s capacity building, and better protection of cultural heritage though the implementation of specific tasks, many adopted from the three days of presentations.

At the end of three days, attendees took away the strong message that as a global community, we must partner, deploy all the tools possible, engage and maintain strong active relationships across borders, and promote both loss and success more effectively through the media. It also underlined the greater need for the development of stronger Asian participation in law enforcement, liaison with INTERPOL and international customs, and prioritizing the protection of cultural heritage by Asian governments.

This conference was a good first step for combatting the illicit trade in Asia. And, to maintain the momentum, we need to follow up quickly, with additional sessions in Thailand, Singapore, and China, (at the very least), with a focused attempt to identify and bring key law enforcement and cultural heritage professionals to the table. In addition, we could strategically reinforce the message with post conference trainings of law enforcement, customs, and rural caretakers in methods of investigation, analysis, better security, filing stolen art, and monitoring of art sales. Too many major Asian players were missing in Bhutan, but there is a lot of opportunity ahead.  

Website of conference:

Published papers forthcoming in 2013

Julia M. Brennan is a Conservator and Cultural Heritage Protection Consultant

March 1, 2013

Coverage of the first Conference on Protection of Cultural Property in Asia (15-18 February 2013, Thimphu, Bhutan)

Snowy entrance to convention center in Thimphu, Bhutan
By Julia Brennan, ARCA Alum 2009

Part I

The Royal Government of Bhutan graciously hosted the first Asian-based cultural security conference, under the auspices of the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs (MoHCa), and funded by Interpol and the Norwegian Department of Foreign Affairs. It was the first attempt to bring together professionals in the culture protection and law enforcement sectors to begin to develop networks and alliances in this region. In funding this convening, Interpol’s goal is to launch stronger initiatives with member states in Asia—promoting engagement and information exchange; regular posting on the stolen art database; and sustainable relationships with Asian country law enforcement and customs agencies.

The Royal Government of Bhutan was a gracious and generous host. For many attendees, it was a first visit to this remarkable and beautiful Kingdom.  This gathering was unlike most conferences where attendees are ‘on their own’ for most evenings and free days.  Instead, the foreign guests were treated to well-organized cultural tours of sacred monasteries and museums, and feted with rich local meals, cultural dance programs, comfortable hotels, hot stone baths, and quick shopping sprees - a rich and generous welcome and introduction to Bhutan. Everyone was humbled by the kindness and all-inclusiveness of our hosts.

The marchang, a traditional Bhutanese ceremony, performed.
Opening day began at the National Convention Center started with the marchang, a traditional Bhutanese ceremony performed to promote an auspicious start to a new endeavor. That night, a deep snow fell blanketing the country – an auspicious sign for our forum to protect cultural heritage. We were profusely thanked and blessed, as indeed the deities were pleased with our conference; the much-needed snow heralded a good start to the new year of the Water Snake, a robust harvest, and an end to the forest fires.

In attendance were about 30 international participants and 60 Bhutanese. The Bhutanese representation included the Cultural Officer and local police chief from each of the 20 national districts, as well as professionals from the Ministry of Home and Culture, local museums, and monasteries. Foreign participants came from Germany, Switzerland, France, Italy, The Netherlands, UK, USA, Korea, Australia, Vietnam, China and India. The strongest law enforcement sector heralded from Europe, with the Executive Director of Police Services of Interpol, M. Jean-Michel Louboutin as the Honorable Chief Guest. European police, investigators, criminologists, and customs agents made up the strongest component of the conference.

Interpol's Jean-Michel Louboutin with Brigadier Kipchu Namgyel, Chief of Police Royal Bhutan Police
The 20 presenters, chiefly non-Asian, laid out sound instruments, platforms, and methodologies for combatting the illicit trade and retrieving lost cultural heritage. It was a powerful tool kit that we began with.  It covered national and international laws, conventions, inventories and object ID databases, and international joint customs operations.  Presenters reviewed platforms such as ARCHEO, COLOSEUM, ICOM’s Red List and INTERPOL’s stolen art database.  Additional information was provided about museum security measures; investigations by police and criminologists; the role of prosecutors; the importance of preventative measures adopted from the conservation practice; and grass roots initiatives in culturally-rich areas.  The content-rich agenda even covered liaison with tourist and local infrastructure; use of the media to build awareness and participation; development of emergency and disaster preparedness; and the role of market versus source countries in the fight to protect cultural property.

Sadly, there was little police representation from most Asian countries. Noticeably lacking at this first Asian-based conference were law enforcement, customs, or Ministry of Culture personnel from Thailand, India, Nepal, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Singapore or Malaysia. Several of these countries - Thailand, China, and Singapore, for example - play major roles in international trafficking and trans-shipment.  Others, such as Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Indonesia, are victims of ongoing looting and theft of their cultural property. The Bhutanese may have benefited the most from this conference, with a strong and broad-based attendance, with several presentations focused on illicit trafficking and theft cases in Bhutan.

There was a paucity of dialogue about other Asian countries, with no mention or discussion of the ever-growing Asian-based market for antiquities. Singapore and Bangkok are both active illicit hubs, with China and Vietnam’s growing population of individuals with purchasing power creating renewed demand for antiquities globally.  Thus, it felt like a missed opportunity to not explore these newly emerging markets and laundering sites. At the same time, perhaps now that the first such gathering is complete, it’s possible that future gatherings will begin to address these major threats to regional cultural heritage.

Bhutan emerged as the star player in this conference and in the protection of their cultural property. A preview of this strong role was the large sign at the national airport customs picturing Bhutanese artifacts and stating “Help Us Protect our Culture and Heritage” (along with caveats, guidelines, and penal consequences). Bhutan is an active member of INTERPOL, with regular communications and postings to INTERPOL’s stolen art database. It also has a sound and growing national database (both written and photographed) of their cultural heritage; training and posting of cultural officers in all the districts widely distributed and culturally-aware police force, and a strong base of nationalism and religious beliefs by the population at large. Bhutan is actively engaged in the protection of their religious heritage and presented several compelling talks focused on the theft and loss, recovery and preventative methods in place.

Bhutanese speakers included: The Minister of Home and Culture, H.E. Lyonpo Minjur Dorji; Mr. Dorjee Tshering, Director General of the Department of Culture; Mr. Tshewant Gyalpo, Director of Department of Culture; and Brigadier Kipchu Namgyel, Chief of Police Royal Bhutan Police.  All gave clear overviews of the current state of cultural property protection, regional statistics of loss, including case studies of the on-going vandalism of remote chortens or stupas. These religious sites are primarily targeted for the possible snatching of the valuable dzi bead, or cat’s eye agates. Since these relic beads are greatly sought after by Taiwanese and Chinese willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a stunning example, the thefts continue, perhaps by hire, and certainly executed by a well-greased international smuggling ring. The violation of these sacred protective sites deeply pains the Bhutanese, and steps are being taken to stem the on-going vandalism. Several law enforcement experts from Europe, as well as the deputy director of UNESCO, met with Bhutanese officials to discuss the urgency of this problem, and launch of a strategy and programs to end these thefts.

Ms. Brennan's coverage of the conference will continue tomorrow.