April 25, 2020

Saturday, April 25, 2020 - ,,,,, No comments

Christ Church loans and other Dirk Obbink answered and unanswered questions.


In an article in today's UK Times, the London newspaper reported that a review of Christ Church college's annual reports indicate that there was an equity-sharing arrangement with Dr. Dirk Obbink for £434,000 in 2018 in order for the professor to purchase a property. 

Agreements of this type are not unusual per se and are even written into the Statutes of Christ Church Oxford:

5. Equity sharing arrangements for Official Students, Officers and other persons employed by the House 

(a) Subject to such provisions (if any) as may from time to time be contained in the By-laws but without prejudice to the powers of investment contained in clause 2 of this Statute the Governing Body may enter into equity sharing arrangements with an OfficialStudent, Officer mentioned in Statute XVI.  1 or other person employed by the House who does not reside in the House.
 

(b) Subject as aforesaid, the Governing Body may dispose of any interest in a property acquired under an equity sharing arrangement to any co-beneficiary of the trust of land on such terms as it thinks fit.
 

(c) For the purposes of sub-clauses (a) and (b) of this clause, an equity sharing arrangement is an arrangement to purchase property jointly with an Official Student, Officer or other person employed by the House and with family members of such persons is a constituent college of the University of Oxford.

Awkward timing and unfinished business

While The Times didn't give an exact date of the execution of this financial arrangement with Obbink, we know that by 4 June 2018, in a statement issued by the Egyptian Exploration Society that they had questioned Dr. Obbink about the sale of P.Oxy. 5345, the so-called First Century Mark fragment.  The EES has repeatedly affirmed that this papyrus fragment has never been for sale and was allegedly sold without their consent or knowledge along with other fragments determined to be missing from the collection held at Oxford University’s Sackler Library, all of which made their way into the collections at the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC.

According to the EES statement, when questioned Obbink acknowledged having shown P.Oxy. 5345 to Scott Carroll, at the time affiliated with the MotB and the Green Collection's point person for purchases, as well as to Oxford students in his college rooms but had "insisted that he had never said the papyrus was for sale, and that while he did receive some payments from the Green Collection for advice on other matters, he did not accept any payment for or towards purchase of this text."

How this equity arrangement with Christ Church will be effected by Obbink's legal troubles, if at all remain to be seen.   

One also has to wonder what the impact will be, if any, of Obbink's legal entanglements on the publicly funded research grant he obtained through the UK's Research and Innovation (UKRI) on Living Virtually: Creating and Interfacing Digital Surrogates of Textual Data Embedded (Hidden) in Cultural Heritage Artefacts.  Funded from May 2019 through April 2022 for £845,579 Dr. Obbink is listed as the project's Principal Investigator.

One thing the Times article did clear up is that it was Professor Obbink's legal team, and not Christ Church College, who contacted The Oxford Blue newspaper and threatened legal action for them having named the professor in reporting his arrest on 2 March 2020.  That contact has resulted in the student newspaper amending their original article, which is now back online.

April 23, 2020

Shocking images of the theft of the Van Gogh in Holland shows thief used a sledgehammer

Vincent van Gogh – Parish garden in Nuenen, Spring 1884. 25x57
The Dutch police have released a portion of the video surveillance footage of a single suspect directly involved in the nighttime theft of Vincent Van Gogh's Parish garden in Nuenen from the Singer Laren Museum.  

On loan from the Groninger Museum in the city of Groningen, the painting was part of the Mirror of the Soul exhibition which highlighted more than 70 Dutch paintings and was stolen on Match 30, 2020, 167 years to the day of the artist's birth. The burglary took a matter of minutes.   

CCTV footage released by law enforcement and the museum shows a man approaching the museum by motorcycle and then smashing his way through the museum's front doors with a sledgehammer.  Once inside the museum, he finds a second glass door locked and with seven or eight blows, quickly bashes his way through to access the gallery area.  

The thief is then seen retracing his steps through the museum's gift shop carrying the 25-by-57-centimeter (10-by-22-inch) oil-on-paper painting under his right arm while balancing the sledgehammer in his left hand. 


Police would like to hear from any potential witnesses who saw the thief arrive outside the museum on a motorcycle.  You can pass your tip on 0800-6070 or online via https: //www.politie.nl/mijn-buurt/nie 

If you want to remain anonymous, please call 0800-7000.

April 18, 2020

Saturday, April 18, 2020 - ,,,,, 1 comment

Censorship by the Oxford University or by Dirk Obbink's law team?

On 16 April Lois Helsop at The Oxford Blue broke the news of that Thames Valley police had arrested American papyrologist Dr. Dirk Obbink, an associate professor in papyrology and Greek literature at Oxford University, on 2 March 2020.  ARCA, as well as prominent news outlets, picked up on this news notice, and in our case, linked back to Helsop's original article and directed our readers also to earlier ARCA postings (see this running thread) of this professor and the buying and selling of ancient texts.   

Professor Obbink has been the focus of much journalistic attention regarding the unauthorised sale of papyrus from the Oxyrhynchus collection, which is owned by the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) and housed at Oxford's Sackler Library, pieces of which were discovered to have been purchased by the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC. 

Today that Oxford Blue article has been removed.  Replaced by a brief statement which reads:
"This article is currently not available while The Oxford Blue takes counsel on legal threats it has received. The factual accuracy of this article is not contested by any party."
One has to ask, whose lawyer's rattled the young newspaper's cage?  Was it Oxford University's or Dr. Obbink's? While official guidance over whether arrested suspects’ names should be published ahead of charge is mixed, it is poor form to intimidate journalists for reporting facts on a high profile case, knowing a student newspaper doesn't have the funds to fight a litigious battle.  Luckily, the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, a service that preserves web pages, has a copy of the original story archived, at least for now, or until they too receive a lawyerly take down request. 

Archived news articles are indispensable research resources as they can help reconstruct events, even the distasteful ones, which are necessary for historical and comparative research.  Often they are the last trace we have before knowledge is locked away in private nondisclosure settlements, or worse, when reporting is removed to avoid threats, legal and otherwise.

Here's to a universal access to all knowledge and if you have not already PDFed this webpage to memorialise the material for your own research, then now might be a good time, especially if you are following the interrelated cases of ethical behaviour in the museum and academic worlds as closely as we are.

Saturday, April 18, 2020 - ,, No comments

Understanding the chiaroscuro context of art crime and statistics


Erika Bochereau, the Secretary General of the Confédération Internationale des Négociants en Œuvres d’Art (CINOA), a trade organization for art and antiques dealers, has written a response to a recent report by ILLICID,  launched by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.   In their report, the researchers reported that thousands of archaeological cultural assets from the eastern Mediterranean are currently offered for sale in Germany and in most cases, it is impossible to use the accompanying information to assess whether the objects are legally or illegally placed on the market or even determine what is fake.  Bochereau's Op Ed article can be found on ArtNet News here

In her article the CINOA Secretary General expressed that the report is:

"part of the trend now dubbed “zombie statistics”—that is, pieces of information that are frequently cited by experts and institutions, despite having no basis in research or reality."

In one sense Bochereau is partially correct, statistics regarding art crimes are difficult to concretise and even harder to evaluate and there is the circular loop where off the cuff recorded stats are repeated by various institutions citing one another, without any of them actually taking responsibility for researching the statistic.

Frequently art crime statistics are inconsistent, incomplete, ineffectual or inconclusive, in part because the market is intentionally opaque with regards to object provenance, which makes data collection difficult, and therefore harder to quantify, especially when what is "clean" in the market and what isn't requires an object by object evaluation, and in part because statistics are only as good as the record keepers' records, and having some uniformity in how records are documented is a problem with all national and transnational crime.  

Bochereau is also correct that many of the numbers thrown about in newspaper articles can be based on word-of mouth evidence or are subject to individual interpretation:

"a “belief” held by some experts—but gave no evidence to support that belief."

But I would argue that point a bit further.

Statistical analysis, reported in the press or in loftier political, regulatory, or economic corridors is always problematic, even more so when interpreted by journalists with rapid deadlines, asking for quotes from talking head experts who are non statisticians,  or worse, citing a one-liner written in an academic article without a fuller examination.

To illustrate my point in a less contentious manner, let's take a look at a non art crime case with its own more concrete, yet still frustratingly, very variable, set of statistics.  

Let's assume you are a news journalist or a researcher who wants to calculate a statistical result regarding a specific seizure of illicit drugs.  

In our test case, let's use last year's arrest of an Italian national connected to the seizure of 1,500 kilos of cocaine which had been destined for Europe and found aboard a fishing vessel bound for Spain.  Knowing that the UNODC keeps stats from 2007 to 2017 on cocaine prices in Western and Central Europe, it should be fairly easy to extrapolate the "value" of that particular haul.  

So let's set about calculating the value of this single cocaine seizure in a methodological manner. 

I could start with the wholesale price point of the drug in Spain, the port where the vessel was headed, which, as a country, values cocaine at $39,747 per kilo.
  • $39,747 multiplied by 1500 kilos = $59,620,500
Or, I could start with the wholesale price point of the drug in Italy, where the drugs may have been destined, which, as a country, values cocaine at $43,527 per kilo.
  • $43,527 multiplied by 1500 kilos = $65,290,500
Or I could start with the wholesale average price point of the drug in the whole of Europe, not knowing what country is the final destination of the drugs, in which the EU averages the values of cocaine across all reporting European countries is $44,083 per kilo.
  • $44,083 multiplied by 1500 kilos = $66,126,000 
Oh but those numbers might not be sensational enough for the daily newspaper,  so let's redo the exercise again, using the UNODC's retail values of a gram of cocaine purchased by the average party animal.

The street value price point in Spain for cocaine is $67 per gram.  
  • $67 per gram multiplied by 1000 grams (1 kilo) multiplied by 1500 = $100,500,000
The street value price point in Italy for cocaine is $92 per gram.
  • $92 per gram multiplied by 1000 grams (1 kilo) multiplied by 1500 = $138,000,000
And finally, by some weird quirk, the street value price point averaged out across the all reporting EU countries for cocaine is slightly lower, at $84 per gram.
  • $84 per gram multiplied by 1000 grams (1 kilo) multiplied by 1500 = $126,000,000
Which dollar value do you use?  Well, if you are law enforcement and want to validate the investigative successes of your detectives, you may elect to use the numbers related to your particular country.  If you are a politician coming up for reelection who wants to show a drop in crime during your administration, he/she may want to use the data that reflect the lowest dollar amount possible (to show a downturn in crime) or the highest number possible (to solidify a get tough on crime stance).  Lastly, if you are a journalist, well, bigger is always sexier right?  

Now imagine asking every law enforcement agency where drugs are seized which numbers they used when they gave their estimate to their governments, to news journalists, or to research academics.  And when asked to generate numbers on multiple seizures, confirming if anyone has bothered to specify which numbers they used or how they derived the figure. 

I can tell you form experience, many people are satisfied with just having any measurable number without exploring further where the statistical data was derived. 

All this to say that even with an illicit drug, which at least has a quantifiable price, and a finite weight, to determine a financial value, does not always give you a uniform formula for interpreting that data when left unspecified.

Heck, even with something as simple as counting the dead in the COVID-19 pandemic can give you skewed data, as some countries are keeping statistics which only count confirmed (i.e. tested) coronavirus deaths and leave out all the people who died before they could be tested.


But let's switch back to trying to establish financial numbers related to art crimes.  

Winding the clock back to September 2016 when two Van Gogh paintings, which were stolen from the Van Gogh Museum, were recovered in Italy.  

According to the New York Times, at the time of the theft, the estimated value of Vincent Van Gogh's “Seascape at Scheveningen” (1882) and “Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen” (1884/85), was 4 million euros, or about $4.5 million, according to Adriaan Dönszelmann, the managing director of the Van Gogh Museum. 

The UK's newspaper the Telegraph estimated that the two paintings were worth a total €100 million despite giving no explanation as to how they arrived at this exaggerated number.  

The Van Gogh Museum's administration at the time of the recovery gave no numbers whatsoever.  They stated only that the "art historical value of the paintings for the collection is "huge"

And lastly, given that the paintings were never actually up for sale in the first place, nor would they ever appear on the licit market auction block, others argued that the works of art were "priceless".  

What quantitative financial figure do you give to a "priceless" work of art? 

So how would you quantify that one single theft when trying to create a total value of art thefts from museums for example?

In making a financial accounting of not-for-sale plundered antiquities accessioned into museum collections, what value would you put on the Getty Bronze?  The price the museum originally paid for it?  The sales price, plus the price for restoring and maintaining it?  All of the above plus the cummulative years of attorney fees spent to litigate over and over again for its return?  Or would this statue also simply be referred to as "priceless".  

Now quantify the "damages" to heritage originating from conflict countries.  What price can you put on undermining the cultural identity of the local communities, the sometimes absolute destruction of their cultural and religious monuments, or the theft of private property (as in World War II related claims) and national collections?  What price do you put on art as it relates to its tactical value, for insurgencies and terrorist groups, when they destroy art as a means of displaying control, and loot the objects of their perceived opponents for financial gain in an asymmetrical conflict?

Better still, try quantifying the smaller, portable artefacts deliberately stolen from archaeological sites, temples and museums which are on the market now.  Here we COULD in theory at least give a market value based on searching out the individual sales prices of confirmed suspect artefacts, but that type of drilled down research isn't being done comprehensively and it sure isn't being funded by countries or academic institutions, let alone by the market itself.    

So there you have it.  A total standoff, between the market making excuses for its own provenance opacity, standing behind the convenient loophole that data protection rules prevent full disclosure without consent, and the traditionally clandestine nature of the art market in and of itself, each of which pose further challenges to putting financial figures together to concretely assess "the cost" of looting and trafficking in an easily digestible, and truly accurate way. 

What we do know is that the illicit market in movable cultural property motivates looting in developing nations.  On a transnational level, it is indisputable the trade in illicit art has been proven to put money in the hands of everyone, from gallery dealers, an unemployed workman, farmers, petty criminals, organised crime syndicates and on some occasions military insurgencies and terrorist groups. 

I will close by saying, I too question statistics frequently.  But I do look at facts, even in isolation.  Facts which clearly illustrate that the problem of illicit art being bought and sold on the licit art market still presently exists and it is real.  

I am also open to admitting the difficulties of data and its inherent fallibility, but I'd like to also see a similar openness from the art market's dealer associations openly addressing that there are still problems among some of their stakeholders that they should be taking an active role in addressing, instead of merely downplaying the research of others while putting their collective heads in the sand that there is real work to be done in order to clean up the art market. 

If the Confédération Internationale des Négociants en Œuvres d’Art (CINOA) wants to critically judge the research efforts of ILLICID, then let them do so, but they should also turn a critical eye to the concrete proofs that there is an ongoing problem with tainted artworks circulating in the art market amongst some of their membership, despite old and new legislation and conventions.  In doing so they should also be more forthcoming with acknowledging that some of the market's current problems can be traced to individuals directly affiliated with their member associations.

I have yet to read a statement by a member of CINOA management which seeks to address what stance CINOA has taken towards dealers-members like Jaume Bagot Peix, under investigation in Spain, or Jürgen Haering who has been listed in the sales of an oinochoe, a lekythos, and an attic cup all tied to disgraced dealer Gianfranco Becchina.    

Nor has CINOA openly addressed the fact that suspect objects for sale or on consignment with some of its association members are (still) being seized in connection with law enforcement investigations; some as recently as TEFAF Maastricht 2018, TEFAF New York 2018, BRAFA 2020, and TEFAF Maastricht 2020.  

Those seizures may not always make for irrefutable, pretty bar graph with an eye-popping stats, but they happen with enough frequently that both BRAFA and TEFAF have clauses written into their Terms and Conditions documents which specify that the fairs cannot prevent and are not responsible for any legal seizure and/or custody of works of art. 

By:  Lynda Albertson


April 16, 2020

Dirk Obbink arrested on suspicion of ancient papyrus theft


It has now been made public, by the Oxford Blue that American papyrologist Dr. Dirk Obbink, an associate professor in papyrology and Greek literature at Oxford University, was taken into custody on 2 March 2020 by the Thames Valley police on suspicion of theft and fraud.  His arrest last month came in direct response to a formal complaint filed on 12 November 2019 involving the theft of papyrus fragments from the Oxyrhynchus collection, owned by the Egypt Exploration Society (EES), and housed at Oxford's Sackler Library.  

To date some 120 pieces have been identified as having been removed without permission from Oxford University premises.  Thirteen of these fragments eventually found their way to the United States where they were purchased by the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC.  


Genesis 5:  P.Oxy. inv. 39 5B.119/C(4-7)b.  [PAP.000121] 
Genesis 17:  P.Oxy. inv. 20 3B.30/F(5-7)b.   [PAP.000463] 
Exodus 20-21:  P.Oxy. inv. 102/171(e).   [PAP.000446] 
Exodus 30.18-19:  P.Oxy. inv. 105/149(a).   [PAP.000388] 
Deuteronomy:  P.Oxy. inv. 93/Dec. 23/M.1.   [PAP.000427] 
Psalms 9.23-26:   P.Oxy. inv. 8 1B.188/D(1-3)a.   [PAP.000122] 
Sayings of Jesus:  P.Oxy. inv. 16 2B.48/C(a).   [PAP.000377] 
Romans 3:  <related to P.Oxy. inv. 101/72(a)>.   [PAP.000467] 
Romans 9-10:  P.Oxy. inv. 29 4B.46/G(4-6)a.   [PAP.000425 one part] 
1 Corinthians 7-10:  P.Oxy. inv. 106/116(d) + 106/116(c).   [PAP.000120 three small fragments] 
Quotation of Hebrews:  P.Oxy. inv. 105/188(c).   [PAP.000378] 
Scriptural homily:  P.Oxy. inv. 3 1B.78/B(1-3)a.   [PAP.000395] 
(parchment) Acts of Paul:  P.Oxy. inv. 8 1B.192/G(2)b.   [MS.000514]

Obbink was appointed to the University Lectureship in Papyrology at Oxford in 1994, taking over the post vacated by Peter Parsons when the latter took up the Regius Chair of Greek.  His appointment at Oxford combined a variety of responsibilities, includes a Tutorship at Christ Church, where he lectured on a wide range of classical material and at one point included the direction of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri Project and its related Imaging Papyri Project which gave him complete access to the society's collection. 


Suspended from duties at Oxford in October 2019 pending further inquiry, Obbink has only issued one public statement, for his part, denying any wrongdoing.  In that public statement, Obbink stated: 


April 11, 2020

Christie's admits to failing to register to collect New York and local sales tax despite legal obligation to do so


The tax collectors, unsigned
Oil on panel : 78,2 X 100 cm, 16th century
In a Deferred Prosecution Agreement, the auction powerhouse Christie's has agreed to pay up to $16.7 million in sales tax, penalties and interest over a two-year period to the state of New York.  The firms unlucky legal happenstance has been brought about by failing to register, and to collect, New York and local sales between 2013 to 2017 despite a legal obligation to do so. 

In a statement released by the New York District Attorney's Office, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Roberts Vance, Jr, praised his office's tax probe saying: “Thanks to our unique expertise and our prosecutors’ hard work, the Manhattan D.A.’s Office is again delivering millions of dollars in badly-needed revenue to the people of New York.”  In addition to thanking his team, Vance thanked  the New York State Department of Taxation & Finance, the City of London Police Department, and DANY Supervising Rackets Investigator Matthew Winters who is embedded overseas. 

While shaving a little bit here and there on taxes is without a question a known problem in the art market, this instance is a bit different that when the average schnook, agrees to participate in a so called "box trick" scam to cheat on his taxes.   In that practice a vendor, knowing that he does not need to collect sales tax on sales purchases when the object being bought is to be shipped out of state,  agrees, and sometimes even suggests, that he can whittle the price of the object down by fudging the books a bit.  To do so, the vendor agrees to allow the purchaser to take the artwork home, while documenting the sale as out of state, shipping an empty box to an address outside the state where the purchaser resides. 

Back in 2004 then contemporary art consultant Thea Westreich and her former New York company, Art Advisory Services, Inc., pled guilty to filing a false business tax return and failing to collect New York City sales tax on $5 million worth of art over a four-year period, and was sanctioned with a $250,000 fine as well as the back taxes. 

But Christie's evasion problem was more extensive. 

According to the Deferred Prosecution Agreement, Christie’s London, Christie’s Private Sales and other affiliated Christie’s entities admitted to:

failing to register to collect and to collect New York and local sales tax between 2013 to 2017 on purchases made in and/or delivered to New York despite having a legal obligation to do so. In addition, Christie’s Private Sales also admitted that once certain employees finally determined in 2015 that the entity had an outstanding obligation to register to collect and to collect New York sales tax with the New York State Department of Taxation & Finance (“NYS Tax”), it failed to register the entity to collect tax with NYS Tax because of the perceived audit risk. Subsequently, Christie’s Private Sales began collecting sales tax from its customers without registering, and Christie’s New York, who were long registered to collect sales tax in New York, falsely reported and remitted this sales tax to NYS Tax as its own.

Sales taxes are big bucks for most states, and in some, like New York, they can be the second-largest source of revenue.  For this reason this kind of tax avoidance has serious consequences. 

April 10, 2020

Friday, April 10, 2020 - ,,, No comments

While the world is shuttered for COVID-19 vandals and thieves can exploit opportunities


The city of Rome's mayor Virginia Raggi is angry, and not without good cause. 

Sometime, last sunday evening despite the stay at home orders mandated in Rome to minimise health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, someone strolling through the city's Villa Doria Pamphilj park, used the occasion to destroy the statue of Neptune, the mythical king of the sea, which once sat on the pedestal in the historic garden's theatre.

One of lessor known areas of Villa Doria Pamphili, the Garden of the Theatre was built between 1652 and 1664 and takes its name from the large semicircular exedra with its 11 reliefs which document a series of myths.  The space was intended to be used to host outdoor theatrical and musical performances and is flanked by the Nymphaeum of the Tritons.

The city park, and all parks in Rome have been  closed  to the public since March 13th as part of the city's policy during the quarantine imposed by the coronavirus emergency. Yet in the span of a week, vandals or the same vandal have not only  destroyed the statue of Neptune, but some antique decorative vases and six marble toponymic plaques between the 2nd and 3rd of April. 

Years of neglect had already wreaked havoc on the 1990's replica
Protecting the 180 hectare park has long been a challenge, an easy-to-climb-over fence, and many "blind" spaces make patrolling the park a complex endeavour. Thankfully, the statue destroyed is a 1990 replica, the original having been moved to a more secure garden attached to the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, an administrative palazzo which supports the Prime Minister of Italy.

Rome's may called the destruction a shameful and intolerable gesture, even more so in a moment like the one Rome is experiencing. 

Teatro di Giardino, Villa Doria Pamphilj
Image Credit: Associazione per Villa Pamphilj
The Association for Villa Pamphilj, a grassroots nonprofit aimed at safeguarding and protecting the park, has been active in complaining about areas of the Villa's grounds in need of routine maintenance, conservation and upkeep.  They, and law enforcement, note this is not the first examples of theft and damages to the city park even before the current COVID crisis. 

The broken windows theory in criminology states that visible signs of crime,  disorder and misbehaviour in an environment encourage further disorder and anti-social behaviour, which in turn can encourage more serious crime. Untended, and in public space areas less than ideally maintained for years, the Villa Pamphilj park, and others like it, become fair game for inconsiderate people venting their frustrations with random acts of vandalism or for thieves.

April 3, 2020

“to avoid the heavy toll of litigation” vs. righting an apparent wrong


In a decision Washington's National Gallery claims was done “to avoid the heavy toll of litigation” the gallery has agreed to return Picasso's pastel drawing "Head of a Woman" to the heirs of German-Jewish banker, Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. 

The descendants of the banking Mendelssohns (a branch of the family of composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy) have long claimed that the artwork created by Picasso in 1903, belongs to them, believing that Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was pressured to sell the artwork as a result of the spread of Fascism and the Nazis coming into power in Germany in 1933.

Ousted from the Central Association of German Banks and Bankers in 1933, and then subsequently from the board of the Reich Insurance Office in 1934, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy sold the artwork “Head of a Woman” to dealer Justin K. Thannhauser in 1934.  He later died of heart failure on 10 May  1935.

Thannhauser, one of the most important dealers of modern European art, managed both the Munich gallery of his father, and a second gallery, Moderne Galerie in Berlin (1927–37) before relocating first to Paris in 1937, then after the outbreak of World War II, to Switzerland, and then to New York. 

The National Gallery listed the provenance of the artwork as follows:

PROVENANCE
Paul von Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Berlin, until 1937; Justin K. Thannhauser, New York; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York; (sale, Sotheby's, New York, 21 May 1981, no. 533); (sale, Sotheby's, London, 28 June 1988, no. 26); The Ian Woodner Family Collection, New York; (sale, Christie's, New York, 5 November 1991, no. 44, unsold); gift to NGA, 2001.

While there is no (direct) evidence that the American collector who donated the artwork to the Washington's National Gallery knew they were acquiring a forced sale Picasso, the combination of seemingly legitimate middlemen, and the zeal by which wealthy art collectors purchased renowned artists' artworks after World War II, alongside an unwillingness to ask probing questions of dealers and donors, had a predictable outcome. 

One has to ask though, with a 2001 donation date, why the one of Washington's most important museum institutions didn't look further into the pedigree of this creation, asking the tough questions they needed to ask, when accessioning this artwork into its collection. 

Revisiting the clues of a theft: the case of the theft at the Pinacoteca Comunale di Faenza


Sometimes it is good to go back and review old blog posts and provide updates as it is not always possible to track every case of theft when not widely publicised, and sometimes the clues left behind by one set of thieves can be useful in examining the methods of detecting criminal actors in other thefts.  Such is the case of the theft of a small panel painting "Crucifixion and Descent into Limbo" stolen from the Italian city of Faenza.

Vestibule, Maestro of Faenza Sec. XIII
"Crucifixion and descent into limbo"
35x28 cm.  + frame 15 cm., N. inv. 98
Image Credit: Pinacoteca Comunale
di Faenza
Two years ago, on Thursday morning, March 01, 2018, a small panel painting, dating back to the 1200s attributed to the Maestro of Faenza was reported stolen from the Pinacoteca Comunale di Faenza.  The oldest museum in the city, the museum's collection was established in 1797, when the municipality purchased the private collection of Giuseppe Zauli, much of which centered on paintings and sculptures from the 13th to the 18th century.

The stolen panel painting, attributed to the Maestro of Faenza, depicts two scenes, the crucifixion of Christ with the cross in the center on the top portion of the panel followed by Christ's descent into limbo with angels and saints on the bottom.  The framed panel, which dates back to the thirteenth century, had been on public display in the Pinacoteca's Hall of the Vestibule, where it was hung just to the left of the Crocefisso del Maestro Francescano in Gallery 6. 

According to a televised report given at the time by Claudio Casadio, the director of the Pinacoteca, the theft was discovered during a morning walkthrough by personnel who discovered the empty frame and backboard mounting discarded in the gallery where the artwork had been hung.  Given the panel painting's small size, the artwork may have been hidden under the thief's winter clothing and snatched at some point during the museum's opening hours though the date of the theft itself and the potential methodology used by the criminal was not defined publicly at the time the city announced the theft.

Recovered Sant'Ambrogio
di Giusto de' Menabuoi
Sometimes in investigative work, silence is golden. 

Fast forward to just a few months later, and the Faenza artwork was recovered, found in the home of an individual in Bologna, hidden in a piece of furniture, along with two other recently stolen paintings: a Sant'Ambrogio di Giusto de' Menabuoi stolen from the Pinacoteca di Bologna just a few days after the Faenza theft and a 17th century Portrait of a Woman stolen in mid March from the Museo Civico di San Domenico in Imola.

Reconstructing the methodology of the thefts lead to the subject being identified. 

At the time of the thefts, police kept some of the clues regarding the thief's modus operandi to themselves.  The thief which targeted the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna, where a work by the artist Giusto de 'Menabuoi had been removed, stole the artwork during the museum's opening hours.  Likewise, the timing of the thefts from the Museo Civico di San Domenico and the Pinacoteca Comunale di Faenza had strong similarities, details, investigators preferred not to disclose to protect their investigations.

During their investigations the Carabinieri of the Cultural Heritage Protection Unit of Bologna, in collaboration with the Investigative Unit of the Provincial Command and with the Companies of Faenza and Imola spent time comparing and contrasting the security footage looking for clues and similarities and were subsequently able to identify a single individual in the footage with the same physiognomy, immortalised by CCTV security cameras in the museums and in the nearby civic spaces.

Shortly after the suspect's description was identified, an individual with the same distinct physical profile was identified visiting another museum in the city of  Bologna and acting suspiciously, perhaps either casing the museum for a future theft or with the intent of stealing another painting that very day.  Interrupted from his activity, law enforcement then followed the individual back through the streets of Bologna watching him until he returned to his place of residence.

With the house identified, and with the CCTV footage to back up their hunch, a search warrant was issued by the judicial authorities and the man's house was searched.  Inside, the officers recovered not only the three historic works of art, but most importantly, the incriminating clothing worn during one of the three heists.

All the artworks were returned to their respective institutions in just under two months. Not bad.  Let's hope the recent Van Gogh theft in the Netherlands at the Singer Laren Museum has an equally expedient, and happy, ending.




April 1, 2020

Stolen three years ago today. Have you seen a pair of Gottfried Lindauer Māori portraits?



On the morning of Saturday, 1 April 2017 it took just under 40 seconds to steal the pair of Gottfried Lindauer Māori portraits, valued at almost $1 million.  The smash and grab happened around 4:00 am on this day, exactly three years ago.

In a tree-lined upmarket street close to the city centre in Auckland, New Zealand, a stolen Ford Courier ute (utility vehicle), later recovered by police at the scene,  drove up Parnell Road between 3:30 and 4:00 am where it then turned and reversed into the plate glass window at the front of the International Art Centre - IAC in Parnell shattering the glass.

Image Credit: Auckland City Police
The two culprits, then ran into the gallery, removed the two paintings from their holdings and loaded the canvases into the back seat of a second vehicle, a Holden Commodore, before making their getaway.  

The two portraits taken during the raid were the intended centrepieces of an upcoming auction: two companion portraits, painted by Bohemian-born and Viennese-educated émigré artist Gottfried Lindauer in New Zealand in the late nineteenth century, entitled Chieftainess Ngati-Raure and Chief Ngati-Raure.

The signed and dated oil on canvas portrait of Chieftainess Ngatai – Raure was painted in 1884 and was then valued at $350,000 - $450,000 NZD.  It shows the Māori chieftainess wearing a cloak.  Her hair is adorned with two Huia feathers and she is wearing a hei-tiki necklace with one visible pounamu earring. 

The signed and dated oil on canvas portrait of Chief Ngatai-Raure was also painted in 1884 and had the same estimated value.  This portrait shows the Māori chief adorned with two Huia feathers and a pounamu earring holding a greenstone mere. 

At the time of the theft, local art world figures expressed dismay at the thefts, as characterising Lindauer’s works as “mesmerising and … a significant and critically important record of Maori culture.”  New Zealand-based art historian and art crime specialist Penelope Jackson, author of the important recent book, Art Thieves, Fakers and Forgers: The New Zealand Story (2016, Te Awa Press) noted to the Guardian:


Yet, despite the immediate and extensive publicity, and a false lead saying the paintings were for sale on the Dark Web, three years have past and the paintings have not been recovered.