April 11, 2018

Auction Alert - Christie's Auction House - an Etruscan 'Pontic' black-figured neck-amphora and a Roman bronze boar

ARCA has been informed by Christos Tsirogiannis that he had identified two potentially tainted antiquities, scheduled to be auctioned by Christie's auction house in New York on 18 April 2018.  The antiquities researcher had notified law enforcement authorities in late March.

On April 11th, 2018 one of these objects is now listed as withdrawn from the auction.

Lot 26, an Etruscan 'Pontic' black-figured neck-amphora attributed to the Paris Painter, Circa 530 BCE. was listed in the auction documentation, before its withdrawal with an estimated sale price of $30,000-50,000 USD.


The provenance published with this object is: 
"with Galerie Günter Puhze, Freiburg.
Acquired by the current owner from the above, 1993."

The second item, Lot 48, is a Roman Bronze Boar, Circa 1st-2nd Century CE., is currently still listed with an estimate sale price of $10,000-15,000 USD.


The provenance published with this object is: 
"with Mathias Komor, New York, 1974. Christos G. Bastis (1904-1999), New York. The Christos G. Bastis Collection; Sotheby’s, New York, 9 December 1999, lot 159."

Photo from the Gianfranco Becchina archive
Exhibited: 
"The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
Antiquities from the Collection of Christos G. Bastis, 20 November 1987-10 January 1988."

Tsirogiannis matched the black-figured neck-amphora with two Polaroid images found pasted onto a 22 June 1993 document located within the confiscated archive of Sicilian antiquity dealer Gianfranco Becchina. The white piece of paper describes the scene depicted on the object, while the two photos pasted to the document show the same antiquity prior to its restoration.  In this image, the vase is still broken into many fragments and is seen with soil and salt encrustations.   The dealers handwritten notes on the page include numeric notations and refer to an individual named "Sandro."

Becchina's archive, an accumulation of business records, seized by Swiss and Italian authorities in 2002, consists of some 140 binders containing more than 13,000 documents related to antiquities, bought and sold, which at one point or another are known to have passed through Becchina's network of illicit suppliers.

As those who are familiar with Peter Watson's and Cecilia Todeschini's book, The Medici Conspiracy may recall, numerous handwritten notes and lists of antiquities, invoices, and etc., found in the Becchina archive refer to Sandro Cimicchi, an artifact restorer based in Basel, Switzerland.

This is interesting in that one of the supply chain elements in Becchina's enterprise frequently foresaw a first phase of restoration on the plundered artwork, then the subsequent creation of false attestations on the antiquity's origin, made possible also through the artificial attribution of ownership to associated companies.

Cimicchi's name also appears on a comprehensive hand-written organisational chart written by dealer/trafficker Pasquale Camera which was recovered by the Italian authorities in September 1995 during a Carabinieri raid.  This ‘organigram’ has been useful to Italian investigators and cultural researchers in piecing together members of this well known trafficking TOC group.  Starting from the bottom and working your way up, this document references everyone from tombaroli, to intermediaries, to restorers, to mid-level Italian dealers (Gianfranco Becchina and Giacomo Medici), and lastly, to wealthy international dealers Robert E. Hecht and Robin Symes.

Cimicchi name has consistently been connected with illicit antiquities dealers and had been noted to have been Gianfranco Becchina's usual restorer. 

Becchina was convicted in 2011 for his role in the illegal antiquities trade yet, this antiquity's passage, through or between Becchina and Cimicchi, has not been listed in the provenance details which were published by the Christie's auction house for its upcoming sale.

Tsirogiannis informed me that the second object, the Roman bronze boar, is depicted in two separate professional images in the business archive records of Robin Symes and Christos Michaelides,  two other high-profile art dealers we have written about in detail. 


The Becchina and Symes-Michaelides archives were presented publicly by the Italian judicial and police authorities during the trials of Giacomo Medici, Gianfranco Becchina, Robert Hecht, and dozens of Italian tombaroli in Rome from 2000-2011. Like the Becchina archive, this Greek file features a stash of images seized during a raid on the Greek island of Schinousa, that once formed the stock of Robin Symes and Christo Michaelides.

Unfortunately, neither Symes nor Michaelides appear in the provenance documentation published by Christie's for the upcoming sale on the Roman bronze boar.

With regularity, objects such as these, connected to tainted antiquities dealers, known to have profited from the trafficking of illicit antiquities, appear on the licit market.  Since 2006 Tsirogiannis, a Cambridge-based Greek forensic archaeologist, affiliated researcher and summer lecturer with ARCA's Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection, has, with some regularity, identified antiquities of suspect origin in museums, collections, galleries and auction houses, liking passages in their collection histories to Giacomo Medici, Fritz Bürki, Gianfranco Becchina, and Symes-Michaelides. 

As part of a rigorous due diligence process, auction houses are encouraged to check with the Italian or Greek authorities to ensure that the antiquities going up for auction are clean, so as not to pass tainted objects on to new owners.  Yet dealers in the art market sometimes forgo this due diligence step, as talking with the  law enforcement authorities, means they would likely be required to provide the name of the consignor, should the archive control, come up with a matching incriminating photo.  

As this poses problems of confidentiality for dealers, this step, is too frequently omitted, leaving the only way for matches to be made being when pieces like this  ancient vase, or bronze boar, or marble statue, or Roman glass bottle, eventually comes up for sale during a public auction. Given that TEFAF's newly released report states that there are more than 28,000 auction houses trading world-wide, the task of monitoring them all becomes gargantuan. 

In UNESCO's recent “Engaging the European Art Market in the Fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property”  I suggested to personnel of the art market on hand for the meeting that the legal conundrum of client confidentiality could be circumvented by auction houses and dealers implementing a policy whereby the consignor themselves contacts the Italian and Greek authorities for a check of the the Medici, Bürki, Becchina, and Symes-Michaelides archives before the auction house agrees to list these topologies of antiquities up for auction when the provenance the client has is short on clarity. This would eliminate the auction house's liability for disclosing a confidential client. 

While it might slow down the proposed sales cycle, or be an uncomfortable proactive step for good faith purchases who may have unfortunately purchased a suspect antiquity in good faith in the past, it would be the market's ethical step towards not furthering the laundering by selective omission and it would begin to help collectors understand that their purchases and eventual sales now need to be ethical ones given the onus for ethical behavior being placed on them. 

ARCA hopes that by continuing to publicize the frequency illicit antiquities penetrate the legitimate art market, with provenance irregularities such as these seen in these two identifications, will encourage auction houses or collectors themselves to adhere to more accurate and stringent reporting requirements when listing their object's collection histories.  It is only in this way that new buyers do not continue to launder objects with their future purchases, further prolonging the damages caused by the the illicit antiquities trade.

March 30, 2018

Illegal chains which mirror legal ones and function in the penumbra of the legal ones


While much has been discussed with regards to terrorism financed via the sale of plundered antiquities, substantiating claims with clear and defined ‘evidence’ is not straightforward. From the outside these networks are labyrinthine, multi-tiered and opaque.  From the inside militants and non-militant criminals are known to conduct illicit transactions with cash and cash alternatives which are, by their very nature, structured to fly below the radar of law enforcement authorities. This makes assessing their impact difficult to estimate and the detection and prosecution of criminals complicated. 

Even when uncovered, traffickers involved in the laundering of illicit antiquities usually haven't kept substantive incriminating paper trails that investigators can peruse to determine what their profit margin was on the antiquities they launder.  Nor are people facing charges of laundering antiquities through the art market likely to be forthcoming with incriminating evidence that identifies who else has benefited from the layered transactions that occur from the time the object is looted from an archaeological rich region until the antiquity reached the identified collector, dealer, gallery, or auction house.

All this to say that those involved in the illicit market don't advertise their relationships with known criminals and the same holds even more true when the profiteering parties have direct or indirect business dealings with transnational criminal networks or militant organizations.

Additionally the economic behavior of terrorist groups and transnational criminal networks during conflicts share many of the same characteristics, methods and tactics.  Both operate in secrecy and little is known about how the groups coexist and, or, interact within the same geographic space.  

But like any legal supply chain does, an illegal supply chain matches supply with demand. So while much of our evidence of where the proceeds of transnational artefact crime finish is condemned by the market as being anecdotal, what we see clearly is the regions from which illicit contraband flows.  From there we can extrapolate that illicit antiquities originating in countries of conflict, from zones where terrorists or militants have a controlling stake territorially, are a potential revenue stream for terrorism.

Where the two chains, the legal and the illegal, meet.


This month after almost three years of investigations, involving some fifty law enforcement officers, Spanish authorities have brought formal charges against two individuals for their alleged participation in a crime of financing terrorism, belonging to a criminal organization, concealment of contraband and use of forgery for their roles in facilitating the sale of illicit antiquities.

On orders from the Audiencia Nacional, a special high court in Spain with jurisdiction throughout the Spanish territory and over international crimes which come under the competence of Spanish courts, Barcelona antiquities dealer Jaume Bagot and his partner Oriol Carreras Palomar.  Both were taken into custody for their alleged role(s) in the sale of Greek and Roman antiquities plundered from Libya and Egypt, which prosecutors believe were then being sold through the licit European art market purporting to be antiquities from historic collections.

Screen Capture: 
Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XObAk1kDVp4
Answering to the charges, the pair appeared before Judicial Magistrate Diego de Egea of the Central Court of Instruction Number 6 of the National Court on Monday, March 26, 2018 where they were formally informed of the allegations against them. During the hearing the magistrate granted their release pending trial, imposing a financial surety (bond) and a series of pretrial release conditions which included the forfeiture of their passports, a mandate to remain within the territory of Spain, and biweekly court appearances as conditions of their release while awaiting trial.

Jaume Bagot established his gallery, J. Bagot Arqueología Ancient Art Gallery in 2005 in the heart of Barcelona.  According to his profile on the BRAFA art fair website, where he is a vetted dealer of ancient art, Bagot's firm specializes in the sale of art from the Etruscan, Greek, Roman and Egyptian civilizations, from Mesopotamia, the Middle East, Gandhara and from various Pre-Columbian cultures. No mention of Libyan cultural objects are mentioned in his BRAFA profile, and yet, police authorities in Spain have seized sculpture which originated from three cities of Libya: Albaida, Apolonia and Cyrene, some of which is believed to have been looted while the territory was under the control of Islamist militants.

Bagot's gallery is listed as a member of the influential dealer association C.I.N.O.A. (Confédération Internationale des Négociants en Oeuvres d'Art), as well as the F.E.A. (Federación Española de Anticuarios) where they list him as Jaume Bagot Peix, where he is identified as the vice-président of the  Professional Group of Antiquarians of the (Barcelona) Royal Shipyard (Asociación de Anticuarios de las Reales Atarazanas) 

In addition to forming strategic affiliations within the art market's important dealer associations, Bagot's gallery's "about us" page assures potential collectors that he is an ethical dealer by stating:

"Our main objective is to offer original ancient works of art guaranteeing their authenticity and maximum quality while at the same time strictly complying with the laws of protection of national, foreign and UNESCO heritage." 

and

"We also carry out exhaustive research into the provenance and previous ownership of the pieces. To this end we make use of the  data base [sic] of stolen objects, Art Loss Register, as well as making use of publications, sworn  statements, dated photographs, bills, customs documents and insurance policies."

All of which stands in stark contradiction to the apparent charges he now faces with the Spanish authorities of facilitating the sale of illicit antiquities from regions of conflict where terrorist actors might have been involved.

Criminal actors and investments in the legitimate art economy: 
The making of a case = Good (unfortunately usally unpaid) research.

As is all too often the case, some of the best evidence collected highlighting trends in the field of illicit trafficking, is research conducted by unpaid academics, as there has been little funding up until now, made available at the national or multinational level in market countries to financially support the type of in-depth specialized research required by provenance experts studying the flow of illicit objects onto the licit market.  This holds true as well for this particular Spanish investigation, which got its start thanks to an academic researcher.

During his PhD research on les sculptures funéraires de Cyrénaïque (the funerary sculptures of Cyrenaica), French historian, turned conflict antiquities researcher, Morgan Belzic, of the École Pratique des Hautes Études had been working with the French Archaeological Mission and Libya heritage authorities documenting antiquity in the northeastern part of modern Libya focusing on the cities of Shahat (Cyrene), Susa (Apollonia), Tulmaytha (Ptolemais), Tocra (Taucheira), and Benghazi (Euesperides/Berenike).

Looking at evidence useful for understanding the culture and history of ancient Cyrenaica, which thrived between the 6th century BCE and the 4th century CE, Belzic uncovered a worrisome correlation between the looting and destruction that has occurred over the past twenty years at the Greek necropoleis of Libya and an uptick in the number of ancient objects, identifiable solely to that specific region, appearing on the international art market. In conjunction with this increased availability of ancient material surfacing on the art market, he also noted that tomb destruction in the region had risen exponentially, in part as a result of the longstanding instability in the region, but notably over the last ten years in conjunction with items appearing in the market.

Speaking with Morgan about his research last summer, during an informal ARCA meeting of academic antiquities researchers, he told me that while the material remains, the alabaster, glass, and terracotta, found in the tombs of Cyrenaica could likewise be found in other Hellenistic regions, making it difficult to pinpoint the country of origin for looted antiquities of these types, the deities and funerary portraits of Cyrenaica are an exception.

Belzic explained that these sculptures are quite specific in their iconography and style, making it possible for experts, familiar with the sculpture of Cyrenaica, to objectively identify pieces from the region.  Then when these types of sculpture come on the market,  with limited documentation that does not match with existing established collections, one can begin to question their legitimacy and whether or not they may have come from ransacked tombs before making their way into some of Europe's prestigious galleries.

With two rival governments, and countless local militias in Libya, Belzic understood that the probability of staunching the flow of illicit objects following out of Libya could only be tackled by disrupting the demand side of the supply chain.  With that in mind, he turned his research over to law enforcement authorities in Spain who began their lengthy investigation building upon the foundation of his academic research.

In an interview with Crónica Global Media “JBP,” as the Catalan antiquarian prefers to be called, denies any direct involvement with purchasing antiquities from parties in Iraq, Libya or Syria.  He goes on to add that all the items in his inventory have been purchased in good faith, without knowing that the objects in question had been stolen or looted.  His statements imply that any illegal antiquities that made their way into his gallery's inventory did so by honest, unknowing mistake, rather than willful ignorance or a lack of due diligence.

Bagot’s statements are telling as they touch upon the legal framework, technicalities and procedural obstacles that the dealer may try to use in his defence and when fighting any cross-border restitution claim presented by Libya and Egypt in relation to the seizure of his merchandise. It is this culture of willful impunity, the eye's closed "I didn't know" approach which has, for so long, contributed to the challenges of preventing the illegal trafficking of cultural objects through the means of prosecution. 

Unless we establish mandated due diligence accountability for dealers, those who deal in the grey area of the market will continue to rely on the legal conceptualizations of property and ownership in countries favourable to their mercurial transactions.  

Last week I spoke at an UNESCO-EU-funded conference in Paris entitled “Engaging the European Art Market in the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property” where I recommended more dedicated public prosecutors and law enforcement officers assigned to focus on art crimes, and building capacity (i.e. funding) in support of experts dedicated to analyzing trafficking from regions at risk.   Belzic, who sat beside me, listened thoughtfully to Erika Bochereau, General Secretary of C.I.N.O.A. (Confédération Internationale des Négociants en Oeuvres d'Art) as she said “It is in the interest of dealers to work only in the licit trade because their business depends on it.”  

I wonder what the confederation's stance will be now that one of their members has come under prosecutorial scrutiny.  

By:  Lynda Albertson

March 25, 2018

Museum Theft: Museo del Sannio - Benevento, Italy


Italian authorities have announced a theft from the Museo del Sannio in Benevento, Italy. The theft appears to have occurred around 2:00 am early Wednesday morning, March 22, 2018.  According to initial reports, an alarm activated, triggered by the opening of the emergency exit door overlooking Piazza Arechi, in front of the Conservatory but as no signs of burglary or break-in were found at the time of its sounding, the incident was misinterpreted as a false alarm. 

The museum detected the theft the following afternoon, when personnel, reviewing the miss-read false alarm,  discovered broken pottery fragments scattered on the ground in the vicinity of a museum storage area located in the building off Piazza Santa Sofia.  Perhaps spooked when the alarm sounded, the group of thieves left behind an already packed container, where they had placed other objects they intended to remove and in their hasty departure apparently knocked over and damaged more than a dozen other pieces stored in the same depot. 

The Head of the Museum Management of the Province of Benevento, Gabriella Gomma, has handed over a preliminary inventory of objects stolen to the State Police authorities in Benevento and a comprehensive list should be completed by Monday, April 26.  Initial reports indicate that some of the twenty vases already identified as missing include archaeological finds dating back to the Hellenistic period ( 323 - 31 BCE).  

March 16, 2018

Is art crime understudied? We think so, but you can help us change that.


Who studies art crime?

ARCA's Postgraduate program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection is still accepting applications.

Late applications will be accepted through 30 April subject to census limitations. 

In 2009, ARCA started the first of its kind, interdisciplinary, approach to the scholarly study of art crime. Representing a unique opportunity for individuals interested in training in a structured and academically diverse format, the summer-long postgraduate program is designed around the study of the dynamics, strategies, objectives and modus operandi of criminals and criminal organizations who commit a variety of art crimes.  

Turn on the news (or follow this blog) and you will see over and over again examples of museum thefts, forgeries, antiquities looting and illicit trafficking of cultural goods.  Intentional heritage destruction during armed conflict, once a modern-day rarity, now affects multiple countries and adds to regional instability in many areas of the globe.  Looted art, both ancient and Holocaust-related, finds its way into the galleries of respected institutions, while auction houses and dealers continue to be less than adept at distinguishing smuggled and stolen art, from art with a clean provenance. Thus making dealing with art crime an unrelenting problem and one without any easy solution.

Taken incident by incident, it is difficult to see the impact and implications of art crime as a global concern, but when studied across disciplines, looking at the gaps of legal instruments, country to country, one begins to have a clearer picture of the significance of the problem and its impact on the world's collective patrimony.

The world's cultural heritage is an invaluable legacy and its protection is integral to our future. 


Here are 11 reasons why you should consider joining us for a summer in Amelia, Italy for ARCA's 10th edition of its postgraduate program. 

At its foundation, ARCA's summer-long program in Italy draws upon the overlapping and complementary expertise of international thought-leaders on the topic of art crime – all practitioners and leading scholars who actively work in the sector. 

In 2018, participants of the program will receive 220+ hours of instruction from a range of experts actively committed to combatting art crime from a variety of different angles.

One summer, eleven courses.

Taught by:

Fabrizio Rossi, whose law enforcement experience with the Italian Carabinieri's  art squad delves into criminal investigations surrounding plunder. His tireless work reminds those interested in purchasing ancient art, be it from well-known dealers or auction houses, that crimes committed 40 years ago still taint many of the artifacts and fine art that find their way into the illicit art market today.

London art editor and lecturer Ivan Macquisten who eloquently paints a picture of the burgeoning business which is art, whilst examining the interplay between our cultural obsession with risk and collecting.  Macquisten disentangles the paradoxical alliances between the financially lucrative art market and the collector relationships that feed upon the art market's unregulated trade, sometimes profiteering from the lack of transparency in its transactions.

Duncan Chappell, the Chair of the International Advisory Board of the Australian Research Council’s Center of Excellence in Policing and Security. Chappel is a national award winner for his lifetime achievements in criminology and will be lecturing on the growing number of bilateral, regional and global legal agreements that reflect a growing realization that transnational art crime has to be addressed through international cooperation, and that just as criminal groups operate across borders, judicial systems must consequently do the same.  

Marc Masurovsky, co-founder of HARP, the Holocaust Art Restitution Project who will lecture on the variations among countries’ historical experiences and legal systems, as well as the complexities of provenance research and the establishment of claims processes. Focusing not only on the implementation of the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-confiscated art but also on modern-day examples that underscore the difficulties facing any heir in recovering their property, Masurovsky underscores the need for fully trained provenance experts within museums and auction houses. 

Richard Ellis, private detective and the founder of the Metropolitan Police-New Scotland Yard Art and Antiques Squad.  His law enforcement background reminds us that trafficking in art and antiquities provides criminals with an opportunity to deal in high value commodities that are often poorly protected, difficult to identify and easy to transport across national boundaries. Ellis' lectures paint a little-talked-about portrait of the motley cast of characters who operate in the high-stakes world of the art crime.  His course introduces students to sophisticated criminal organizations, individual thieves, small-time dealers and unscrupulous collectors who don't just dabble in hot art, but who also may be involved in other crimes, such as the smuggling and sale of other illicit commodities, corruption or money-laundering.

Criminal defense attorney and criminologist Marc Balcells, whose animated lectures on the anatomy and etiology of art crimes will illustrate that even if every art crime is unique unto itself, often the underlying causes of criminal behaviors fit into certain established patterns.  With Edgar Tijhuis, students will explore various theories of crime causation each of which are key to understanding the crime and the criminal as well as evaluating its danger to our cultural patrimony.

Museum security and risk management expert Dick Drent, whose role in the recovery of two Van Gogh paintings from a Camorra reminds us that finding stolen works of art is much harder than protecting them in the first place, especially when organized crime is involved. In Drent's course students will learn about safeguarding culture before it goes missing, analyzing practical approaches to securing a collection, using risk and decision analysis as a form of analytics to support risk-based decision in museums, galleries and reference institutions around the globe.

New Zealand District Court Judge and founding trustee of the New Zealand Art Crime Research Trust, Arthur Tompkins who gives us a fast-galloping 2000-year romp through the history of art crimes committed during war and armed conflict. Tompkins reminds us that armed conflict, whether interstate or intrastate, poses various threats to cultural monuments and cultural property and that while laws have been enacted in an attempt to prevent or reduce these dangers; better laws are also needed to sort matters out after the fact.

Independent art & insurance advisory expert Dorit Straus, who serves as a member of AXA ART Americas Board of Directors and Presidential appointee to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) explores the worlds of specialist fine art insurers and brokers, who underwrite the risks associated with the fine art market.  As the former Vice President and Worldwide Specialty Fine Art Manager for Chubb & Son, she knows firsthand the active, financially-motivated role insurance firms play in analyzing the risks involved in owning, dealing, buying, transporting or displaying art to the public.  While art insurance expertise is sometimes overlooked as a less-than-sexy side of the art world, insurers have served to make galleries, museums and private collector's collections safer, as their oversight and contract stipulations have produced a dramatic reduction in attritional losses.

ARCA's founding director, Noah Charney who draws upon his knowledge of art history and contemporary criminal activity to explore several of the most notorious cases of art forgery. Emphasizing that art forgery not only cheats rich buyers and their agents, ruining reputations, his course illustrates how crime distorts the art market, one which once relied heavily on connoisseurship, by messing with its objective truth.

Valerie Higgins, archaeologist and Program Director for the master's in art management program at the American University in Rome examines material culture as the physical evidence of a culture's existence, illustrating that through objects; be they artworks, religious icons, manuscripts, statues, or coins, and through architecture; monumental or commonplace, we can and should preserve the powerfully potent remains which truly define us as human.

For more information on the summer 2018 postgraduate professional development program, please see ARCA's website here.

To request further information or to receive a 2018 prospectus and application materials, please email:
education (at) artcrimeresearch.org

Interested in knowing more about the program from a student's perspective?

Here are some blog posts from and by students who have attended in 20162015, 2014, and in 2013.



March 4, 2018

Art Crime Book Review: Plundering Beauty: A History of Art Crime during War

 Book Title: Plundering Beauty: A History of Art Crime during War
Author: Arthur Tompkins

Publisher: Lund Humphries, March 2018
Book Reviewer: Penelope Jackson

The cover says it all.  A lone American soldier is dwarfed by the surrounding stash of bundles, that look suspiciously like paintings, in a church at the Weissenburg-Guzenhausen Residence at Ellingen, Germany, in 1945. The juxtaposition of the church’s lavish interior - used as storage for plundered art - with the soldier is a poignant reminder of the scale of wartime seizures and the enormity of a problem that is as old as art itself and continues to the present day.  This image is on the cover of Arthur Tompkins’ Plundering Beauty: A History of Art Crime during War, an epic read about the victims of war, art and cultural heritage.

Many readers will personally know, or know of Arthur Tompkins, for his scholarship about art crime during war.  For several years Tompkins has taught at home (New Zealand) and abroad through the ARCA postgraduate program in art crime and cultural heritage protection (Italy) on this topic and his latest book brings together years of research, thought, and analysis about the art crimes committed during war. 

Plundering Beauty is a long journey of crimes waged on art.  Beginning with exploring the nuances of why art crimes are committed during war, Tompkins embarks on a journey beginning 2000 years ago in Rome.  Bit by bit, he un-packages this history of atrocities inflicted on art, both individual pieces as well as collections.  Significant (and now famous because of their chequered past) artworks have always been pawns in much bigger context of war booty and in Plundering Beauty we are presented case after case as evidence of this.  

Plundering Beauty’s catalogue of art crimes continues through to the present day, and not surprisingly, demonstrates the failure of humankind to learn from earlier histories.  We are familiar with the crimes committed in present-day Syria and Iraq, and Tompkins’ book is a brutal reminder of these as he provides us with a much wider and broader context, and specific art and cultural object crimes.  

Plundering Beauty does not pretend to be a complete history of art crimes committed during war (I couldn’t help but think while reading this new narrative about all the art crimes committed during war that we do not know about, or have an inkling of but do not know the details of).  What Tompkins does provide us with is a cross-section of case studies over time.  Wherever there is an art history there is a history of art crime and more often than not, crimes that are bound up in war.  Tompkins provides an alternative art history that for so long was ignored by writers.  

I get the sense that Tompkins has his clear favourites, and why shouldn’t he?  He is passionate about his subject matter and it shows.  The Four Horses of the Basilica of St Mark and Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana are up there.  It is not always about the actual artwork being discussed but rather the back-stories and layers of unravelling necessary to try and see reasons for such crimes.  Discussed in detail, yet in a very readable manner, Tompkins’ attention to detail and leaving no stone unturned is in part due to his day job – a judge.  And as the reader you feel satisfied with how he presents each case.  

A reminder though, is that this a book about crime, and as always with crime, not all cases are solved.  For example, Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man sadly remains at large.  Other artworks are re-discovered or have closure many years after the original crime.  Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer is a case in point.  The work, seized by the Nazis during World War II was eventually reunited with the owner’s heirs in 2006 after what Tompkins describes as a tortuous legal battle fought in both Austria and the United States.

The narrative is chronological making it easier to align with world history and art history, as written in the Western tradition.  Plundering Beauty also reveals the unfair nature of art crimes during war.  Take Johannes Vermeer for instance.  He only painted approximately 35 works total during his entire working career and yet three feature in this book.  Perhaps this is because they’re stunning works, much adored and highly desirable.  It could be that they are small and therefore easy to plunder.  Tompkins inspires his reader to ruminate on such matters, meaning the book’s contents stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it.  

Illustrated with 52 colour images, Plundering Beauty is well presented.  Tompkins, with his usual vigour (he’s also an endurance athlete) and rigour, has produced a book that is both a scholarly volume and is very accessible for those uninitiated about art crime.  Collectively, wartime art crimes are colossal, seen in the evidence set out clearly in Plundering Beauty.  As Tompkins eloquently notes in his introduction:

The stories of the crimes committed against art during war, the saving and return of art after long and unforeseen journeys, and the villains and the heroes of those episodes, are the stories that Plundering Beauty tells. (p.13)

The irony in the title’s principal words, Plundering Beauty, is very purposeful; that humankind has victimised their most precious objects in a variety of ways for centuries, and continue to do so, should be a universal lesson going forward. Underpinning most publications about art crime in recent years are strategies around curbing art crimes, present and future.  Tompkins joins this tradition when he laments in his final sentence in relation to Iraq and Syria,

But sadly the raging assault on the world’s art and cultural heritage during war continues. (p.168)

March 2, 2018

Repatriations - a 17th century Italianate landscape and a first century CE marble sculpture depicting Aphrodite

Two months into the new year brings with it two significant repatriations for objects stolen in Italy and illegally transferred for sale on foreign art markets.  Both artworks, an oil painting and a marble statue, were discovered during auction sales, despite having been stolen in Italy. 

This week a 17th century Italianate landscape, attributed to either Giovanni Paolo Pannini (1691-1765) or Andrea Locatelli (1695-1741), has made its way home to Italy.  

Donated in 1892 by the Italian noble Torlonia family, the oil painting was stolen on January 1, 1994.  In November 2017 the artwork was identified by the Italian authorities when it came up for sale at a London auction house. Its starting bid: 40.000 GBP.

At some point the painting appears to have passed through the hands of the Roman branch of the London auction house, before being transferred to London for sale.  Under Italy’s Cultural Heritage Code any artwork created more than fifty years ago (i.e. before 1947 in this case) by a deceased artist requires an export licence in order to be exported.  No information has been released by the Italian authorities as to if the consigner provided the auction house with such a document and if so, if that document was valid or fabricated.  

After this week's press conference, the painting will be returned to the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism and reintegrated into the collection of the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica where it will go on display at either the the Palazzo Barberini or the Palazzo Corsini. 


One month earlier, on January 30, 2018 the Carabinieri reported that a first century CE marble sculpture depicting the torso of the goddess Aphrodite had also been repatriated to Italy.  This marble statue, with an estimated value of €300.000 had been stolen in 2011 from the University of Foggia and was identified by Italy's Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale for sale in Munich Germany in 2013. 

In the scope of a lengthy investigation, Italian and German authorities identified identified an organized smuggling ring, operating between Italy and Germany, where looted antiquities plundarded from Italy passed from the hands of a looter, through a  middleman, who carried out the deliveries abroad, on to the individual in Germany who sold objects to collectors interested in antiquities in Germany. 

In 2016, when those involved in this trafficking operation were taken into custody, more than 2,500 objects were seized which had not yet made their way to Germany.   The statue of Aphrodite, was returned to Italy via international letters rogatory and with cooperation from the German authorities as well as the Public Prosecutor's Office of Rome. 


Museum Theft: Pinacoteca Comunale di Faenza - Faenza, Italy

Vestibule, Maestro of Faenza Sec. XIII
Crucifixion and descent into limbo
panel painting, 35x28 cm.  + frame 15 cm., N. inv. 98
Image Credit: Pinacoteca Comunale di Faenza
Discovered missing on Thursday morning, March 01, 2018, a small panel painting, dating back to the 1200s attributed to the Maestro of Faenza has been reported stolen from the Pinacoteca Comunale di Faenza.

The oldest Museum in Faenza, established in 1797, when the municipality purchased Giuseppe Zauli's art collection, the Pinacoteca's core collection centers 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 on the top portion of the panel and his descent into limbo on the bottom.  The framed panel had been on public display in the Hall of the Vestibule, where it was hung to the left of the Crocefisso del Maestro Francescano in Gallery 6. 

According to a televised report given by Claudio Casadio, the director of the Pinacoteca, the theft was discovered during a morning walkthrough by personnel on Monday 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 at some point during museum opening hours though the date of the theft itself still unclear. 


This is the third theft of sacred art in Italy to have occured in a one week period.  All three thefts have occured in the region of Emilia-Romagna. 

During an early morning religious service at the Chiesa del Suffragio in Rimini a thief or thieves stole the crown and veil of a Madonna, Our Lady of Sorrows,  a statue dating back to the 1700s from the Church’s main nave.  The theft apparently occurred while mass was taking place in a smaller adjoining side chapel. 

An almost identical theft took also was carried out at the Cathedral of Cervia,  in the province of Ravenna, where the crown adorning a statue of Our Lady of Fire also disappeared.

Two of these thefts, the one in Faenza and Cervia both occurred in the province of Ravenna.  The third theft in Rimini occured in a coastal town in the same region (Emilia-Romagna). 

Director Claudio Casadio, the director of the Pinacoteca Comunale di Faenza believes the theft from his museum gallery is indisputably a theft to order, given the object is well documented in public records and would be unsellable on the licit art market. If his assumption is correct, and coupled with these other two thefts, the string of the events seem to illustrate an interesting organizational structure to a coordinated series of thefts, likely committed to sustain the black market for religious art.

The theft is being investigated by the Carabinieri. 

February 23, 2018

Recovered: "Les Choristes" by Edgar Degas

Image Credit:  INTERPOL Works of Art Database
Stolen from the Musée Cantini in Marseille, France, on Thursday, December 31, 2009, a pastel by 19th century Impressionist painter, Edgar Degas titled "Les Choristes" (also referred to as Les Figurants) has been recovered. 

At the time of the theft, investigators found no apparent signs of a break-in and reported that the 27cm by 32cm pastel had simply been unfastened from the wall where it was being displayed while on loan from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris for an exhibition showcasing twenty works by the famous artist. 

Hidden in the luggage compartment of a bus in Seine-et-Marne, the artwork was recovered by agents of the Marne-la-Vallée customs brigade on February 16, 2018 during a routine customs check in the area of ​​Ferrieres which borders the A4 motorway. No passengers on board the bus have admitted to placing it there.

 checked a bus stationed on the Ferrières-en-Brie motorway in Seine-et-Marne.
Even as the art work was still undergoing authentication, the official account of the French Customs Info Customs Service felt confident they have a match.

In a public announcement issued today, Françoise Nyssen, the French Minister of Culture, informed the public that the recovered Degas pastel "Les Choristes"  will be given a special place in the future exhibition Degas at the Opera scheduled at the Musée d'Orsay from September 23, 2019 through January 19, 2020.



February 22, 2018

US Supreme Court ruling on the Persepolis fortification texts.

Image Credit:  the Persepolis
Fortification Archive Project
University of Chicago
Bringing an end to a lawsuit brought two decades ago, the United States Supreme Court has ruled 8 to 0 that the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute will retain the Persepolis Fortification Archive on loan from Iran since 1936.  The highest Federal court in the United States, with powers of judicial review, ruled that the objects in dispute cannot be seized to satisfy a $71.5 million court judgment against the government of Iran as compensation for a 1997 shopping mall bombing carried out by Hamas in Israel, which killed five people and wounded nearly 200. 

In 1933 the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute discovered the Persepolis Fortification tablets during excavations.   The ancient objects which make up the archive are believed to be the richest, most consequential source of information about public life religion, art, society and languages dating from the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Given their significance, they have been studied by professors and scholars continuously since their discovery.

The Supreme Court judges based their ruling on a determination of what types of assets are immune from seizure under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976.  Under the FSIA a United States law, codified at Title 28, §§ 1330, 1332, 1391(f), 1441(d), and 1602–1611 of the United States Code, limitations are established as to whether a foreign sovereign nation (or its political subdivisions, agencies, or instrumentalities) may be sued in U.S. courts—federal or state.

Their ruling can be found here.

For more information on the archive please see the blog by the Persepolis Fortification Archive project based at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago here

February 15, 2018

An appeal that could have a strong legal significance on Holocaust-era claims in the United States

The protracted multi-million dollar lawsuit regarding the 480-year-old paintings of Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach the Elder at the Norton Simon Museum has lasted more than ten years.  The lawsuit against the museum, began with a quest undertaken by Marei von Saher, the sole surviving heir of the Dutch-Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, who has long sought to recover her father in law’s artworks, looted during the Second World War.   Throughout this lengthy process, Saher, has sought the return of two 500-year-old biblical-themed paintings, appraised at $24 million.  

Jacques Goudstikker was once considered to be the preeminent dealer of Old Master paintings in Amsterdam and is estimated to have amassed an extraordinary collection of some 1400 works of art of the course of his professional career.  When Germany began its assault on Holland on May 10, 1940, Goudstikker knew that his family's time was up. As Rotterdam burned and the Nazi invasion under Reichsmarschall Göring gained speed, Goudstikker, his young wife Désirée von Halban Kurtz, and their infant son Edo boarded the SS Bodegraven, a ship docked at the port city of IJmuiden, departing for England and then on its way to the Americas. 


Unable to transport his collection with him, Goudstikker carried a neatly typed inventory of his property in a black leather notebook.  This notebook detailed artworks by important Dutch and Flemish artists like Jan Mostaert and Jan Steen, as well as works by Peter Paul Rubens, Giotto, Pasqualino Veneziano, Titian, Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh and many others.  Unfortunately, in a further tragic twist of fate, Goudstikker lost his life on his journey to safety, breaking his neck in an accidental fall through an uncovered hatch just two days into the ship's voyage.

In less than a week after the German Luftwaffe of the Third Reich crossed into Dutch airspace, Dutch commanding general General Henry G. Winkelman surrendered and the country fell under German occupation.   As a result, Amsterdam came under a civilian administration overseen by the Reichskommissariat Niederlande, which was dominated by the Schutzstaffel.  

Goudstikker's collection was quickly liquidated in a forced sale typical of many World War II -era art thefts.  Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring himself cherry picked many of the choicest art works, sending more than 800 paintings to Germany.   Some of which were hung in Göring's private collection at Karinhall, his country estate near Berlin.

On Wednesday, February 14, 2018, a three-judge panel with the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which is the U.S. Federal court with appellate jurisdiction over the district courts in Alaska, Arizona and the Central District of California heard oral arguments from Von Saher’s attorney, Lawrence Kaye from Herrick Feinstein on the return of the paintings from the Norton Simon Museum.  

In his presentation, Kaye disagreed with U.S. District Court Judge John F. Walter's earlier ruling that the Norton Simon Museum is the rightful owner of the paintings on the basis that the Dutch government couldn't assert ownership of artwork it received through external restitution.  In his oral statements he asserted that:


Whatever decision the Appellate court makes in this case will have broad legal ramifications for how forced sale restitution cases are heard in the US Courts.  When the arguments conclude, the judges' panel will either uphold the ruling of the lower court in favor of the Norton Simon Museum,  reverse the earlier decision in favor of von Saher, or send the case back down to the lower court for trial. 

By:  Lynda Albertson