Category Archives: Hot Docs

The Getty’s Looted Amber: A Window into the Museum’s Deepening Dilemma

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In Saturday’s Los Angeles Times, I have a story about Getty Museum’s efforts to find the true origins of its massive antiquities collection.

Here’s how the story starts:

In the wake of a scandal over its acquisition of looted antiquities, the J. Paul Getty Museum is trying to verify the ownership histories of 45,000 antiquities and publish the results in the museum’s online collections database.

The study, part of the museum’s efforts to be more transparent about the origins of ancient art in its collection, began last summer, said Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig.

“In this effort, and in all our work, when we identify objects that warrant further discussion and research, we conduct the necessary research to determine whether an item should be returned,” Hartwig said in a statement to The Times.

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The review is likely to reveal that problems in the Getty’s collection go far deeper than the nearly 50 looted objects returned since 2007according to Getty records and interviews with antiquity dealers and former museum officials.

Hundreds of objects still in the collection were acquired with false ownership histories aimed at disguising their origins in the illicit antiquities trade, records and interviews show.

The depth of its problem was underscored in November, when the Getty published a catalog of 56 carved ambers, objects that the ancient Greeks and Etruscans used in amulets for the magical properties they were believed to possess.

At first look, “Ancient Carved Ambers in the J. Paul Getty Museum” represents the museum at its finest — decades of scholarship published online in an illustrated catalog that engages the public in a rarely studied artifact of the ancient world.

But records — including internal Getty files — show that the ambers were almost certainly looted from tombs in northern Italy.

medici mugThe relics passed through the smuggling network of Giacomo Medici, who has been convicted in Italy of trafficking in illegally excavated artifacts. Once in the United States, they were donated to the Getty as part of a tax fraud scheme that nearly brought the institution to its knees in the 1980s.

The catalog is silent on this history, which a Getty spokesman says the museum was not aware of at the time, but it does acknowledge the consequences. Because nothing is known of the context in which the ambers were found, little can be definitively concluded about their meaning to their ancient owners.

“Were they purchases, part of a dowry, heirlooms, or other kinds of gifts?” writes Faya Causey, author of the catalog. “Unfortunately, we can only speculate as to whether the ambers were actually possessions of the people with whom they were buried, how the objects were acquired, and in which cultic or other activity they played a part.”

The ambers capture the dilemma that the Getty faces today. Having largely abandoned the purchase of ancient art, it is using its unparalleled resources to restore meaning to objects whose history it had a hand in destroying.

You can read the full LA Times story here.

The Getty’s Study Collection

This is not the first time questions have been raised about the Getty’s study collection, the tens of thousands of artifacts in the museum’s collection deemed not worthy of display but held in storage for scholarly study.

In the 1990s, hundreds of pottery sherds and votive fragments in the collection were linked to a looted archaeological site in Francavilla Maritima. Under Marion True’s leadership, the Getty conducted an exhaustive scholarly study of the material, then returned it to Italy. 

Last year, the Getty quietly returned 150 marble fragments in the collection (88.AA.140 – 88.AA.144) to Italy after evidence emerged that they joined objects found in the same looted tombs of Ascoli Satriano that produced  the Getty’s Griffins and statue of Apollo, which were returned to Italy in 2007. The objects and fragments were acquired in the 1980s from London dealer Robin Symes.

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Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig described the voluntary returns as the result of cooperative research with Italian archaeologists:

In his letter to Director General Luigi Malnati last January, Jim Cuno said, “The Getty acquired these objects as a gift in 1988, in the hope that they would be preserved and studied and eventually reconnected with other fragments of the same objects.  Happily, careful scholarship has led to that result.  Working with colleagues in Italy, Getty curators have determined that the fragments in our possession are very likely to match with vessels from Ascoli Satriano.  It is our hope that the fragments can be examined to ascertain their pertinence, and rejoined to these vessels.” Dr. Malnati invited [Getty antiquities curator] Claire Lyons to join a committee formed as a research collaboration to examine the pieces.

01293001But the Getty’s problems are not confined to the study collection, as was demonstrated last week when the Getty announced it would return a terracotta head of Hades to Sicily. It will be reunited with the statue’s body, which was found at the archaeological site of Morgantina — the same source of the Getty’s looted statue of Aphrodite, which was returned in 2010.

These returns are a reminder of the Getty’s crooked collecting practices, but they also offer some reason for hope. Each return has contributed to important new insights about archaeological sites that were despoiled by looters. The process of joint investigation and return has helped re-create some of the lost context — something Lord Colin Renfrew once described as “Post-disjunctive forensic re-contextualisation.”

Expect to see more if it in the year ahead. As noted in Saturday’s story, a large part of the Getty’s study collection was acquired in bulk donations in the 1970s and 1980s via the looting and tax fraud scheme we describe in Chapter 2 of Chasing Aprhodite. Records show that much of it passed through the smuggling networks of Medici, Hecht, Symes and Becchina, suggesting it will likely end up back in Italy sooner or later.  

The ambers are the latest tip to surface of a very large iceberg. As David Gill noted in November, “the scale of the problem for the Getty is massive.”

The Guardian and the Goddess: Looted Statues Reveal Workings of Illicit Trade

The Getty’s Aphrodite

The Contested Temple Guardian

What does a 10th century Khmer temple warrior have in common with a Greek cult goddess from the 5th Century B.C.?

Quite a bit, it turns out. Both were objects of veneration whose remarkable craftsmanship represented the apex of their respective cultures’ artistic achievement. Both massive limestone statues were looted and purposely broken  to make them easier to smuggle — telltale scars that decades later would bear witness to a violent and illicit origin. And both reveal a strikingly similar story about the ugly inner workings of the trade in ancient art.

We told the story of the Getty’s goddess in Chasing Aphrodite. The story of the Khmer temple guardian is being told today in legal filings by Sotheby’s and the US Attorney’s office, which is suing for the return of the statue on behalf of Cambodia in a federal court in Manhattan. (We’ve written previously about the case here here and here.) Both parties agree the statue was removed at some point from an ancient temple complex at Koh Ker, where the statue’s feet remain to this day. The key question — unanswered in the government’s earlier filings — is when.

The Norton Simon’s Bhima

This month the U.S. Attorney’s office amended its original complaint with damaging new details that apparently came to light through pre-trial discovery of Sotheby’s internal correspondence. The filing, which we’ve embedded below, is worth reading in full. Among other things, it reveals how little the art world has changed since the 1980s, when the Getty bought its cult goddess amid clear signs the statute had been recently looted and then sought to cover up those illicit origins.

Here are some highlights:

Date of looting: The federal government is now stating that the Sotheby’s statue, representing Duryodhana, and its companion at the Norton Simon Museum, representing Bhima, were looted from a temple complex in Koh Ker “in or around 1972.” This addresses Sotheby’s earlier contention that the statue might have been removed sometime prior to the 1920s.

Intentional Damage by Looters: Like the Getty’s Aphrodite, the Koh Ker statues were intentionally dismembered to make them easier to smuggle:

“In the case of monumental statues like the [Sotheby's warrior] the heads would sometimes be forcibly removed and transported first, with the torso following later, due to the difficulty of physically transporting the large torsos.”

In September 2010, this detail was noted by an expert hired by Sotheby’s to prepare a condition report on the statue.

“[The Scientist's] theory is that the sculpture was either forcibly broken for ease of transport from the find site and then put back together later, or that the head and the torso did not belong together.”

The feet of the two ancient sandstone statues were left behind by looters at a temple in Koh Ker, Cambodia.

The Scientist proposed a testing plan to determine which was the case. Instead of accepting that plan, Sotheby’s fired the expert, the complaint alleges. Readers of Chasing Aphrodite will recall that similar questions were raised about the head of the Aphrodite and the fresh breaks on the statue’s body (p. 93 – 94.) Luis Monreal, the head of the Getty Conservation Institute, proposed tests on soil and pollen found in the folds of the statue Aphrodite to determine its origin. The Getty Museum instead opted for ignorance.

Market Path: The amended complaint specifies that after they were stolen from Koh Ker by “an organized looting network,” the statues at Sotheby’s and the Norton Simon were smuggled to Bangkok and delivered to a Thai dealer, who sold them to a “well known collector.” The New York Times has identified that dealer as Douglas A. J. Latchford. (Latchford co-authored a book on Khmer art with Emma Bunker, the expert cited in previous filings as saying in emails to Sotheby’s that the statue had been ‘definitely stolen.’) Latchford allegedly conspired with the London auction house Spink to obtain false export permits for the statues and they were transported it to London in 1971 or 1972, the amended complaint states. The Duryodhana was sold to a Belgian businessman in 1975, and his widow consigned it for sale by Sotheby’s in 2010.

Sotheby’s Deceit: The complaint alleges Sotheby’s knowingly misled potential buyers, Cambodian officials and U.S. investigators about the statue’s ownership history, claiming it had been seen in the UK in the late 1960s — well before the 1970 UNESCO convention. In fact, the government alleges, Sotheby’s knew the statue had been with Latchford in SE Asia until the early 1970s. To support their claim, the complaint cites emails between Sotheby’s and Latchford, who is described as “the original seller of the sculpture back in 1975.” One of those internal emails reveals Sotheby’s concerns about how the statue’s provenance will affect its sale:

“The most important question is the provenance. Can [the Collector] tell us if he acquired this sculpture before 1970? That’s the standard [an art advisor to a prospective buyer] is applying. It’s what his client wants.”

“Sotheby’s inaccurate representations dating the [statue's] appearance in the United Kingdom to the late 1960′s, rather than after 1972, therefore eliminated a significant obstacle to the selling the [statue,]” the complaint states.

Indeed, Latchford’s name was omitted from the object’s stated ownership history.

In a statement to the New York Times, Sotheby’s denied the government’s claims, saying the U.S. attorney’s office was trying “to tar Sotheby’s with a hodgepodge of other allegations designed to create the misimpression that Sotheby’s acted deceptively in selling the statue…That is simply not true.”

Canada’s Royal Ontario Museum Has Ties To Alleged Antiquities Trafficker Subhash Kapoor

UPDATED: In recent years Canada’s Royal Ontario Museum has acquired eight objects from Art of the Past, the Manhattan antiquities gallery specializing in South Asian art that is now the focus of an international investigation into its owner’s alleged ties to the illicit antiquities trade.

The now shuttered gallery is owned Subhash Kapoor, the American antiquities dealer of Indian extraction who has sold ancient art to museums and private collectors around the world since 1974. As we’ve reported previously, Kapoor was arrested in Germany last year and extradited to India, where he facing charges of trafficking in looted Asian antiquities and being the mastermind of a network of temple looters operating in Tamil Nadu. In July, American authorities issued an arrest warrant for Kapoor and seized $20 million worth of ancient art from his Manhattan warehouse. Indian investigators have also asked authorities in Australia, Singapore and the United Kingdom for help with their expanding investigation.

We’ve previously traced more that 200 Kapoor objects to museums around the globe. We can now add the Royal Ontario Museum to that list. Six of the Kapoor objects at the ROM are modern works on paper, a specialty of Kapoor’s that are not the subject of the current investigation. Two other objects, however, may be of interest to investigators.

The first is a Ghandaran stone reliquary from the 1st to 2nd century A.D.. in the shape of a stuppa that was featured in the museum’s 2004-2005 newsletter. “Purchased through the generous support of the Louise Hawley Stone Charitable Trust, the ROM acquired a beautiful Buddhist Reliquary dated to the 2nd century CE,” the newsletter said. “The outer container is made of steatite, a grayish stone common to the region of Gandhara, in presentday western Pakistan. The inner container is carved from rock crystal and is decorated with stunning gold granular ornamentation, a testament to the level of skill in ancient gold craftsmanship. The ROM’s reliquary would have contained the relics (ash, bone, precious metals) of an important Buddhist monk and would have been placed in the centre of a large burial mound, called a ‘stupa.’”

UPDATE: In response to our questions, a museum spokeswoman said, “The Gandharan Reliquary was in the personal collection of a well-known US-based collector since 1969. A signed letter by the owner is on file at the museum and ownership was confirmed through direct contact with the collector.” We’ve requested the identity of the collector and any underlying documents to support that provenance and will post them when we have them.

The Taliban-controlled region of western Pakistan where the Gandharan culture thrived centuries ago has been the subject of extensive looting in recent years.

The second Kapoor object of interest is an 18th century bronze figure of Krishna Venugopala. While not ancient, it is listed as coming from Orissa or Bengal, India. It is not clear when the piece left India or whether it received the required export permit. Kapoor is alleged to have used false export permits to disguise stolen cultural objects as garden furniture or modern handicrafts.

UPDATE: The ROM museum apparently purchased this object in 2006 with no record of legal export. A museum spokeswoman tells us: “The statue of Krishna from Bengal or Orissa was in a UK-based collection since 1970. There is no documentation on file at the museum and we continue to investigate its provenance further.” We’ve requested details on the UK-based collection and will post it here when we get it.

Beyond the objects purchased from Kapoor, the museum has an extensive collection of recently acquired objects from South Asia that are of interest, some of which were acquired recently. (In an email, a museum official notes the South Asia collection has been built since the founding of the museum, with most of the historical collection coming into the museum in the 1920s to 1950s.)

For example, this 10th century figure of a yogini from the Chola dynasty of Southern India was acquired in 1956  in 2004. It is described by the museum as “part of a dispersed set of goddessed [sic] that occupied a temple in the Tamil region of southern India,” an area known for the rampant looting of temple idols. When did the group of objects leave the temple? Does it have a legal export permit from India? The museum is silent on these questions.

UPDATE: A museum official notes the object was acquired in 1956. “It is part of a set of similar sculptures dispersed across museums in India (Government Museum Chennai), Europe (British Museum, Guimet), and North America (Asian Art Museum San Francisco, Freer Sackler Galleries, and others). This set has been extensively documented and its collecting history published in a new book: Scattered Goddesses: Travels with the Yoginis by Padma Kaimal, 2012.”

Then there’s the ROM’s bronze dancing Shiva from Chola dynasty of the 12th century A.D., also from the Tamil region. The Shiva bears  some resemblance to those that Indian authorities said were allegedly removed from Tamil temples by looters in recent years. (One has allegedly been linked to Australia’s National Gallery of Art.) The ROM’s description of the object notes, “Such bronze sculptures were predominantly produced from the Chola period onward, a dynasty of kings that ruled over much of southern India from the ninth to the twelfth centuries AD. They were housed in temples and regularly brought out and decorated for processions.” Again, when did this particular object leave India, and did it have a valid export permit? UPDATE: A museum official says the Nataraja was acquired in 1938.

In a statement about the Kapoor objects, museum spokeswoman Shelagh O’Donnell said, “Following museum policy, each acquisition was carefully investigated in terms of quality, authenticity and provenance. The antiquities in this group have been documented as having acceptable provenance from published auctions or from known private collections. The modern works comply with all current Indian export regulations. The ROM is in the process of re-examining the documentation for this group of objects.”

On October 3rd, we asked the ROM to provide the underlying documentation supporting the ‘acceptable provenance’ for several of the above objects. We have not received a response. We’ll let you know when we learn more.

Here is the full list of Kapoor objects released by the museum:

CAVEAT EMPTOR: Arnold Peter Weiss on the Dangers of the Ancient Coin Trade

UPDATED BELOW.

Caveat Emptor, the court-mandated essay written by Rhode Island coin dealer Arnold Peter Weiss, is a long-overdue call for collectors of ancient coins to begin following the law.

Dr. Arnold Peter Weiss

Weiss is the prominent Rhode Island hand surgeon and ancient coin dealer who was arrested on January 3rd at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City for felony possession of an ancient coin recently looted from Sicily. He has served as a board member of the American Numismatic Society, the founder of a Swiss coin dealership and a prominent donor to American universities. According to the criminal complaint, he was caught on tape telling a police informant that he knew the coins had been recently looted in Sicily: “There’s no paperwork, I know this is a fresh coin, this was dug up a few years ago.” In July, Weiss pleaded guilty to three counts of attempted criminal possession of ancient coins. It turned out the “looted” coins were clever forgeries.

As part of Weiss’ plea bargain, he agreed to write an essay that “will raise needed awareness about unprovenanced coins and will promote responsible collecting among numismatists.” That article has now been published in the American Numismatic Society Magazine. (See the complete article below.)

The situation recalls a scolded student being forced to write a half-hearted apology on the chalkboard. But Weiss’ essay is worth reading for what it reveals about the trade in ancient coins.

Weiss opens with a candid admission: “I was very active in the ancient coin marketplace and paid little attention to foreign cultural property laws, as if they really did not matter within the U.S. Well, they do.” Weiss is not alone — coin collectors have often displayed a surprising ignorance of the laws that govern their hobby, or open disdain for them. Weiss’ arrest has become an object lesson for the field, and Weiss uses his essay to underscore the point:

“Until recently, the prevailing view among coin dealers and collectors in the US has been that such foreign laws do not affect the purchase of objects in the US….Whether one agrees or not with the various laws of Italy, Turkey or China, for example, this must take a secondary role in this debate. The US honors the laws of cultural patrimony of foreign nations where those laws are in place and enforced by the source country.”

He is referring, of course, to the McClain Doctrine and the National Stolen Property Act, which makes it a crime to purchase or possess looted antiquities taken from a country with patrimony laws that are reasonably enforced. (See here and here for more on the law.)

Weiss goes on to expose the coin market’s dirty secret: the hoards of ancient coins that regularly appear on the market today are almost certainly the product of looting.

“Dealers and collectors with any reasonable experience can tell that such a simultaneous offering just does not happen naturally, except after a recent hoard of coins has been found and dispersed into the marketplace….The purchase of coins that derive from hoards is likely to be illegal and detrimental to scholarship, and these might be reasons enough for the buyer to be aware.”

This admission — both obvious and long-denied by collectors — is reminiscent of another remarkable whistle-blower moment: Getty Museum antiquities curator Marion True’s June 2000 speech before the Assoc. of Art Museum Directors, in which she told museum officials that it was time to accept the fact that most, if not all, undocumented antiquities were the product of looting.

But Weiss notes another reason for careful collecting: The prevalence of sophisticated forgeries on the market, like the ones he was trying to sell in New York City. Weiss notes such forgeries share something in common with looted coins: the lack of a clear collecting history.

They come with fantastic stories…From personal experience I can say that these forgeries are stunning and are being introduced into the coin market with fake provenance information…Forgery is often the domain of highly-organized criminal enterprises, most often based in the source countries themselves, but now occurring worldwide due to the spread of high-tech machinery.

Weiss concludes his essay with a call for “a different kind of collecting requiring a proactive rather than passive approach to provenance” and outlines six steps every collector of ancient coins should take:

1. Research the history. No excuse not to — the ANS has a complete set of auction catalogs dating back to the 18th Century.

2. Ask questions. Weiss notes coyly that “sometimes dealers or curators know more about the coins than might be published.”

3. Beware the Old Swiss Collection and other bogus provenance. As Weiss notes, “the words ‘collection of’ for a coin that has never been previously published or documented ought to be a sign that further research is required.”

4. Know the Law. Weiss notes the “complex” and “contradictory rules” on what is legal to acquire, but offers 1970 as an accepted cut-off date for when an object should have left its country of origin.

5. Trust your Gut. If a coin feels “wrong,” don’t buy it.

6. Avoid recent hoards. Look out for coins with gleaming smooth surfaces, come in multiples and offered by the dozen.

This is a decent checklist for all antiquities collectors to obey. But what is perhaps most remarkable is that in 2012 this needs to be explained to coin collectors. One is left to wonder whether the problem with the market today is really ignorance of the laws or merely a stubborn unwillingness to obey them.

Will Weiss’ essay — published by the official organ of the US coin collecting community — mark a turning point? It should. Ute Wartenberg Kagan, the executive director of the American Numismatic Society, took the opportunity to announce the ANS’s new collecting policy, which is more strict that the steps outlined by Weiss.

In a strongly worded editorial, she too calls for a new era of collecting — “a path of responsibility, careful research, and best practices to enhance numismatics and the responsible collecting and caring for of ancient coinage and history.”

“Collecting ancient coins will be different,” she assures her members, “but will not die out.”

Ultimately, the success of Weiss’ statement and the ANS’s new policy at changing the culture of American coin collectors will be measured by the time. If criminal cases continue to reveal collectors buying unprovenanced coins like those Weiss warned against, we’ll know that ignorance was never the problem with the market in ancient coins.

UPDATES:

Archaeologist Paul Barford has written about Weiss’ essay here, noting several things Weiss has omitted: details on his own case; the role of dealers like himself; the importance of precise find spots, not just hoards; the role of ethics that go above and beyond the letter of the law.

Coin collector lobbyist Peter Tompa has (finally) written about the Weiss case. He says he “doesn’t have much to quibble with” about Weiss’ advice, but notes that the statement was made under duress and questions whether the “archaeological lobby” might have edited it.

Ute Wartenberg has responded to Tompa on his blog, saying, “ANS staff and I edited the piece after it was submitted, but the people acknowledged in my editorial preface such as John Russell, who is a professor of Near Eastern Archaeology, kindly provided illustrations at my request. Their names can be found with the relevant photos. None of those acknowledged read Weiss’ article or provided editorial comment.” So much for that theory.

Ever the provocateur, Arthur Houghton (who describes himself as a friend of Peter Weiss) picks up Tompa’s theory in the same thread and runs with it: “Who else may have intervened in the article’s wording and who may have cleared it for publication…And did those or any other person in authority then coerce, by subtle suggestion or by direct demand, the Society to publish? Could we have a little transparency please?” Houghton goes on to tell Col. Bogdanos to “man up” and “come out of the shadows.” “…Let us know exactly what your role was in creating, framing and clearing Peter Weiss’ article? But could we have a little confession from you at an early moment?”

Tompa has the last word, saying he has confirmed with Wartenberg that “the articl [sic] had to be approved by Col. Bogdanos as part of the plea deal, but any changes to the article based on comments from the NY District Attorney’s office or any sources the DA consulted, took place BEFORE the ANS accepted the article for publication and it was edited by ANS staff.”

Our final thought: No one would dispute that Weiss’ essay was “coerced” — it was a condition of the plea deal after he was caught breaking the rules he claims to promote. We are far more interested in Tompa’s and Houghton’s thoughts on the worthiness of those rules and the new ANS policy. Helpfully, Tompa has offered this link. For those wondering about Houghton’s views (and actions) on the law, we offer this.

A few additional questions we’d welcome thoughts on: Are ancient coin collectors often ignorant of the law, as Wartenberg suggests? Or have they flouted it knowingly, perhaps because they think it’s unfair? Have the ANS and other leaders in this area done enough to educate their members about the law and enforce a code of ethics in the field? And if Weiss hadn’t written as a condition of a plea deal but instead was whispering to a trusted friend, what would he have said?

The Battle for Koh Ker: Legal Implications of Cambodia’s Dispute with Sotheby’s

The legal dispute over an ancient Khmer statue at Sotheby’s could have lasting implications for the sale of ancient art in the United States.

For those catching up on the case: Sotheby’s New York was poised to put the 10th century temple warrior up for auction in 2010 with an estimated value of $3 million. But shortly before the bidding started, Cambodia claimed the statue had been looted from the ruins of a Khmer temple at Koh Ker, where the statue’s feet were found in 2007. In April, federal agents sought to seize the statue on behalf of Cambodia. A judge ordered the statue to remain at Sothebys while the two parties argue the case in court. Sotheby’s filed a motion to dismiss in June and now the government has responded, attaching declarations from two legal experts to support its case. (See below for the complete filings.)

At the heart of the case are familiar questions: What level of evidence is needed to establish when and how an object was illicitly removed from its borders? What amount of due diligence must a museum, collector or auction house conduct to defend an acquisition? When can a looted object in the US be seized by the government and returned to its legal owner? And can those who possess and trade looted antiquities be found criminally liable?

The feet of two ancient sandstone statues were left behind by looters at a temple in Koh Ker, Cambodia. One statue is now at Sotheby’s, the other at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.

These questions have only occasionally been brought before federal courts in the United States, so the case law in this area is relatively thin. A handful of key cases have established the current legal regime, which holds that an object looted from a country with an enforced patrimony law can be considered stolen property under US law. Someone who knowingly buys or possesses a looted antiquity can be criminally charged, and the object can be taken by the government and returned to its rightful owner.

This legal regime has not prevented museums from buying suspect objects, but it has been an invaluable deterrent to the open sale of loot and helped raise the bar on acquisition standards in recent years. Given its shaky foundation, however, any new case law on these issues could alter the status quo significantly.  A victory for the government in the Cambodia case might lead to a further tightening of the rules around acquisitions and bring about more cautious collecting practices for collectors and museums. A victory for Sotheby’s, on the other hand, could encourage more brazen acquisitions of looted art.

The point is illustrated in the case filings themselves. Until recently, the leading case on the civil forfeiture of ancient art was Steinhardt, which established among other things that false declarations on import documents could allow the government to seize an object under civil law. But the recent dispute over a mummy mask at the St. Louis Museum of Art appears to have undermined the authority of that ruling, which is cited neither by the government nor Sotheby’s in the Cambodia case. Instead, both sides refer to the St. Louis case, US vs. Mask of Ka Nefer Nefer, in which the judge has found twice that the government presented insufficient evidence that the mask was stolen.

Here’s how Sotheby’s quotes the judge in that case: “[t]he Government cannot simply rest on its laurels and believe that it can initiate a civil forfeiture proceeding on the basis of one bold assertion that because something went missing from one party in 1973 and turned up with another party in 1998, it was therefore stolen and/or imported or exported illegally.”

The Cambodia case, however it is decided, will be cited in similar cases going forward. With that much at stake, the court filings are worth reading — even for those of us who are not lawyers. In the past, we’ve posted the government’s original complaint here, and the flurry of filings over the statue’s seizure here.

In June, Sotheby’s filed its first significant response to the case in a motion to dismiss:

Last week the federal attorneys in Manhattan replied with their opposition to Sotheby’s move to dismiss the case:

To support their arguments, the government filed two declarations:

Caveat and Hat-tip: We’re not lawyers and don’t even play one on TV. For insightful observations about these issues from a legal expert in this area, read Rick St. Hilaire’s indispensable blog: http://culturalheritagelawyer.blogspot.com/

Feds vs. Sotheby’s: Legal Tangle over ‘Looted’ Khmer Statue Continues

The feet of the disputed statue were left behind when it was taken from the ruins of the Prasat Chen Temple, 80 miles east of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The other set of feet belong to a statue now in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, experts say.

In Friday’s LA Times, Jason reports on the federal lawsuit (case #12cv2600) seeking the return of a 10th Century Khmer statue now held at Sotheby’s.

Here’s a late-breaking update: Federal authorities expected to seize the statue from Sotheby’s on Thursday afternoon. But the seizure order was delayed by a late night legal spat between the US Attorney’s office and attorneys for Sotheby’s, authorities say.

UPDATE: Judge George B. Daniels issued a judicial restraining order late Thursday afternoon, prohibiting Sotheby’s from selling, transferring or otherwise disposing of or removing the statue from its current location. The parties will convene again at 10:30 on April 12th.

In dueling letters faxed to District Court Judge George B. Daniels, the two parties traded barbs about their respective legal arguments. The letters offer a preview of a legal battle that could have broad implications for repatriation efforts by source countries, which often rely on indirect evidence of looting to support their claims.

We’ve posted the complete letters below. Here is a summary of the arguments:

Sotheby’s makes no mention of the damaging internal emails cited in the governement complaint. Instead, it argues against the statue’s seizure saying it is based on the government’s “novel reading of ancient Cambodian law” and “the tenuous ‘belief’ of an expert who theorizes (from exceedingly modest evidence) that the statue was looted at some time after Cambodia declared national ownership of its antiquities.”

A looter's pit found during a recent survey of the archaeological site of Koh Ker.

The auction house goes on to point out what it calls “major legal and factual holes” in the government’s case. The evidence that the statue was taken from Cambodia recently are photographs and surveys of Koh Ker taken in the 1950s and 1960s, but those photos and surveys do not show or mention the statue in question, Sotheby’s points out. Cambodia’s 1900 patrimony law cited by the government was only discovered in rediscovered by American lawyers in recent months, and is not listed on UNESCO’s database of national patrimony laws, Sotheby’s also notes.

Finally, Sotheby’s points to the recent dismissal of a government suit seeking the seizure of the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mummy mask at the St. Louis Museum of Art on behalf of Egypt, which claimed the mask had been stolen from a government storage facility in the 1960s. In that case, the court ruled that the “Government cannot rest on its laurels and believe that it can initiate a [suit] on the basis of one bold assertion.”

In response to Sotheby’s claims, Assistant US Attorney Sharon Levin sent her own fax to Judge Daniels, citing the federal rules of civil procedure to argue the government has probable cause for the seizure.

Dougald O'Reilly, founder of HeritageWatchInternational.org, surveys looting at an archaeological site in 2006.

Levin calls Sotheby’s request to maintain possession of the property “inappropriate” given that “Sotheby’s marketed and attempted to sell the defendant property for more than a year after being informed by its own expert that the defendant property had been stolen from the Prasat Chen temple. Given Sotheby’s own significant role in the offenses on which this forfeiture action is based, they are not an appropriate independent third party for the Government to entrust with the property during the pendency of the action.”

The government suit was brought at the behest of the Cambodian government, Levin states. And Sotheby’s argument that the statue was not stolen “is at odds wit the conclusions reached by their own expert,” Levin argues, citing the internal emails in which the expert advises the auction house that the statue was “definitely stolen.” Further discussion of the merits of the government’s case should be saved for future hearings.

We’re interested to hear from many of the lawyers who read this blog what their take is on the respective arguments. Feel free to weigh in via the comments below.

Feds Sue for Return of “Looted” Khmer Statue; Insider Emails Reveal Sotheby’s Was Warned Statue Was “Definitely Stolen”

On Wednesday, the U.S. government filed suit seeking to return a 10th Century stone warrior to Cambodia, where it was allegedly looted.

The statue is currently at Sotheby’s in New York, which was set to auction the piece on behalf of a private collector in March 2011. On the day of the sale, Sotheby’s was notified by Cambodian officials that the object had been looted from Koh Ker, an archaeological site 80 miles east of Angkor Watt.

The parties have been negotiating a settlement to the dispute for the past year, as the New York Times reported in February. But those negotiations ended abruptly Wednesday when the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York filed suit. Authorities will seize the statue on Thursday, the Times reported Wednesday.

In making their case for the statue’s return, the US Attorney cites revealing emails from a scholar warning the auction house that the statue should not be sold at public auction:

“The Cambodians in Pnom Penh now have clear evidence that it was definitely stolen from Prasat Chen at Koh Ker, as the feet are still in situ…Please do not give this report to anyone outside of Sotheby, as I often have access to such material, and don’t want to anger my sources. The two Dvarapalas must have stood close together and their feet remain, so it’s pretty clear where they came from.

I think it would be hugely unwise to offer the Dvarapala publicly, and I would not really feel comfortable writing it up under the circumstances. It is also possible that the Cambodians might block the sale and ask for the piece back….I’m sorry as I had some exciting things to say about it, but I don’t think Sotheby wants this kind of potential problem.”

The scholar later consulted with “culture spies and museum director” in Cambodia and told Sotheby’s it was not likely that government would pursue a claim. Sotheby’s proceeded with the sale, with officials saying in internal emails that while it might receive bad press from “academics and ‘temple huggers,’” the potential profits from the sale made it “worth the risk.”

The New York  Times identified the scholar as Emma C. Bunker, an authority on Khmer art. She has written defending the right of collectors to buy ancient art, describing them as “not despoilers of the past but people of great intellectual curiosity who cherished the past long before the world was populated by scientifically trained archaeologists.”

There are frequent references in the federal complaint to another statue looted from the same site at “the museum,” an apparent reference to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, which has a very similar statue that once served as a wrestling figure in Koh Ker. We’ve asked the museum for comment.

The back-story here is interesting: The head of Global Compliance for Sotheby’s is Jane Levine, a former member of the US Attorney’s office now suing for the statue’s return. Levine specialized in making the type of art crime cases her employer is now facing, and has written several articles on international trafficking in stolen art and artifacts. We’ve reached out to her for a comment.

In a statement, Sotheby’s said: “Sotheby’s strongly disputes the allegations made in this complaint. This sculpture was legally imported into the United States and   all relevant facts were openly declared.   We have researched this sculpture extensively and have never seen nor been presented with any evidence that specifies when the sculpture left  Cambodia over the last one thousand years nor is there any such evidence  in this complaint. We have been in active discussions for a year with  both the US and Cambodian governments and  we had assured them that we would voluntarily maintain possession of this statue pending further discussion. Given that Cambodia has always  expressed its desire to resolve this situation amicably, and that  we had an understanding  with the US  Attorney’s  Office that no action would be filed pending  further discussion towards a resolution of this matter,  we are disappointed that this action has been filed and we intend to defend it vigorously.”

HOT DOC: Here is the government’s complaint, which begins citing the internal emails on page 11:

The Cleveland List: 21 objects Turkey wants Cleveland Museum of Art to Return

UPDATE: Steven Litt at the Cleveland Plain Dealer has published an update on the Cleveland case here, saying the case “could shake the foundations of encyclopedic museums.” The Cleveland Museum was first contacted by Turkey in 2008, and took two years to respond before refusing to allow testing on the contested objects or provide information about their provenance, Litt reports.

We noted with interest that several of the questioned objects were acquired under former Cleveland antiquities curator Arielle Kozloff, who worked closely with the Getty’s Marion True to exhibit the Fleischman Collection, went on to work for the Merrin Gallery, and now describes herself as “a private consultant and lecturer for museums and private collectors.” In this video, Kozloff expresses her admiration for former Cleveland director Sherman Lee, saying, “As soon as the glimpse of a question arose about [a contested painting], he went right after it to find the truth and made sure that the truth came out.” Times have changed at the Cleveland.

UPDATE II: David Gill notes that Kozloff has suggested previously that one of the museum’s contested bronzes came from Bubon, Turkey and was looted in the 1960s  – a claim she has now backed away from. And Paul Barford has some additional thoughts here.

On Saturday, Jason revealed in the Los Angeles Times that the government of Turkey is seeking the return of dozens of allegedly looted antiquities from American museums, including 21 objects from the Cleveland Museum of Art.

We’ve posted a complete list of the Cleveland objects below. They range from 14th Century BC Hittite objects through the Greek and Roman period and up to Ottoman period tiles and ceramic work.

The Emperor as Philosopher, probably Marcus Aurelius (reigned AD 161-180)(CMA 1986.5)

The most prominent piece is likely this bronze Roman statue believed to represent Marcus Aurelius, which Cleveland acquired in 1986. On its website, the museum describes its origin as “Turkey, Bubon(?) (in Lycia.)” It is unclear how the bronze got from Bubon to Cleveland, and whether the object was granted an export permit, as required since the passage of Turkey’s 1906 cultural patrimony law. The Cleveland Museum of Art declined to answer questions about Turkey’s claim.

As David Gill has noted, a series of monumental bronze statues were taken from the sebasteion, or imperial cult room, of Bubon. A similar bronze depicting Lucius Verus is in the collection of Shelby White.

In the coming days, we’ll be posting details on the requested objects at the Getty and Dumbarton Oaks. We already posted the list of contested objects at the Met  here.

EXCLUSIVE: Turkey Seeks The Return of 18 Objects From The Metropolitan Museum of Art

[See below for updates.]

The Turkish government is seeking the return of 18 objects from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The requested objects include several highlights of the Met’s collection that are currently on display in the museum’s Ancient Near East Galleries. Turkey claims all of them were illegally excavated and smuggled out of the country after the passage of a 1906 law that gave the state ownership of its cultural property.

All the contested objects are from the Norbert Schimmel Collection, which the museum has described as “the finest private assemblage of its kind in America” and “one of the most important gifts of ancient and Classical art ever presented to this museum.” Between the 1950s and his death in 1990, Schimmel was a member of the Met’s board of trustees and acquisitions committee. In 1989, he donated 102 objects from his collection to the Met. The museum’s 1992 catalog of the collection quotes Schimmel saying, “Collectors are born, note made, possessed of an enthusiasm that borders on madness.”

We’ve posted a list of 16 of the 18 objects Turkey is requesting here. Here are a few highlights:

A Hittite gold pendant of a goddess with a child, circa 1400 BCE from Central Anatolia.  (MMA 1989.281.12)

A silver Hittite rhyton, or drinking cup, in the form of a stag, circa 1400 BCE from Central Anatolia. (MMA 1989.281.10)

Vases of electrum, gilt silver and silver “said to be found together” in Northwest Anatolia by 1974. Made circa 2300 BCE.
(MMA 1989.281.45a,b-.48)

Urartian belt ornament in the form of a bird demon, circa 8th century BCE. (MMA 1989.281.19)

The requests from Turkey were first reported by Martin Bailey in the Art Newspaper earlier this month. The report said Turkey was requesting the return of two objects from British museums — the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum — and 11 unidentified objects at the Met. Turkey has refused to loan objects to those institutions until questions about the contested objects were addressed.

But the scope of Turkey’s demands reach far beyond those three museums, we have learned. Turkey has requested the return of objects from several other American museums. We’ll be posting details on those objects soon.

The Met has refused to publicly identify the objects Turkey has requested, and in response to our inquiries has changed its story about the requests several times. On March 2, Harold Holzer, the museum’s senior vice president for external affairs told us,  “We have had a request for no specific objects at all.” Soon after, he corrected that statement and said Turkey had requested information about 11 objects at the museum, as reported by the Art Newspaper. A few days later, Holzer acknowledged the actual number was 18 objects, and offered the following statement:

This past fall, The Metropolitan Museum of Art was contacted by officials from the Turkish Ministry of Culture with regard to 18 works of art in our collection. The Ministry requested provenance information, which we are in the process of providing. Because this matter is currently under discussion with the Turkish government, the Museum will have no further comment at this time—except to acknowledge with appreciation that Turkey has long been a valued lender to significant exhibitions at the Metropolitan, and we look forward to the continuation of that relationship.

The museum did not explain why it has taken several months to provide Turkey with provenance information that is readily available on the museum’s website. Most of the objects have no documented ownership history other than being in the Schimmel Collection by the mid 1960s or 1970s.

Ancient Art: The Norbert Schimmel Collection (1974)

The Schimmel Collection was published in a 1974 volume entitled “Ancient Art:The Norbert Schimmel Collection.” The editor of the volume was Oscar White Muscarella, a former Met curator who has been an outspoken critic of the role museums have played in the illicit antiquities trade. We’ve asked Muscarella for his thoughts on the Turkish claim and will post his response when we have it.

In a 1990 obituary for Schimmel in the New York Times, another outspoken reformer — Maxwell Anderson, current director of the Dallas Museum of Art — was quoted saying, “As a collector he was an inspiration to the antiquities field, in the sense that he quietly and devotedly promoted the appreciation of ancient art through sage collecting and through the generosity he manifested to several collections throughout the country.”

HOT DOC: TURKEY REQUESTS FROM THE MET

UPDATES:

In early June, Met director Thomas Campbell made some public comments about claims like those coming from Cambodia and Turkey: “We welcome any additional information about the provenance of these or any other contested objects and I think it’s inevitable that as a result of the mandate I gave our staff a year and a half ago to get all our collections online, we are going to see a number of cases like this coming forward. In the spirit of our new collecting guidelines which we adopted just as I took over from Philippe [de Montebello] in late 2008, we are fully committed to dealing with such claims with transparency.” Perhaps Harold Holzer didn’t get the memo?

Lee Rosenbaum has picked up the story on her blog CultureGrrl, noting that Schimmel himself had regrets about his collecting practices. Citing her 1979 interview with Schimmel, Lee writes: “Norbert Schimmel says that he now generally does not buy objects that were once attached to buildings. Gesturing towards paintings displayed in his Manhattan apartment that had been hacked out of an Egyptian tomb, he said he was now ‘ashamed I bought these.’ He added that he does not like to buy objects that left their countries of origin after the effective dates of laws banning their export, ‘but when I see a nice object, I believe it left before. Sometimes I ask. In Europe, everybody buys and they don’t ask any questions.’ Schimmel noted that even if you ask questions, you are unlikely to get illuminating answers. ‘Dealers never tell you exactly where something was found. They say, ‘Anatolia,’ and then they tell you all their stories.’”

Derek Finchham has posted some interesting analysis of the legal challenges facing the Turkish request on his blog Illicit Cultural Property. “In order to pursue a legal claim here Turkey would have to justify its reasons for not bringing a claim in 1974,” Fincham writes. “What Turkey does have though is a potential ethical claim which the Met may respond to. And if the Met does not, Turkey is imposing a damaging cultural embargo, and pressure will likely mount on the Met to justify their continued possession of these objects.”

David Gill at Looting Matters reminds us of that several objects linked to Schimmel that have already been returned to source countries: an eye of Amenhotep III; an Apulian dinos that the Met has returned to Italy; and the Met’s Morgantina silvers, which now reside in a museum in Aidone, Sicily alongside the Getty’s statue of a Cult Goddess (once thought to represent Aphrodite.)

EXCLUSIVE: NYC DA Says Prominent Surgeon Knew He Was Selling Looted Coin

A prominent Rhode Island surgeon and collector of ancient coins was arrested on January 3rd in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City for felony possession of an ancient coin recently looted from Sicily.

Arnold-Peter C. Weiss, a world-renowned hand surgeon who teaches at Brown University, was selling ancient Greek coins at the 40th annual New York International Numismatic Convention. Weiss is the former treasurer of the American Numismatic Society, chairman of the board at RISD’s art museum and on the collecting committee of the Harvard Art Museums, according to his bio.

According to a criminal complaint filed with the NYC District Attorney’s office, Weiss was secretly recorded telling a confidential informant that he knew one of the coins he was selling had been recently looted: “There’s no paperwork, I know this is a fresh coin, this was dug up a few years ago,” the complaint quotes Weiss telling the informant. “This was dug up two years ago. I know where this came from.”

Weiss also told DA investigator John Freck that he knew the coin had been recently looted and belonged to the government of Italy, the complaint alleges. Under Italian law, all antiquities in the ground belong to the Italian state.

The coin in question was a 4th century BC silver tetradrachm from Katane, listed at $300,000 in the auction catalog. Weiss said he had bought the coin in 2001 for $250,000 and hoped to sell if for $350,000, the complaint says. According to Coin World, that and a second coin were seized: a 4th century BC silver decadrachm from Akragas, one of the most coveted coins in the world. It was listed at $2.5 million and expected to be the most expensive Greek coin ever sold.

Weiss has been accused of one count of criminal possession of stolen property, a felony. He is due in court on March 21 for “possible grand jury action,” said NYC DA’s spokeswoman Diem Tran. (Case number 1299081) We’ve posted a copy of the complaint here.

Weiss’ attorney Helen Cantwell did not return two calls seeking comment. We’ll update this post if she gets back to us. Coin World quoted Alan Walker, director of Nomos, the coin dealership where Weiss is a partner, saying: “All the coins are in the U.S. legally. All of the coins left Europe legally. It was all handled 100 percent by the law, as far as we know.”

The case is in the early stages yet, but given Weiss’ prominence in the numismatic community, it bears some early similarities to the criminal case against Fred Schultz, the head of the national antiquities dealers association, who was  convicted in 2002 of knowingly trafficking in looted antiquities from Egypt. The Schultz case proved a watershed in the art world, underscoring the fact that trafficking in looted antiquities was a violation of American law.

The case could also influence the on-going battles over whether coins should be included in bi-lateral agreements between the US and foreign nations aimed at preventing the traffic in looted antiquities. Numismatists have long argued that coins should be exempted from import restrictions. As the American Numismatic Society states on its website, “…Because most coins in private collections have been traded and held without any provenance, it is unreasonable to assume that a coin is stolen, illegally exported, or illegally imported merely because the holder cannot establish a chain of custody beyond receipt from a reputable source.”

That position may be more difficult to maintain in the face of a criminal case against Weiss, who was treasurer of the ANS from 2005 – 2009.

Hot Doc: US vs. Weiss criminal complaint

Hat-tip: David Gill at Looting Matters was the first to break the news of the arrest. His blog has excellent analysis of the illicit trade.

Update: Cultural Property Attorney Ricardo St Hilaire has a good analysis of the legal implications of the case, apparently a novel use of state law, at his blog. Paul Barford has also been following the case closely on his blog.

Update #2: In other news, Swiss authorities have seized a valuable 5th Century silver Thracian octadrachm that was recently sold at auction in Switzerland. The move came at the request of Greek authorities, who claim the coin was  illegally removed from the country. The name of the owner, who is facing criminal charges, was not released. See the AP story here.