November 27, 2014

Christie's Auction House Withdraws Sardinian Marble Female Idol from Upcoming New York City Sale

by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor and Lynda Albertson, ARCA CEO

Last week Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis pointed to a Sardinian marble female idol that Christie's planned to sell in New York City on December 11, 2014 -- an image of the idol had been identified previously in the Medici archive (see ARCA post here).  Further information on the background of this object's less than optimal collection history was later posted on Professor David Gill's blog Looting Matters and on Nord Wennerstrom's website Nord on Art

In protest of this sale Italian Camera Deputy Unidos Mauro Pili from the Regione of Sardinia wrote to Italy's ministro dei Beni culturali Dario Franceschini, Italy's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Paolo Esteri Gentiloni and to the US Ambassador of the United States to Italy, John Phillips demanding that immediate action be taken to stop the sale and to return the stolen goods to Sardinia.

Shortly thereafter, archaeologists in and around Italy formed a virtual protest group via social media provider Facebook also demanding the objects return.  This and other local interest action groups attracted more than 1000 followers. 

A few short minutes ago Deputy Unidos Mauro Pili released the following message. 
Poco fa la casa d'aste Christie's ha bloccato la vendita della Dea Madre ritirando dall'asta dell'11 dicembre prossimo il pezzo pregiatissimo della civiltà nuragica della Sardegna. Si tratta di un risultato importantissimo che segna un punto decisivo nella lotta ai furti d'opere archeologiche della Sardegna. Ora occorre andare sino in fondo per far restituire il maltolto alla Sardegna. Questo dimostra che la mobilitazione dell'opinione pubblica, dei media, e delle azioni parlamentari è utile ad accendere i riflettori su queste vergogne e bloccare queste vere proprie rapine al patrimonio della civiltà dei sardi.
The message indicates that Christie's has blocked the sale of the Mother Goddess, withdrawing it from its December 11th auction.  Deputy Pili further added that the blocking of this sale is a major achievement that marks a decisive point in the fight against theft of archaeological works of Sardinia.

A check of the Christie's New York auction side indicates the object has been removed from the online catalog for the upcoming sale proving that pressure at the state and local level can and does apply sufficient pressure to auction houses to lead them to do the right thing.  


November 26, 2014

Ar-Raqqah Museum in Syria continues to Suffer

Yesterday a report came in from the Syrian Arabic Republic - Ministry of Culture's Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) that a bomb dropped in Raqqa (ar-Raqqa, ar-Raqqah, Raqqa, Rakka), Syria near Arafat Square has done structural damage to the main facades of the Ar-Raqqah Museum as well as damage to the doors, shutters and windows.  To outline the damages we have included photos of the museum prior to and after this bomb strike.

This only adds insult to the already identified injury.  Previously DGAM reported that in Spring 2012 an armed group called Ahar al Sham had moved 527 artefacts under the pretext of protecting them. 

Then in June 2013 robbers seized an additional six containers that had been previously stored in the Raqqa Museum’s warehouse.  Through cooperation and negotiations with members of the local community three of these boxes were later identified in Tabaqa under the control of a group called “Cham free people”.  While the found boxes contained 104 artifacts ARCA hasn't been able to ascertain which pieces from the inventory were recovered.

A report of the archaeological heritage in Syria during the crisis from 2011 through early 2013 written by Professor Dr Maamoun Abdulkarim, General Director of Syria's Ministry of Culture can be read here. The 2013 report is available here.

The Museum of Raqqa was founded in 1981 and has been primarily dedicated to the preservation and exhibition of cultural heritage gathered from excavation research from the Ar-Raqqah province.  Its collection includes objects from Tell Bi’a, Tell Munbaqa, Tell Sabi Abyad, and Tell Chuera, and includes artefacts that date from Roman and Byzantine eras as well as objects from the Islamic period (the epoch of Haroun al-Rachid) and from the period of more recent Bedouin domination.

Situated in north-central Syria near to where the Balikh River joins the Euphrates the city of Raqqa once dominated the northwest corner of the heartland of the Islamic Empire precisely because it was a major stopover point for those traveling through the Syrian desert to other important cities in the region making it integral for commerce.  Because of this strategic location Raqqa has always been hotly contested throughout its lifespan, perhaps now more than ever.   L. Albertson, ARCA CEO
 

November 24, 2014

Gurlitt Art Collection & Provenance Research: A Perspective from Marc Masurovsky, director of the Provenance Training Research Program

by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA blog Editor

I sought out the perspective of Marc Masurovsky, director of the Provenance Research Training Program which will have a new session in Rome next month, on the Kunstmuseum Bern announcement regarding acceptance of the Gurlitt art bequest and its willingness to conduct research to determine if some works had been stolen during the Nazi-era (commonly accepted as 1933-1945).

Q: Today and agreement was reached that the Kunstmuseum Bern would conduct provenance research on the Gurlitt collection before moving the artworks from Germany to Switzerland. What is the process as you understand and what do you anticipate as the strengths and weaknesses?
MM: I thought Germany would handle the provenance. That's how I interpret most press reports from this morning. 
If this is correct, the research is being conducted by individuals hired by the German government under the auspices of the Gurlitt Task Force. 
Frankly, no one is certain about how the research is being conducted. If it were left to us, you'd have to make three distinct piles: auction acquisitions in the Reich, works de-accessioned from German State museums, and works acquired in occupied territories. Those piles lead you to different archives.  The most complex are the French records for works acquired in German-occupied France.  The fundamental weakness behind this process is its opacity and the refusal of the Germans to expand the scope of the research and reach out to those who know a thing or two about these types of losses.  From what we hear, there are only a handful of individuals covering the French archives.
Last but not least, the most complex items to research are the works on paper and especially prints and lithographs.  Who knows where those came from?  To ascertain whether or not they were looted, one would have to go through all files representing losses suffered by victims in France.  The task is staggeringly tedious and complex.

Gurlitt Art Collection and the Kunstmuseum Bern: Acceptance of Bequest comes with agreement to conduct provenance research

The press conference in Berlin today generated a great deal of media interest as to if and how the Kunstmuseum in Bern would accept the bequest of Cornelius Gurlitt -- a long-hidden collection of artwork mired in accusations of Nazi-looting.  The collection consists of around 1,300 works of art on canvas and paper including paintings and sketches by Chagall, Picasso, and Claude Monet.  The bulk of the cache was discovered in Gurlitt’s Munich apartment following a routine tax investigation.

Image credit: Hannibal Hanschke
Christoph Schäublin, the director and president of the Kunstmuseum Bern's board of trustees, said that after extensive deliberation Germany, Bavaria and the Kunstmuseum Bern had reached a formal written agreement viewable in German here to formally accept the Gurlitt collection.  Schäublin emphasized that artworks directly looted from Jewish owners during the Nazi era would not enter into the collection of the Kunstmuseum Bern and would be returned to their rightful heirs.  Works suspected of having been stolen, with no claimants currently identified would remain in Germany for the immediate future to allow for further investigation by the special task already established, with an emphasis on determining the provenance of each of the pieces.  An update on the status of the task force's research is expected sometime in 2015.

Melissa Eddy reporting from Berlin for The New York Times writes in "Kunstmuseum Bern Obtains Trove from Gurlitt Collection" that Schäublin described that a 'privately funded team of experts [would] comb the history of each piece before it came into the museum's possession' .... and that a public list would be made available soon.

German Culture Minister Monika Gruetters stated that she believed that the signing of the accord by all parties represented "a milestone in coming to terms with our history" referring to Germany’s responsibilities for losses under the Nazi regime.

Cornelius Gurlitt's 86-year-old cousin Uta Werner, applied Friday to the Munich Probate Court for a certificate of inheritance in connection with her deceased cousin's estate. Speaking tothe press on Friday through legal counsel she indicated they would be contesting Gurlitt’s fitness of mind at the time he wrote the will naming the Bern museum as his sole heir meaning any resolution in this restitution case could prove lengthy. 

Agreement (in German) between Germany, Bavaria and the Kunstmuseum Bern on Gurlitt Collection

A copy of the agreement (in German) between Germany, Bavaria and the Kunstmuseum Bern on accepting the Gurlitt collection can be downloaded here.

Gurlitt Art Collection: Kunstmuseum Bern accepts bequest from Cornelius Gurlitt

The Kunstmuseum Bern announced today in Berlin that it will accept the art collection from Cornelius Gurlitt. Lynda Albertson, ARCA's CEO, live tweeted (Ergo Sum @sauterne) during the conference: 
The Kunstmuseum Bern accepts the Gurlitt collection. This was decided by the Board of Trustees of the Art Museum.... Regarding the Gurlitt collection Schäublin says their own research centre at the Kunstmuseum Bern must be considered....  Schäublin on Gurlitt Collection: "On the threshold of the art museum is not stolen art".... Kunstmuseum pledges to fully investigate artwork restitution claims fully.... Central point of the agreement to accept Gurlitt's art collection.... Works of art looted or suspicious do not tread Swiss soil.... Berlin, Munich and Kunstmuseum Bern have signed an agreement on the management of Gurlitt's estate.... Schäublin agreement in accepting Gurlitt collection: Objects with suspicion of being Nazi-looted art will initially remain in Germany....  Bavarian Minister of Justice on the joint Gurlitt accord: "The agreement with the Kunstmuseum Bern is an important step in German history."...  Gurlitt case: The German Minister of Justice says Switzerland is the "right place" for the disputed collection....  Gurlitt press release concludes. Many questions being raised by attendees on state of task force investigation and limbo nazi loot objects.
Here are also two Swiss news outlets that covered the conference (held in German):

http://www.srf.ch/news/panorama/live-aus-berlin-kunstmuseum-bern-nimmt-gurlitt-erbe-an

http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/bern-museum-accepts-controversial-art-hoard/41129776

The artworks will remain in Germany while provenance experts study the collecting history of the paintings suspected to have been looted during the Nazi-era.

Here's the latest news from BBC on the Gurlitt art collection and the conference.

Here's a chronology from the German-English news source DW.

Here's a link to the Kunstmuseum's media release (in German).




Streaming link for the Joint Press Conference on Cornelius Gurlitt estate.

Live Stream, Monday, November 24, 2014 at 11:00 am CET: This morning the federal government of Germany, the Bavarian Ministry of Culture, and the Kunstmuseum are holding a joint press conference in Berlin regarding the further handling of Cornelius Gurlitt estate.

November 23, 2014

Gurlitt Art Collection: An Interview with Art Recovery's Christopher Marinello on the eve of the Kunstmuseum's announcement on acceptance or rejection of the bequest by Cornelius Gurlitt

Christopher Marinello, founder of Art Recovery
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, 
 ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

Sunday I spoke to Christopher Marinello -- who has presented on several occasions at ARCA's annual art crime conference -- and who is the founder of Art Recovery International.  I interviewed him on the eve of the anticipated decision of whether or not the Kunstmuseum in Bern will accept the art collection bequethed to them by Cornelius Gurlitt. The federal government of Germany, the Bavarian Ministry of Culture, and the Kunstmuseum are scheduled to hold a joint press conference on Monday, November 24, 2014 at 11:00 am CET in Berlin regarding the further handling of Cornelius Gurlitt estate.  Marinello represents the Rosenberg heirs seeking restitution of a Matisse painting from the collection of Cornelius Gurlitt, an action suspended when Gurlitt died and bequeathed the art in his possession to a Swiss museum.

Q: Monday morning the Kunstmuseum Bern will announce their decision to accept or reject the controversial Gurlitt collection. What do you think are some of the main issues they have had to consider and what will they try to address at the conference?

CM: I’m certain the Museum Board has considered the possible legal issues they may be facing as well as the cost involved in researching the group of paintings. Not to mention the publicity and potential reputational damage in being known as the Museum that houses the Gurlitt hoard.

Q: What is the position of your clients, the Rosenberg heirs, who have proved that Matisse was looted by the Nazis and yet are still waiting for the painting to be restituted?

CM: We are patiently waiting for the Museum to accept the Gurlitt bequest and honour their pledge to restitute any and all works deemed to have been looted by the Nazis.

Q: Could you speculate for a moment on why Cornelius Gurlitt picked the Bern museum? Did he have a relationship with them or was he just looking for an institution outside of Germany?

CM: There has been a lot of speculation on Gurlitt’s motives but it is clear, in my view, that he was looking to punish the German State for the treatment he received after his “collection” was seized.

Q: When Gurlitt was disposing of the art -- whom did he trust and do you anticipate further revelations about the collection?

CM: There will be a lot more revealed in the future on this topic. I don’t wish to comment further, if you don’t mind.

Q: What is the Gurlitt family's position regarding the collection -- is there a chance they can succeed in getting a part of the collection?

CM: The Gurlitt family has pledged privately to me, and publicly, to return the looted works to their rightful owners.

Q: How long of a process has this been for your clients and has it been caution that has slowed the restitution process?

CM: My clients have been waiting almost 75 years for the return of this picture and others. It has been over two years since this hoard was discovered by German authorities. I would say that this is a textbook example of how not to handle Nazi restitution cases. Caution or inane bureaucracy?

Q: Does the museum board have the authority to make binding restitution decisions once they take possession of the collection?

CM: Yes.

Q: What role do you anticipate that the Bavarian task force will have, if any, once the Gurlitt collection is accepted by the Bern museum?

CM: They may offer their assistance to the Kunstmuseum. We should hear more about this tomorrow.

Q: What kind of burden is placed on museums today in regard to Nazi-looted art in their collections?

CM: The Washington Principles and the ICOM code of ethics made it pretty clear what is expected of museums today. Review your collections. Conduct proper provenance research. Transparency has never been more important.

Q: What kind of assistance is available to museums regarding provenance research through organizations such as Art Recovery International or the Looted Art Commission?

CM: We offer our services at no cost to cultural institutions that are in need of assistance. Other organisations offer this type of service as well. Help is often available, all they need to do is ask.

Q: Is there a standard report accepted by ICOM to help clarify what is due diligence or satisfactory provenance on artworks in museums?

CM: There are standards set by ICOM and other organisations that museums can follow.

Q: As a lawyer and an art recovery specialist, what would you propose to expedite restitution?

CM: Generally speaking? The opening of archives, more transparency from museums in publishing their collections and their provenance, and more due diligence from every aspect of the art market. Genuine due diligence, not “optical” due diligence.

Q: What have been the lessons learned in the last year in regards to questions of Nazi-looted art in collections such as Gurlitt?

CM: 75 years later we are still facing the issue of Nazi looted art. Largely because the problem was never properly dealt with. Today, banking has become more regulated, the real estate industry is more transparent, yet the art world remains this one big secret. I have no doubt that there are more Cornelius Gurlitts out there. Public and Private collections must be more transparent and due diligence should be an absolute requirement as opposed to a 'best practice' suggestion for the well informed.

Essay: Do you think art collectors might be tempted to buy Syrian antiquities (looted or otherwise?). We say resoundingly, yes.

By Lynda Albertson

On November 22, 2014 the Syrian Arabic Republic - Ministry of Culture's Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) published two striking photos of three confiscated artifacts removed from the Taibul Tomb in the Southeast Necropolis at Palmrya.  Taibul (TYBL in his native Palmyrene) was a rich Palmyran merchant who commissioned a tomb for himself and his family in 113 CE in a necropolis five kilometres southeast of Palmyra.

The tombs in this ancient graveyard are subterranean.  To the untrained eye, the zone where Taibul's tomb and others are located originally looked like just another tract of stony Syrian desert. But with the combined work of Syrian and Japanese archaeologists who documented the site between 2001 and 2005 we have learned much about Palmyrene funerary practices, couches, sepulchres and loculi.   

Unfortunately, the finely-sculpted figures of
men and women where of interest not only to archaeologists and historians documenting the site but more recently also to tomb raiders. But were these thieves savvy enough to understand what will sell on the antiquities art market or were they simply opportunists, taking advantage of what they could easily access?  

Are funerary busts of interest to collectors?

And are they willing to pay large sums for them?

A quick search on the internet would lead one to believe so.  In a few clicks I found one relief listed on eBay through Aphrodite Ancient Art LLC with little identifying where the object originated from.  The auction page states only that it was part of an “Early American private collection, 1960’s”.  eBay lists this one for a steal.  Its auction price is an eye-popping $13,500. 
Aphrodite eBay Auction Item

In 2011 an uglier Syrian limestone relief also went on auction.  Listed as Lot 69 in Sotheby’s June 8, 2011 auction, the object's provenance was listed Sarkis and Haddad, Beirut, early 1970s.  Despite its humbler appearance, it still managed to find a buyer and fetched a modest sum of $8,125.

Going back to the Aphrodite website, I found a second, Syrian funerary relief of two brothers.  This one listed the object as coming from Palmyra with a provenance of having been purchased from Sotheby's New York in June 2011.  Buy it while it still lasts and collectors can get two funerary figures for a whopping $22,500.

Given the fragility of the Palmyra tombs and the many heritage sites damaged, at risk, or already looted as a result of the Syrian conflict, I wonder if it would be wiser if the experts shifted their focus away from statistical analysis to something more concrete.  Instead of trying to quantifying how much money ISIS/ISIL may, or may not, be making off of blood antiquities perhaps we should be stressing that more attention and funding is needed to trace who the individual traffickers are, both upstream and down.  If we do, Syria's cultural heritage might have a less grim outcome.   As for journalists in search of catchy headlines; vandalized tombs make just as dramatic a statement as vague value estimates and they can be substantiated with actual witnesses and imagery confirmation.

Aphrodite Website Auction Item
Given the gargantuan task of protecting antiquities in the midst of a civil war,  I think its pretty remarkable that DGAM had photo images matched so quickly to identify these pieces and to inform the public of their findings.  And while I am not prepared to go out on a brittle limb and assume any of these reliefs on sale or recently sold have dirty provenance, I do think their presence in the fine arts marketplace makes a pretty strong case that Syrian heritage objects are of interest to collectors.  The fact that they garner hefty sums further underscores that we have only seen the tip of the Syrian antiquities iceberg. 

Petty subsistence looters may fence objects for paltry amounts, middlemen fighters may take their cut, and end traffickers may make a bundle selling to auction houses and galleries, but all this useless faffing about of trying to put an unquantifiable dollar sign on how much its making which opponent in this war is doing nothing to stop the flow whatsoever.

In the end percentages are less relevant than simply understanding that collection-worthy pieces like these seen at auction or those stripped from Palmrya will surely find their way into the world's antiquities art market.  Maybe not immediately, but with the lack of market transparency and self policing, surely in the future.

Traffickers are patient.  So are collectors.


November 22, 2014

Brent Huffman's documentary "Saving Mes Aynak" will screen six times at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam Nov. 22-30

Image from Mes Aynak (Brent Huffman)
by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

Brent Huffman's documentary Saving Mes Aynak will premiere at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam this week. Here's a list of the show times. A synopsis of the film:
“Like a mother watching her child dying right in front of her.” This is how archeologist Qadir Temori describes his feelings about the excavations that are threatened with destruction, all because a Chinese company will mine for copper directly on the archeological site Mes Aynak in Afghanistan. Temori is here with an international team of experts and volunteers, braving the threat of terrorism to dig up stunning ancient treasures. According to him, they are comparable in scale to a discovery such as Pompeii. It’s a race against the clock, because the mining company has given the archeologists a limited timeframe to excavate the 2,000-year-old Buddhist structures and relics. As in the case of the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, destroyed by the Taliban around the turn of the millennium, valuable archeological objects are in jeopardy once again, although for different reasons this time. “Our history and heritage will vanish along with the money,” Temori sighs, indicating that the country will see little of the huge sums paid by the Chinese company to Afghan government officials for the mining rights. But there is hope: a protest has been registered with UNESCO and the Chinese company has put its copper mining activities on hold, at least for the time being. Saving Mes Aynak shows the dedication of the archeologists and the vulnerability of their discoveries, captured here in all their delicate splendor. - See more at: http://www.idfa.nl/industry/tags/project.aspx?id=DC944A3B-B213-4989-B99B-B72A46366BC9&tab#sthash.pFHrt1np.dpuf
And here's the link to the segment on the November 19 PBS Newshour by Frank Carlson, "In 'Saving Mes Aynak,' a real-life Indiana Jones fights to protect Afghanistan's Buddhist heritage".

Here are previous posts on the ARCA blog regarding Mes Aynak:

In this profile of Dr. Laura Rush, it is noted that the U.S. Military Army Corp of Engineers allocated one million dollars to support artifact preservation in Mes Aynak.

"Mes Aynak's archaeological wealth from the Bronze Age to ancient Buddhists threatened by excavation of world's second largest copper deposit" September 11, 2012

"Documentarian Brent Huffman Warns of Dangerous Precedent Being Set in Afghanistan if Mes Aynak is destroyed in order to mine copper" September 13, 2012

"Mes Aynak Archaeologists Given More Time to Remove Relics and Artifacts" January 7, 2013

"The Buddhas of Mes Aynak: Kickstart Funds Used to Purchase Computers and Cameras for Afghan Archaeology Office in Kabul" April 14, 2013

"American Institute for Roman Culture to Host Third Annual UNLISTED Conference on Archaeological Cultural Heritage" April 15, 2013

"Brent E. Huffman Presenting Special Advanced Screening of "Saving Mes Aynak" at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York on Dec. 18" December 15, 2013

"Fair Observer's Will Calhoun publishes two-part interview with documentarian Brent H. Huffman on "The Race to Save Mes Aynak" (February 3, 2014)